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Download distribution opening new doors for independent game developers

Brian Gaar, Plugged In

QRANK is the daily quiz app that allows you to play against friends or complete strangers, bringing competition to your favorite social event. The first QRANK version was released for the Apple App Store in October of 2009 and now has thousands of players. CEO Rodney Gibbs and the Ricochet labs is now releasing a new version of QRANK which allows players over a WIFI or 3G phone connection to play against each other in public spaces. Users can add friends through Facebook and even talk smack after the game is over on anothers Facebook wall. Alamo Draft House on Lamar Blvd. and Home Slice on S. Congress will play host to the Beta testing next week.
Jarrad Henderson/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
QRANK is the daily quiz app that allows you to play against friends or complete strangers, bringing competition to your favorite social event. The first QRANK version was released for the Apple App Store in October of 2009 and now has thousands of players. CEO Rodney Gibbs and the Ricochet labs is now releasing a new version of QRANK which allows players over a WIFI or 3G phone connection to play against each other in public spaces. Users can add friends through Facebook and even talk smack after the game is over on anothers Facebook wall. Alamo Draft House on Lamar Blvd. and Home Slice on S. Congress will play host to the Beta testing next week.
<b>Brian Gaar</b>
Alicia Mireles/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Brian Gaar
Dan Magaha is the Studio Director and Executive Producer of Seamless Entertainment, a startup gaming company.They are currently working on a game (they do not want to disclose the name) that will be distributed digitally rather than going through a traditional publisher. He plays the game with a control that lights up.
Laura Skelding/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Dan Magaha is the Studio Director and Executive Producer of Seamless Entertainment, a startup gaming company.They are currently working on a game (they do not want to disclose the name) that will be distributed digitally rather than going through a traditional publisher. He plays the game with a control that lights up.
Dan Magaha, the studio director and executive producer at Seamless Entertainment in Austin, says his gaming startup's next title \u2013 the name and details are hush-hush for now \u2013 will be distributed online.
Laura Skelding /AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Dan Magaha, the studio director and executive producer at Seamless Entertainment in Austin, says his gaming startup's next title \u2013 the name and details are hush-hush for now \u2013 will be distributed online.

Over the past few years, some of the biggest video games to come out of Austin have never been seen on a store shelf.

Locally brewed releases like the trivia game "Qrank," the online role-playing game "Pocket Legends" (both of which were released for mobile devices) and the Austin-developed "Wizard101" have managed to find sizable audiences without going the traditional publisher route.

Instead, they were either released on mobile app stores or — in "Wizard101's" case — as a digital download through a website.

That model of circumventing traditional publishers has become more and more prevalent, especially for PC and mobile games.

Developer Rodney Gibbs, whose Ricochet Labs created "Qrank," loves the new model.

"It makes businesses like mine possible," he said.

The lower bar to entry allows quick and nimble startups to compete in the marketplace, he said.

Gibbs has been on both sides. His previous development studio, Fizz Factor, was a traditional "box-product company," which went through publishers to distribute through major retailers.

That was necessary because for an independent developer, it was prohibitively expensive to negotiate individual deals with retailers to distribute games, he said.

"It used to be, if you had a good idea and you could execute it, you still had the problems of getting money and then getting it out there," Gibbs said.

Not anymore.

With options such as mobile app stores and Valve Corp.'s online gaming platform Steam, small developers can become overnight hits.

That's what the team at Austin's Seamless Entertainment is banking on.

The group of a half-dozen industry veterans is working on a top-secret title that they're planning to distribute through channels like Steam.

Steam has revitalized PC gaming in particular, said Dan Magaha, Seamless' studio director.

In the old days, "if you tried to publish something independently, it was basically, put it up on your website and hope that people will find it and a way to play it," he said.

And since Magaha's outfit is so small, their game (expected to be complete by early 2012) doesn't have to sell as much as it would for a big publisher.

"It can be a huge success for us with numbers that, for a large publisher, they would think, ‘Oh, well, we really wanted (to sell) 3 million'‚ÄČ" units, he said.

Though digital downloads haven't taken over the PC gaming world, they've certainly upset the apple cart.

In the first six months of 2010, 11.2 million digital downloads of PC games were purchased online, according to technology research firm NPD Group. That's compared with 8.2 million "physical units purchased at retail" during the same period, according to the company.

And even big retailers are making moves in that direction. GameStop Corp., which is a top video game retailer, recently acquired Austin-based streaming technology company Spawn Labs and has plans to buy digital distribution platform Impulse Inc.

Those acquisitions are an indicator that the brick-and-mortar retailer will move into the digital distribution space.

But don't expect physical copies of games to disappear any time soon, said Michael Pachter, a research analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities.

PC gamers are the "hardest of the hard core," he noted, and are much more comfortable with 20-minute downloads — compared to console gamers who are accustomed to popping in a disc and immediately booting up a game.

"I think (packaged products) will always exist, until every last person is connected to the Internet," Pachter said.

Digital downloads have also ushered in a whole new era of creativity. It's hard to imagine games like the physics-based construction game "World of Goo" or the sandbox-building game "Minecraft" finding a big audience under the old publishing model.

Magaha said he sees the market stratifying. Big-budget franchises like "Grand Theft Auto" and "Call of Duty" will still exist, he said, but there will be an abundance of games for niche players. In short, the Internet is doing for video games what it's already done for other media.

"Indie games used to be sort of a negative term, but now ... there are very high-quality independent games," Magaha said. "There are very successful games that are labeled as ‘indies,' and it's a cool thing now. It's like independent films are a cool thing."

bgaar@statesman.com

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