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On The Power And The Diminishing Returns Of “Indie”

Indie Games Are Growing Up

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Something is happening. I’ve noticed it, you may have noticed it, and it’s probably no surprise to anyone who’s ever bought an “indie” record. The corporations with a finger in this delicious pie we call the games industry have been watching what’s happened, too. They’ve been watching the achievements of the likes of Jonathan Blow, 2Dboy, Notch/Mojang and other countless successful indie developers. Now, they’re changing the way the operate. And that is in turn changing how indies operate. Indie gaming will never be the same again. Is this a bad thing?

We talked to Double Fine, Positech, Klei and others to find out.Consider the corporation. When its motivation is to maximise shareholder wealth, you’ll be watching what’s happening in the wider marketplace around you, and adapting your business to operate in whatever areas are likely to generate the significant income. For a long time in the games industry, this had been big games made by huge teams and backed up with a large marketing spend from publishers with cosy relationships with the various market gatekeepers, and everything else dwindled. That’s no longer the case. We can chalk it up to a trend towards democratising distribution, promotion, funding and tools of production, as well as, perhaps, broadening of approaches in attempting to meet customers tastes and expectations, as well as the natural maturing of a market over time. Now games made with an independent aesthetic, low budget, limited scope and esoteric attitudes are making big bucks, too.

This notion of what the indie aesthetic, budget, scope and attitudes is changing. And that has ramifications for the development industry as a whole.

We’ve already seen major publishers try to co-opt the term “indie” for marketing purposes. There’s EA’s infamous “Indie Bundle” (now renamed to “Niche Gamer Bundle” after the PR fallout), and recently launched “100% Indie” label (in partnership with Samsung). Microsoft, too, recently released an “Indie Pack” sold through Amazon, full of games they’d partially funded in exchange for, amongst other things, platform exclusivity.

But it’s not just about branding. We’ve also seen examples of larger developers empowering their staff to pursue passion projects internally, such as Bohemia allowing DayZ’s developer Rocket to switch his role from working on their other projects to working full time on what was simply a mod. Or there’s the success of Geometry Wars, which was born out of Stephen Cakebread toying around with the input test app originally built whilst developing Project Gotham Racing. Or Lionhead backing Mark Healey’s Rag Doll Kung Fu back in the early days of Steam.

2012 seems like a watershed year for these changes. It was the year of medium sized developers going publisher independent. It was the year of Kickstarter. It was the year when everyone took up arms with Unity, UDK and a range of other tools to make gaming independent.

This is all making it an interesting time for players, but it’s also led to some semantic blurring of the term “indie” in the context of game development. Could the end of the indie revolution simply be that the term ends up being meaningless? Could its success have destroyed it?

Let’s be in no doubt: indie has been a banner, a logo, a beacon of light. It has been the moniker of the most important movement in game development in two decades. But it seems the tsunami is losing moment, and blending with the development seas beyond. We are losing something.


Let’s take a recent example, Surgeon Simulator 2013. It’s an awesome game, made by some clearly talented individuals, but I can’t see any definition of “indie” that could possibly apply to it. Yes, it was made by a small team at a game jam. Yes, it’s clearly a creative and innovative smaller game, and not at all the kind of idea a marketing department would come up with. But it is a property of Bossa Studios, made by a team of Bossa employees, on company time. Bossa is owned by television production company Shine Group, which is in turn a division of News Corporation.

It’s not the case that Rupert Murdoch sent down a command to Bossa from his Iron Throne to say “Send a team of plucky designers to a game jam so they can come up with a whimsical game that will take the internet by storm, and we can market it as if it’s an indie game”. But the implication that this is far, far from what was meant by “indie” still remains. I asked Bossa’s Henrique Olifiers how come they ended up sending a team to the Global Game Jam. He said this:

Bossa Studios takes pride in maintaining a creative and open environment for everyone. We encourage all team members from every department to create concepts, put them forward and, for the winning concepts, the reward is to see them being prototyped. We’ve got new prototypes being created all the time. We all play the prototypes and then follow a simple rule: if they are fun, we continue working on them and see where it takes us. GGJ is really just an extension of this philosophy – but in a much wider scale.

