I like games. I don’t care who you are or how the game gets to market, if it’s a good game, then it’s a good game. But with so much time and money now being spent to make Indie Gaming more appealing, isn’t it time we just accepted… that it’s just gaming, and drop the whole indie tag?
With Steam’s Greenlight still causing ripples of discontent, the indie page of X-Box Live historically being relegated and promoted with reckless abandon for its own welfare, Kickstarter and a raft of cheap commercially-driven titles that are as far from independent as you could possibly hope to get, I am a little tired of “Indie Gaming”.
Please don’t misunderstand. I love “Indie Games”. I am a big Terraria fan. I have dumped 150 hours into The Binding of Isaac. Recettear is one of my favourite JRPGs of the last few years, and Legend of Grimrock is a fantastic retro-fuelled kick to the head. I love these because they transcend the moniker of indie gaming to the point where they are, ostensibly, just “games”. They are enjoyable, wonderful, interesting and surprisingly deep video games designed to be played, to be enjoyed, to be loved as games rather than any soft notion of being somehow “Indie”. No, my problem is with the “Indie” tag.
Yes, there are people out there who are knowledgeable about the video games they buy, and will happily support smaller developers who turn out a very good product; this is something that we have always more or less been happy to do, right back to the 80’s where sharing games via cassette tapes was the norm, and where many of the big-name developers of the last couple of decades all found their big break in the industry. You have to start somewhere and for many, that somewhere begins often with a dream inside their own bedroom, with nothing but the courage of their convictions, an idea and hundreds of hours spent in front of a computer building their first project from scratch. We can’t and shouldn’t seek to change that, or dampen their spirit. But you see, I believe the “Indie” tag DOES dampen their spirit. It carries a sort of stigma, a weight to it that people who fall into this category now are somehow removed from the rest of the gaming market, and their cases are not helped when the mainstream press, rather than talking about the success of things like The Binding of Isaac now being ported across to consoles, would prefer to talk about the failings of the Indie Gaming market, such as the atrocious War Z (Not Day-Z, please don’t make that mistake, War Z is a cynical and awful grab for attention. Day-Z is a labour of love for a small group of people who have dreams and aspirations). It reinforces the idea that “Indie Gaming” is somehow not “Gaming”.
Sometimes it isn’t. The Indie Gaming world does of course bring with it a certain degree of pretentiousness at times and Steam Greenlight is perhaps one of the most potent reminders of this that you can find. You look around at the games, sometimes barely a demo available and in some cases nothing but an artists rendition of what might be, and you struggle to find the jewels among the chaff. And then you see the likes of PEter Molyneux, developing an “Indie Game”, and wonder how he can develop an indie game when in fairness he struggles to deliver a full commercial title with massive teams without a catalogue of problems, and that is before you remember that his team is probably earning a much higher wage packet than most small developers will earn in two or three years. You see games like Bastion – no doubt a brilliant game, but labelled as “Indie”. It was developed and published by UbiSoft, and I think that’s often the stage where you have to wonder if they’re taking the idea of “indie” a little far. When there is still a misnomer of budget games by big-name developers somehow being allowed to be dubbed “Indie Gaming”, you have to wonder if the term is being cultivated by the market to appeal to the Pretentious Gamer.
You see, Indie is slang for Independent. A studio or an artist not tied to a commercial or known brand, going it alone without the financial support of the mainstream publishing giants. Often, this means they are free to do what they want and how they want it, with various and interesting ideas and concepts coming into play and the freedom to take a break, create your own story, develop your own world. It’s a nice way to develop games I am sure, and I am all for those who want to give it a go. It’s also nice to want to support and give these intrepid independent developers a greater presence in Steam and beyond. It’s nice to see Kickstarter helping these people out, finding them an audience.
But you know what? Nice doesn’t always cut it.
No, we need first of all to stop making such a massive distinction about Indie and Commercial gaming, because we’re getting very muddled – any game released is a commercial product, so with the exception of free games, video gaming is pretty much commercial at its heart. What you have are publisher-funded games – and there is nothing wrong with these – and independently-funded games. And there’s nothing wrong with that either. It’s often merely a case of a different budget size, and even then, there is a very real issue that you can’t often tell what you’re getting from either side. People may assume that commercial games are safe commercial tat, but The Walking Dead is surely an example of a brilliant game? Dark Souls was publisher-funded. The Witcher 2, Skyrim, even Plants vs. Zombies are all examples of the typical means of funding video games and all of them are very, very good games. Equally, some may assume that the independently-funded gaming scene carries an artsy pretentiousness that is hard to wash off – but play Legend of Grimrock, Miasmata, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Lone Survivor, Terraria and other indie games and you’ll find that there are plenty of great gaming examples in this circle as well, waiting for an audience.
