Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Importance of Indie Games
By James "Caffeine Rage" McKinley

The gaming industry is facing a great change. With the advent of easy-to-use digital distribution on both consoles and PC, a generation of programmers who grew up playing video games, the rise of alternate advertising, and an explosion of niche gaming websites, the creative and innovative forces behind the advancement of the industry is slowly leaving the hands of the triple-A developers. Taking their place are many small, independent companies producing a great assortment of unique and ground breaking titles. This shift has made these small companies one of the most important facets of the industry.
Before I cover why indie games and companies are so important to the industry, I'll touch on what makes a game independent. This is a subject of great confusion for some gamers. I've seen some confuse the term independent with retro-style, cheap, or even poorly made games. There is a reason for this confusion when it comes to independent games. It’s due in large part to the fact that the difference between indie and non-indie games comes down to the one thing that outsiders have little concern with: how it is funded. The difference between the two is simply where the developer gets the money to fund their game. If a team or company gets money from a publisher to help them fund the creation of a game, it isn't independent. If they sell the game to a publisher, after it is complete, for distribution; it is an independent game because it wasn't funded by the publisher during the creative process.

This fine line can be confusing, leading to debates over what is or isn't independent, because most gamers don't know (nor often care), how a game is funded. This leads to gross mislabeling by gamers, reviewers, and even gaming news sites. While the labels matter little in the grand scheme of things, it is important to know this difference; mostly because with outside funding comes corporate meddling. But that is a subject for another time.
A would-be casualty of AAA game development. Tragedy!
So, what makes independent gaming so important? Let's start with the greatest benefit it gives to the gaming industry. Indie gaming is one of the most popular ways for creative talent to enter the gaming industry. The reason why many designers choose to form creative teams to make games is simply because it gives them complete creative control. From art assets to combat systems, building a game on their own, from the ground up, allows them a full range of creative choices, which in turn ensures that the creation accurately showcases their talents. One way a designer can choose to flex their creative muscles is by putting a new twist on something that would otherwise be very mundane. A good example of this is the dynamic casting system from Magicka. This is something very different that was created by a designer who thought of a new way to do something, making an otherwise mundane system a huge selling point and a refreshing change to the game.

Along with the influx of independent game designers comes something else: independent game studios. These studios often spring up around designers' efforts to show the world their talents. While many designers make their games for the love of it, everyone has to eat. Sooner or later, they need a way to bring in money for their efforts. This is where new, independent studios come in. Those who cannot find or do not want a job from a pre-existing company will often form their own companies to market and sale their games via direct download, digital distribution, or through a publisher. If they are successful, they take this revenue from the first game and grow their studio and lineup.

If their game and subsequent releases gain a great deal of attention, the studio or talent from it maybe be looked by the major developers to be brought into their company to enrich their talent pool. A recent example of this is acquisition of Popcap by EA. Popcap grew steadily over the years, making popular and innovative titles. EA, seeing a wealth of talent as well as established titles, bought the company and enriched their talent pool while adding possible titles to expand upon or flesh out into larger, more complete games. While it’s not always the best news for gamers when a major developer (with a dubious reputation like EA’s), buys a much-loved smaller company, it does benefit the industry. Larger companies look to smaller companies as a breeding ground for new talent and ideas. Without influxes of new talent, both in buyouts and hiring individuals, larger companies will simply wither and die.
What else may be lost? What else may be gained?
 Of course, talent generation isn't the only thing that the independent gaming scene has going for it. The ideas that new developers bring to the table do a great deal to broaden the variety of games that we enjoy today. From innovative games such as Cogs and Eufloria to retro-styled games like Super Meat Boy and DEFCON, there’s really no limit to what you're able to find among games produced by independent developers. Without the need to bow to publisher pressures for funding, an independent studio can fill a niche game market that would otherwise be ignored. Perhaps it is the cynic in me, but I doubt a game like Minecraft would have seen the light of day without it being produced by an independent developer.
The only winning move is to DESTROY ALL NUKES
 It isn't just the established tastes and trends of video games that these small developers challenge, but the very way developers do business. While this sounds boring on the surface, independent game studios are important testing beds for ideas on how to promote and market games, which can undoubtedly have a great impact on how games will be handled in the future.

As an example, let's look at Frozen Synapse. Marketing wise, it is a bit of a strange game: it’s only sold in packs of two. The idea behind it is that every purchaser is getting a free copy to give to a friend. What Mode 7 Games, the developers of Frozen Synapse, intends from this is to quickly and effectively create an expanded user base and sense of community for the multiplayer component of their game. By capitalizing on the idea of friends playing together, Mode 7 is hoping that the extra copy will not only give buyers a deal for their money (BOGO is always good), but also improve the longevity of the game by having friends play together. It is something different than what we’ve seen before, but (if the server numbers are anything to go by) has proven to be very successful for Mode 7.
Fighting with Friends: The Homo sapiens sapiens Legacy
 As you can see, independent games are more than those strange games that pop up every so often. They are a route for new talent to challenge and change the very nature of gaming. With modern, triple-A titles costing tens of millions of dollars to produce; it is left up to these smaller, leaner companies to test the waters and shows us what a game can truly be. While gaming certainly wouldn't implode should the indie scene go away, we would surely all be poorer for it.