The state of indie gaming

11th Nov 2012 | 08:00

The state of indie gaming

When is an indie not an indie? We investigate

Great public movements are often started in opposition to the establishment; Communism, The Labour party, even Christianity all thrived on suppression.

Yet, once they'd started, these movements all took the time to define themselves, and what they believed, more clearly (which often resulted in internal purges).

Analogously, Indie games (that is, 'independent games') were also defined in opposition; by not being publisher-owned they defined themselves against the money-grabbing publishers of the 1990s and 2000s.

'We're the underdogs', they cried, 'and in need of your support.' Yet the Indies never clearly defined themselves and we, the media, didn't help.

It's hard to point to an Indie ethos today that's distinctive from that of the typical developer - and, with that in mind, it's worth remembering that many of the biggest developers of today, such as id and Epic, started out as Indies.

That throws up questions. Do we want to still call them Indies? If so, does that weaken the phrase? What about companies like Tim Schafer's Doublefine, Introversion, or Ed McMillen's Team Meat? Do people stop being Indies just because they become successful, or is it more an ethos? Can an Indie employ a thousand people?

Perhaps the more important questions are: what does it mean to be an Indie today? How is the Indie market growing or shrinking? What problems do Indies face getting the public to play their games? What tools do the established Indies use to get their games to the public? Is Indie just a state of mind?

Many Indies were, originally, solitary or in very small groups, often family groups - and there was a reason that Darwinia developer Introversion, the classic example of an Indie, dubbed themselves "the last of the bedroom programmers".

Indies at Develop

If you look at the archetypal UK Indies of the 1980s, the Collyer brothers who made Championship Manager, or at Andrew Gower of Runescape, they typically worked on their own from home.

Yet when Introversion started operating, in the early 2000s, there were literally no Indie studios left - there was just no route to the customer for games developed by independent developers. Hence their slogan reflected that what had once been a thriving industry had died off - and died quickly.

"In 2001, when we made Uplink, there was no digital distribution." says Chris Delay, founder and creative brain behind Introversion. "We had a website, but there was no download facility. There was no Steam. Even then, people didn't want to buy stuff from Amazon because it wasn't 'safe'. We ended up doing shop versions. The conditions weren't there to encourage an Indie scene in the 2000s. That's why individuals didn't make games, because they couldn't sell them."

The market had narrowed to just big publishers owning the route to market - and independent developers had to knuckle under or die. Note, however, no-one called themselves 'Indie', as independent developers were the norm.

The phrase can most probably be traced back to music journalism and Indie music - possibly back to music journalist Stuart Campbell's 'Indie Zone' from 2004 in PC Zone.

Post Introversions, the Indie boom can be attributed to three things; Flash, Steam and the iPhone.

Flash, aa-ahh!

Braid

The advent of Adobe's Flash, an easy-to-program and ubiquitous platform, allowed many wannabe game developers to learn their skills quickly. Free tutorials, both from Adobe and online, gave these developers the basics of 2D game creation and soon you couldn't move on the net for flash-based games and animations.

However, few professional Indies emerged from Flash. Developers could make some money from adverts, so animations like Home Star Runner and Weebl & Bob, could thrive, but most people did it just to get the attention and CV credentials to get employed by advertising and design agencies.

Charging money for a embedded flash-based animation seemed crazy at the time. Flash Indies would eventually benefit from the advertising-derived monies sent out by Kongregate, Miniclip and other portals but these were a temporary aberration, for instance, Indie developer friends have told me that Miniclip now charges as much as $60,000 for developers to host their games.

So the next big step for Indies was the advent of Steam. Before this, independent developers hardly existed - the few who did lived hand-to-mouth doing contract work and rarely kept hold of the rights to their games. Many promising independent studios folded or were absorbed by larger companies.

Endless Space

In the UK, Rare, Bullfrog, Sports Interactive, The Creative Assembly and many more sold out to the big publishers. Steam, Valve's experimental self-publishing method, had its adoption driven by the much-hyped Half-Life 2, so that it was widespread when that game released.

The first third-party game on it was the primitive Rag Doll Kung Fu in 2005, sold for the then-cheap price of $10. This game was so successful that its developers, then working at EA-subsidiary Lionhead, could afford to leave and form Media Molecule, creators of the multi-million selling Little Big Planet.

Steam has been a haven for Indie development ever since. Though Valve takes a substantial cut of the cost of a game - reportedly as much as 70 per cent - it's never demanded IP rights and the wideness of the service's spread and the limited number of new titles on it, has meant that a good game can make money quickly.

"Steam decided they were going to be open to Indies," recalls Introversion's Chris Delay. "Things could have easily gone the other way." The final ingredient in Indie's success was the popularity and openness of the iPhone and iPad market. Early games like Paper Toss were as primitive as Rag Doll Kung Fu, but as the hardware got more powerful and the dev tools got better so did the games. More and more developers were attracted, which trickled back into PC.

iOS also introduced something else - new ways of making money. The extreme competition for the top places on the iTunes marketplace meant that prices got driven lower and lower. Developers slowly moved to a free model, where they gave away limited versions of their games. This meant that players could play a game and then decide whether they liked it - which they often did. Apple helped out by allowing in-application purchases, so even the free games could make money.

Growing pains

gratuitous space battles

So that's how the Indie market got to today. But that's also the seed of some of its problems. Valve's lackadaisical, egalitarian nature made Steam attractive to Indies - but has also made it harder to get onto over the last couple of years, as Valve simply couldn't cope with the number of submissions it gets - especially as there wasn't a clear submissions policy or route, beyond knowing someone at Valve.

