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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.