Let's try this again. Earlier this week, I posted the audio from a spur-the-moment indie megachat I put together during Rezzed, but its audio quality ended up a casualty of the fact that everyone at Rezzed never stops screaming. Never. The agony of existence. It is terrifying.
So as a (probably much better) alternative, I'll be posting a transcription over the next few days. If I did it all in one go, the page would strike the bottom of the Internet and rupture its core (and, you know, take a billion years to read), so here's part one. In it, Obsidian's Chris Avellone, Dreamfall's Ragnar Tornquist, Introversion's Chris Delay, Vlambeer's Rami Ismail, and Redshirt's Mitu Khandaker discuss the evolution of the "indie" scene in the gaming industry, the gulf between triple-A and smaller-scale development, and the way Kickstarter-empowered no-longer-triple-A developers like Obsidian and Red Thread are starting to bridge it.
RPS: To begin, indie is word that gets thrown around a lot in the gaming industry, but for each of you, what does it actually mean?
Tornquist: Independent? I don’t know, yet. I haven’t gotten that far. The most important thing for me is being able to show the game without worrying what anyone else is going to say afterwards. Being able to show broken builds and work in progress to people. That, right now, is the best thing about being indie.
Avellone: For me, it means the only people you really answer to are yourselves and the players.
Delay: Yeah, I’ll agree with that. The cool thing about indie is being able to have total control over what games you work on, when you release them, and all of that. But I think it’s developed another meaning as well, which is something to do with the idea of very small teams. There’s a lot of disagreement about that.
Tornquist: Yeah, absolutely. I would vehemently disagree about that.
Ismail: It’s interesting, because my perspective… You guys obviously have some background in the gaming industry before all of this. I just started being an indie studio, doing an indie studio. For me it has nothing to do with size or independence, because I just don’t know another way of making video games. For me, the core of indie is more about community and working with the people that you make your games for, but also working with other developers in a really open, sharing way. We do a lot for the community and the community does a lot for us. For me, that’s the thing I think about when I say “indie.”
It has nothing to do with team size. It has nothing to do with money. At some point I think it has nothing to do with working with partners, whether they’re a publisher or whatever. I think it’s about this weird sort of thing that’s there, where there are all sorts of people making things that I run into everywhere. I run into Chris [Avellone] at pretty much every event. I run into the Prison Architect guys every now and then. I haven’t run into either [Ragnar or Mitu] yet, but… It all feels really open and friendly. It doesn’t feel like a competition. It feels like a cooperation of all these people doing video games.
Delay: I think what you described there, though, is just the games industry.
Ismail: I know, but there’s this weird thing where… This is a really visible thing, in the indie scene.
Tornquist: You don’t just run into the developers of Call of Duty or Battlefield. They’re isolated, in a way. They’re brought out to do PR. I’ve worked on games like that. You don’t go to everything. You go where you’re supposed to go and meet who you’re supposed to meet and do the presentations where you’re supposed to be at. You don’t have the…
Avellone: They’re very targeted events.
Avellone: With very few variables… There are certain things that you’re never familiar with. Nathan, I'm sure you can’t ever feel those talking points being brought out again and again and again.
RPS: No, never. Every interview’s a snowflake. [laughter]
Avellone: Such a special snowflake.
Ismail: I would agree, though, that we’re friends with a lot of triple-A developers as well. It’s not as if the triple-A developer community is closed. It’s just that they’re not allowed to be that way publicly. And they have a lot of responsibilities. They have responsibilities toward shareholders.
Avellone: I think it goes back to who you’re answering to. The indie scene, I feel, is very much about… The community of developers is a different point to make. But it’s mostly you developing the game with your teammates. You work it out with them. But ideally it’s all about entertaining the player and making sure they’re having a good time. There’s really nobody else involved in that.
That sense of community and everyone wanting to help out… I think that’s what’s great about the indie community. I feel like you guys are more willing to share and help out with things and share experiences. In the traditional publisher model, I feel like there’s that paranoia. You can’t let any secrets get out. We can’t share any technology.
