How indies made an impact on a generation of game consoles
November 19, 2013
Gamasutra continues its look back on the previous console generation with a focus on the rise of the indie developer.
"When we started, 'indie' wasn't really a thing at all."
The words of Dylan Cuthbert from Q-Games give a succinct perspective of how the indie scene looked at the start of the current generation of video game consoles. Back then, the Independent Games Festival was taking in around 80 entries a year, Steam wasn't yet the bastion for indie PC games that it is today, and indie games on consoles were all but nonexistent.
Fastforward to now, as the next-gen of consoles is kicking off, and it's a massively different story. Indie games are not only prominent on PC, console, mobile et al, but are actually the main focus in some cases (see the PS Vita's indie push).
What happened over the last eight years for this indie timebomb to go off, then? Although the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii launched between 2005-2006, it wasn't until 2007 that the first glimpse of indie on current-gen consoles first reared its head - and we got a brief taste of what was on the horizon.
The initial smattering
While the Xbox 360 was the first out of the gate, providing the Xbox Live Arcade for developers to release digital games from as early as 2005, there wasn't exactly what you'd describe as an indie presence on the console.
Studios like NinjaBee, PopCap and TikGames provided a small handful of titles throughout the first couple of years -- games like Outpost Kaloki, Bejeweled 2 and Texas Hold 'em -- but even these were arguably not so "indie."
Meanwhile, neither Sony or Nintendo really showed any signs of supporting the independent developers. The former had no real indie titles to speak of for the first year, while the latter didn't even have a platform for indie devs until two years later, when it launched WiiWare in 2008.
It was, in fact, Sony that launched out of the indie stalls first in 2007. Fl0w from thatgamecompany was first, followed by Everyday Shooter from Queasy Games, and the first couple of titles in Q-Games' PixelJunk series. All three companies were destined to define the way we view indies on consoles.
"No-one knew what to make of us," remembers Q-Games' Cuthbert. "In retrospect it might have seemed an obvious choice, but making PixelJunk 2D and HD was a kind of mind-blowing strategy for a lot of people."
But it was 2008 when the real first glimpse of the impending indie console boom showed itself. Titles like Castle Crashers from The Behemoth, Kingdom for Keflings from NinjaBee and The Maw from Twisted Pixel convinced people to take notice of XBLA, and add Microsoft Points to their accounts for the first time.
The real breakthrough title however, and perhaps the most important indie console release of the entire generation, was that of Jonathan Blow's Braid. Never before had a video game console seen a downloadable title made by just two designers prove such an overwhelming hit, and as the phenomenon spread, there was all of sudden talk of Xbox Live Arcade being a genuine source of entertainment, especially thanks to the launch of the Summer of Arcade promotion, which featured Castle Crashers, Braid and Geometry Wars 2 alongside titles from triple-A publishers Namco Bandai and Capcom.
2008 was also the year that Xbox Live Community Games (later renamed to Indie Games) launched -- a clear sign that Microsoft had an interest in seeing what the indie scene had to offer. Although XBLIG wasn't so successful in the end, it still provided plenty of indie releases over the years, including I Made a Game With Zombies In It, FortressCraft, Apple Jack, AvaGlide, and Flotilla.
Microsoft wasn't the only manufacturer to witness an indie breakthrough in 2008. While Sony didn't really build on its indie presence from the previous year, 2D Boy came out of nowhere to give the Nintendo Wii its first real indie success -- the wonderful World of Goo.
Of course, Nintendo then failed to build on this promising indie base -- but we'll get to that later.
A shift in the tide
If 2008 was the year that the indies showed their potential on console, 2009 saw this movement really get going.
Ska Studios and Twisted Pixel became two of the first indies exclusive to the Xbox 360, releasing The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai and 'Splosion Man respectively.
"Ska Studios has been tied to Microsoft because everything we've released is made using XNA," Michelle Juett from Ska Studios notes. "It enabled James [Silva] to take it from hobby to career."
"We have somewhat of a unique development relationship with Microsoft," she adds. "James got the company's foot in the door with The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai winning Dream Build Play and has had an open, communicative relationship since. We pitch a game, get it approved then we get to make it and first-party-publish through Microsoft."
It didn't stop there either -- we had Trials HD from RedLynx and Defense Grid from Hidden Path Entertainment, while a little company called Telltale Games released the first in its Sam and Max episodic series. Once again, the Summer of Arcade featured indies alongside triple-As, and people were finally beginning to take note.
The PS3, meanwhile, received a handful of its own notable indie titles that would prove turning points - games like thatgamecompany's Flower, Critter Crunch from Capy Games, and Shatter from Sidhe Interactive.
