By Nathan Grayson on July 9th, 2013 at 12:00 pm.
The megachat continues! At the behest of many, I’m carving it into the Internet’s unforgetting crystalline walls – one hefty chunk at a time – because mere ears could not withstand its relentless auditory onslaught. Last time, I gathered Obsidian’s Chris Avellone, Dreamfall’s Ragnar Tornquist, Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail, Introversion’s Chris Delay, and Redshirt’s Mitu Khandaker to discuss what exactly makes each of them “indie” despite their exceedingly different backgrounds, so you should probably read that and stuff. Done? Then you may now proceed onward to a spirited debate about the increasing uselessness of the term “indie,” Steam Greenlight’s many shortcomings, and the role of Kickstarter for smaller devs vs juggernauts like Obsidian. It’s all after the break.
RPS: OK, so triple-A isn’t about people. It doesn’t trust its talent enough, and Hollywood’s maybe a little better about that (though honestly not much). Where does that leave us?
That could be the YouTube of games, platforms allowing self-publishing and making it easy and accessible.
Ismail: It’s interesting. I’ve been reading a lot about the movie industry lately, because I’ve been trying to find the same parallels. I’m not really worried about what’s happening right now, but as the indies professionalize, and triple-A has to make even safer bets… There’s this weird space where indie used to be that’s empty now. It’s what’s happening there that I’m really interested in.
Tornquist: New stuff is coming up all the time to fill that space, though.
Ismail: There is stuff filling that gap. But what’s really interesting to me is that I don’t know where they’re going. Three years ago, if you started an indie studio, you knew where you were going, because you were headed for Steam and you were headed for Xbox Live Arcade.
Delay: Well, now they can just go to Steam and then the Humble Bundle. [laughter]
Ismail: Those systems are starting to get… Not saturated, but they’re starting to get filled by indies that have some sort of [clout].
Delay: Maybe. But I walk around Rezzed and there’s so… There’s the surgeon simulator.
Ismail: But that was a huge thing anyway.
Delay: But there’s so much variety. The variety is better than ever.
Avellone: What you just brought up about the industry, the interesting things I’ve seen… They have a traditional model, like the summer blockbuster. There’s a certain vehicle you need for certain actors to make that film. But then I see the indie scene for movies and media suddenly coming out through YouTube and web series, where they’re like, “As long as I have a certain amount of budget, I can make simulated versions of movies or series. Maybe not on the same grand scope as these studios can do, but I can make interesting content.” Like The Guild.
Tornquist: These changes have basically happened through production tools and distribution methods. That’s where it comes from.
Avellone: I’m seeing YouTube be that vehicle for people who want to express themselves outside of traditional film. I think it’s actually really exciting – like, “Oh, thank God.”
Ismail: Well, I’d hope we’d have something like that for the indie game scene, soon enough.
Tornquist: I think that’s what it all boils down to. It evolves through the distribution methods and the way you finance it and all those things. That opens the market. The fact that you can now go out and buy 4K cameras for almost no money whatsoever and make movies that look as spectacular as the biggest blockbusters, that changes the movie industry. Things like Unity on the indie scene, you get a tool that actually lets you push quite far.
Khandaker: Yeah. A lot of people are applying Gamemaker and Unity.
Ismail: A lot of interesting things are happening with Twine as well. I’m really excited to see Twine being used to explore this area of video games that used to be explored pretty well, but now it’s being applied in way more interesting ways. Again, also, for political and social commentary. It’s such a good vehicle for something like that. There’s a lot of exciting things happening right now. I think it’s one of the most exciting times to be watching this space. I think it’s actually funny, because a lot of people seem to assume that there’s this sort of feud between triple-A and indie, and I don’t see that at all anymore. It’s disappearing. I like that people are starting to see that it’s just the gaming industry.
Tornquist: That’s what I mean. I think the lines have blurred continuously now, where it doesn’t even matter. It’s all game development. The teams vary in size from one person to 500. And that’s fine. It’s going to be a huge variety.
