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The Indie Revolution
by Robert Fearon on 11/30/13 07:14:00 pm   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.

 

The phrase "The Indie Revolution" has been bugging me for a while now.. I’ve heard it time and time and time again and it’s bugged me then too but it took the wonderful and lovely Shahid Ahmad’s recent speech to the London Games Conference to stop me in my tracks. For some reason, my immediate reaction was “no, that’s not right”.

I’ve struggled to pin down why though.

Was it the idea that what we’d started was settled? Certainly it rankled with me and I knew that wasn’t really his point but still, it’s a thought that crossed my mind. We’re not nearly done yet. We’ve got lots and lots to do. There’s still way too many people frozen out here, it’s not over, it’s not. I tried writing that down. No. That still didn’t fit. That wasn’t it. I know Shahid, he knows it’s not over. He’s not stupid. He’s talking about platform holders having to evolve to accomodate the people who make videogames now. He knows there’s work to be done still.

OK. Was it indie? Indie. Oh man, indie. I hate the word indie except when it’s of use to me. I make videogames. I’m not an indie developer. I’m just a guy who makes videogames. Liz and Anna argue beautifully for losing it somewhere, in a ditch preferably. I never wanted it in the first place, it’s like “franchise” and “SKU” to me, it’s a business word. Screw business words. But man, it comes in handy for business y’know? By now it means everything and nothing to the public, it’s one of those words. A word of nothing, an “I’ll know it when I see it” word. That “Indie Games” tab on the Playstation Store? I appreciate it. I believe in it. We can’t fight Call Of Duty in marketing and for eyeballs so I’ll take the leg up. I’ll thank you for the leg up. Just don’t call me indie.

I’ve always held with what I call the Ubu Defence. Because any excuse to get some Pere Ubu in here somewhere is a good excuse.

“Your music has been described as avant garage. How would you describe it?”

“We call it rock music. We adopted the phrase avant garage in 1979 so we could throw a label at writers. Labels are not our problem. We don’t get paid for labels. In the truest sense, though, we are a “rock band.” We are the mainstream. Others have deviated from the mainstream since 1975 and they need the labels, not us. Carve it on our tombstone: Rock Band. ”

And that’s when it struck me. It’s not the thought of us being finished, we’re not but we’re gonna keep trucking on that anyway and screw anyone who gets in the way. It’s not the word “indie” although stuff indie, it’s the idea of a revolution taking place. That’s what’s been bugging me. That’s what made my brain itch.

EFFICIENCY AND PROGRESS

People used to make games. Not just people as part of a team, as part of a corporation, as part of an industry. People. And they did this because when you took your computer out of a box, you had the technology to make games. Maybe you had to spend out a few quid to get a bit of extra software to help you along, maybe it was for machine code, maybe it was an art package but still… the barriers between not making a game and making a game were lower.

Then we went a bit mental.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced the nineties were both an essential time for videogames but also the worst. We needed it to happen to a degree, the technology money drainhole, the push for bigger and better that would eventually, thankfully, get us to where we are today but they were terrible really. They were terrible because those barriers to making games were higher than ever before. We talk of shareware with pride now because Doom happened but retail left everyone else behind. It all got so big and so much more difficult. So costly. It all got so console-y. And things. Very very “and things”.

The 90′s were terrible because we went into the 2000′s believing this was the norm. This was right. This was the one true way of making videogames. This was the way of the videogame. We were  killing videogames. They were becoming too costly to make, too many people needed to make the things. When we pushed to 3d, when we pushed the polycount ever upwards we pushed the time, the manpower, the costs ever upwards too. I love me an AAA shootfest but man, we were about to lose so much. We could only sit and watch as whole types of games became too costly to make, too much effort to make, took too much manpower to make, how can we do that without 50 million dollars and a lot of time to make. It doesn’t matter because look! Here’s a whole new audience and we’ll just market this harder! HELLO YOU LOT.

Oh yeah, and the human cost. The lost weekends, the late nights, the have-you-seen-your-family lately of it all.

Yeah. Stuff the nineties.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

The continued push for more tech had a nice unintended side effect.

Unlike before, with all this tech you could feasibly make a program that helped people make games and still have plenty of room in that dumb old box we call a computer to spare. Game making packages had existed for years, from Arcade Game Creator to HURG to Quill and GAC to AMOS to ZZT and on but they were always, always constrained by what the machines could do. By the time you've made enough room for the game making program, well, where do we put the game again?

