Let me tell you a story friend.
A couple years ago, an intrepid bearded Swedish man showcased pictures of an independently developed game he was working on solo, from his own home PC. It was a cross between Legos, and Zelda, and despite looking incredibly simple, the concept appealed to a surprisingly large audience. It garnered a cult following at first, which quickly exploded as the Swede's game turned into a viral internet sensation.
You may know that game as “Minecraft.” And the nebulous Swede is none-other than the infamous, hat-wearing Markus Persson a.k.a. “Notch.”
And a handsom-er man I never have seen.
Minecraft took the internet by storm – simply because people hadn't ever seen anything like it before. It was amazing for a number of reasons – not the least of which being the scope of the game; a game where you could create (or destroy) almost anything you could imagine. There was no wonder why it was quickly heralded as “Legos for adults.”
Minecraft: Simple in concept, but with an execution as complex as you want it to be.
But it was important for a number of other reasons. The success of Minecraft (and despite what the naysayers might say, it was an unbelievably successful product) proved that independently developed games can succeed, even in a market saturated by corporate, generic and mass-produced games.
The games of the last couple years have had a somewhat disheartening trend. Any gamer who has thumbed through a gaming magazine or browsed a gaming website knows that this generation is suffering from a terrible onset of serious sequel-age. When consumer confidence is low, big companies decide that it is far safer to re-hash old, time tested games, rather than take a financial risk by stretching themselves out to do something new and innovative. How many Halos, and Call of Duties and Metal Gear Solids do we need to play before we stop settling for new dogs with old tricks?
I left a couple out - but you get it right? A little ridiculous.
I'm not saying that there are no new IPs out there developed by big companies; au contraire – they exist. But they aren't the spearhead of the gaming market. And even if we wanted a new IP, the channels for talking to developers are severely limited. Conveying ideas is incredibly difficult, especially if you are an aspiring and prolific developer yourself.
You might be saying “So what? If you're so damn smart, and if you've got so many cool ideas, why didn't you just make a game yourself?” Well, I'll tell you why.
Because it costs lots, and lots, and lots of money. Like real lots. Just to give you an idea, Killzone 2 cost 45 million dollars to create. Halo 3; 55 million. Grand Theft Auto 4? A whopping 100 million. These production values match and exceed some Hollywood movies, and the cost of making big-box games is only going up as gaming becomes ever more popular.
Still think there's room for the little guy?
Well, you brilliant little optimist, there actually is. And that room is expanding. Before I go on, lemme' tell you a little somethin'-somethin' about the olden days of gaming – the golden era of it all. I wasn't even alive during this golden era, so don't ask me how I know. I just do.
Eons ago, when dinosaurs played Atari and cavemen huddled around Commodore 64s, gaming was less expensive. It was entirely plausible a bunch of dudes could sit in a basement, fueled by beer and nerd-rage and create a “game.” Hardware was, understandably, expensive – but actual production costs were low. The days of massive monolithic development and publishing studios had not yet dawned.
When I was your age... we just had ONE game. And it was called...ehhh...uhh.
Granted, these games were neither pretty not particularly fun. Don't let me fool you; some of the worst games of all time were created during this golden era. But it's not the games themselves that makes this sort of interaction so critical. No; it's the fact that a bunch of people could come together and make something without having to hack through a corporate forest of red-tape and bottom-lines. Creators could create. Video games weren't just fun to play, they were a masterpiece to make.
Currently, the gaming industry works a lot like the movie industry. A publisher contracts a developer (many times Publishers own developers, such as Activision/Blizzard) to make a game. The publisher agrees to fund the developer for a certain dollar amount, provided they adhere to certain criteria. This criteria is based solely on what they believe will sell. What this means for YOU as the consumer of this product, is that you are at the whim of what the market wants, or at the very least, is perceived to want.
Ever since the release of Xbox Live waaaaay back when, there has been this perception that the market ravenously craves online-multiplayer games. Ever wonder why almost every game now seems to have some multiplayer or online functionality? Publishers see that as a marketable attribute. That in itself ain't so bad, except for when it becomes the crutch of the sale and it handicaps the other facets of the game. Many publishers now (going to pick on Activision again) have stated explicitly that ALL games must have a functional online component. That's great – but what if a developer doesn't want to make an online game? Now resources have to be sucked away from the main portion of the game to create a limp, lifeless online component just to meet the demands of the publisher. The result? Ever play a game that makes you say “This could have been so much better, if it were finished?” I know I have. This mentality creates chronically mediocre games, and a lot of people are fed up with it.
