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Heading Off the Indie Backlash
by E McNeill on 02/26/13 10:04:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

blog post by Sara Gross made something of a splash yesterday by blasting indies for elitism. “After the indie community’s reaction to the preview of Bungie’s Destiny game, I am absolutely ashamed to be called an indie. FUCKING ASHAMED. Seriously, indies! What the fuck is wrong with all of you?”

As evidence, the article quoted some typical post-press-release Twitter snark, some of which was taken out of context, some of which was politely justified in the comments, and some of which was real (though mostly just a case of genre fatigue). All in all, this was a lot of smoke and not much fire, but it struck a nerve in enough people to fuel yet more outraged/snarky Twitter conversation.

By and large, I think that broad, aggressive complaints like this blog post are bullshit. Not very harmful bullshit, mind you. At their best, these well-intentioned polemics can serve as course corrections for an indie community that has started to go off track. (Ben Ruiz’s GDC 2012 soapbox talk exhorting indies to “quit being so f***ing egocentric” might be an example, though it too tended toward the harsh side.)

But at their worst, these sorts of highly-charged broadsides risk injuring the indie community instead of pointing it in the right direction. There’s already plenty of anti-indie sentiment floating around. After noticing it some time ago, I started collecting quotes. “Getting more disappointed every day with the whole indie scene.” “Getting really tired of these ‘everyone else is doing it wrong’ poser auteurs. First Blow, now Chen.” “Anyone else sick of hearing the capital-I “Indie” dev community complain about a perceived lack of innovation in games and then fart out a bunch of vaguely remixed pre-existing game mechanics? ‘Players don’t know what they want, so we have to give it to them!’ Players do know what they want and they’re already telling us – they do so with their money.” (From Gamasutra comment threads: 1234.)

This is the fuel for an anti-indie backlash. And fiery scattershot commentary, like Gross’s blog post, might be the spark.

I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to silence anyone. Gross certainly had worthy points to make in her blog post, and certainly some indies are arrogant or pretentious, at least on occasion. What I’m suggesting is that those who want to see the indie community flourish should be conscious of their audience. If only indie developers were reading, then the aggressive language wouldn’t concern me. But there are lots of other readers, some of whom seem to be afraid that indies will threaten the good old games that they know and love, or think that indie games are overhyped hipster trash, or else feel for whatever reason that indies just need to be taken down a peg. Their tone is one of hostility and disdain, not constructive concern, and that tone is slowly creeping into the mainstream conversation.

Fueling a backlash would be bad. “Indie” is still a good brand. Indies are still broadly (and accurately) seen as scrappy, creative underdogs, which is part of what lets indies compete with vastly larger studios. If “scrappy” gets replaced by “desperate”, and “creative” with “pretentious”, that ability to compete may evaporate.

So, keep writing about what’s wrong with the indie community, but please realize the potential power of your words. If you want to see improvement, then by all means point out the problems, but maybe address your critiques to specific individuals instead of all indies, or use a tone of constructive suggestion instead of incendiary rant. And maybe consider stopping short of “snubby douchetwats”.

—–

That’s all I wanted to say to the people who hope to see the indie community grow and thrive. I also want to address the indie skeptics, and specifically the accusation that came up yesterday: that indies are prejudiced against AAA games. This is not just wrong, but also an excellent illustration of how ready some people are to believe the worst about indies.

I’ll start by acknowledging that I’m biased, of course. My first commercially released game was mocked with a video review involving bongos and free verse, and after going indie full-time a few months ago, I’m busily making a game for the OUYA. So I tend to think of myself as pretty goddamn indie. (That’s not a boast. I’m trying to incriminate myself here.)

But even I, with all my bias, would name a AAA game as my favorite of all time (Morrowind). I’m currently hooked on a AAA game, and once I’m done with it, I plan on immediately picking up another. And I’m probably more elitist than most in the indie crowd! I only picked up XCOM and Dishonored because other indies were praising them so much, and I doubt I would have even noticed Spec Ops: The Line or Dark Souls without the attention that indies poured onto them. This supposed anti-AAA prejudice already has a lot of room for exceptions.