Our push for more tech meant that over time more accessible programs could be made as the hardware race pushed on. People found these accessible programs, people made games in these accessible programs. The internet brought with it a way to share their work to a wider audience. Sometimes. Because no promises.

Thank you, nineties. Thineties.

So the story goes, the indie revolution begins here. The rise of the indies! Indie Game: The Battle To Be Taken Seriously. REVOLUTION!

Except, y’know, it wasn’t much of a revolution. It was more like, I dunno, people making games just like they used to do before the ability to make, sell and distribute games to the masses was taken away from them. Ably aided by a long console cycle keeping tech at reasonably static and affordable levels and with the benefits of what the nineties and early two thousand’s arms race left behind.

Sure we still pushed tech forward but slower now. It wasn’t quite like working to a fixed spec but y’know, most computers sold are able to run a large portion of the videogames that get made. I remember when it were all “why is this over 10 meg?” and “I can’t get this to run on my graphics card” fields. Get off my lawn.

No AAA blood was spilled by indies. AAA just sorta carried on doing its thing the same way AAA always did. Throw some money here. Advertise that there. Another studio closure here, another studio closure there. Another worker, matchsticks propping their eyes up because we’ve got to work harder, we need 300 men to make this videogame now. Get to it. We can prop this up with outsourcing, it’s cool. Just send us the boss fights, we’ll be OK. Chinese art farm? Alright! It’s business. It’s a machine. It’s a machine with creative and talented people powering it but it’s a machine. It’s a machine that can and does turn out fantastic videogames too.

CHANGES

Outside the machine people were still making games. Not necessarily better games just different games because that’s what people do when you give them tools, they make things. Because sod it, why not, right? Let’s make things!. Some of the people made things that were very successful too. Which is great and I’m sure we’ve been here before at some point or other but a few handfuls of very successful games does not a revolution make.

There was a tipping point, the point where so many people were making games because they could make games again, because technology permitted them to make games again. It became hard to ignore. And man, how long between AAA games? What are we supposed to do, hang on twelve months for the next exciting installment of Call Of Duty?

The media took a while to catch on too because it’d been a while since this sort of thing really poked its head above the surface. "Tell you what, let’s give it some back pages space and see what happens or something" How silly that seems now.

Being in on the ground floor, at times it felt like a revolution, sure. It felt like a massive swell of people taking videogames back. The press happy to trump the new game order and we all benefited from this but taking a step back now and nah, it was just people making games again because they could. We just got a bit carried away with the press and all that.. It all got a bit Oasis vs Blur or something and yeah, sorry about that. I’d say we won’t do it again but we’re human and we’re forever doing really stupid things again and again.

So what did people do with this new found freedom and power? They picked up the threads AAA dropped. 2d because you don’t need money to make 2d look good. Then when tech pushed on further, screw it, we can do 3d. Let’s do 3d too. Off we go to make a new RPG, a new platformer, a new Myst, a new thing that AAA structured itself out of. Here’s a rogue-like videogame that’s a lot like a game that might have existed had we not all got confused and everything had to be 3d. Here’s a platform game but have you seen what we can do with the tech we have now? *turns camera around and magic! It’s 3d and you’re facing over there now*. Art games? Mel Croucher must be sitting there going “I knew I was right, thanks for finally catching on, folks”.

TO THE FUTURE

It was a course correction. We rolled it back a bit, picked it up from where we left off, kinda whistling away the tech wars because we all know we needed them but we don’t like to speak of all that except wasn’t Doom brilliant and I had a Playstation too, that Lara Croft, eh?

The indie revolution never took place. People just made some games and things had to fall back into place because there’s no turning back now.

Shahid is right, the folks who run these here console larks have had to evolve to deal with this, they’ve had to evolve to respect this. Because if they don’t, if they didn’t, they’d miss some amazing videogames and they’ll miss some amazing amounts of money and some amazing art and that stuff will go on around them anyway.

We live in awesome videogame times where AAA many-people-factories can churn out great games and spectacle and people-in-their-undies-people making games can churn out great games and spectacle, where teams large and small turn to the same tech, where one person in his bedroom can turn to the same tech and all will make wildly different games and people go “eh up, I’d like to pay you money for that videogame, thank you”.

We still need to work on this human cost thing a bit and the sexism thing and a few other things but hey, capitalism! Woo! Or something like that, anyway.

The consoles or stores or platforms that’ll come out of this the best will be the ones who don’t want indie games on their service, what they’ll want is to have great games exist and to help make great videogames exist too. Videogames. All of the great videogames and a few not quite as good ones too and stuff inbetween and stuff outside of what we take for granted because if there’s one thing all of this should have taught us is we don’t want to try and kill videogames a second time. Not like that anyway.

