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Hecker: Indies Can't Do All The Heavy Creative Lifting
Hecker: Indies Can't Do All The Heavy Creative Lifting
November 17, 2009 | By Chris Remo

November 17, 2009 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC

If the video game medium is to reach higher levels of cultural relevance and reach, the mainstream industry must not abdicate responsibility to the indies, warns Chris Hecker, himself an independent developer.

Responding to a question following his Montreal International Game Summit keynote address, which largely mirrored his keynote delivered last week at the IGDA Leadership Forum in San Francisco, Hecker acknowledged that some of today's most interesting and meaningful game work is being done in the indie sphere.

But he noted that the notion of indie gaming inherently limits the broader impact such games can have. Rather, if games are to become a medium that is more widely accepted as capable of artistry and meaning, progress must come across the entire spectrum of games, from large-scale projects down to one-man endeavors.

Of course, the larger the team, the more risk-averse those funding the team are likely to be, which makes the job for those developers all the harder.

"I don't think it can all come from indies," he said. "It has to happen in the mainstream game industry as well. It's harder there, and it'll be smaller incremental baby steps."

But the rewards for such projects in games that sell millions upon millions of units could be monumental: "A couple different decisions in [developing] the No Russian level could have had more impact on humanity than Braid will ever have in its lifetime," Hecker said, referring to a much-discussed (and oft-spoiled) mission from Infinity Ward's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Hecker was sure to clarify that he's not denigrating the achievement of Jonathan Blow, Braid's designer. Its success bodes well for the medium: "The fact that it's a financially viable indie market now is great. ...[Braid] is incredibly risky, and it paid off for him, and that's awesome," he said. But the game's roughly 300,000 sales mean it won't have the same broad penetration a much larger-scale project could.

Evolution in the potential of games can come from any number of particular mechanics or design goals, Hecker said. There's no need for one model of meaning to dominate. Designers who consider why they make games, a topic he first discussed in the previous talk, can come up with any number of ways to convey meaning across a broad scale. "We need more pretension, we need more lowbrow, we need more of everything. We'll find ways that it will work," he added. "I don't think we're going to do it by analyzing what games mean from a semiotics standpoint."

In the end, despite the concern that permeates his arguments that one potential future for games will lead them into a permanent cultural ghetto, Hecker's view is actually more optimistic than not. The onus is on the game development community at large to seize the opportunities presented by the present fork in the road and the medium's relative youth.

"How often do you get to be there for a new art form? It's less than once every hundred years," he observed. "It's ours to fuck it up, and it would just be such an incredible shame for humanity if we did."

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Bryan OHara
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Hecker gave a great talk at MIGS. Its a shame that he was a little bit rushed to finish, but it was interesting and thought-provoking. A good way to end the event in my opinion.

Maurício Gomes
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@Tim Carter:

This space is for comments, not ads.

Glenn Storm
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I think it's safe to say the risk-adverse will remain risk-adverse, leaving the chance-taking to the adventurous pioneers. That dynamic doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon. So, the indies are going to individually go down the roads less traveled to either appear later as a beacon to all (particularly those who are risk-adverse), or to serve as a warning (again, particularly to the risk-adverse), or just to disappear. This means fairly slow progress, but fairly sure progress for the medium. Ludoevolution?

Perhaps larger organizations are able to have the best of both worlds by seriously investing in experimental development; but I don't think we have clear numbers yet on how cost effective that (risk) is for companies like Lionhead and Valve. Some big risks are still going to be taken, and I'm sure plenty of less-risky indie efforts will be made, but by in large, I see this basic evolutionary dynamic continuing.

Patrick Loughman
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YEAH...gj tim

Luis Guimaraes
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You're right Tim, at least you there are trying something. I don't know how many subscriptions you had there, but I have a feeling like the individuals don't trust this approach too much. I mean, everyone knows how much value an early project is given in this industry. And even if the CoreTalentedGames culture are modern and smart, people is still likely not to expect it.

Nathan Frost
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Tim: As a developer and a gamer interested in games with a philosophical heart, I welcome your efforts, comments, and comments advertising your efforts: they're both clearly continuations of Hecker's speech.

Fight the good fight. :)