Ismail: What I care about, in the end, is that we have games in the entire spectrum – from the smallest little thing that somebody came up with in their bedroom, all way up to the big triple-A blockbuster, and everything in the middle.
Delay: I don’t know what the IGF is going to do. The IGF doesn’t have any formal rule about what constitutes an indie game.
Ismail: They sort of admitted that, right? They just have a check box. “Do you feel like your game is indie?”
Delay: Yes, I do. All of you do.
Tornquist: They’re still saying that our game is not indie, because we’re working on an IP that was started with the publisher model. We sort of got thinking about that. Are we indie? Are we not indie?
Ismail: We would be so not indie. We worked on a Serious Sam game. We’ve worked with a publisher before. We’ve released some of our own games. We’ve released some games we’ve made just to make sure we don’t starve. We’ve done all of it.
Khandaker: If someone who works in a bigger, several-hundred-person company… Maybe the company could be indie, ostensibly, but do the people working within the company, do they feel indie? How many people are they answering to?
RPS: Yeah. How much agency do they have within the company to create something?
Khandaker: Their experience, their day-to-day experience of what they have to do and all the negotiation that needs to happen.
Delay: There’s an indie game called LostWinds, which was made by a small indie team within Frontier. Frontier doesn’t really count, I don’t think, as an indie team, but they felt they were indie. At the same time, they had the experience of releasing a phenomenally successful Wii game, which counted for about one month of salaries there, because the company they’re in, Frontier, is so big that the returns on their indie game were essentially meaningless.
Khandaker: Yeah. Maybe Gabe Newell can say, “Yeah, it’s great being indie,” but do the people who work at Valve [have much individual agency]?
Delay: Half-Life 3, best indie game ever.
RPS: To draw comparisons to the movie industry, though, you were talking about how directors like Christopher Nolan will get attached to Batman, but at the same time, after doing that, he’ll get to do something like Inception, which is his own project. It’s not like games where, say, Infinity Ward will make Call of Duty until the end of time.
Avellone: And Joss Whedon has the same thing with Much Ado About Nothing. “Thank you for The Avengers. Here’s a movie you get to do now.”
Ismail: “After Batman I’m going to do this one project that I want to do.”
Avellone: The Prestige, wasn’t that kind of his reward for the first one?
Delay: Who was this guy? They bet so much money on this guy, and he’d made, what, Memento? A relatively obscure art movie? It’s a great film, but the Batman franchise is so huge.
Tornquist: Hollywood is good at bringing forward new creative talent, I think. You were right before.
RPS: Also, the gaming industry is usually less about Person X and more about Team X or Franchise X. And even then, it’s a pretty obscure process. I mean, the average person has no idea that Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty teams switch off. There’s very little visibility for the creative talent.
Ismail: An interesting notion about that. I was at Sony’s headquarters three days ago or something, and I was talking to the people that deal with the indies there. One of the interesting things they said is that they’re not betting their money on games. They’re betting their money on authors, on the creative guys. They’re not going to go for just one game. They’re going to say, “This person does interesting things. We’re going to make it easy for them to put their stuff on our platform.”
I thought that was an interesting point, because in what I’ve dealt with, it’s really more about the game, right? Not about the people creating it. If the game looks good and it’s interesting, they don’t really ask about our team specifically. If we said we could do it and the game’s done and we could prove that we could do it, then we’re okay. Now Sony’s just saying, “Vlambeer here have made Super Crate Box. They’ve made LUFTRAUSER. They can do this. We trust these people. Here’s a dev kit.”
Tornquist: Well, that’s the case with publishers these days too. They do look at people. They invest in teams, because they know that that’s what they have to do. It might not be this game. It might be the next game. It might be the game after. They do invest in people and in teams.
Ismail: It’s interesting to see the platforms that offer self-publishing nowadays doing the same thing. It’s not really much about the game anymore. It’s much more about, “These people are interesting creators. We’re just going to give them our stuff to make games. Do it.” Maybe it’s not this game. Maybe not the second. Maybe it’s the sixth game. But whatever, it’s not going to cost them a lot of money to put our games out there anyway. So why not? I think that’s an interesting development. I think that could be the YouTube of video games, these platforms allowing self-publishing and making it easy and accessible.