Where we’re at now is brill but it didn’t come through revolution. It was videogames carrying on.

Maybe we’ll screw it up again, we’ll see but for now it’s the best time to write a videogame out of all the times to write a videogame. You might like to give it a try, perhaps?

Still, “the indie revolution”, cracking soundbite, that.

 

 


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Comments


Curtiss Murphy
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Lovely! Well done.

Eric Hambright
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Great post. I see the drive for so called 'free to play' games as another wrong turn similar to what you describe.

James Coote
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I disagree with the course correction bit. I think rolling back creatively to 20 years ago isn't healthy. The world has changed in that time, and rehashing myst or rogue-likes doesn't really take us anywhere new

Maurício Gomes
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Depends.

Sometimes we must go back to go forward, specially after ending in a dead end.

For example, in the early 90s, the era of Amiga and Commodore, we had some REALLY, REALLY, REALLY interesting music, it was made with a modular format, and that format interestingly divided the music very clearly in several parts, and the player could choose what part to play.

Some studios used it to just choose what track to play in a single file, to save space (ie: share samples and compression across the entire soundtrack).

But other went to the brilliant side, they said a "screw you" to the classical music organization (Intro, A, Chorus, B, Chorus, A, B, Chorus, Outro... and variations of that) and went to make music that was a single musical track, but where each part depended on the gameplay for example.

Then we had the CD... And with it, Red Book audio. And with it, music fitting classical style of music, and the "videogamey" style was mostly gone, not only that, the unusual music organization was gone too.

Then we had the mp3! Compressed music! Except, the result was the same as Red Book Audio, but LOTS of it (ie: now the game came with 30 music instead of 10).

To me, the most clear path to resume using some really creative and novel styles, structures and genres of music, more suited to interactive media, is to return to technology that enabled that, and then improve from there, the current path (compressed files of fixed music) is good for movies, cinematics, etc... not games...

Michael Moore
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"But other went to the brilliant side, they said a "screw you" to the classical music organization (Intro, A, Chorus, B, Chorus, A, B, Chorus, Outro... and variations of that) and went to make music that was a single musical track, but where each part depended on the gameplay for example."

Do you have any example of that? I'm really interested.

James Coote
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@Maurício

Sounds really cool. I'd not heard anything about that before. I suppose I'd argue this is more analogous to a musical instrument: When you first pick it up, to play your own style and rhythm, not what people were playing 20 years ago

@Amir

Sure, niche games are great. However, a lot of old games/genres are resurrected in homage / as a nostalgia thing and don't necessarily move things forward in terms of providing new experiences (as opposed to simply more refined / polished versions of what came before)

Amir Barak
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"and rehashing myst or rogue-likes doesn't really take us anywhere new"
No, you mean it won't make you rich. Which is where most mainstream games are headed. The mind-frame that you make a game to make it big. Make a game that sells 5000 million copies or it's a failure.

Rolling back on creativity so we can actually progress also means limiting the audience of video games which is a good thing. Of course we need better nomenclature as well. What's a video game, what's a good video game, what will push us forward, what doesn't...

But I wouldn't worry too much. None of this will happen. Most games will continue on to being the vomit-inducing gambling machines (EVERY free-to-play game) or movie-wanna-be crap rehash (95% of AAA games). And indies will still create fun games and bad games and weird games and mostly not make much money but enough to survive. There never was an indie revolution; just a bunch of people making games. Like always...

Michael Joseph
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It is a revolution by any measure.

We're not talking about a revolution that is limited to game design. We are talking about a revolution in ownership and "ownership" is a broad umbrella. It encompasses a revolution in creative freedom (including the freedom to ignore claims by the mainstream industry that certain genres are "dead" as well as the freedom to create your own narratives and messages to the public), in distribution freedom, in income particularly with regards to disparity between creator and publisher often as a result of lopsided publishing deals, communications freedom between creator and their audiences, IP ownership, and even the freedom to make one's own work hours.

I think you forget that there were many folks in the mainstream industry predicting that the days of "garage" game development were over. And for a time many believed this.

Revolution and freedom go hand in hand and this is clearly a time where freedom has been reclaimed by game developers over the stifling, oppressive and *conservative industry of a decade ago.

*by conservative I mean status quo

Dave Hoskins
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I hate the phrase 'indie' as it reminds me of the naivety of the press. It's a bit like being called 'oh you're in I.T.'
The word is definitely press and media based and it's really the distribution revolution that enabled smaller developers to become more independant from the 'suits' with dollars in their eyes. The 'us and them' relationship will always stand true if games are written with markets in mind, which reminds me if 'the x-factor' and it's destruction of musical talent and creativity.