Yet, still, the myth persists that indies despise production value. Take, for example, the #indieAAAConfessional hashtag. This was invented to allow people to bravely “admit” to liking AAA games, standing firm against the (imagined) scorn that the elitist Indies would heap upon them. It was created as a rhetorical shot at indies, but it was immediately misconstrued as being created and perpetuated by indies, and thus as yet more evidence of their elitism.

confessional1

What did indie developers themselves think about this? Well, I couldn’t take a poll, but here’s what my Twitter feed looked like:

confessional2

Sorry, but I’m just not seeing it. The idea of anti-AAA prejudice just seems ridiculous to these guys.

I’m not entirely sure where the hostility comes from. Maybe I just give too much credence to Twitter and Gamasutra comments, or maybe I’m making too much out of disparate and minor complaints. But I worry that the wider game community is slowly forgetting what indies have brought to the table. The innovation coming out of the indie scene is enormous, and it helps the entire art form, including the AAA projects. Richard Lemarchand spoke at IndieCade 2011 about how indie games influenced Uncharted 2, for example, and Minecraft was acknowledged as an inspiration for Epic’s upcoming Fortnite. A lot of that innovation comes with enormous financial risk for indie developers. Give the community some credit for that risk!

The indie scene definitely has its issues. (My pet gripe: retro graphics.) But they are still, by and large, the Good Guys. Save your ire for the true anti-creative forces, and give developers, indie and AAA both, the benefit of the doubt.


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Comments


Kenneth Blaney
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The big thing that makes up the stereotype that "indies hate AAA" is the misguided notion that any criticism of a game or genre means you hated said game or genre, an all or nothing mentality that is mostly prevalent in adolescence. I can't help but wonder if this is related to the trend of people getting annoyed when a game gets a 9/10 or a 7/10 somehow being a bad score.

Michael DeFazio
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Just an observation, but:

can you name a person who works with a big studio on a AAA game who has made disparaging public comments about indie games/studios/development?

on the flip side, how many well known indie developers can you name that routinely publicly talk ill of AAA studios, games, game mechanics, etc.?

i think SOME indie devs (who often have little marketing budget) have found that saying controversial/ negative things about the big boys gains them attention, and often "praise" from the community (explaining their apathy towards "them" (verses us "indies") in an effort to re-enforce group solidarity).

the key there is that "SOME" indie devs use this tactic to garner attention... not all/half/etc, it's just the most vocal of the bunch seem to always be looked upon with some reverence by many, and it's just getting childish and immature.

(wish these well regarded indie figureheads would be more publicly positive about what THEY are doing and less CRITICAL about what everyone else likes and does)

E McNeill
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During my brief stints working at AAA studios, I had some friends (coworkers) who complained in broad terms about indies being pretentious or overhyped. The sentiment exists. But the complaints I heard were more often on the same tier as the negative things said by indies, i.e. fair and genuine genre fatigue or specific constructive critiques instead of prejudice. I don't think the AAA guys are biased against indies any more than indies are bashing AAA guys. It's certainly not an us vs. them thing.

And I don't have a problem with negative commentary. Most of the time it's justified, and not just some attention-grabbing scheme. I just don't want it applied in overly broad strokes.

Vin St John
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I would read that observation in a different way, I think. Indies are usually less worried about expressing their opinions publicly because they're self-employed (and often more in the limelight than the majority of employees at a major studio), so each individual indie developer is more likely to have his or her negative opinions shared with the press. Heads of big studios and publishers have a bit more of an instinct to play politics since they never know who they might be working with.

Michael DeFazio
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@Vin
in a more positive note:

When AAA developers from big studios are publicly interviewed and talk about what inspires them, they often have good things to say about "indie" games or under-appreciated games (Trials, Minecraft, Desktop Dungeons) So you can tell that there is certainly respect that flows in that direction.

On the flip side of the coin, I rarely hear about the big players in the indie community for their love of things AAA (even from a "technical" or artistic level...I mean you can dislike CoD, but you have to admit, getting a game to look that polished AND run at near 60fps on consoles is quite a feat)

I'd say there is a certain "indie credibility" at risk from popular indie developers, and while they are "more free" to speak their mind, there is more of a tendency to nit pick and make it an adversarial (it's US INDIES verses THEM AAA) conversation, and bad mouth a nameless/faceless company like EA, all the while forgetting that there are real people (developers) and teams working their tails off to put together and polish games to a level that reaches millions of people.

