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The Re-Emergence of Indie Games

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Battle for Wesnoth
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Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams
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Lemmings
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Retro City Rampage
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by Mr Creosote (2013-02-23)

The End of the World As We Knew It

By the mid-1990s, the times of the bedroom developer were over. As pure size and professional production values had become more and more important, corporately produced games had squashed the competition from which most of this new industry had actually originally had had its beginnings itself.

This was closely linked to the death of so-called home computers. Game console development had always been exclusive to the corporate world, since usually special equipment and licences were necessary to publish anything on those platforms. The sole computer system remaining was the IBM PC which actually was only just emerging as a 'gamer' platform. Traditionally, it had been the system of choice of white-collar workers who wanted to have the same system at home as in the office. For them, different qualities than something a random guy with a good idea could deliver counted. As video production and complicated graphical rendering, pre-calculated on whole rendering farms, became the norm, only sufficient financial backing could ensure the successful production of a new game.

While on the lowest level, this might very well be considered the dawning of a great age of gaming simply because corporate production usually implied at least a basic level of quality and therefore completely unplayable turds became much rarer, it soon became painfully clear that this increase in quality assurance came at the price of game development according to 'market research'. This euphemism means nothing more than the people with the money dictating what kind of games would be produced, based only on current sales figures of other games recently released. Oh, a 3D shooter is doing exceptionally well? We will make some of these as well! Real-time strategy receives a lot of attention in the press? There you are, a hundred more of these games!

So this was also the age of the clone games. The notion of making a game just because a developer was passionate about something was dead and buried.

An Unexpected Comeback?

This did not change for many years as gaming only happened on more and more souped-up, incredibly powerful systems. But now, the landscape has taken a surprising turn away from the strong homogeneity. Nintendo made 'casual' gaming respectable again in a first step with the introduction of its Wii. Suddenly, nobody seemed to mind 'old' technology (e.g. in the area of graphics) being used anymore. As far as independently produced games are concerned, a major attribution has to be made to the move of mobile gaming onto smart phone platforms.

Such relatively low-powered devices (still a multiple of what old home computers could do) have turned out to be the most popular gaming devices, overtaking any computer or dedicated console system. It's just convenient to use the time sitting on a train, waiting for dinner to be served in a restaurant or spending an evening in a hotel on a business trip for a quick game. Due to these changed circumstances of playing (short, quick rounds between other activities), games suddenly don't need the massive size which had been the distinguishing quality factor in the industry for years anymore. In fact, being too large might even hurt. Similarly, expectations concerning the used technology (i.e. graphical wonders) don't nearly play such an important role anymore.

In such a technically less demanding ecosystem, small or even single developers suddenly have a chance again, also because at the same time, digital distribution has eliminated the need for strong business relations to get one's game into a box and in the (physical) stores. If some developer has got an idea, it is no big deal for her to implement the game and get it out there into wide distribution and, perhaps even more importantly, without being scoffed at. And suddenly – surprise, surprise – after all those years of total standstill and the market narrowing down on very few gameplay concepts, we begin to see original ideas again. Funny experiments, not all of which are ultimately successful, but that's alright, because the risk of (relative) business failure is not nearly as huge anymore. The creative people have not died out; they just lay dormant, waiting for their chance.

That makes it all the more ironic that the mainstream press now has coined the term 'core gamers'. This is meant to describe those people who play on their XBox, Playstation or PC and who still want those games which have been without competition for years. The name is usually used to distinguish and distance oneself from 'casual' gamers playing around, for example, on their phones. The irony there is that this kind of media, mainly print or made by former print people, only reveal their own ignorance of the medium's history: A low price segment of simpler games, made without the full power of large corporations had existed all through the 1980s on the then current home computers already – what we see now is not a new phenomenon, but the return to a normal equilibrium as it exists in all other mainstream media as well.

Different Shades of 'Independence'

This comeback is definitely a positive development, because it makes things much more varied and interesting again. Though now that it is clear that – at least for a couple of years – this 'independent' market is here to stay, the vultures are jumping on it as well. Being on 'Kickstarter' is now fashionable – so much that people and companies which wouldn't need it still do so just for visibility. Again, this is a phase which most media have to go through at some point: 'Independent' being considered 'hip', the big money will recognise the market potential in there and launch appropriate market campaigns to get a slice of it themselves. I.e. not everything labelled 'independent' is truly independent!

The first question at this point should be: What does 'crowdfunding' actually mean? What it comes down to is actually just a classic system of preordering. The development of the OpenPandora handheld was actually conducted this way long before Kickstarter and all made the idea fashionable: Potential customers paid the envisioned order price in advance so that development could actually occur and so that production could be launched. These days, prospective developers like to offer additional rewards on top, in the hope that this will make people pay more than the final retail price. Basically, a sound idea.

Though what happens when companies like Interplay suddenly become the home of 'independent' titles? Sure, they hide behind the name of Black Isle Studios, but the legal information found on that website does show all the dirty truths; the short version: the collected money will not be used for any specific purpose like financing the development of a specific game, but it will be used to finance normal day-to-day operations of Interplay. They might make a game prototype of an unspecified nature, but even if they do, contributors will not get access to it. Instead, the only 'reward' is access to some as of yet non-existent private forum which, if you pay more than the minimum amount, they might even let you post in.

