Rejecting the Conventional Industry: The Independent Gaming Scene

In 2005 over 50 pecent of all households in America had access to broadband internet connections. The massive increase in the speed of the average connection over the ten years previous made it possible to access a wide range of media that most people would never be exposed to otherwise. YouTube, MySpace, and countless other websites paved the way for indie bands and films to receive unprecedented exposure and sales with a few simple mouse clicks. It allowed customers to hear samples and watch trailers for themselves, creating an intuitive environment of advertising when the prospective customer expressed interest. Even so, the rejuvenating effects of broadband distribution have perhaps been felt nowhere as strongly as the indie game scene. More than ever before, independent game developers are finding the means to distribute their games and improve the way people think about the medium.

What happened to the games you used to see and play in the late ’80s and early ’90s? The waves of nostalgia that Atari and Sierra-On-Line classics bring to many people these days are often hard to find in the violent and redundant games of today. To put it simply, what changed was the graphics. As processing power and visual presentation continued to increase in computers and consoles, the amount of work that went into each individual game began to increase, too. Developers point out art costs, rather than programming or design, as the chief expense for games today. In an interview with Siliconera, prominent indie developer Chris DeLay recounts an example of an artist’s role for a major publisher: “Their job was to model weapons at extremely high resolution, with texture maps, bump maps, normal maps, etc. They told us it took a couple of weeks per weapon, and they had something like 3 armies, each with 4 soldier types, each with 4 weapon types. That’s years and years worth of high-resolution weapon modeling, and that was their job.”

Companies are forced to bow to such rigorous graphic demands out of the belief that it helps them compete and stay successful. If your game looks graphically inferior to your competitor’s, you supposedly take the risk of being seen as less worthy of the buyer’s money. With a standard major AAA game now costing a minimum of 5 million dollars to develop, investors are also far less willing to risk that kind of money on innovative ideas or controversial concepts. They simply stick with the kinds of games that have sold in the past and do their best to make them as shiny as possible to attract buyers.

Digital Eel’s Soup du Jour (PC)

So how do you give a game with a much smaller budget, some wild ideas, and a few dedicated developers a chance to compete? As with music, books, or movies, it all boils down to the problems of distribution and advertising. In order to sell enough copies of a game, you need to generate enough advertising buzz to make major headway in sales after your first two weeks of release. Otherwise, retailers will want to ditch the product for the sake of shelf space and make way for the next big seller. Combine the huge costs of advertising and the expense of better graphics as an essential gimmick and you create a field where, suddenly, the independent game developer has little chance of the games he produces getting a fair shot. In many ways, video games went the same route as all of the other artistic mediums of our time: rising budgets means less interest in risky product and the inevitable stagnation that follows in such a climate.

Greg Costikyan is a highly credited game developer and has published numerous essays, including the controversial ‘Scratchware Manifesto’, on changing the way the game industry operates. In 2005, in an article published in The Escapist entitled “Death to the Game Industry: Long Live Games”, he stated, “For the sake of the industry, for the sake of gamers who want to experience something new and cool, for the sake of developers who want to do more than the same-old same-old, for the sake of our souls, we have to get out of this trap.” To accomplish this, he concluded that there needed to be a primary source for people to go and purchase independently developed games and that he could do it using the internet.

Costikyan, along with several business partners, began providing this service in the form of Manifesto Games in 2005. The website offers immediate access and download options for countless independent games. Long neglected genres including Adventure Games, Turn-Based Strategy, and Shmups (think Galaga or R-Type) can all be found here. All of these titles are also incredibly low priced in comparison to the sixty-dollar standard of most mainstream companies. Costikyan explains in an e-mail, “the basic thing is that no one has quite figured out how to leverage indie games into something that people start to talk of in the same breath as, say, casual games — we’re all approaching the problem from different vantage points.” Another site that features a similar service is Half-Life developer Valve’s Steam service, which has a limited but choice selection of Indie games along with many classic titles and new releases for download. Naturally, most game developers host their own private sites where games can be purchased via download as well.

Introversion’s DEFCON (PC)

The change that online services such as these have brought to game developers has revitalized indie games entirely. Chris Delay explains in the Siliconera interview, “The introduction of digital distribution has been our saviour and I’m sure it will do the same for many other independents.” With retailers and distribution taken out of the picture, the issue of retail space and conventional industry standards are no longer relevant. The game can always be available for purchase on a server whether it sells well or not. Indie developers are now able to take a larger portion of the profit for themselves, keep the intellectual property rights, and can even survive with fewer game sales since their development costs are far less than the average AAA game. For once, independent game developers are actually able to make a living doing what they love with change to spare. Cliff Harris, developer of such titles as Democracy and Starship Tycoon, posted his overall profits from five different titles that were downloadable from e-commerce site Plimus at $113,160.53. That’s not including sales from other venues or retail. It also doesn’t go into the years of accumulating a loyal fan base or man hours that can go into each game.

So what defines an indie title and what kind of games does this newfound distribution create? All of the titles are independently produced and developed by small teams or individuals. They should also not be confused with casual games, which are typically defined as games that are fun but also very light on time, such as Bejeweled. An indie game can be anything from an adventure Game in the tradition of Sierra-On-Line to a turn-based war game. They tend to work on most computers so you don’t need to worry about your machine’s hardware either. Indie developers almost always offer a free demo and are generally very cheap to buy. Costikyan explains the motivations of most indie developers:

Some indie game developers are basically hobbyists with unrelated jobs, and some are students who are building a portfolio with a view to getting a job in the conventional industry — but most are doing indie games because they have purposefully rejected the conventional game industry. Indeed, in some cases, they’re industry veterans who got fed up with it, while in others they’re people who have clear ideas about what kinds of games they want to create and very aware that getting to the point where you can have any meaningful creative input in the conventional industry will take a decade or more.

