Last Friday, Penny Arcade Report posted an article that detailed the issues that indie dev Kurt Bieg had with the indie game community. It was pretty disheartening, especially since it clashed so vividly with my own experience. The indie community has been an enormously positive force in my life, and so, as before, I want to take a moment to defend it.
The latest in the misguided indie backlash
It’s not uncommon to feel some occasional frustration with the indie scene (see the annual rant session at GDC’s Indie Game Summit), but Kurt was unusually harsh in his condemnation. The article is full of quotes that paint the indie game community as an exclusive and disingenuous clique, motivated by an insular agenda, that despises the casual gamers who just play games for fun.
Kurt, in disgust, has decided to drop out of the indie community. This is a shame in itself. His game Circadia is exactly the sort of game I’d like to make someday, and he presented some interesting stuff in last year’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop. The indie community is poorer without his voice and perspective.
Several prominent indies responded to the article. I collected part of the Twitter conversation. Some of the responses were defensive or lashed out, which I imagine didn’t do much to help change minds.
We can talk about this
Kurt’s two primary complaints are that the indie community is incestuous and anti-casual:
“Now indies make games for other indies, or for awards, or for kickstarters. Every game is the next greatest game forever and ever and ever, and honestly, I find myself mostly disappointed and uninspired when I play them.”
“Then I remembered the many conversations I had with game devs who hated casual gamers, hated those who played the ‘ville games, hated people like my wife, even though only a few decades ago we were in pizza shops dumping quarters in machines while people scoffed at us telling us we we’re wasting our money.”
I’m not privy to the “many conversations” that Kurt cites, but I’ve never personally heard indies speak ill of casual gamers. I’ve heard them complain about the design practices of casual game companies (Zynga etc.), but that’s not the same thing. When someone criticizes a cigarette company, does that mean they hate smokers? (No.) There are plenty of well-regarded hardcore or niche games in the indie scene, but there are casual games there, too. I wish Kurt would stick around to help advocate for more.
As for the “incestuous” claim, Kurt has a point; indies do tend to speak well of indie games. But that’s not evidence of an exclusive cabal with selfish motives. Usually, the main reason is that indies share the same interests and are genuinely enthusiastic about the same things. (That’s why they formed a community, after all.) In other cases, they’re choosing to be more forgiving of risky, experimental, limited-budget work. And in some cases, it’s just difficult for friends to criticize each other’s work in public. (Liz Ryerson has made this point too.)
But that’s not a good excuse, and I agree that more indie-to-indie criticism would be helpful. If conducted respectfully, we could get a lot out of it. You’re allowed to have your own thoughts, and others are free to disagree with you. Personally, I think that the 8-bit aesthetic is overused, and that grindy unlock mechanics (as in, say, Ridiculous Fishing) are distasteful, though I struggle to articulate why. Maybe I’ll give it a shot soon, and I’ll hear the other side’s perspective, and we’ll all be better off for it.
So Kurt is not wholly wrong in his complaints. But he’s not wholly right, either, and his frustrations stem from problems that can be worked out. A blanket condemnation of the indie community really isn’t justified.
Don’t gloss over the good
When talking about problems in the indie community, it’s easy to forget the good that indies have done. I experienced a lot of that good firsthand.
When I was a student, just getting seriously into game design, it was the lectures by indies Jon Blow and Chris Hecker that first introduced me to the concept of exploitative game design, and ultimately led me to understand design as something more than just a craft. Along with early indie games like Audiosurf and flOw and Everyday Shooter, they were the ones that first made me think that I could build personal, ambitious, meaningful games.
When I was making my first commercial indie game, I was inspired directly by Eufloria. I posted my game’s beta on an indie game forum. By chance, the co-creator of Eufloria, Alex May, saw it and critiqued it. His insight helped me make a better game, but more importantly, the mere fact that he noticed and responded was hugely encouraging. Later, around the time I released the game, I needed business advice. Kellee Santiago and Eddy Boxerman each spoke to me for over an hour, giving personalized guidance based on their own experience. Later, when I moved to a new city, Andy Schatz took the time (during crunch!) to meet with me and help me find the local indie community.
I’m leaving out a lot of details, of supportive online conversations, meetings at conferences, talks and videos and podcasts and blogs and articles that guided and motivated me. But my point is this: these people were celebrities in my eyes, and owed me nothing, yet they treated me with respect and generosity from the beginning, even though I was just another aspiring game dev.
Then there are the games themselves. There are too many great ones to name, but the last five indie games I’ve played are Fez, Monaco, Year Walk, Cart Life, and Howling Dogs. If you compare them, you'll find incredible variety between them in terms of mechanics, setting, tone, et cetera, and yet they’re all personal and successful in their own ways. Each one has inspired me to make better games, nudging me towards greater ambition. Even the ones that I didn’t like have taught me something.
This is all from one person’s perspective, but I’ve received so much support from the indie community that I can’t accept the picture that Kurt painted. I can’t believe that the indie community is insular, or exclusive, or disingenuous, or full of hatred.
I don’t know what Kurt saw that pushed him away, but based on what I have seen, it’s not all bad. Come back.