Enter the Indie Game market (I told you I was getting there.) Because smart little gamers like you and I have noticed this disheartening trend in mainstream game development, we have decided to seek other outlets to quench or ravenous thirst to kill, shoot, stab, solve, jump, dodge, and dodge. And that has not gone unrewarded. In the past few years, there has been a movement – and I think it's one that has some publishers worried.
Independent game developers have been continuously and increasingly in the spotlight. Minecraft's success gave the growing Indie movement a good deal of time in the limelight. Soon thereafter, the Indie-floodgates were thrown open, and we have unknowingly been wading through it ever since.
Indie developers have more resources than ever now, and their fans have more options than ever. Back in the day, before Web 2.0, before 3D, and before "the Interwebs" developers had no clue what their audience really wanted, or how to reach out to them – and to be fair, neither did their audience. Gaming was new and foreign – people had no idea what constituted a “good game.” The fact that they could control what was on screen was alien enough, let alone letting them control what actually went into the game.
Now though, with gaming going from “fringe” to “norm” gamers and developers have the opportunity to come together, to form a unique bond – a bond that almost exclusive to the Indie culture. Developers come to us with a game idea, and we tell them whether we like it. After all, we are buying it, shouldn't we have a say?
Let's posit a purely hypothetical situation. A developer comes to a group with an idea. He offers to make that idea into something real, and asks people to fund him. Some people fund him, some people don't. Somehow, the developer manages to impress enough people to make that idea real. Everyone who's interested benefits, while those who are not aren't any worse off. And, proper funding means that the developers don't have to waste money conforming to the parameters impressed upon them by publishers, while still being free to take advice from their direct consumers.
For years, Publishers and big-game companies have stayed away from this model. They say it can't work. And as a big company – they are correct. But here's the kicker; it works for the little guys! Because they can establish good relationships with enthusiastic groups who are willing to fund them. And because the Indie developers tend to be small to begin with, their development costs aren't that high. And since technology is now more accessible than ever, getting a game that looks and performs like a AAA title requires less investment. This allows Indie companies to simultaneously create, AND innovate, so it doesn't feel like you're playing the same game ad nauseum. It's a win-win-win for everyone. The results for successes are simply staggering. Just look at Star Citizen or Sui Generis, or Natural Selection 2 for example.
“But Pat,” you might be saying “I don't believe you. Show me!” Well, I will. I urge you to go here and check out just how much popularity some Indie games attract; I'm talking into the millions; completely funded by fans of the projects. If you like it, you can donate to it. But Kickstarter isn't the only one doing it; Steam just recently released it's Greenlight service, which allows you to vote whether or not a game will appear on Valve's popular digital distributor client. This not only gives it attention, but it gives independent developers incentive to market their games to a larger audience. But wait, there's more! Other digital distributors such as Gamer's Gate already have (and have had for years) plenty of Indie games to choose from, usually at very reasonable prices. The Humble Bundle group does several fund-raising events each year to support charities and Indie developers by putting bundles of Indie games up for sale at a price of your own choosing. It doesn't get much better than that.
The movement is most visible on the PC, where developers have the most familiar and accessible environment, but consoles are not excluded from this. As console and PC come closer and closer together, it's an inescapable reality that more and more Indie games will appear on PS4 and Xbox 720 and beyond. Already, consoles have games like Minecraft, Terraria, Limbo and Braid, all developed by small Indie-developers, and it's my sincere hope that Indie games with this level of polish will continue to emerge.
What's the point of all of this? Well, I want to let you know what's out there. I believe that this is the start of something much bigger and much healthier in the gaming world. The interaction between customer and developer is becoming more prevalent and more important. It's something we can all benefit from. Hopefully, it's something that you all will come to enjoy as much as I do. I urge you to look out for Independent games, because they are what games should be – fun, for you to play and for them to make; something that is crafted and not popped out by a machine and a team of developers who have had their souls and creative spirit sucked from them.
If this is all new for you, check out www.indiegames.com . They have all the most recent news on up and coming Indie games, with previews, reviews, videos, pictures and everything else. Also, www.kickstarter.com has a wide selection of Indie games waiting to be funded, so that may be worth a look also. And don't forget to keep checking back with us. As time goes on, I personally will be paying more attention to Indie games – so you will hear about them here.
Until then, keep calm and Indie-game on.