April 7, 2009

Beyond Independent: So Indie it is Mainstream

This year’s GDC was probably the most thrilling event to date for indie game makers. The industry as a whole is finally beginning to notice the innovation and excitement surrounding independent developers, as games like Braid and World of Goo receive critical acclaim and major award nominations. During GDC’s independent games summit, developers shared their knowledge with eager peers as a community of strong-willed, passionate designers and programmers began to form. They got to learn from the mistakes of others, debate the significance of their medium, and they even participate in an event called the “indie game maker rant.” During this forty-five minute session, nine successful yet autonomous developers each took five minutes to stand on their soapbox and speak on any subject they pleased. Topics ranged from legitimizing games as an artistic medium to the need for a touch-screen game that teaches women how to pleasure themselves. However, the most controversial and relevant rant was an impromptu one given by Phil Fish of Kokoromi. He argued that the Independent Games Festival should not have accepted a submission called PixelJunk Eden, which was simultaneously nominated for the more mainstream Game Developers Choice awards. His point is that Q-Games, which developed PixelJunk backed by Sony, does not qualify as an indie studio. This has sparked a conversation throughout the blogosphere on what defines an independent game. I found two articles on the subject: one that leaves the question open ended, and one that argues indie game makers should not be verbally ranting at all, rather, they should express their ideas and critiques through the games they make. I decided to use these two forums to add my ideas to the conversation. My responses can be read at the respective sites, but I have also pasted my part of the discussion below.

"Q Games: Not Indie Enough?"

The only way to determine with any amount of authority whether or not Q-Games is indeed “indie enough” is to define what makes any developer indie. This proves to be a difficult task, and one with which many in the gaming community have struggled. Perhaps the simplest idea is to classify by team size. A game made by one person in his bedroom during his free time is undeniably independent, but so are two man teams like 2d Boy and slightly larger studios like thatgamecompany. Where is the line drawn? Are the fifteen or so that worked on PixelJunk Eden too many? I am currently developing a Nintendo DS title with a similar team size, but with no funding and no previous releases, we certainly qualify as indie. Maybe people react to the fact that Q-Games founder Dylan Cuthbert created the massively successful Star Fox. Many other developers, however, have also left their mainstream jobs in favor of running their own studios. Money may also be a factor, as part of the indie experience seems to be struggling through development fueled by nothing but passion and Mountain Dew. I think this argument has some merit, but I still feel uneasy boxing developers in like this. Braid’s Jonathan Blow nearly went bankrupt to create his time-manipulation platformer. With its success, however, I doubt he will struggle as much for his next title, yet it will still certainly be classified as an independent work. As mentioned in this article, Q-Games’ tie to Sony also raises questions, though Cuthbert claims his studio retains complete creative control of all their projects.

Ultimately, for any simple definition, a counter-argument can be found. Every classification paints itself into some sort of corner. The intentionally vague IGF submission restrictions simply state, “the submitted game…[must be] created in the ‘indie spirit’.” This way, judges can determine eligibility on a game-to-game basis, avoiding a solid categorization. Indie is really an anti-definition; an amalgam of games that fit under no other umbrella – anything outside of the mainstream. After all, indie studios can be small teams or medium-sized teams, with absolutely no budget or money to spare. Some push the envelope in terms of innovation, while others make Bejeweled rip-offs, and they may or may not have a development deal with a major corporation. PixelJunk does not really fit into any category, so perhaps it is indie, but in a way I think it is kind of a non-issue. People assign a little too much weight to the title “indie,” even though no one can really define it (a phenomenon parodied in Mega64's video "If You're Not Indie F*@k You!", shown at the IGF award ceremony, and pictured above and to the right). In the end, Q-Games got some flack and bad press for submitting to IGF, a platform usually reserved for new or struggling studios, and perhaps the judges ultimately chose to award other games in part because PixelJunk had the advantages and funding that others lacked.

"Tales of the Rampant Coyote: What Do Indies Have to Rant About?"

With all the fuzzy definitions of independent games floating around, I am pleased to see your unique statement, “an indie is a living embodiment of a rant against the status quo.” It captures an important part of the indie dev’s psyche. However, I would like to examine this statement and follow its many paths and implications. I will accept for the moment that an indie is a rant against the current system; a sort of punk rock artist of the video game world. They rebel, as you say, because “players and game makers alike are not being adequately served by the industry.” In this way, indies are inherently commercial failures, because whatever they make is unappreciated by the larger gaming community. However, some games do bypass the system and achieve success, effectively “giving the finger” to the industry. But what happens now, as companies begin to sense opportunity in these independent developers? Are the students behind Narbacular Drop sellouts because they sold their idea to Valve and created Portal, one of the most popular games of 2008? I do not really think they bypassed the system, but rather joined it, albeit making a profound impact. Are World of Goo and Braid, winners of IGF awards one and two years ago respectively, now mainstream, as they were both nominated for Game Developer’s Choice awards this year? Just as Fox Searchlight now produces movies like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, two films that replicate an indie-like feel, so too will major game studios emulate the style of independent developers. The trend has already begun, with games like Henry Hatsworth (pictured left), a title fully backed and conceived by Electronic Arts, with a quirky sense of humor and a unique gameplay mechanic. After all, indies used to be synonymous with casual games, until the industry realized that they could be monetized, and now Pogo.com, another EA entity, is the biggest player in the casual market. Because indie developers are successfully changing the “establishment,” independent games as we know them will eventually be folded into the mainstream, and the game makers will either have to find something new to rant about, or risk becoming obsolete.
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