Peter Eisenmann
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People were _always_ making games from their bedrooms. Since the age of home computers, there was never a time when small developers didn't exist. You just had to look a little harder for their games, before the widespread of the internet.
We do have access to better tech now, but this is not unique to game development: With affordable HD camcorders etc., an "indie" movie does not have to look much worse than a blockbuster these days. But even before, there have always been rogue filmmakers, who made the best with the technology they could afford.
And one thing will never change, be it the past or present, be it games or movies, paintings or music, at a small or big scale: The creative industry will always be driven by highly talented, engaged people, that sacrifice their evenings and weekends to create something great.

Robert Fearon
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@James

"I think rolling back creatively to 20 years ago isn't healthy."

Well, I'd agree entirely if we were doing that but we're not really.

We're able to take templates that didn't get stretched in all their possible directions and got left by the wayside and do more with them and that in turn takes us to different places. It's all progress. And there's certainly no shortage of people pushing at the extremities now either. Even the humble First Person videogame now has all manner of things from TRIP to Proteus to Gone Home to Call Of Duty.

What's the point in always creating new things when there's still so much unexplored, y'know? Let's crawl into every nook and cranny and see what we can pull out. No point throwing out all the things we have on some bizarre quest for everything to be new, right?

Karstein Roesnes Ersdal
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"When you are innovating, know what you are replacing"

Chris Wightman
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Nice article. I would add that adding to the mis-conception about what "indie" means is the "AAA" studio who went independent who call themselves "indies". They are filled with AAA talent, needing an AAA salary, working out of a small AAA quality studio (and in some cases still working out of Cali - one of the most expensive places to start a business). They removed the publisher thinking that they will just Kickstart their projects with a $400k+ budget. IMO it isn't sustainable and doesn't solve many of the creative and development issues that have evolved out of the big budget AAA studios (they still have a big overhead meaning profit may drive production - not creativity). Personally, I am inspired more by the teams like Super Meat and others who are truly working out of the garage on a limited budget making creative entertaining titles for the sake of doing so. They can afford to because they really are "indie" and their overhead isn't blown out to what a AAA independent studio's overhead is.

scott anderson
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Many indie developers (especially successful ones) have followed the same path and have higher budgets than $400K, either through successful kickstarters or through past projects that have been successful. Team Meat is rich, Mojang\Notch can effectively never ship anything again and do whatever they want to, The Witness is a very high budget game, approaching low AAA budgets (much higher than $400K), etc. I think it's unfair to call ex-AAA developers that want decent budgets ($400K is pretty low for any game with a 1-2 year development cycle and a small team...) "fake" indies, and super successful indie teams that might have struggled a little bit for their first project, but usually had large savings from other smaller, successful projects and contracts, "real".

Steve Fulton
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In 1983, at 13 years old, I sat down with my second-hand, 2.4mhz, 48K Atari 800 computer and made my own games. Today I sit down at 8-Core, 8 GB Windows laptop, and I do the same thing. You are correct, I make games for no other reason than "because I can". For me, the "revolution" started 30 years ago, and it has never ended.

Michael Joseph
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The indie games revolution is very similar to the comic strip revolution. If you wanted to earn a living creating comic strips 20+ years ago... good luck. Talent alone wasn't necessarily going to get you anywhere... you needed lots of luck.

Sure one could still sit at home and draw their own strips in their free time just "because they could", but they couldn't make a living at it. It also meant hardly anyone would ever get to see their work.

The internet started a comic strip revolution with the advent of the web comic. As a result there are more people creating and publishing comic strips today than ever before.

Similarly, you cannot ignore the new funding and distribution options available to game developers today and still claim to be talking about the same thing others are talking about on the topic of "indie revolution."

And just as the web comic encouraged more people to enter that field, so has the indie revolution encouraged more people to become _professional_ game developers. Lot's more.

It's all part of a general publishing revolution. Games were a bit late to the table and film and episodic video shows are still late, but we're starting to see indie film and video production benefit from increased funding options as well. There have been popular web series like "The Guild" but the barriers to quality video/film production are still pretty high. Maybe some entrepreneurs will figure out a way to really help indie productions take off. It would definitely be a win for audiences to have high quality productions made outside of the big networks/studios so that the indie production companies could retain ownership and control of their works.

http://vimeo.com/56292505
http://vimeo.com/49580248


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