The Indie Game Surge

Dude, what's with the indie game surge all of a sudden?

In the gaming renaissance of the eighties, there were a lot of very ambitious creations. Looking back on them now, they may seem simplistic (the original Super Mario Bros., for example) or alternatively, completely inaccessible (check out Lords of Midnight, which was just re-released on mobile platforms). However, one must keep in mind that these titles were the first ones to try this stuff at all. In producing these games, the developers were literally inventing genres, defining them by conceiving of and crafting all the elements that went into them. Mario’s gameplay is so ubiquitous at this point as to seem obvious, but it is packed full of (often pretty weird) ideas and mechanics (mushrooms that make you grow bigger, fire flowers, warp levels, etc.), each of which was novel for its time and took a hell of a lot of creativity and skill to devise and implement. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Lords of Midnight is a bizarre text-adventure/RPG hybrid, now so esoteric as to be, arguably, unplayable. But it was still a valiant effort by one guy, Mike Singleton, to present an adventure uniquely using a brand new medium.

Sometime around the Nineties however, overly ambitious titles with strange and/or unique subject matter started to become fewer and further between. Gaming had managed to find its footing, both creatively and commercially. This meant that games introducing new gameplay styles altogether became rarer as most worked within established genres: RPG, FPS, adventure, puzzle, platformer, strategy and so forth. And, as gaming became a more lucrative industry, publishers gradually began to fear taking chances on those titles that did not fit snugly into these genres or even games that simply aimed to explore unique concepts within the frameworks of those genres.

Much of gaming was and still is about conforming to the standard of the era. For example, there was the advent of 3D gaming, which almost outright killed off the point-and-click adventure. Certain classic series, like King’s Quest and Simon the Sorcerer, caved into the pressure of 3D gaming and, as a result, went out with ugly, blocky, poorly-done 3D whimpers. Of course, other genres, like the platformer, made the transition better with Mario, once again, showing us how it was done. A further example of the phasing out of 2D was Sony’s release of the Playstation. A system notoriously underequipped for rendering 2D graphics, it effectively told developers 2D was no longer on the table.

On the whole, gaming has become much more about the blockbuster experience. It happened over time, but we finally reached this point where big budget games need to be an easily definable, explosive, shiny, lengthy, experience usually starring some grizzled white guy with a five o’ clock shadow killing everybody or, in Japan, some spiky haired, effeminate guy waiting his turn to kill everybody. Obviously, this is a generalization (because otherwise we’d be here forever) but, by and large, when a game falls outside of established formulae, the big publishers don’t know what to do with them and typically decide, in advance, they don’t want to have anything to do with them.

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But now, suddenly, a lot of old school, 2D gaming is back on the table with games like Limbo and Dustforce. Protagonists are more varied, with a little dude made of meat and a female pixel warrior heading up their own games. And many of these games are just a little weirder too, coming up with variations on established genres that are just different enough to seem fresh. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP for example, features tweetable dialogue and unique controls (assuming you play it on a handheld device). Braid featured gameplay based on manipulating time, not to mention it starred a fella in a suit who may or may not have actually been a hero.

Of course, all these interesting ideas are possible because these are all independent games. Indie gaming has really taken off over the past few years and I suspect its rising popularity can be attributed to the convergence of several different factors:

Developers are Getting Sick of Being Marginalized at Big Companies

As someone with a (very) brief stint with a company that developed big budget games, I can attest to how frustrating it is to use one’s creative talents to create/improve something in which he or she has no genuine stake, excluding a paycheck and an additional line on the CV. To use a skill that defines you to help further a project that your heart isn’t in is absolutely draining and only feels worse over time. Big budget developers that produce AAA titles now have so many employees that, even if a person is working their hardest and demonstrating impressive creativity in all they do, there’s a good chance they will be largely ignored all the same. The possibility that someone with great ideas will ever be heard grows less and less likely as the company, driven by budget and deadline, will be of the mind that the best use of this person is to keep them plugging away at their small task within the juggernaut of a title they’re developing. (There are some exceptions to this of course, e.g., Valve and Doublefine.)