-can't we all appreciate the lighting design of the Dead Space series ? (Or do we always have to bad mouth the game because it's "too much of an action game")

-can we all agree that the texture work on the God of War series is some of the best in the industry (or do we have to focus on how we think the story is subpar and the violence is over the top)

FWIW Love the idea that #indieAAAConfessional allows indies to "admit" they collectively love AAA games... i'm sure the developers who work for the much maligned studios (EA, Activision) wouldn't mind hearing the respect goes both ways.

Joseph Elliott
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Michael DeFazio: I'm not sure that "indie credibility" thing exists. I mean, where's any evidence of it? You're generalizing indies to a pretty ridiculous degree.

Michael DeFazio
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@joseph

find me 5 articles/ interviews or public statements from well known indies that do something to praise anything about AAA games studios, etc..

any amount of "good articles/comments/interviews" you can produce... i could easily produce 10x as much bad/snide/condescending public comments from well-known indie developers towards AAA developers.

likewise find public comments from AAA developers that are bad/snide/condescending towards indies... (i can't seem to find any)

also, i am not generalizing (like i said in the first post, not all/half, etc,. but certainly SOME of the more popular (and revered) indie devs.

Sven Bergstrom
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Good reading!

Jeremiah Bond
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Coming from a guy who cares no more about indie as AAA I can tell you that if the game is good then its worth the investment. What all the ranting is about is called -you make the bed you lie in. As well, its called group bias. I could list a whole bunch bias this falls under for both sides. Guess college didn't teach all these developers much after all. I know how much a university has done for me :)

Dave Ingram
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"... its called group bias"

It's sad to see "Indie" turning into a "scene" at all, with all the negative consequences of groupthink. Aren't indies supposed to be independent? Isn't that supposed to negate the possibility of a "scene" with groupthink? It should only be possible to say "this indie dev thinks this..." and "that indie dev thinks that..." rather than "all indie devs share the same collective opinions, and they all think X"

Brandon S
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Human being don't exist in a Vacuum , there is always a group ,we are interdependent social organism , No such thing as absolute independence , Unless you live in a cave somewhere and isolate yourself from the rest of the world . The difference really comes down to the individual systems and values people place on "individual " or group identity " But it still interdependent system there no transcendence of that .

Joseph Elliott
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Thank you for this article! Gross wrote a bogus and inflammatory article, and this was a refreshingly calm and reasonable response. If the cultural divide between indie and AAA games is a problem as Gross suggests, then this is the sort of attitude and discussion that will help.

Jay Anne
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Great article! Can people name other examples of indie innovation that influenced AAA games?

Carlo Delallana
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The Free-To-Play business model? I guess we're still waiting for that AAA F2P game...

Jay Anne
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@Carlo
I dont think the F2P model came from the indie scene. I believe its widespread usage came from Asia.

James Coote
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Glad I'm not the only one with a retro-graphics issue.

I can't put my finger on what it is about the indie movement, but it just seems to miss the mark for me. As a gamer, I want to play medium-sized games, something not offered by indie or AAA

Joseph Elliott
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What would you define as a "medium sized game"?

I'd consider many downloadable titles from XBLA or PSN to fit the bill, like Spelunky or Journey. They seem equally as massive to many indie games as they are small to many AAA ones.

James Coote
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Games with a scope, volume of content and graphical fidelity somewhere between what a one or two man team reasonably can achieve, but smaller than an AAA blockbuster.

For example, Endless Space. There is a feature somewhere on gamasutra from a few months back in which they explain how they produced the game. Clearly the game is far beyond what an indie could hope to produce, but equally, they don't have any cut-scenes or motion capture. The graphics look great without needing to be bleeding edge crysis-ate-my-graphics-card quality

Christian Nutt
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I'd define it as like, "PlayStation 1 games", which is pretty much what I want. See also: Nintendo DS games. A traditional scope and scale, and not an overblown cinematic blockbuster.

