Are Brothers Marcus And Malcolm Howard The New Hope For Indie Games?

Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
indie games
Malcolm Howard (CTO) and Marcus Howard (CEO), founders of indie game distribution platform ProjectMQ, at Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator graduation. Photo provided

In a saturated market, the challenge of independent game developers is to get exposure while competing with big players and big budgets. It’s a phenomenon known in the industry as “indiepocalypse”.

Without the financial backing of a publisher, indie game developers create video games that focus on innovation and rely on digital distribution.

The indie gaming community is at a turning point. Twin brothers Marcus Howard and Malcolm Howard are part of the solution.

“Most indie developers are essentially bootstrapped startups: their products are digital and they build their games on nights/weekend outside of their full-time jobs.” — Marcus Howard, CEO of ProjectMQ

The Howard brothers are the founders of ProjectMQ, an indie game distribution platform with more than 60 games in 26 countries. Their mission is to connect, support, and grow the global indie gaming community for fans, and stop the death of indie games from lack of exposure.

An indie game is a video game created by an “unofficial” game developer, however some games funded by a publisher are still considered “indie”. Indie gaming rose in mainstream popularity from around 2005 to 2010, mainly due to new online distribution methods and development tools. Some indie games have had great financial success, including Undertale, Braid, World of Goo, and Minecraft.

“We didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell against well-known franchises like Halo, Madden, and Grand Theft Auto. Those video games had built-in audiences and were made by publicly-traded companies who had multimillion-dollar marketing budgets. We needed a solution that didn’t rely on expensive TV commercials and display ads. — Marcus Howard, CEO of ProjectMQ

ProjectMQ is not the first organization to try and help indie game developers get exposure with players. For a few years, Valve — owner of the distribution platform Steam and the second largest distributor for computer games worldwide — attempted to address the issue of indie game developers by implementing a voting system for game publication. Today, it provides content and tools to help developers and offers a program that allows developers to pay a fee for distribution on Steam. In 2016, e-commerce and game distribution company Playfield also tried to help indie game developers reach gamers, but it shuttered the following year.

Just 3 percent of game developers are Black, according to the International Game Developers Association. Seeing two Black men with an indie distribution platform is a surprising accomplishment. So how did the brothers go from building their first video game on a Texas Instruments graphic calculator, to graduating with tech degrees from Georgia Southern University, to developing a game discovery platform?

Moguldom spoke with Marcus Howard and Malcolm Howard to find out if they are the new hope for indie games.

Moguldom: From a calculator game developer to an online developer — where did the gaming journey begin?

Marcus Howard: We were big fans of Super Mario Brothers as a child. During ninth grade, we realized we could put and build games on our TI-83+ graphic calculators. After we received our college degrees (Marcus in information technology and Malcolm in computer science), we started our own tech company, Howard Brothers Technology (ode to Super Mario Brothers), where we provided technical support and custom software development. In 2013, we decided to put our degrees to use and take a second shot at building our own game. However, during the research phase of our game design efforts, we discovered how saturated the gaming industry was, with over 100,000+ mobile, computer, and console games on the market.

Moguldom: Where did the idea of ProjectMQ come from?

Marcus Howard: ProjectMQ is the solution we personally needed, both as indie developers trying to make games and as gamers trying to find awesome video games to play. We realized that even if we successfully executed on our innovative game idea, we didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell against well-known franchises like Halo, Madden, and Grand Theft Auto. Those video games had built-in audiences and were made by publicly-traded companies who had multi-million-dollar marketing budgets. We needed a solution that didn’t rely on expensive TV commercials and display ads. Most indie developers are essentially bootstrapped startups: their products are digital and they build their games on nights/weekend outside of their full-time jobs. ProjectMQ is both a cost-effective tool for indie dev to build communities for their projects, and a convenient resource for gamers to quickly find video games they’ll love!

“Some developers have literally told us that we deliver a better service for free than some of the paid alternatives they’ve used in the past.” — Marcus Howard

Moguldom: What are the indie game developers saying about ProjectMQ?

Marcus Howard: We’ve supported hundreds of indie developers, and I’m glad to share that they’ve all had a positive experience with us. Some developers have literally told us that we deliver a better service for free than some of the paid alternatives they’ve used in the past. We rely on the feedback from indie developers to help us stay accountable towards our goals and keep us focused on solutions that add significant/tangible value to them. We’re grateful that we get excellent feedback weekly from indie developers around the world in ProjectMQ’s Twitter community. (Their Twitter page introduces @ProjectMQ as “A New Hope For Indie Games”.)

indie games
Marcus Howard, CEO of Indie game distribution platform ProjectMQ, accepts the prize for winning Hatch House 2016. Photo provided

Moguldom: Have you had any indie game success stories coming from ProjectMQ?

Marcus Howard: Definitely! We’ve backed 280 indie game projects on Kickstarter in the last three years. At a time when only about 30 percent of indie game projects are successful on Kickstarter, we’re glad that nearly 60 percent of ours have reached their funding goals. Warren Smith is a great example of the type of success we want ProjectMQ to create for the indie game community. Warren’s Kickstarter unfortunately failed to reach its goal, and he had nearly given up on his game Dark Flame. After we discovered and mentored him, he was able to generate over $100 month in fan donations, and he signed a publishing deal for Dark Flame.

Moguldom: What are the challenges you believe underrepresented developers face today?

Malcolm Howard: Historically, tech companies have not made efforts to actively consider underrepresented developers for hiring or leadership opportunities. People have a natural tendency to surround themselves with people who look like them, which can be dangerous if not managed properly. Without an intentional effort to solicit and encourage diverse perspectives, entire demographics can be absent from product, hiring, and other important business decisions. Unfortunately, that means that underrepresented founders often miss out on technical and professional development resources, which could help them add more value to themselves and their employers.

Moguldom: You both have participated in incubators. Has that helped you overcome challenges of being underrepresented developers?

Malcolm Howard: We’ve been fortunate to find incubators and other organizations that intentionally focus on underrepresented founders. From the diversity-focused microfund at the Neighborhood Start Fund, to accelerators like Valley Venture Mentors and the Tampa Bay Wave, we’ve been able to work with groups that provide the vital support that usually isn’t available to us. These groups are teaching us the best practices for building successful businesses and introducing us to valuable networks of their peers.

Moguldom: What is next for ProjectMQ?

Malcolm Howard: We launched ProjectMQ’s alpha release worldwide three weeks ago, and already have users in 25 countries. Now that the launch is behind us, we’re onboarding the rest of the gamers and indie developers on our waitlist, so we can get people using the site regularly (and eventually some recurring revenue). We’re also connecting to the Tampa startup community through the Tampa Bay Wave and Nielsen Foundation’s TechDiversity accelerator. One local event we’re excited for is The Mainframe, Tampa’s first interactive event designed to immerse Black tech entrepreneurs, professionals and enthusiast in the Bay Area’s local start up ecosystem. In other news, we’re a few days away from finalizing our grant application with James Madison University for the National Science Foundation. It’s worth up to $1.5 million in equity-free funds over 36 months. Lastly, we’re planning more events like the free Indie Game Arcade we held at Geekend last February, to educate kids/parents about the STEM career opportunities that the gaming industry offers.

indie games
Brothers Malcolm Howard (CTO) and Marcus Howard (CEO), founders of indie game distribution platform ProjectMQ, at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, 2014. Photo provided