Furthermore, with horror stories from the mainstream gaming industry popping up more and more frequently, working hard for years on a game holds even less of an attraction. Layoffs on a grand scale and closings are not at all atypical. Free Radical Design, developers of the Timesplitters series, shut down entirely in 2008. They resurfaced after what was left of them was acquired by Crytek, but with only 40 of an originally 185-person staff still employed. Last year, Psygnosis (though their name had long ago been changed to SCE Studio Liverpool), a developer that had been in operation since 1984, shut down with two games, including a reboot of the Wipeout franchise, still in development.

Games can also be canceled and companies heavily downsized without the full closing of a studio. It is an absolutely possible and real situation for a person to have worked on multiple games, with one or more companies and to have no finished, released products to show for it. If a person is let go, it’s often questionable just how much of one’s work he or she can even show off to prospective employers when that person has signed a nondisclosure agreement and their previous employer would prefer to keep the game “shelved” rather than admit to the press that it has been outright canceled.

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So it’s not too shocking that an individual with a unique concept might walk away from a full time job to go it on their own. There are examples of independent developers doing just this. They walked away from a regular job at a company at which they slaved away at projects they did not believe in with no definite payoff, then worked on their own projects by themselves and achieved incredible success. One of the biggest success stories is Notch or Markus Persson, who worked developing casual games for a company for four years, then created Minecraft. Jasper Byrne, who last year released the incredibly well-received 2D survival-horror game, Lone Survivor, left Frontier Developments because he knew he’d be stuck as a mid-level designer there (working on games like Kinectimals). Now, he’s just released footage of his game currently in development, NEW GAME+ and is receiving major attention for it.

More People Are Developing Games

A huge part of the reason games were so strange and ambitious in the Eighties was simply that they were being made by the only people who went out of their way to figure out how to make them. Basically, if you could do it at all, you could probably find your way into the industry, seeing as it was in its infancy. Now, there are tons of people who grew up on games and want to be a part of them, meaning big companies can be much choosier about who they employ. However, by that same token, many of these budding designers are capable of making games completely by themselves.

For one thing, it helps that there are now tools to do it with. Nobody is mucking around with exclusive scripting languages like C++ anymore. There are now engines providing designers with ready made toolsets. At the more professional levels, the Unreal engine is all over the place. Unity, primarily for mobile and web gaming, is taught at universities. And, for the adventure game enthusiast, there is the simpler, highly customizable Adventure Game Studio (or AGS). Furthermore, with companies like Valve generously releasing software development kits along with their games, those with game design in their blood can get started even without becoming versed in an actual engine. In short, this means there are games being created everywhere, all the time.

Something else to consider is that many of the people designing games now grew up with the titles of the Eighties and, recognizing that their products aren’t capable of competing with the graphics or scope of AAA titles, they have all the more reason to go retro and honor the games that made them love the medium in the first place. Hence we have returns to 2D, simpler gameplay and simpler graphics. We’ve got platfomers with games like Super Meat Boy, Fez, Braid and Limbo. We’ve got SNES-style RPGs like Cthlhu Saves the World and more inventive ones like Bastion. Strategy can be found in the recent Skulls of the Shogun. There’s even a huge slew of old-school adventure games, many coming from publisher Wadjet Eye Games with titles like Gemini Rue and Primordia (a direct homage to the classic Beneath a Steel Sky).

Possibly the single most independent game ever, Cave Story, is a massively wonderful experience created entirely by one guy. It is absolutely soaked in admiration for Metroid, not to mention just old school gaming in general.

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More Adults are Playing Games

If some Eighties babies got directly involved in making games in the style of those they once loved, it follows that others are playing those games. Nostalgia goes a long way and, though many indie developers are just making whatever makes them happy, that just so happens to make a lot of other folks from their generation happy, too. This also means that these games are selling to more people on the whole. Gaming is no longer just a kid’s pasttime and the simpler nature of many indie games is likely to appeal both to adults who grew up with similar titles, as well as kids just getting into gaming.

Additionally, considering they don’t have such huge budgets to work with, independent games are typically shorter than big titles are. Many of them like, again, Super Meat Boy or more recently, Terry Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon, are designed to be played in quick spurts and provide fast entertainment without a huge commitment. This is also appealing to the adult market that has less time to sit down in front of the TV and sink hours into sprawling epics. Shorter games also mean people move on to the next game sooner, meaning more indie games being bought, period.