E McNeill
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I'm encouraged by Jon Blow's upcoming game, The Witness. It seems like he scaled up just enough to enable a bigger, more technically complicated game without compromising on much else.

Dave Ingram
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James, would you consider games like Torchlight to be "medium?" I feel the same way as you -- I like games that aren't tiny and meaningless, but also that aren't 80-hour epics. Games like Torchlight fit the bill perfectly for me.

Joseph Elliott
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@Dave Ingram: Tiny ≠ meaningless.

James Coote
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Not played Torchlight but it looks like it fits the bill, and Miasmata looks incredible for the work of just two people

You can have a tiny game with huge replayability and/or depth, but I actually want a game I can come home after work, play for a couple of hours and feel I am getting somewhere.

Angry birds has great replay value, but I couldn't spent a solid two hours playing it, and certainly not sessions of that length on consecutive nights. I still haven't finished Mass Effect 1 because it'll take me 2 or 3 sessions of grinding up XP and side quests before I can win a boss battle and progress the story

These mid-sized games exist when I go searching for them, but they get drowned out in the shouting match between proponents of casual-mobile games, one-man indie games, and huge AAA games

Dave Ingram
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Joseph, I didn't mean to imply a necessary connection between tiny and meaningless, but I'm saying that I don't like games that happen coincidentally to be both. I recently played Passage and it almost made me cry.

Joseph Elliott
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Ah, I get what you're saying.

Passage is a beautiful little game.

Ian Richard
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I really don't understand what the big deal is with this whole situation. So what if some indy developers don't like AAA Games.

For the love of mike... we all deserve the right to our own opinions.

Vieko Franetovic
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Why don't we just make more games, make them better and stop wasting bandwidth folks? :)

Chris Clogg
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I don't think anyone inherently hates AAA or vice versa, but I think there's merit in that games (like movies) seem to be converging on one (action) genre with a very similar setup. Maybe because the stakes are so high now and many 10-40 man studios are gone in favor of 300 man studios. James Coote's post above has a good point. I think we've lost a large bunch of games in many genres that we had during '95-'05 or so.

Still, I think if Half Life 3 or Warcraft 4 came out, any indy dev would go nuts with excitement. Well, at least I would lol.

Jeremy Reaban
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And yet the same thing is going on with Indies to a large degree.

Does the world really need another endless runner? I don't think so, but that doesn't stop them from being made every day.

Retro themed platformer? Retro themed space shooter? Puzzle Platformer? These have more merit, but not original.

Let's not pretend that most Indie games are inventive. Some are merely cut down versions of AAA games, like Retro City Rampage is a knockoff of GTA.

Indie games do everything AAA games get accused of, except with much worse graphics and much less polish.

Chris Clogg
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I agree, we could use variety at all levels. Especially iOS games... though the app store's top charts would say people want otherwise (or maybe the store itself causes some of that).

Joseph Elliott
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@ Jeremy: You're certainly not wrong.

Of the games I played last year, the majority of the really creative, unique stuff came from indies. But, so did some of the most bland experiences.

Banality is rampant on every scale. Just because indies are more creatively free, doesn't mean they always exercise that freedom. As always, blanket generalizations will not suffice.

Remy Trolong
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We suffer the same paradox as AAA game devs : We want to make money.
The only thing different is that we don't have someone to tell us " Hey, don't do that, it doesn't fit the "Teen-Twilight-audience" we're aiming for ".

Sure indies make runner because they think it will pay, and many will make "Puzzle and Dragons" clone to make a substant living about it. Like everywhere, being free of creativity can lead to wonderful experiences, and other time to "unconcluding experiments" or failed commercial clones... Maybe we could apply the famous 80/20 rule here!

Thanks for this article, it needed to be balanced with the other negative one. After all, we're just humans.

Carlos Rocha
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I happen to love both also, as some people have said, but I tend to receive the vibe from some indie developers of being presumptuous, and I'm an indie developer myself. To me, the perfect example is Phil Fish.

We all have different opinions, and I, like the author of the article, hope that indie development doesn't get discredited because of some very visible opinions that aren't very positive.

Also, this little satire about this whole thing made me laugh no stop:

http://www.dorkly.com/video/30941/dorkly-bits-mario-is-too-mainst
ream


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