Ismail: It is our strength, as a community. We’re sharing and open. We talk to each other about the things we do, the experiences we have. It’s the only way that a one- or two-person team can survive in a world of huge studios and publishers.
Avellone: [To Mitu] One-person team. I am totally impressed.
Khandaker: To me… My background is similar to yours, Rami. I didn’t work in another game company before going indie. I just started making games. So for me, creative control is part of it. Also, being indie just means that I’m by myself in a little room and don’t see other humans. [laughter]
RPS: Is that where the community aspect of it comes in, though?
Khandaker: Absolutely. That’s why knowing other indies is so valuable. Admittedly, my situation is a little bit different, because I’ve got another indie developer, Positech Games, publishing the game I’m currently working on.
Delay: A publisher!
Khandaker: But an indie publisher! So a non-evil publisher.
Avellone: But you developed the game concept first, and then they were interested and they came to you?
Khandaker: Yeah, I pitched the game to them
Tornquist: A one-woman indie with a publisher, and we’ve got a huge team, so we can…
Delay: Indie is variety, isn’t it? There’s variety in all things. Valve’s an indie. They don’t have publishing contracts. They publish all their own stuff on their own network. Why don’t they call it that?
Ismail: I think in the end it’s also if you want to identify as indie. I’ve never heard Valve call themselves indie. At this point Notch has basically said that he doesn’t think of himself as indie. I’m not gonna say, “No, you’re indie! Dude, listen to me, you’re indie!”
Avellone: So what is the difference?
Delay: I don’t know.
Avellone: You’re like Socrates. I’ve got the questions… [laughter]
Tornquist: I think we’re not going to be talking about indie [as a distinction] for much longer. At some point in the future we’ll be game developers. That distinction is very concrete now because it’s a movement, right? As this grows bigger and the lines are blurred around what more people do… You guys are crossing that line all the time. You can say that you’re straddling both sides of the fence, but that’s what more and more people are going to do.
Ismail: It’s interesting, because if you look at indie as a thing, it started in around 2008, with the ascent of the indie developer. It kept growing, both in size but also in public perception. We’ve had IGF since, what…?
Delay: Oh, ages. Steam started shipping indie games in 2005. Xbox had a big explosion of indie around 2007 and 2008.
Ismail: Then what happened, obviously, is that as it started growing, more people started being interested in this. Indie has made this weird sort of professionalization, where it went from being people who make video games on small forums, making games in like three hours and throwing them out there as little experiments, and sort of like this… It’s almost super-experimental. “We just want to make games. We don’t want it to have anything to do with money.” Money was a dirty word. “Money, no, we don’t do money. We do games.”
In the last two years, you’ve seen this amazing movement, in which the indie developers that were young back then – the kids from those days that were making those experiments – and also the generation that I’m part of started to realize that at some point you kind of do need money. We started to professionalize a bit. You can see that.
Delay: Some of the richest game developers are in the indie scene. [laughs]
Ismail: It’s funny, because that’s a development that happened in, what, the last five years? Before that, that wasn’t true. Everybody knows the story of Cave Story, which is an amazing game, and what did it make until a few years ago? It made nothing. But it’s interesting for me that somebody like Jonatan Söderström, who was one of those experimental types, would make 150 games in a year, and then two years ago he decided, “I could use food.” [laughter] And he sat down and made Hotline Miami.
Delay: He could make 150 games in one year? That’s like one every two days.
Ismail: He would make games in an hour.
Avellone: Can I get some personal history on that? Like, did he purposefully make Hotline Miami just for the sake of [doing something bigger]?
Ismail: He met somebody that could focus him. And then together they worked on it.
Avellone: So he got a producer. I know I’m using a dirty word, but…
Ismail: Honestly, what he got was… He met this guy called Dennis Wedin. It’s basically the same story that Vlambeer has, where JW was the creative, chaotic mind, and then he met me. Jonatan and Dennis are sort of a similar story.