Nintendo, on the other hand, wasn't exactly capitalizing on the success of World of Goo from the year before. While the launch of the BIT.TRIP series from Gaijin Games showed potential to be yet another breakthrough moment for indies on a Nintendo console, this was all we were getting in 2009 -- and Gaijin even needed a publisher in Aksys to get the games on the Wii.
And on its newly-launched DSi Store, the only real interesting indie release came from WayForward Technologies, as Mighty Flip Champs became the first in the now-popular Mighty series. Nintendo was fishing, but not exactly putting down the right bait for the task at hand.
Despite the murmurings of an indie revolution on console, publishing on consoles was still a rather niche suggestion for the majority of indie devs. The Big Three still had their overly assertive rules and procedures in place, such that only devs who had some real pulling power (and monetary backing) could afford to get a game on the Xbox 360 or PS3 -- hence why the vast majority of developers were choosing to stick with the PC.
Sony was showing signs of getting indies more involved, however. Much like Microsoft's own XBLIG service, Sony had come to the decision that building a space specifically for indie devs who wanted to publish on console more easily might be worth a try. The PS Minis service that launched in 2008 pretty much shared a similar fate to Xbox Live Indie Games -- although many of the relationships that Sony built up with devs during this period have now carried over to its full PSN service, suggesting that Minis was in fact a rather notable turning point for the company, regardless of how it appears to the average consumer or critic.
On the topic of the average consumer, it was around this time that the murmurings of a backlash against indies began. Forums and comment threads online would be filled with "real" players venting their disgust at these cheap, awful indie titles that were supposedly interfering with the true traditional gaming space.
Of course, when the internet rabble starts knocking at your door, you know you have a true movement in the making -- and the revolution had barely begun yet.
Explosions and unrest
2010 was arguably the biggest year for indies on Xbox. Games like The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom from The Odd Gentlemen, Greed Corp from W!Games and Toy Soldiers from Signal Studios were notable enough, but it didn't stop there.
We got Zeno Clash, Darwinia+, Limbo, Super Meat Boy, Ilomilo, Monday Night Combat, Comic Jumper... the list goes on and on. The Summer of Arcade promotion was joined by the Game Meat Feast, with around half a dozen prominent indie titles thrown front-and-center.
It truly was a massive year for the indie presence on console -- although there were still quirks to the system. Zeno Clash studio Ace Team, for example, self-published the game on PC, but chose to go with Atlus as a publisher for the Xbox 360 version -- not that the team found this to be a problem.
"We've had a great experience with Atlus, to the point where we consider them partners in our development and not just publishers," notes Ace Team's Carlos Bordeu. "We have continued to want to work with them because they have helped us a lot in getting our projects developed as well as promoted, so we're happy to continue our relationship."
But it wasn't the publisher angle that was beginning to turn heads. Other studios were slowly coming to the realization that the Xbox 360 may not completely be the best place for an indie -- Team Meat, for example, had problems with its XBLA launch, and has talked about them at length. Darwinia dev Introversion didn't have the greatest time either.
"Microsoft pushed us harder than we had ever worked before," the studio's Mark Morris says. "I don't think this was a bad thing. Their attitude was that games on XBLA needed to really shine and look fantastic and they carried that philosophy through with Darwinia+."
"We were naive about how long the project would take and how much work would be required, and ultimately we didn't make the dev costs back," he adds, "but that's often the case in the industry."
While Microsoft funding Introversion's dev kits and paid for certification, this didn't exactly carry through in sales once the game was released.
"They gave us no promotional support and the sales that we were in didn't have any effect," Morris notes. "If you compare this with Steam, where sales probably generate something like 50-75 percent of total revenue, it basically means that the risk of console dev is much higher than a Steam launch."
"Certification and the production values of the platform owner drive up the dev costs," he adds, "but if the game doesn't resonate with consumers then it's very difficult to recover the situation - there aren't that many levers to pull."
While these first signs of indie unrest on the Xbox 360 were floating around, Sony was finding it difficult to keep the indie momentum going. Games like Joe Danger and PixelJunk Racers 2nd Lap showed promise, but for the main part PSN was playing second fiddle to XBLA's indie presence, receiving plenty of XBLA ports that the Xbox 360 had received a whole year before.
It wasn't just the console manufacturers who were vying for indie attention, though - even larger publishers like Ubisoft were sniffing around for interesting indies to pick up. Electronic Arts, for example, found success with Klei Entertainment's Shank series (although Klei later moved back into self-publishing - a sign of the shifting tides, if ever there was one).
This year was also a turning point for Nintendo's indie affair -- but perhaps not in a good way. Despite the promising release of games like And Yet It Moves, Fluidity, Lilt Line, Frobot and the BIT.TRIP series, this was the last time in this generation that Nintendo really looked like it was giving the microphone to indie devs.
