January 13, 2011

The Case for Supporting Indie Game Developers

Indie game developers are a lot like your mom-and-pop shops going up against Wal-Mart. You often hear the mantra of "support small businesses", but it's a fair question to ask, "Why?" In the context of game development, why should you pitch in and help out indie game developers, when there are plenty of great games coming from huge studios?

Like the music and film industries, the gaming industry is overwhelmingly dominated by a few big corporations with large marketing budgets and massive development teams. A game designer comes to one of these companies (or already works there) and pitches his idea, and the company then evaluates it and weighs it against their mountain of market research. If the game idea is reasonably likely to turn a profit, the company will approve and fund it.

The development team is then given benchmarks which may or may not be reasonable, and they must reach those benchmarks on schedule. When it comes time for the game to ship, if certain features of the game haven't been implemented, they are scrapped.

This process is driven ultimately by the profit motive. All corporations are bound by one thing and one thing only: maximizing shareholder wealth. So if a designer pitches a game idea that's incredibly innovative and has never been seen before, the company is likely to turn it down. Why? Because there's no market data available on the idea, and it's not a sure fire profit. So large companies will tend to recycle old game ideas and package and market them differently because there's a set formula that has been shown to work. They find a formula that makes money, and they make games which fit that formula. Deviation is bad, status quo is good.

As you read this, you may be able to think of exceptions to what I've stated, and I don't deny that they are out there. I'm just speaking of the general trend.

But this profit-driven, copycat style that we see in the corporate world isn't necessarily true in the indie game development world. Indie developers start with the question: "What would be really fun?" And they go from there. No pitching the idea to a publisher, no market research; it starts with the core question of why we play games: to have fun. Since the indie developer is in charge of the project and is not beholden to the whims of shareholders or to a corporate publisher's benchmarks, he can add features as he sees fit. The indie developer is free to innovate and come up with entirely new ways of thinking about games without worrying about having his funding cut off or having to leave out portions to meet a ship date. If it seems fun or interesting, the indie developer will try it out.

This is how we get games like World of Goo, Braid, Minecraft, Super Meat Boy, and Portal. Yes, even Portal began as an indie game project (called Narbacular Drop); its developers were later hired by Valve to recreate the physics-driven, first-person, portal concept in Valve's Portal.

And sure, indie developers hope to make money from their games, but they only need enough money to A.) pay for living expenses, and B.) make the next game. They don't pay dividends, they don't acquire other developers, they don't spend tens of millions on advertising. They just need enough money to make games.

Fortunately, it is becoming increasingly apparent that game developers do not have to be subject to the stranglehold of the corporate environment. While developers used to need to find a publisher to get their games onto retail shelves, the internet has changed the paradigm of selling and distributing games. A developer can now sell his game on Steam, or he can sell digital downloads through his own web site, or through a variety of other online retailers. Struggling for shelf space in retail outlets is a thing of the past. This is even becoming true as console systems (Wii, Xbox, PS3) become more integrated with the internet, allowing players to purchase games online through their televisions.

And to top all this off, indie developers tend to work with very limited advertising budgets. They won't be throwing their games in your face. You won't have to deal with irritating pop-ups on every web site trying to get you to "join 12 million subscribers". Indie developers let you find your way to their games. Often these games are so innovative and interesting and fun that simple word-of-mouth is enough to sell thousands of copies.

The times are changing, and the age of the indie game developer has begun. We should support indie developers because they are the locus of innovation in the gaming community. They think outside the box, and they bring us new ways of thinking and playing. I can only hope that one day I'm right there in the middle of it.

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