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How Indie 'Super Group' The Indie Houses Is Trying to Balance the Scales for Small Games

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While "indie" can be either a loaded word or a confusing one in the games industry these days, there's one thing that just about every developer under the umbrella of smaller, self-run creative studios has in common: it's hard to be indie.

A small team of developers might have a brilliant idea for a game, and might have all the skills needed to make that game truly incredible. But being indie often means struggling with any number of barriers unrelated to making games. There are complex publishing agreements full of legalese, storefronts bursting with competition, the constant need for funding, a never-ending parade of digital showcases and (eventually) physical events, and figuring out how to release a game on consoles — and that's all on top of the difficulty of making a game to begin with.

Of course, plenty of indie games get released and applauded anyway, but what if all that could be made easier by a support network of indie publishers committed to uplifting one another and the developers they work with? That's the pitch of The Indie Houses, a group of seven publishers behind games like Call of the Sea, Paradise Killer, Lake, Monster Prom, Mutazione, Coffee Talk, and Lamentum, who have banded together to try and make things a little better not just for themselves, but for everyone else in the same boat.

The Indie Houses currently consists of Akupara Games, Fellow Traveller, Neon Doctrine, Raw Fury, Those Awesome Guys, Toge Productions, and Whitethorn Games, a group of publishers whose collective is, among other things, holding its first showcase event on August 31. The Indie Houses Showcase will happen alongside a week-long Steam event with game demos, sales, developer livestreams, Q&A sessions and other festivities — though the showcase is far from the end of their ambitions.

In truth, the bones of what has become The Indie Houses has existed for some time now according to several of its founding members. Iain Garner, co-founder of Neon Doctrine, tells me that he has been chatting with Raw Fury since befriending them "on a 7-11 booze run in Taipei," and has also been assisting with Chinese publishing for Toge Productions for years. And David Logan, CEO of Akupara Games, points out that some of the publishers in the group had already worked on initiatives for the collective good of indie publishing, such as Akupara's Indie Calendar Buddy to help indies submit their games and booths on time for festivals.

According to Raw Fury business development manager Vic Bassey, it was the pandemic that ultimately catalyzed what the seven had been working on in small ways for years. He started reaching out to his colleagues for video chats, positing the question he'd been wondering for some time: Why don't publishers work together?

As Vlad Calu, communications director for Those Awesome Guys tells me, his studio had been trying to put together some kind of indie "Super Group" for years, so when Indie Houses came around with the values they already espoused, it all made perfect sense.

Almost everyone [in indie] I’ve come across is quick to share info, contacts and help each other out.

"I think that the last year and a half also provided us with the necessary time to sit down together in a more informal and relaxed format (quiet beverages of choice over the internet seem to lead to more fruitful and meaningful discussions than loud parties at live events) and think about how we can all improve ourselves in order to better serve the developers and partners that we work with," he says.

Per Akupara's Alyssa Kollgaard, The Indie Houses' collective goal is "to elevate each of the companies involved, our respective developers, as well as indie games and games as a whole." The intention is to help indie developers be successful, regardless of whether or not they're published by an Indie Houses member or even whether or not they have a publisher at all. She says they want to help indies "recognize and avoid predatory practices, navigate industry challenges, gain access to resources and to advocate for their own needs."

At the core of The Indie Houses' beliefs are three pillars: Bigger Together, More Helpful Together, and Better Together. Common to all three is the idea that the traditionally smaller, often struggling indie space can gain visibility, negotiate more funding, create better opportunities for developers in underrepresented markets or from marginalized groups, and generally better be able to compete in a challenging marketplace dominated by AAA..if they work as a team.

"I’ve been working in indie games for ten years, having spent around the same time in AAA publishing before that," says Chris Wright, founder and managing director of Fellow Traveler. "One of the things I love about it is that there is a pervasive spirit of cooperation. Even though, technically, everyone is competing with each other, almost everyone I’ve come across is quick to share info, contacts and help each other out. So something like The Indie Houses is a great way to do more of that with the other members but also amplify and enhance the ways each of us are helping the broader indie community."

While some initiatives like The Indie Houses' showcase next week are just for its members, the group is committed to sharing resources and information more widely. It's already beginning the process of building its website as a resource hub — for instance, Akupara's Indie Calendar Buddy lives there now — and its members are committed to other similar projects such as Raw Fury and Whitethorn Digital's open sharing of their respective publishing contracts earlier this year.

"At every single level of our industry, everything from legal, contracts, production resources, task management resources, backends, surfacing and visibility tools, discounting, milestones… all of this was made to support the AAA enterprise with indie games benefitting tangentially, if at all," says Matthew White, CEO of Whitethorn Games. "By banding together, we can leverage our mutual resources to build inroads that would otherwise be impossible."

Aside from resource sharing and showcases, Indie Houses is looking to add other initiatives, including funds like the existing African Game Dev Prototype Fund and Toge’s Southeast Asian Dev Fund. Funds like these are especially important to members like Garner and Sarah Johana, head of community at Toge Productions, who work extensively with marginalized developers and developers from underrepresented regions.

"As a publisher from a third-world country, we understand deeply how hard it is for small indie developers and even publishers to get access to stuff like reaching out to big media and attending game events," Johana says. "Basically, having the chance to get out there and be heard is very minimal. Being part of The Indie Houses helps us tackle that problem. We can now provide more chances for the developers to get more visibility and we now have better access to resources that help them by allowing us to market and publish their games more effectively."

At every single level of our industry, everything …was made to support the AAA enterprise with indie games benefitting tangentially, if at all.

The group also wants to be a visible part of ongoing discussions on social issues that connect to the games industry, such as harassment directed at creators or fighting back against bigotry. They feel that with strength in numbers, they can better push for positive change.

Put together, this would ideally mean more stellar indie games making it past the numerous hurdles standing in their way so they can reach the people who want to play them most. The Indie Houses Showcase is just the first step.

While they're seven publishers for now, they're open to future structural changes too, such as welcoming in additional publishers whose values align with their own, or as Garner puts it, stepping out of the group if one of them ever "got bought by EA tomorrow (lol)". The principles of Indie Houses, he says, are more important than the individual numbers.

Bassey and Garner tell me that his ultimate future hope for The Indie Houses is to remove the negative connotation from the word "publisher," and provide an example for the entire games industry on how publishers can work together and respect their partners.

"There's no reason developers need to compete," Logan says. "There are plenty of gamers who constantly have a desire to play more games. We should work together, learn from each other, and ultimately get as many developers to succeed as possible."

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

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