RPS: I think the main issue is how easy self-publishing is right now. Sony’s finally opened up to doing that. Steam’s kind of a weird case in that you can put your game up on Greenlight, but Greenlight’s been very difficult for a lot of developers because it’s really arbitrary, unclear, and slow.
Ismail: Greenlight is getting better, but for now, I’m still going to call it the worst thing that’s ever happened to Steam.
Delay: The worst thing about it all, I think, for people that haven’t been on Steam before, is that a lot of developers [already have a free pass]. Introversion just leapfrogged Greenlight altogether. We’ve had games on Steam before, and so suddenly they just say, “Yes you can.” And we will.
Ismail: It’s completely arbitrary. If somebody else had made a really successful iPad game and they wanted to bring that game to PC, and it’s a game that’s perfectly fitting for the context of PC, they’re like, “Nope, go to Greenlight.”
They’ve simply removed the arbitrariness of the original system, and then you have an arbitrary system that replaces it. It still blows my mind.
RPS: What’s the answer, though? If you open it up completely you just end up with the iTunes store, where everyone has to charge 99 cents for their game. There isn’t really a good answer right now.
Ismail: What I would be interested to see is sort of like a DJ model, where the stores are open. Steam has their own storefront, and that’s the games that they like, the games that they curate, but then they allow you to open a store with your stuff. They allow somebody like Brandon Boyer [to make selections].
Delay: They’ve talked about doing that. They’ve talked about opening up the storefront, which becomes something that everyone fights over there. But you could still go to sell your game, even if Greenlight didn’t approve.
Ismail: That’s perfect. I think that would be perfect.
Delay: Gabe Newell said they wanted to do that.
Ismail: Yeah, but Gabe Newell said that, and then the next day somebody else from Steam came and said, “No, Greenlight is working perfectly”.
RPS: Which was the most bizarre thing ever. Now they’re making it harder than ever. Seems like one part of Valve’s “flat” structure didn’t agree with another.
Ismail: Honestly, I really like Steam. I think it’s a great platform. I just think that Steam Greenlight is doing the complete opposite of what they were trying to do. I’ve talked to them about that. What I like about Steam is that you can just tell them that. “Guys, Greenlight is terrible.” They’re like, “Why?” And that’s actually what I like about Steam. They don’t just go, “No, no, it’s great.” They say, “Why is it terrible?” They actually listen. Let’s just hope they do something about it.
RPS: So maybe the key is to bring games to people’s attention through other means. I mean, a lot of Kickstarters are only partially about the money. Exposure is – at the very least – equally important.
Delay: Kickstarter is that, right? You get people to vote at Greenlight, but you also get people to vote on the only thing that really matters, which is, “Yes, I will put money down for your game because I want to see it.”
Ismail: But also, if you take money out of it… I think a lot of indie developers are just pushing games that they like. “You know guys, I ran across this game…” I had that with Papers, Please, which I ran into a year ago or something. I just put it on Twitter and people picked up on it. That was great.
Khandaker: You get that community, right?
Ismail: That’s the community part of it again. If the indie community discovers something interesting, it’s going to be on Free Indie Games. It’s going to be on somebody’s Twitter. It’s going to blow up. Brandon Boyer is going to write about it. Something is going to happen. Then people know about it. So there is this sort of curation, between the press and the developers and the consumers, but especially the developers themselves. If I see a cool game, I’m going to shoot off an e-mail to Sony. I’m going to shoot off an e-mail to the press. I’m going to shoot off an e-mail to you guys or any other gaming website and say, “Guys, seriously, look at this. This is cool. Play it.”
Delay: All those game developers out there, here’s the answer – they should call us.
Avellone: Sometimes you don’t even have to contact Sony or the press. It’s just… Usually I find that the press will actually be monitoring all the different developer forums, and when they see a developer mention a certain product to somebody else, they’ll pick up on it and they’ll want to check it out themselves even without you directly engaging with them, which I think is kind of interesting. You’re always being observed, whether you’re actually sending it directly to them or not.