Needless to say that there is another major difference compared to more sensible campaigns: There is no target amount they are aiming for. Usually, if this sum is not met, all the money will be refunded. Not in this case: They will take whatever they can get. While trying to hide how much they actually collected so far. Though a bit of research shows that the campaign does not seem to be a major success: rougly $6500 at the time of writing. Still, one would have to ask who those unfortunate people who actually threw their money into this black hole were – I might have some other 'business proposals' for them…

On the other end of the spectrum, we have games like Retro City Rampage which has actually been made by a single person, developing it on and off over a couple of years – until finally he hired some minor support for specific aspects like music towards the end. This is an actually independently produced game showing the creative freedom of working without a nagging big publisher becoming possible through such a model of financing.

Though what happens in between? What about a game like Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams? When this project appeared on that well-known 'crowdfunding' platform, the development was actually pretty much concluded already. Bills had been payed, developers' wages, too. One has to ask: What was the extra funding for? The development studio Black Forest Games wasn't even quite the newcomers they tried to appear to be. Under the name Spellbound Entertainment, the same company had tried their hand at the market of big productions as they had been common since the mid-1990s. In that market segment, they had failed after a little less than 10 years. So now it seems they saw their chance to avoid repeated bancruptcy with smaller, 'independent' productions.

This is not necessarily objectionable; the resulting games produced in such grey areas can still be good. It's just something which the consumers should be aware of.

The Pitfalls of Modern-Day Digital Distribution

While on the side of the customers, smaller independent productions have a chance again, they have to struggle against another development. In fact, online distribution has, in practical terms, not removed the need for a middle man. The role of what used to be the publisher/distributor in the old days has arguably even become more important.

In particular, what about the freedom to publish whatever one wants? Sure, everybody can do that: Set up a website to market your game and… hope that people will find it. Chances are nobody will. To actually successfully (in a business sense) use the chances of digital distribution, one has to make a deal with one of the very few major hubs of this kind: A PC download-only game which is not available through Steam might as well not exist. On the closed ecosystems of mobile phones, everything has to go through the official channels of the operating system vendor, i.e. Apple or Google.

So compared to the old world with its admittedly powerful big publishers, there has actually been further narrowing of the market on even fewer companies which are actually able to make a small game a success. These modern-day publishers exert a very strong level of control over the games they sell, actually. In fact, nobody can just write whatever they want. It's a handful of companies, all US-based, which can dictate their business conditions as well as their moral values to the whole world.

This has two major implications which are easily shown in actual examples from the Apple world. Concerning business, have you ever considered why it was such a major problem to get a freeware game like Battle for Wesnoth onto that platform? Apple's terms of service dictate that their store must be the exclusive distribution channel of a piece of software. Impossible to fulfil for a game licenced as Free Software. Why is it not possible to distribute an emulator or interpreter like Frotz on that platform and let people load their own games into it? Because Apple forbids any 'in-app' software downloads. These are not an arbitrary restrictions, but they have been written to ensure and protect Apple's own business case. It would be against their own interests to allow these things, because it would circumvent their sales model.

The second problem is probably even worse. So we have these US-based companies… which means that all of sudden, US-based legislation seems to be not just relevant, but the key factor for any publication. If you live in Europe, for example, chances are your own country's legislation is more liberal with respect to portrayal of sexuality. Tough luck – your game still cannot have even the tiniest hint of a bare female breast, because this seems to violate some backwoods 'community values' propagated in the Apple headquarters.

Sure, even in the 'old days', a publisher would also exert some level of control both over the contents and the business model of 'their' games. Yet it has neven been nearly as tight as it is right now (also, it had always been handled locally to a degree) and it all snuck in almost unnoticed through the back door. The true implications of this, we will only learn gradually over time.

The Consumer's Role

So what we have right now is a paradoxical situation: On the one hand, there is a market for independent productions again which is undeniably good for diversity. That market's creative freedom is not nearly as large as one might think, though. It's not official state censorship anymore which puts major restrictions on developers, but corporations with major worldwide market power. This might very well be worse, because as stupid as state censorship might be, it was at least always calculable. A commercially driven company, on the other hand, could change its policies at any time and for any reason.

The biggest problem there is that there is virtually no way to oppose this from the point of view of an independent developer. Strictly speaking, there is no need to deal with such restrictive third parties at all. However, it becomes necessary due to the law of large numbers: The Internet world with its unlimited choices readily available at any time is both boon and bane in this respect. On the one hand, it is what enables diversity in the first place, but on the other hand, it also makes it impossible for consumers to learn about everything (let alone try everything). Developers have every freedom, but they cannot use it if they want to be successful. Paradox!

For the truely free creative world to bloom, the consumers have to take responsibility into their own hands. They are the only ones who could break this power of the last remnant of a centralised market: the big online distributors. By making informed decisions, or even just informing themselves outside of the 'default' channels (and maybe look beyond the big name designers on Kickstarter).

On the one hand, it does not look very good in this respect. Systems with extremely closed ecosystems sell very well and their customers even seem to be happier than they have ever been with their relatively open 'desktop' architecture (which, just thirty years ago, was heralded as the key success factor of the IBM platform). On the other hand, though, there are small successes like the Humble Indie Bundle which show that there is some money to be made even with very liberal business models up to the distribution of source code.

What we, as consumers, have right now is a huge chance; as every chance, it comes with a big risk as well. The latter being that we will end up in an even more tightly controlled entertainment world than the one which developed over the 1990s. The establishment of a parallel underground society of real indie games completely apart from the mainstream is an imaginable, but hardly desirable scenario as well.

If things go well, though, we might be entering an age of true diversity existing alongside each other, the borders between 'big' and 'small' productions blurring until they cannot be distinguished anymore. It wouldn't take much, just the occasional look beyond the obvious. So don't be a lemming – take responsibility!

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