Avellone: So he acted as a funnel and a channel for, “Let’s focus on this idea first. I like what you’re doing here, but before you worry about all of this stuff, let’s go down this route, get that developed, see how that feels.”
Ismail: Yeah, we just fight over stuff. [laughter]
Avellone: But you finished it. That’s the most important aspect of management. That’s good.
Ismail: We tried to sort of figure out a way to make the projects that are worthwhile into something. That’s what Vlambeer is, that’s what Dennaton is. I think that’s an interesting development in indie. You see a lot of people making this jump from making little experimental things to taking those experimental things and exploring them all the way.
RPS: It’s interesting to see where it came from, too, because games are one of the only mediums that I can think of that started as a commercial enterprise. From very early on, it was about making money. I think the other side of indie, at least as we know it, is as a counterculture. And so initially, those people making games that were free, they were doing it because, “No, I don’t want to be one of those guys asking for money.” Basically taking a stand against conventional wisdom, a portion of gaming's DNA.
Tornquist: It’s not a virtue anymore. The indie scene is self-calibrating. In the beginning, I think you’re right, but there’s an evolution there from being that counterculture – “We’re going to go in the face of big publishers and triple-A and do something creative and different.” Now it’s maturing into… It’s okay to make money. We celebrate the people who do. And that’s fine.
Khandaker: It’s not also the only answer, right? It’s okay to still be as counterculture as you want to be.
Tornquist: But people aren’t saying things like, “Oh, they’re sellouts, because they’re massive successes.” It’s celebrated.
Ismail: You’re all sellouts as far as I’m concerned. [laughter]
Delay: Actually, back in 2006, we got that. People said that we weren’t indie anymore because we’d signed a deal with Valve. Which is hilarious, because now Steam is the place for the indie scene. Back then we were like number two, I think. Darwinia was number two. So it was really early on. “You shouldn’t be in the IGF! You aren’t indie!”
Khandaker: I think maybe I just take exception to thinking of it as an evolution into trying to go down a commercial route with indie. It’s not that that is a natural place for it to go. I think it’s more about it opening up. Don’t get me wrong – personally I’m making Redshirt as a commercial endeavor, and I’m lucky enough that I have an indie publisher and I’ve been able to do that. But for plenty of people, indie is a really important space in which to be able to do it as [creative expression].
Ismail: The motivations are also an interesting thing, because there are indies making games just because they need to survive. There are indies making games because they want to make the game. There are indies making games as a political or social statement. Here, we’ve got games about shooting airplanes on one end. We’ve got games about running prisons. We’ve got games about being afraid about being stood up for a date on the other end. There’s this amazing spectrum.
Avellone: I just think that when you take the economics… I don’t know if it’s necessarily a stigma, but when I hear about someone doing a game for a political reason, I feel there’s a different motivation going on there that’s not quite as stigmatized. And also, if you’re just doing a game because there’s a game concept you wanted to do, that feels like… If you happen to generate money while you’re doing that, if you can survive and keep doing that, that seems to me…
Delay: But in the triple-A industry, they’re not doing it. They’re not exploring the possibilities of [developing for other reasons]. They look and they say, “You know what’s really popular? First-person shooters.”
Ismail: The economics of that are really simple. It costs millions and millions of dollars to make a game like that.
Avellone: And the worst part is, it’s not even the actual development costs. The development costs, $20 or $30 million, are insane – and that’s on the small end – but then there’s the marketing budget, which is just fucking insane. Audio and QA, oh my fucking god. That’s more money than I could ever dream of seeing in several lifetimes.
Ismail: So that’s the thing. They cannot take a risk.
Avellone: No, they have to be established franchises. Game mechanics we’re comfortable with.
Ismail: Of course, we’re right at the start of a new console generation right now. You’re seeing some new IPs, but all of those… They’re “new,” some are fresh, but if you look at them, they’re still within the space that we’re comfortable with.