Ismail: Yeah, I know. That’s their job. But sometimes it’s just easy to… I think a lot of the press contacts that we have sort of know that if we pick up on something, it’s going to be worthwhile to check it out. That’s something that we like doing. That’s something we feel nice about – when we see something cool, we send it out.
RPS: So you mentioned the elephant in the room of everything right now, which is Kickstarter. You were saying that on Steam, certain indies get to leapfrog others. I would say that on Kickstarter, certain individuals get to leapfrog others in terms of how much they are able to make. Ragnar and Chris both made markedly more than a lot of people who even succeed on Kickstarter, mostly because you have very storied pasts in the industry. Do you think that is on any level unfair?
Avellone: It took 25 years of work… I don’t consider that cheating. I suffered so much to get to Kickstarter… [laughs]
Tornquist: And we’re trying to help other people. There are degrees of success. Not everybody needs millions of dollars to make a game. There are a lot of good success stories. And we try to help other people as well. We’re more than willing to go out there and champion games. I’m more than willing to look at somebody’s Kickstarter before they launch it and give them tips. I’m more than willing to do that.
Avellone: I routinely critique other people’s Kickstarter pages and suggest things for them to do. If I actually like the product that they’re pitching, I’ll support it. I’ll tweet it. I’ll Facebook it. Also, Obsidian itself, when they run across a cool project, what they’ll do is they’ll donate money to it, and they’ll also say, “You know what? In our next update we’ll make a mention of that project. You guys should check out this Kickstarter.” It’s so not hard to do. And it just feels like it’s worth it. It’s something you couldn’t do in the traditional publisher model. Everything’s very secretive. You can’t get too much support from other people in the genre. That’s bad news.
Ismail: That’s the interesting thing. This entire space, the way it feels to me is that it’s devoid of competition. We’re not competing with each other. The thing we’re honestly competing with — and I think it was Eitan Glinert at Fire Hose Studios that said this – we’re not competing with each other. We’re competing with obscurity. We’re competing with the idea that people don’t know about us. The way we fix that is by cooperating. Because it’s not going to be like, if they buy your game, they’re not going to buy Prison Architect. They’re more likely to buy Prison Architect because if you mention Prison Architect and they liked your game, they’re going to say, “Hey, indie games!”
Tornquist: Kickstarter has also said that when there’s a big success on Kickstarter, it bleeds over into other projects. When these guys are having their million-dollar success, people then start to go and look for other games on Kickstarter at the same time. It’s increasing the whole value of Kickstarter. I don’t think we’re stealing from all the other ones out there.
Avellone: I actually think that there’s some degree, I think, of competition. Someone raised it in a panel yesterday – if there are two similar Kickstarters going at the same time, that can absolutely happen. I sort of feel like it’s unfriendly, is the best way to put it. There is that competition there, but I don’t feel like there’s a hostility that can erupt between them.
Tornquist: The best idea usually wins in a way, too. People pick up on the idea. It’s in how you present it and how coherent idea it is.
Avellone: I think there’s also a competition in terms of… The consumer only has so many dollars to spend.
Ismail: I’m going to disagree with that.
Avellone: But they do have less and less dollars.
Ismail: But we do have limitless people. Chris Hecker said that beautifully. Nobody knows about your game. And it’s true. I consider Vlambeer a relatively well-known thing in the indie scene, but if we were speaking at the GDC conference… I ask people who knows about Ridiculous Fishing. Ridiculous Fishing was a huge success. It won an Apple design award. It won a whole bunch of awards. It’s one of the biggest games on the iPad right now. And if we asked people, “What is Ridiculous Fishing?” 40 or 50 percent of those people know what it is without any doubt. 25 percent of people sort of go, “I think I’ve heard of that.” And 25 percent have never heard of it at all. And this is at the heart of the game development community. These are game developers. These are people who should be aware of what is happening in the game development scene.
Check back tomorrow for the third and final part of the discussion, in which The Gang talks the future of PC gaming, fan expectations, and diversity – both in terms of games/characters and the people who make them.