Game Jams are one of the places where the lines blur. Anyone can partake in them – indie or AAA – and so it’s where the methodology of indie can bleed into the mainstream. Experimentalism. Rapid prototyping. Those in charge of Bossa decided that it’s effective management and use of their development resources to encourage and support a team of their staff to attend a game jam, knowing that at worse they’ll blow off some steam and make good contacts whilst publicly representing the company, and at best potentially come up with something that will directly generate wealth for their becowled corporate backers.

But does that make the resulting products “indie”? Not in my mind. Not when the result is produced and sold by a large company. This, however, hasn’t stopped the indie press from covering it, and doing so as an indie game. It’s got coverage from indiegames.com, indiegamemag, and yes even on this very website in Porpentine’s excellent Live Free, Play Hard column.

As far as I can see, the SS2k13 developers never misrepresented themselves, or made false claims about their ties to the Lizard King, but they don’t appear to have stepped in to correct any of the journalists writing about their game either. Of course, if you’re making a game, it’s your job to get people to hear about it so they can maybe play it, and if you’re writing about games it’s your job to give your readers interesting and relevant information, not necessarily to investigate all the corporate ties of everyone involved in a game. So it’s understandable.


But…

I asked Henrique whether he thinks Surgeon Simulator 2013 is an indie game, and if not, whether they considered correcting media that referred to it as such, he said:

That the guys decided to brand it Bossa was their call, not a studio directive. They made the game in 48 hours over a weekend and put it up on a website for people to enjoy and comment on – and we are happy to see the team members getting credit for it. Bossa Studios exists because of the incredible talent we have here and our mission is to nurture that talent.

Surgeon Simulator 2013 was recently successfully Greenlit on Steam, and Bossa tell me that they’re going to be making a formal announcement for their future plans for it very soon. It sounds like the devs who worked on it have been able to turn a project they initiated because they thought it would be fun into their day job. And can we really begrudge that? Even if it does seem to blur the “indie” label beyond recognition?

Another studio that’s spawned new ideas under game jam conditions is Double Fine, arguably the poster-child for transitioning from a publisher dependant model to self-publishing. When asked to what extent their shift in strategy was inspired by emerging trends in independent development, Double Fine’s Greg Rice said this:

A lot actually! We’ve been really inspired by the way smaller studios have been able self-publish their own games and deliver on a unique vision because of that. That’s something we are really excited about with our Kickstarter funded game, and hopefully with even more Double Fine published titles in the future.

And he went to to talk about empowering the Double Fine staff to pitch their passion projects, and to see how it benefits the studio as a whole:

That’s one of the really exciting things about Amnesia Fortnight. It gives people at the studio a chance to make the games they’ve always been dreaming of, and also allows people to try out new positions in the company. It’s a really creatively energizing time at the company that always results in interesting new ideas. I’d definitely recommend it for other studios!

We then, of course, asked about whether Mr Rice thought the blurring between “indie” and “not indie” was problematic.

Yeah, those kind of semantics are always weird. I think it’s just a spirit that certain studios embody, but ultimately I’m not sure it really matters. Cool games are cool games regardless of the classification they get.

There’s a precedent for the term “indie” being diluted over time, of course. The music industry isn’t entirely like the games industry in its relationship with “indie”, but there are similarities. Way back when, before my time, an indie band was one signed to an independent record label, or one that eschewed record labels altogether. These days, many of the most successful “indie bands” are on labels like Sony, EMI, Universal and Warner, with releases accompanied by huge marketing campaigns, payola arrangements with music channels and radio stations, and international stadium tours. If you enter a highstreet music retailer, they’ll try to tell you that “independent” is a narrowly defined collections of sounds produced by narrowly defined groups of people.

