The Appeal Of The Indie Game

Ask any ‘proper’ gamer what they think of indie gaming and you’ll likely hear words such as ‘fresh’ and ‘innovative’. Such is the popularity of the games at this moment in time that all of the major consoles have strived to get specific indie titles onto their stores, while Steam introduced Steam Greenlight (Nothing at all to do with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) to try and gauge public feeling towards a range of independently produced games, and aiding developers in the move to their powerhouse platform. That’s not even looking at IndieGoGo, Kickstarter or any of the other crowd funding options. In short it would appear that the indie gaming world has exploded. But why? Why are they so appealing?

The usual answer to this question is a matter of ethics. People don’t want to have to buy a game from EA or Activision, knowing that by the time a specific list of costs have been deducted, the original developers would only see a small amount of the money themselves. In a Q+A session with a seminal British development team we were told – this is going back a few years now but I doubt much has changed – that the average £40 game would see around £7 go to the original team, and sometimes less. This obviously makes self-publishing and digital distribution far more appealing. If you look at the state of the gaming world when this question was answered eight years ago you can clearly see the impact that services such as XBLA, WiiWare and PSN had on developers. It suddenly became feasible – albeit with some different hurdles – to self-publish and make a lot of money. But even moving away from the big consoles we have seen an explosion of games that no publisher would ever handle getting a solid, profitable release. Games like the Binding of Isaac for example. This allows a greater variety of games to find an audience. No longer does a game have to follow this imaginary checklist that I just created:

  • Is it a first person shooter?
  • Does it have a Portal reference in it?
  • Does it have multi-player shoe horned in?
  • Can we make money from needlessly expensive DLC?

As a result of the big gaming publishers erring on the side of caution and profitability some games just sank without a trace. New IP wasn’t as commonplace as we would have desired and game studios such as Bizarre Creations were shuttered. As a direct result many of these suddenly unemployed developers took their considerable talent and went down their own path. The world of gaming has changed. The ‘AAA’ game, once a sign of a huge budget and exceptional quality is now little more than a series of franchises that are well-established or games that are high-concept and sold on the back of other titles. Take Dishonored for example. Great game, but from the off, as it was new IP, folks were striving to make it comparable to something. “It’s a cool blend of Deus Ex, Assassin’s Creed and BioShock! Buy it!” Ultimately the game should have been able to stand on its own merits, and it definitely has them, but instead an uncertain industry tried to apply a series of comparisons to make it more appealing to people who stick to specific franchises. It’s a sensible approach I guess, but one that has been detrimental in Dishonored’s case. Now people are saying things like:

“The free-running and climbing isn’t a fluid as in Assassin’s Creed”

“There’s too much emphasis on stealth, WAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!”

You get the point.

It’s no wonder that indie developers are loving this time. With the Humble Bundle a trend was formed to offer smaller games from out of the mainstream circles, and as a direct result – for me at least – I have almost a hundred indie games in my Steam library. I’ve tried almost all of them, and loved a good handful of them. I wouldn’t usually have tried the games normally, unless they came out on the Xbox’s Indie Game Marketplace and even then I would have to have a glowing recommendation from a trusted source. I am not a PC savvy gamer by any stretch of the imagination, but the rise of Steam and GOG.com have opened up a world of new games and playable older titles that has pushed me towards the keyboard and mouse world of gaming. This, when set aside the indie game explosion has meant that I’ve experienced games that I love, but wouldn’t have ever considered originally.

The appeal for me lies in playing something that I know is often a labour of love. Not that bigger games aren’t, it’s just when a team working on a game numbers more than a hundred it’s harder to quantify it as a ‘personal’ project, no matter how dedicated and life-consuming the project may be. When I play a game that comes from just one guy I always seem to find more enjoyment from it. When I played Braid, I knew I was playing Jonathon Blow’s game, perhaps not in the exact way he envisioned, but it was his story telling in his game. And I shared that. Last night I played Star Sky, a free to play iPad app that offers rewards for patience and exploration. Essentially a push on the screen to make the silhouette of a man move to the right. Along the way there are potentially interactive items and areas, suggested by a change in the game’s audio. Each playthrough can give differing results, and it is impossible to see every possibility in one run.