"It's certainly a lot harder than it used to be," says Size Five Games' Dan Marshall. "Several key games every year catch the imagination and rise to the top of the Indie Darling tree; the rest just survive or die… You send them your game and then hear nothing back while they sift through the billions of games they presumably get sent every day."

Similarly, the iOS market allowed all sorts of developers to become Indies. However, it has also driven prices down for games in general, as developers flooded to the platform in a something akin to a gold rush.

"Saturation is a huge worry," says Andrew Smith of Spilt Milk Studios, "but on the flipside never before has the games tech and the delivery platforms been so mature."

Machinarium

Thankfully, the market is now so large it's becoming self-sustaining. For example, it now pays the middleware developers, who had previously only created multi-million pound game engines, to make cheap or free versions of their development kits. For example, Epic, an old-school independent developer that had diversified into engine development, has made it's Unreal Development Kit (UDK), available for free.

Several developers I talked to had particular praise for the cross-platform development platform Unity. As free as the UDK, this toolset allows for easy creation of games across all the current games platforms - Xbox, PS3, PC, iOS, Android, HTML 5 and so on.

Dan Marshall, creator of Time Gentlemen, Please, can't praise it enough: "It's a great way of making games quickly and efficiently, with a load of pre-baked goodies you can drag, drop, and endlessly modify. In Indie circles when someone says they're making a game in C++, DirectX, XNA or whatever, the catch-all phrase tends to be 'why aren't you using Unity?' And it's a good point. It's extremely versatile."

Unity also helps the Indies deal with another problem - the speed of change. "In the current climate, change happens so rapidly that what worked a few months ago may not any more," says Spilt Milk's Smith. Developers are constantly talking and sharing how the market's changing, driven partially by the eternal hunt for the new, and partially by hard metrics from their own games.

Andy Payne OBE, is owner of developer/publisher Mastertronic, and chair of both the British developer association UKIE and developer consortium Appynation. He thinks this adaptability to change gives Indies an advantage over the big companies; "The threshold of sales and revenues can be significantly lower for an Indie," he says, so they can target smaller niches. "Games like Minecraft, Limbo, World of Goo, Braid, Bastion and Frozen Synapse have proved that talent comes through. Indies invent new ways of playing games. As software transitions from products to services, Indie fan bases will be crucial."

In that sense, incumbent developers have a huge advantage. Whether their early games were great successes or not, they have ongoing numbers about how games are selling, especially on iOS. The more games they make, successes or not, the better they get to know the markets they're making games for.

Hardingham elucidates: "A fun fact I like to tell people who think that anyone can make the next Angry Birds; Angry Birds was Rovio's 150th game. There was an awful lot of experience behind it."

An 'indie industry'?

Limbo

However, there's another sense in which incumbents have an unfair advantage. This sharing, this mutual support produces a similar self-supporting circle to that in the book industry, where authors routinely praise their friends' works.

In games, the outcome of this is no less corrosive to the open market as it is in books - the outcry when indie industry insider Phil Fish won the Independent Games Festival (IGF) main prize for his game Fez, was huge. This wasn't simply down to the game having been entered several years on the run, but down to the perception that he was part of a group working towards each other's mutual benefit through awards like IGF.

This isn't surprising; history's full of examples of groups bonding together for mutual benefit, such as unions or guilds. Problems only arise when these groups exclude other participants unfairly, for instance, in the way the unions do with a 'closed shop'.

Thankfully, this isn't dominating yet. Discovery, that is the ability of players to find new Indie games, is only getting better. The two key recent developments in this area are Steam's new Greenlight feature and Kickstarter's crowd-funding.

Kickstarter is the older one, and we've talked about it in these pages before. It's an online crowd-funding platform combining social media with marketing, and it's allowed Indies with great ideas, and/or superb credentials and/or great marketing to get funding. Yet using it is like twisting in a game of Blackjack; if you ask for too much money and don't reach it, then you'll get nothing.

"It's brilliantly helpful, but it's a double-edged sword" says Size Five's Marshall. "I'm aware that some Indies are regretting going down that road because all their backers think they're publishers and deserve a say in the game's design. I've also heard they're living in perpetual crunch, because backers won't tolerate the concept of a day off. So long as you can juggle it, it's really helpful."

Similarly, it's little use to new developers: "If you're fresh out of uni, don't expect anyone to believe your claims and throw money at you," says Smith.

Meanwhile, Greenlight is Valve's big idea for dealing with the problems of developer access to Steam that we talked about earlier. It's, again, a crowd-sourced approval platform, similar to their Steam Workshop, which aggregates mods for games like Skyrim and Team Fortress 2, and allows registered Steam users to vote for their favourites.

Spilt Milk's Smith is in favour; "It puts the emphasis on having fans who believe in your game and your team, which is a very sensible and self-regulating system. It also forces indies to get involved with PR and marketing to a certain extent, and that's a good thing in my book - too many just ignore it."

Similarly Marshall of Size Five thinks it's going to clarify the "previously-unknown submission process… Greenlight probably isn't a perfect system, but I trust in Steam enough to tweak or modify it."

It's hard to know how big the market for Indie games is - given the lack of a coherent definition, no-one's really been tracking it as an industry. Yet, when a one-man game like Minecraft can sell upwards of 4 million copies; when Indie dominates the bleeding edge of gaming; when games as challenging as Braid, Pathologic and The Binding of Isaac can be commercial successes; when all these stars align, you know it's going to be a great time for gamers.

Hardingham probably sums it up best; "I feel immensely lucky to be a part of it right now - something new and exciting happens every single week! One day, I'll be telling my grandkids about the Indie explosion of the early twenty-teens."

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