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Independent Development and the Last Crusade

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By Nelson Schneider - 05/06/12 at 09:03 PM CT

The game industry is at a crossroads. What was once an entirely niche endeavor done by geeks, for geeks, has become a Big Business. What was once an artistic endeavor has become a commodity. What was once made on a shoestring budget now costs millions of dollars. Game development has changed, and in changing has lost everything that it once was.

When I look back at the history of videogames and my relationship with the medium, I recall a time, not so long ago, when game publishers were also developers. Everyone self-published their game software, thus they were only beholden to themselves. During this time, these developer-publishers built-up the reputations they continue to rely on. Good reputations are important in any business, and there were numerous stand-outs in the game industry whose excellent games made me come to trust them to produce great software time after time. I was a loyal customer to Nintendo, Capcom, Konami, Squaresoft, Enix, BioWare, InterPlay, Sierra, and even Sega: I would buy new games from them sight-unseen because I knew they made good stuff. Now half of those old, faithful companies either no longer exist or have merged together into abominable chimaeras, while all of them have generated very hit-and-miss product this-gen.

Why are these long-haul developer-publishers destroying their own reputations? It all comes down to money. Gone are the days of game companies beholden only to themselves; they are now publicly-traded stocks with obligations to shareholders and a massive scaffolding of middle-managers propping up a golden-parachute-wearing figurehead CEO. Gone are the days of risk-taking; risks don’t guarantee sales, and sales are all that matter. Gone are the days of new intellectual property generation; creativity is risky, while people will buy-up anything with an established IP in its title because of the hard-earned good reputation attached to old IP. Gone are the days of reputation-building; enthusiasts are a niche market, and the market must be shifted to focus on the mainstream and casual – who will consume whatever they are told by marketers – instead of expanded to include them.

In becoming a Big Business, game creation – now a full-fledged industry – has awakened an unending hunger for cash within itself, which has stunted its evolution. The game industry might continue to grow, but only as a cancerous blob, shedding its complex organs and structures in favor of pure growth for its own sake. The Big Gaming publishers – the likes of Electronic Arts, Atari (delenda est), Activision, and Square Enix, who all started as small-time developer-publishers – are turning into massive amoebas that consume and destroy small upstart companies to temporarily fuel their monstrous growth, scouring and homogenizing the gaming landscape as they pass.

Is there anyone, anything, anywhere that can stand up to this all-consuming monster?

Yes: His name is Indie, but he doesn’t wear a leather fedora or carry a whip.

As in every other creatively-fueled industry, the Internet has given everyone, everywhere the ability to independently (or with a small team) create and distribute videogames. While Big Gaming teeters precariously atop the cornerstone upon which the industry was built, Indie game developers have embraced the old ways and used the cornerstone as a foundation to build something wonderful. Indie developers are geeks making games that they want to play. They make their games with reasonable budgets, allowing them to see success with a relatively small number of sales. They are free from sales forecasts and marketing statistics; their creativity is unhindered. New funding sources like Kickstarter allow gamers themselves to become venture capitalists and support ideas they’d like to see come to fruition. Canned game engines and pre-packaged code allow Indie developers to focus on ideas and gameplay rather than graphics and technical blood-and-guts. Sure, they may not be able to afford a huge staff of QA testers, but the simplicity of Indie games as well as the nonexistent cost burden of digital distribution and ease with which Indie developers can communicate with their customers via the Internet allows them to respond to issues quickly and efficiently (and it’s not like the Big Guys are producing flawless games anymore, either). As a result, Indie games continue to surprise me and have made me happier to be a gamer than I have been in a long time.

Cave Story” by Studio Nicalis, “Braid” by Jonathan Blow, “Dungeon Defenders” by Trendy Entertainment, “Legend of Grimrock” by Almost Human: These are just some of the faces of Indie gaming – and the antidote for the poison that is “AAA” game development.

The ironic thing about Indie game development, however, is that the Big Guys aren’t completely unfamiliar with the methodology. They started out the same way, after all! Some of them, for example Square-Enix, have even produced Indie-style games this-gen: The WiiWare titles, “Final Fantasy 4: The After Years,” “Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King,” and “Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a Darklord” all ooze Indie charm. Yet Square-Enix completely missed the point of digitally distributing small-budget games for cheap by breaking them up and selling them in DLC-pieces totaling $40 per game.

Of course, it might not be ALL Square-Enix’s fault that they charge so much, as the biggest blockade in the path of Indie gaming rising to strike-down the tyranny of Big Gaming is the console manufacturers. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft (if it must continue its fruitless endeavor) need to wake up and realize that their digital distribution platforms are terrible. Nintendo demands a WiiWare game make 6000 sales before giving any profits to the developer, while limiting the game itself to 40MB. Sony and MS both charge $40,000 to issue an update to an existing game. These numbers may seem inconsequential to a huge, corrupt publisher that no longer even makes its own games… but to an Indie developer, they are nothing but deterrents. And where does a deterred Indie developer go when seeking a publishing platform that will get their new, cheap game in front of a huge number of gamers’ eyeballs? Steam: Developers who publish through the PC platform have complete control over patching, updating, and pricing – all while keeping 70% of the revenue of every game sold.

Is Steam’s developer-and-customer-friendly business model the reason Indie games cost $15 dollars or less while those Square-Enix games I mentioned cost more? Does it really matter, considering that the likes of Electronic Arts have been gobbling up Indie developers right and left, only to vomit-up some of the most uninteresting-looking Indie games on the market? It seems to me that the two development paradigms have become mutually exclusive to each other: Never again shall their paths meet.

Regardless, with so many Indie games finding their way to Steam, I’m afraid that I must follow. I have always been platform agnostic, following the games I want wherever they may go. My scorn or love for consoles has always been based on their libraries. Yet now I am suddenly finding myself loving Steam, a PC platform. Saying those words tastes strange, and I can only hope that the console makers are able to revise their digital distribution platforms into solid homes for good Indie games before they find themselves ostracized by the most important segment of videogame developers to appear since 1983.

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