Then we need to get down to the consumer. Thing is, I fear that given the choice between £10 for Grimrock and £10 for something like Resident Evil 5, people will go for Resident Evil 5. Because people just expect more quality from a bigger publisher. It’s not true, but it’s a horrid perception that is still just making things harder for independent studios. “This is a game!” compared to “This is an Indie game!” – there’s still a certain mistrust, a certain expectation or view for auteur-heavy non-objective criticism and perhaps a certain opinion that an indie game cannot deliver the same quality and content that perhaps the main gaming market can. This is clearly nonsense, of course it is, but it’s a somehow deeply entrenched viewpoint that cripples the objectivity that people have to see a decent game. Some may simply want the graphics, and be shocked that people still use pixels in 2013. “Oh my word, why can I see blocky edges? This is rubbish! I WANT MY MONEY BACK!”
Perhaps the best example of this problem was the questionnaire that the Ouya sent out a while back asking for suggestions of games that they wanted on this new low-powered and interesting budget console. There were some notable indie gems there – Terraria and Minecraft (although is Minecraft really that indie anymore? Worth asking…), but the list was dominated with Fifa, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and Need For Speed. What consumers WANT is the familiar, the safe, the things they have enjoyed beforehand. The Ouya is being touted as a console that will celebrate the diverse indie gaming scene except that will make it an incredibly niche console. Even its own Kickstarter BACKERS just want the same old franchises that they get on other machines. And Minecraft is Minecraft. It’s just part of the furniture in most cases and people will want it, either because they haven’t played it to date or they feel it needs to be on a new machine just because what is a new console without Minecraft, eh?
Here’s the reality for the more independent studios – they struggle. Given a frontage that allows consumers to get interesting variety of content, they’ll still go for the big-name franchises because inherently, they trust those more. Breaking into the gaming market sounds so simple, and yet is one of those more complex problems that perhaps we misjudge in our ignorance. There are so many games out there, so many GOOD games out there, so many interesting games begging for an audience. I will champion games like Delve Deeper (a bit Worms-esque but I like that!) and Fortune Summoners (another translated-from-Japanese indie gen), but there is a wealth of content out there that needs an audience, and the audience is just circling the indie scene snatching at the bigger, plumper ideas on the edge for the moment rather than trying to scatter the pack and nosh on the juicy morsels that are perhaps wedged in the middle, unable to find their way out. Only a small portion of indie games see more widespread acclaim, and are then treated as somehow “not indie”. They are removed from the pack. They are no longer part of that group.
And for all our criticisms of the gaming market, both sides are as guilty of terrible examples of excess and over-indulgence as the other. There are very bad games on both sides as much as there are very good games on both sides. Asides from budget and perhaps experience, there isn’t really that big a difference between the two sides as you perhaps expect. They both have to make a game, with all the complexity and tension that comes with it. Then they have to market it, hype it, sell it, update it, patch it… the cycle isn’t that different. Sometimes the art styles are, but even those boundaries are being slowly but surely corroded thanks to cheap tools and a greater, freer wealth of information and source material available for the curious to look at and learn from. The question becomes does it really matter where the money comes from for these projects? Whether it comes from us via Kickstarter, their dads via a loan and free bed and board or a bank or financier willing to take a gamble on you, the end result is you have people like me judging your content. I don’t care how hard it was to make. I don’t care about ‘the journey’. I don’t even care how long it took to make. I am a consumer as well. I buy games. If I buy your game and it isn’t very good, why should I lie and say “Oh but for an indie game it’s okay.” Look around. The indie scene is bursting with games. I can’t be nice just because you’re a three-man team who spent two years working on a rubbish platformer. Sonic Team have been doing that for years and they’re not indie at all. You are not special. You are not a unique snowflake. You are a games developer. Turn out shit, and expect the likes of Yahtzee and bloggers like me to call you out on it. I don’t care if you cry. Our time is finite. There are others who could be more deserving of our attention.
We need something far more radical in terms of branding – perhaps, just perhaps, we should start by dropping this farcical and seemingly-pretentious ideal of “Indie”. That’s not an excuse for a rubbish game and it should never be an excuse for a rubbish game. But it might just be the catch holding people back. Indie Gaming cannot be special or exclusive any more. If it wants to thrive, then it’s going to have to be about the games more than the notion of independence. It’s going to have to accept that these games will be commercial products. The indie gaming world will have to accept that unless it wants to become an arena for disposable talent, then it’s going to need to find a way to create a more supportive, nurturing environment for their entrants. It doesn’t matter where the money comes from – you’re still asking people to part with their money for your product. They don’t care if you made it in a lab or a shed. As long as it works, or they feel some benefit from it. If not, they’ll not come back again.
Perhaps then we’ll see The War Z and their ilk fade away. “But we’re a small studio!” – consumers don’t care. Sorry. They just don’t.
Go good or go home. This is the games industry. And we have no mercy…