But guess what? The highstreet music retailers are dying. Dying because they’ve allowed themselves to become irrelevant in the eyes of many of their consumers and many of the creators they need to matter to. The labels are going to have to fight to survive too, if they want to keep their heads above water. The challenge of selling music without any record label contract was hard in the past, but it’s pretty damn easy today, and it’s only going to get easier.

Thrift Shop is the second ever independently released song to hit number one on the US singles chart, and it’s charted all around the globe. We’ve come a long way since Radiohead’s self released In Rainbows, in a relatively short time. Sure, we’re not going to see a situation where there are no record labels any more, but musicians around the world are surely going to be wondering if they could pull off a successful self-releasing career. Record labels are going to have to do more and more to justify their fees and complicated contracts, perhaps even reducing their fees and simplifying their contracts. Shifting infrastructures are putting more power into the hands of the creators, and the users stand to benefit too. Creators get to release their work on their terms, with complete creative control, and users get a more direct connection to the artists, and a far greater proportion of their money goes to the creators, instead of the suits.

Just as music pre-dated the record industry, video games pre-date game publishers. In both fields, there’s been long periods where the major corporations had near-absolute controls of the market for creators output, but creators and consumers seem to only tolerate that for so long. We’re way past the point where you need someone else’s permission to make a game, or even to buy a game, and the barriers to market are getting lower each day.

Publishers might be only truly interested in making money, but if that means they are willing to take risks funding development of games that they expect people will want to buy, why would developers turn that down? And why would any gamers begrudge developers taking their money? I asked Klei Entertainment’s Jamie Cheng whether the games they’ve made would have been possible without their partnerships with the EA (Shank) and Microsoft (Mark of the Ninja):

I’m certain Shank would’ve made it’s way out one way or another, but I’m not so sure about Mark of Ninja. We have tons of prototypes or ideas that we’ve shelved over the years. The scope of Ninja was probably too big for us to self-publish at the time. I like to think that we’re strong enough creatively that we don’t sacrifice the quality whether we self-publish or partner.

He went on to talk about how control of a project is shared between a small developer like Klei and their monolithic corporate partners:

While we’re always happy to listen to input, both from our partners and our fans, we make absolutely certain that we have control over the direction and the IP of the games we make. I think that’s crucial when a developer is trying to break new ground. Being strong in your conviction of what the game should be as the developer is a necessary (but not sufficient!) condition to creating a compelling experience. There was one project where we didn’t do this, and allowed ourselves to bend to the wind of criticism. The result was a bland game that thankfully eventually got cancelled.

In terms of pricing and marketing, in general that’s a collaborative effort, but more and more we are handling community management and marketing internally.

My question, then is whether this relationship disqualifies Klei from being an indie studio? Are their games they’ve partnered with publishers on not “indie” games? Should they get to attach their work to that banner?

It’s a semantic minefield, but here’s Cheng’s take on it:

We absolutely identify ourselves as independent. We choose which games we decide to make, with whom, and on which platform. In terms of how to classify the games, however you would like to semantically define an “independent game”, I can say we made the creative and implementation decisions independently, and work in that spirit from start to finish.

Tere is less ambiguity with latest title, Don’t Starve, which they are self-publishing. I asked him why they decided to self-publish Don’t Starve, and how that’s impacted the game:

Don’t Starve is our own little pet project that we wanted to experiment with, and self-publishing made the most sense for that purpose. Self-publishing allowed us to do basically whatever we felt was the right thing to do, at any moment, without worrying whether it would cause pain to our partners. I think the result is that the game is doing all sorts of things we’d never do traditionally — early access, constant updates, extremely open development, etc. We love it, though we also think this sort of development works especially well with a procedural survival game like Don’t Starve. I’m not sure early access would have worked nearly as well for a game like Ninja.

That seems smart to say that the correct strategy is going to depend largely on the game, and the circumstances of the developers making them. Independent developers self-publishing their own games can spawn creative and disruptive ways of developing and releasing games, that savvy publishers will react to. Indie, then, might simply be a matter of context.