Indie Games are Cheap and Easily Obtainable

One of the biggest, if not the biggest, boon to independent gaming is digital distribution. Steam changed the way we get games and allowed for the possibility of small titles getting onto a platform where they might be noticed. And Xbox Live and PSN followed suit. Indie games sell incredibly well through these online stores. For one thing, simple as this sounds, indie games usually come in pretty small file sizes. You can buy one and be playing it less than ten minutes later. Furthermore, they can often be sold for crazy cheap. Steam’s frequent sales mean that a game doesn’t have to rely on its launch period to be profitable.

Bastion, developed by a team of seven, reached a milestone of selling 500,000 units roughly six months after it was released. Super Meat Boy was made by three people (counting the soundtrack composer) and sold a million copies after being out for over a year. Steve Hunt, creator of the rhythm shooter, Beat Hazard, released his sales figures after his game grossed $2 million, demonstrating that the game continued to sell to some extent on Xbox Live, PSN, and iOS. But it was through Steam and its periodic discounts that he saw multiple peaks in sales long after the game’s release.

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Handheld devices are another place to find independent games. iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets are fast becoming worthy gaming platforms of their own. The Android in particular has no vetting process, which means technically anybody can get an app on it (no matter how buggy and crap it is). Certain independent games, like the aforementioned Superbrothers or the recently released Osmos, are even forward thinking enough to implement game mechanics tied to the use of a touch screen, revolutionizing how we interact with the medium through these new types of hardware. Also, at this point, the majority of us own at least one of these devices, meaning that the chance of former nongamers trying out a cheap (or free) game on their phone or tablet is pretty high, potentially putting indie games in the hands of people who rarely even touched games before.

And, speaking of free games, there are tons out there just sitting in browsers too. To bring up Jasper Byrne again, he was able to leave Frontier thanks to the money he received after Adult Swim bought his flash game Soul Brother, which anybody can play for free right the heck now. In short, the Internet is absolutely saturated with independently developed games that load up in seconds, take a few minutes to play and don’t cost a cent. And some of them are as (or more) worth checking out than the newest, ponderous Metal Gear title. Truly, two of the most engaging, unique experiences I’ve played in recent memory were browser flash games: Paolo Pedercini’s Every Day the Same Dream and Daniel Benmergui’s Today I Die.

That One Movie about Indie Games

This is probably a slightly more minor one, but Indie Game: The Movie, is actually pretty damn good. It focuses on Team Meat with Super Meat Boy, Phil Fish’s Fez and Jonathan Blow and Braid and provides an interesting insight into these odd types who had the audacity to force their way into the industry with their personal visions. It’s smartly told and contains some genuinely gripping moments (like Phil Fish bringing a buggy build of Fez to the Penny Arcade Expo and Team Meat’s first day of sales going awry). It was actually good enough that Sundance, the New York Times and South by Southwest took notice of it. Plus, you can watch the thing literally everywhere from Netflix to Steam and every bit of Internet in-between, so there’s a decent possibility this film introduced the world of independent gaming to some who perhaps previously had no idea that this subset of the gaming scene (a section of it that doesn’t get its own TV ads) even exists.

Conclusion: Indie Games have Unique Potential                                                                                                                         

The indie gaming scene allows for something of a return to the way things were in the Eighties. It’s not exactly the same as there is a far greater possibility that a title will be totally lost amidst the deluge of new properties out there every day. However, the fact that there are just so many ways for so many people with little more than an idea to thrust their product out in front of the public, means there are weird and wonderful things everywhere. And while an unfortunately significant number of indie games go retro without adding anything new to the formula, many others go for the gusto, throwing all sorts of new ideas out and seeing if they stick. The beauty of it is that players now seem to be willing to investigate these new ideas along with the developers. Sure, the ease of obtaining the games, coupled with their low prices helps a lot, but I’d like to believe there’s also a truth under all of this that we’re all eager to play something new.

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There are games on Steam by one or two people that are barely games. The Cat and the Coup is an interactive documentary, in which the player controls a cat and alters elements in the environment to witness events throughout the life of former Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh. Thirty Flights of Loving is an experience made with the Quake II engine that is so short it’s basically a proof of concept. But it messes around with narrative in games in a way that’s unique, if not quite revolutionary.

These games are both weird enough that you’ve never really played anything like them. The former is free and the latter only costs five bucks. So why not try them out? It’ll be, if nothing else, a unique experience.

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