What makes the games these people produce so impressive is not just the dedication of the people making them, but the staggering creativity that makes so many of them stand out.

It’s this sort of creativity that goes into creating an adventure game about a Rabbi who is losing his faith in God and is about to lose his synagogue while solving a murder mystery. Made by Dave Gilbert, The Shivah features a simple interface, live voice actors, and an amazing download price of $4.99. Highlights of the game include linguistic duels with other Rabbis like in Monkey Island and some of the best writing ever seen in an adventure game. He has three well-reviewed adventure games under his belt for sale along with several free projects and collaborations that have all won their share of awards. His office consists of a Starbucks and his workstation is his laptop. He explains on his blog, “Chatting about development isn’t as fascinating as you’d think it would be. I’m basically spending most of my days in various coffee shops, writing dialog, coding stuff, futzing around with animations or just in general being a total nerd.” He also cites a statistic in a later post noting the growing population of women over 40, parents, and Baby Boomers who are spending 10 to 40 hours a week playing video games. Their favorite kind of game? Adventure.

Queasy Games’ Everyday Shooter (PS3 Store)

There’s also the disturbingly simple thermonuclear war simulator DEFCON, which was created by Chris Delay and his team at Introversion. Inspired by the aesthetic and message of the film WarGames, DEFCON creates the experience of watching a giant command screen deep underground. It eschews the conventions of flashy graphics or overly complex management for a simple and dark experience: successfully nuke your opponent into oblivion by suffering fewer losses. No matter how you play the game, at least one of your cities will be nuked. One point is deducted for every civilian life you lose, two points are gained for each of an opponent’s civilians killed. As one commenter on the Steam forum noted after playing the game, “I think I get why people were so freaked out during the Cold War now.”

Delay himself explains in an interview with the UK Guardian, “A lot of UK game development companies have joined with big publishers to get bigger and more established. The problem with that, though, is that they lose the flexibilities that allowed them to try out the crazy ideas that made them so creative to start with.” By avoiding the issues relating to conventional graphics, Introversion was able to focus on developing mood, ambient music, and a great multi-player host that led to one of the most amazing games of 2007.

Yet indie games are not always morally complex or about social commentary. Sometimes, they are simply about fun. What if you took Tetris and made the blocks rubbery and bendable? In Soup du Jour, the blocks are now a wide variety of shapes being dumped into a cooking pot, and your job is to keep the pot from overflowing by lining them up. This is the premise behind Digital Eel’s latest game and it makes for a fun game of twisting and pulling the different shapes for a quick play experience.

Digital Eel’s other games share this goal of quick yet complex play, in particular the award winning Weird Worlds, which embodies a very quick sci-fi experience with space combat that can be beat in ten to fifteen minutes. Co-founder and developer Rich Carlson explains in an e-mail the perks of the indie game scene, “You can turn on a dime, decisions are easy to make, there’s much more trust, nobody is looking over your shoulder or holding your job or the studio’s existence over your head, and the vision of the company or the game is more solid and is more easily shared.” He notes that the biggest trouble with major publishers is not their game properties so much as their fear of experimenting. There is plenty of room for new game designs, but publishers are only going to find them if they’re willing loosen up a bit and experiment. “I’m sure that by ten years from now, a couple of new industry shaking games will have appeared. Two or three coming from out of left field that move the industry in new directions and into new areas,” Carlson explains.

The Behemoth’s Alien Hominid (Xbox 360 Live Arcade)

Yet, it would be a disservice to broadly label every publisher as totally incompatible with developers who want to achieve a unique vision. There are a variety of publishers that game developers can turn to and have their products distributed while still being treated fairly. A publisher not only provides access to retail spots but can also do a lot for a game’s advertising that mere word-of-mouth falls short of. In an interview with Gamasutra in 2007, President of Gamecock Publishing Mike Wilson explains, “What really happens with the bigger publishers is: all’s well and good until the quarterly meeting about, ‘Where’s our marketing money going to go?’ and they tend to get behind the big, sure things, and the rest of the stuff is just an after-thought…So that’s really what we offer: We only do enough games so that we can really get emotionally behind every one.” The company also offers better than average royalty payments and a distinct promise to never deal with sequels or movie based games.

A few of the major corporations have actually recognized the ease and potential profits of the indie scene and are opening their doors to independent games being played on their consoles. In an interview with Gamasutra, Joe Bourrie and Patrick Hackett (creators of IGF finalist RumbleBox) explain, “With consoles becoming the dominant gaming devices, indies could easily be left in the dust if all they could develop for are PCs. Xbox Live Arcade is giving indies the chance to compete with the major titles again.” Both Nintendo and Sony are also slowly putting together a catalogue of indie games for their own consoles that can be downloaded with the same ease as other indie game providers.

Ultimately, thinking of the changes happening in the indie game scene as a revolution or a dramatic change for video games is to lose track of the very roots of the industry itself. Atari’s mega-hit Pong was created by Al Alcorn as an instructive exercise in learning how to make more complex games. The original King’s Quest was made by Roberta and Ken Williams working out of their California home. Even the first hugely successful FPS, Doom, was made by a small crew with a dedicated vision as to exactly what they wanted their game to look and feel like. On many levels, indie games are simply a return to the roots of small teams, big visions, and few creative restraints. To the hardworking indie developers who are finally getting their chance to take the industry back in this direction, indie is simply the way video games always should have been.