But what might a genuine indie old-timer make of all this? Positech Games’s Cliff ‘Cliffski’ Harris has been releasing games independently since way back in the 20th century. Asked whether he thought the independent scene is growing up now that successful devs are making megabucks, and corporations are trying to get involved, he said:

It is growing up in the sense that it is seen as legitimate now, both by corporations and by customers. Gamers are prepared to give indie games a go now, without being dismissive of them, and also portals and publishers can no longer afford to look down their noses at indies, offer them bad terms or refuse to deal with them. That has shifted power slightly towards the indie developers. I think, With a few exceptions the money flowing into some parts of indie gaming hasn’t really changed the people who do it. The same people are still just as passionate and the games are just as cool, the only change is the more successful developers drive nicer cars now.

So have things actually changed much for independent developers over the last decade?

Definitely, in that the ceiling for potential success as an indie is now much higher, mainly due to minecraft, plus it’s now a viable career path, rather than before when it was mostly hobbyists, or people who had fled the AAA industry, Many devs now have never known anything but indie life, which is very new.

But it’s not all roses, as Harris explained:

One not so good change is that the extent to which an indie could be self sufficient outside of sales through the big portals has actually decreased. Indie gaming is only indie now in that it is free from publisher control, but the independence of large corporations has not really changed. Very few indies now actually sell their own product, it’s now the norm to give a cut to someone else to do that for you. Even Kickstarter takes a cut. Another big change is just the sheer number of developers, and platforms. It used to be a tiny niche thing done mostly on PC, where everybody knew each other. Not any more.

Asked whether there’s a risk that things like EA’s “Indie Bundle” have a diluting effect on the indie label, he said:

Not at all. That was widely laughed at. People know the difference between a developer like me, and EA. No amount of ‘indiewashing’ will ever stick for companies that have corporate jets. Indie is like pornography, it’s hard to specify what it is, but you know it when you see it.

And finally, does he still identify as indie?

Yes! More so than most. I work alone, from home, and am 100% self-funded. I make exactly the games I want to make, and say exactly what I like. I’m not as financially independent of third parties as I would like, but I can’t complain. I’ve always disliked the way ‘indie’ was assumed to be ‘starving-indie’ or ‘hobbyist’. That was never the case, and I’m glad everyone realises that now.

My take away from all this? Mega-corporations have learned from the indie revolution. Indies are now learning from the mega-corporations. This is a victory, not something to be upset about, even if it does mean the era of “indie” as we knew it might be disappearing. We’ve gone from EA telling Edmund McMillen to come work for them when he wants to get “serious” about games in 2004, to EA asking Edmund McMillen to please come and be a consultant for them in 2011. That’s an improvement.

If I were running a large studio, I’d want a policy for handling interesting side-projects created by staff, dedicating company resources to any promising looking projects, with a fair revenue share model to reward the individual putting the hard work in. I’d be encouraging staff to attend Game Jams whilst on the payroll. Some of the most successful indie games have been from teams that quit day jobs at big studios to make their dream game. Why not make keeping the day job and making the dream game the more attractive option.

If I were in charge of deciding which games to fund at any publisher, I’d want to be looking at pitches from Dennaton, Klei Entertainment and thatgamecompany, and I’d always be on the lookout for the rising stars of tomorrow, ready to offer them support on their terms, not mine. Anything else is at best going to result in missed opportunities, and at worst be part of a gradual decline into irrelevancy.

If I were a gamer, firstly I’d rejoice that we’re living in a time with such a rich array of games of all shapes and sizes available to me. Then I’d be glad I don’t need a publisher to be on board to be able to be a patron to developers working on projects that are interesting to me, but publishing powerhouses are there to share resources with talented indie developers. Should we begrudge talented developers from not wanting to starve whilst making what they love if there is a funding deal on the table?

As for “indie”? Well, it’ll stick around. I think we should find an unambiguous definition of it and stick to it. But maybe Cliff is right. Maybe it is like defining pornography, or – less salaciously – like defining games generally: we know it when we see it.

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