It was simple, intriguing and free.

This is what you can get from an indie game. A short, but rewarding experience. Obviously I’ve talked a lot about The Room for iPad, but again a relatively short experience for a few quid, but a great experience from a team that have made something that works really well. As a fan of Edmund McMillen’s games I was thrilled by the announcement of a Steam bundle collecting together his works, when it released for less than three pounds I almost exploded with glee. Then I bought four copies. I love sharing my gaming experiences, this is why I write for this blog and why I contribute to a variety of podcasts. Indie gaming is best when shared. With little to no advertising budget it can really make all the difference when it comes to success, but it also provokes a range of great discussions. The Room was met with delight from Hock and myself, but Dalek was less impressed. This is perfect. No game is universally adored – with the exception of Toe Jam & Earl: Panic on Funkotron obviously – and the fact that two people can experience the same actions differently is testament to the industry we adore.

But are indie games really worth the adoration? Aren’t we just hypocritical sycophants jumping on the ‘right on’ bandwagon in a vain attempt to stick it to EA? Not all indie games are great. Many are woeful. But with little overhead to clear it can result in a wide range of games coming out, each refining the formula each time until the magic numbers are found. I love gaming and will get the games I want to play from whatever source I prefer. I will never boycott EA published titles out of dismay at their ‘evil’ as I would miss a great experience and essentially be contributing to the demise of another hard working studio. Tellingly when I was on a recent work training event we were told that Need for Speed: Most Wanted was made by EA and that Dishonored was made by Bethesda – along with Rage, Skyrim and Brink. This confusion reigns supreme. When you play an indie game, take Slender for example, you seem to concentrate less on who was putting it out, but on the game itself. As a fan of Slender I am ashamed to say I had to use Google to find that Parsec Productions were behind the game. It doesn’t really factor into my enjoyment of the game, but many people might end up playing Dishonored if it is suggested that the people who made Rage and Skyrim were responsible for it. Well, maybe if you are a PS3 owner, amiright?

This year has seen the release of Dust Force, Torchlight II, The Journey, Botanicula and a great many more. Great games one and all. The indie bundle promos are still running at full speed bringing three or four smaller, less well known games along with one or two power house titles at a bargain price. Now this has created a new group of gamers, the indie toe-dippers. I am a toe-dipper. I am about ready to dive head long into the pool of indie goodness, but it isn’t with intention of sticking it to the big publishers, it isn’t to appear trendy and it isn’t because someone at Destructoid said so. It’s because I am a gamer, and I love gaming.

What’s changed, primarily, is the ease at which I can gain access to the games. Steam and GoG.com have streamlined the processes for getting games installed and running on my PC. It may seem odd considering my days on home computers of the eighties required basic code knowledge, sometimes quite literally, and I grew up with DOS, but many installations on games – what with compatibility patches and DRM – can cause a head scratch or two. I usually play on a console because I can buy a game without having to decipher a list of requirements, but indie gaming has allowed me to try out games without that in mind. I can rush headlong into a session of Jamestown without wondering if I require an update to my graphics driver and this is down to the streamlined process and the fact that many of the games are made to be accessible.

So as time passes, and I play more and more from the indie side of gaming I have to wonder. Will the next generation of gaming be based on super high definition visuals? Will it be decided by multi-player social components? Or will it simply be the platform that offers up the most interesting and varied amount of content, both indie and AAA? As franchises such as Command & Conquer and SingStar go down the Free to Play route it’s clear that the £40 outlay is probably likely to be challenged in terms of viability, and indie gaming is prepped for this already. So while the fog clears and the future spills out like some spanking rainbow of genre, I will continue to play glorified flash games, and I’ll ruddy well like it too.

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