Indie Games Are on the Rise -- and in Need of Advertisers

Small Titles Lure Brands With Lower Prices, Avid Audiences

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SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- Beyond the world of mega franchises such as "Halo" lies a movement well on its way to becoming another important subculture for marketers: indie gaming.

As in the music and movie industries, many of the high-profile, high-cost games are developed out of giant studios, which often are part of major entertainment conglomerates. But increasingly, smaller titles created in coffee shops and on shoestrings are capturing consumer -- and marketer -- attention.

GOO STRIKES GOLD: 'World of Goo,' a puzzle game created and self-financed by a duo from San Francisco, broke into Amazon's top 10 best-selling PC Games and was later licensed by Nintendo.
GOO STRIKES GOLD: 'World of Goo,' a puzzle game created and self-financed by a duo from San Francisco, broke into Amazon's top 10 best-selling PC Games and was later licensed by Nintendo.
Take "World of Goo," for example. Created and self-financed by San Francisco-based duo Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler, a couple of former Electronic Arts employees, the physics-based puzzle game broke into Amazon's top 10 best-selling PC games late last year.

The rise of the indie-game movement owes its roots to both consumers' increased interest in casual games and, more importantly, the advent of accessible programming tools that take the elbow grease out of developing fantasy worlds and shoot-'em-ups. In parallel, a new crop of online and mobile distribution channels, such as the iPhone App Store, are paving a direct route from the developer to the consumer -- and monetization.

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Opportunity for advertisers
"For the consumer, it's an exciting time to be a gamer, because you've got this diversity of high-quality content," said Jamie Berger, senior VP of consumer products and technology at IGN, which operates indie gaming site FilePlanet. "For the advertiser, it's creating an opportunity to associate yourself with creative, cool content that's pushing all kinds of boundaries."

But as in the indie music scene, there's a certain sensibility to indie games that runs counter to the idea of jamming a can of branded soda into a game. "The important thing about working with independent developers is to respect their vision," Mr. Berger said.

Indie games carry a significantly lower advertiser price tag than commercial releases by the big studios, according to gaming advertising executives -- and indie developers are more likely to be amenable to working with brands. In a weird way, piracy is actually making marketers more important to developers, as they look to outsmart the pirates by making their games free and reliant on ads for revenue.

"For indie games, advertising is turning into the lifeblood of the industry," said Shane Satterfield, editor in chief and VP of content for GameTrailers.com. "An indie developer losing 10,000 copies to pirates could mean the difference between turning a profit or owing creditors large sums of money." In contrast, large publishers can generally absorb the piracy hit and still come out ahead.

Starla West, associate planning director at Mindshare, said what brands give up in reach on indie sites they make up in audience enthusiasm for gaming.

Finding passion
Sprint ran a campaign in December on indie site Kongregate that yielded click-through rates six times higher than the average for the same creative on other sites, something Kongregate attributed to the early-adopter, tech-savvy profile of its users. "The more niche you go, the more passion there is, and it's all about tying your brand to a passion,"said Ms. West, who worked on the campaign.

Ironically, indie sites such as Kongregate are en route to building a mass audience. In May, Kongregate logged 6 million unique users, according to ComScore, with traffic doubling every eight months.

"It's a lot like indie movies going mainstream," said Lee Uniacke, Kongregate's chief revenue officer. "They're innovative in their game play, so they're getting a large audience."

Finding the next indie hit

Nintendo licensed the indie puzzle game "World of Goo" months after the title captured the imagination of gamers across the world. Who knew that building bridges and cannonballs from balls of goo would be such a big hit? With thousands of indie games on the market, here are a few ways to make sure you're betting on a winner.

  • Look for audience response to the pre-release gaming videos on review sites. Buzz for "World of Goo" was building on GameTrailers.com months before its release.
  • Check out player feedback on the official communities for a particular indie game.
  • Play free pre-release demos yourself to gauge a game's quality.
  • Hire a consultant with a track record of evaluating video games and the industry.
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