Avellone: They have familiar elements. “Oh, that’s kind of like that game.”
RPS: But that kind of brings us to the main reason I selected each of you specifically. Chris and Ragnar, you're both examples of people with long histories in triple-A who've made the jump into indie development. Your games straddle the line, too. The production values and team sizes definitely aren't as "indie" as some.
Tornquist: Triple-I? [laughter]
RPS: Triple-I sounds like an Apple product, so maybe not that.
Avellone: Yeah, triple-indie. The triple-indie forum… [more laughs]
RPS: So you guys shrunk down to do smaller productions that are more creatively oriented via Kickstarter. Does part of that come from the fact that you couldn’t explore a lot of the things that you wanted to in triple-A?
Tornquist: Yes. Absolutely. I think that… We’ve both been in sort of traditional game development, the publisher-developer model, for a long time. I’m speaking for you now, Chris, as I usually do. [laughter]
Avellone: That’s fine, I’m fine with that. I mean, if I could choose anyone to speak for me...
Tornquist: Well, but I mean… I have experience. I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of freedom. I think you have too, in the past, even with our sort of traditional model, being able to make the games that we wanted to make. But that ended. It’s an economic situation where the publisher has to make more and more safe bets. It used to be less like that, but now it’s to the point where it gets in the way.
Avellone: I think the most memorable products that I’ve seen studios make are ones that were under the radar, but still in a larger studio. For example, Fallout wasn’t being carefully watched at Interplay. They pay attention to what’s going on – “Oh, it’s a GURPS project. Oh, now it’s the Fallout project.” – but it didn’t get as much attention as some of the other ones. They did a lot of stuff that was under the radar. Then, eventually, when it erupted, it had all these new concepts about it, but it was because it wasn’t being watched or controlled quite so much. I think sometimes that’s not such a bad place to be.
Planescape was very much the same way. “Baldur’s Gate is coming out. There’s some Planescape thing too, but screw that.” It was a fantastic situation to be in. Ideally, being out on our own, talking directly to the players – “Is this the kind of RPG you’d like to see? Let’s discuss the mechanics. Let’s discuss the narrative” – that stuff is a lot more freeing and liberating, without having some other person to answer to, who may not understand all those different mechanics, and they have a different model for how they want it released or how they feel things should be. Eventually you have to answer to the players no matter what, when you make a game. I would much rather make a smaller, more focused game, dealing just with the players.
Delay: It’s been interesting to me, always. The film industry has somehow gotten around this problem. They have equivalent things going on, but they do manage to produce massive blockbuster films which are not just another assembly-line.
Ismail: Well, if you listen to the people in the movie industry, they would not agree with you. I’ve been reading a lot of interviews lately about a lot of big studio executives saying, “This model is unsustainable. We’re all going to crash and burn.”
Delay: Some of these problems exist, but the movie industry is not trapped in the same way, the same as triple-A video games.
Tornquist: There are a lot of really creative movies, and perhaps not daring, but at least they’re trying to do something more than simply deliver a product. There are a lot of products, but there are a lot of exciting ventures as well.
Delay: Yeah, exactly. It seems like taking largely unknown directors and giving them things like Batman. That’s a huge budget, and they have so much confidence in this one guy that they let him…
Tornquist: Part of it is how established that system is and how controlled the process is. Yes, they can allow that creative freedom, because everything else is so set in stone, the way they work. I think our industry hasn’t matured enough for that, maybe.
Delay: Yeah. The idea is that there’s always a director and a producer, two different roles. The director’s there to dream and keep the vision together.
Tornquist: And the producer’s there to fire the director if things aren’t working out. [laughter]
Check back soon for part two, in which we discuss comparisons to Hollywood, potential unfairness when larger developers like Obsidian use Kickstarter, why Steam Greenlight really needs improvement, and responsibility to fans.