And a big story was how Super Meat Boy, previously destined for a console exclusive release on WiiWare, eventually didn't release on Nintendo Wii at all, instead opting to go with Xbox 360 and PC. It turned out that the game's file size was too big for WiiWare -- a requirement that just seemed awfully laughable at the time, and even more so a few years later.
Sony takes the stage
The high point for indies on current generation consoles was the period from 2011-2012, without a shadow of a doubt. The indie boom was now in full flow, and more people than ever were leaving their triple-A jobs to go it alone and chase their indie dreams.
As such, both the Xbox 360 and PS3 saw a multitude of fantastic, unrelenting digital releases over this period of around 18 months. 2011 gave us The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, Fruit Ninja Kinect, Torchlight, Tales from Space: About a Blob, Eufloria, Rochard and more, while 2012 was quite frankly insane.
Fez, Spelunky, The Walking Dead, Dust: An Elysian Tail, Mark of the Ninja, Retro City Rampage, Minecraft, Closure, Dyad, Sound Shapes, Papo & Yo, Machinarium, The Unfinished Swan -- for many, the digital offerings were now easily matching what triple-A retail had to offer.
Sony in particular suddenly appeared to be taking it up a notch. While plenty of devs on XBLA were still having problems with their relationships with Microsoft (Fez creator Phil Fish and Retro City Rampage dev Brian Provinciano come to mind immediately), Sony was getting involved with developers more directly.
Its Pub Fund program launched in 2011, with $20 million invested in indie titles like Eufloria, Okabu, Payday: The Heist and Papo & Yo. Meanwhile, Sony Santa Monica was now working alongside indies to bring titles like The Unfinished Swan and Sound Shapes to fruition, and of course, the acclaimed Journey from thatgamecompany really sealed the indie deal for the PS3.
Not that it was all of a sudden easy for the average indie developer to publish on console. Numerous studios were still forced to utilize publishers, like Quantum Conundrum (Square Enix), Awesomenauts (dtp entertainment) and Knytt Underground (Ripstone).
Meanwhile, the Europe/U.S. PSN divide was causing problems for some studios - Eyebrow Interactive, for example, was forced to abandon the European version of Closure after having trouble communicating in a different timezone with the European PSN team.
It was around this time that the next generation of handhand devices sprung forth, Nintendo offering up its 3DS and Sony its PS Vita. Both have since proved monumental in each company's indie particular, particularly the latter.
The Nintendo 3DS eShop launched in the summer of 2011, and while it didn't initially gain much traction, the indie presence slowly but surely moved in, thanks in part to a number of prominent developers like WayForward and Renegade Kid.
Games like Mighty Switch Force, VVVVVV and Mutant Mudds forged a path in the first 12 months, while Cave Story, NightSky, Fluidity: Spin Cycle, Gunman Clive, Super Little Acorns 3D Turbo and Mighty Switch Force! 2 came next. While the eShop still has a way to go, recent years have shown promise.
"Originally, Mutant Mudds started out as an XBLA game," explains Renegade Kid's Jools Watsham. "But when I learned more about how the XBLA/XBLIG service worked, we weren't as enthused about the idea due to the limitations of self-publishing, and the less-than-stellar exposure the XBLIG store had on the Xbox 360."
The 3DS eShop got Watsham's attention, though, primarily because he's a fan of handheld games -- although he's aware of why other developers might not be so keen on Nintendo hardware.
"I think there are a number of reasons that many indie developers may be choosing different outlets for their games other than Nintendo platforms, including barrier to entry, hardware power, developer control, and audience," he says.
Developing for the 3DS involves paperwork, dev kits, costs, distribution hoops to jump through, less developer control than, say, the App Store and Steam, and not yet a large audience for people buying indie games on the 3DS, the Renegade Kid boss notes.
But even so, Watsham has found Nintendo to be responsive and great to work with, and releasing for the 3DS has been a very good experience.
"I am happy to say that they have worked hard to improve the system to meet the ever changing landscape of our industry," he adds. "Developers are able to set their own release dates and prices, as well as set price promotions. The service that Nintendo provides has improved a great deal in this regard. Offering these services to developers in a more user friendly manner would further improve the experience for developers, in the same way that developers have hands-on control of their store pages on Steam, for example."
The Vita, meanwhile, has essentially made indie games its sole purpose for existing. After stumbling at launch and failing to find the triple-A publishers necessary to pull in the punters, the company quickly changed tack and went full-on indie, pulling in studios like Vlambeer, Beatshapers, Zen Studios, Honeyslug, Boss Baddie, Roll7, Ratloop, Drinkbox Studios, Iron Galaxy Studios, Superflat Games and Grip Games.
And this movement has given way to another large-scale uprising - the rise of the indie publisher. Indies are now approaching companies like Ripstone, Curve Studios and Devolver Digital to get their games published on console and handheld, despite the fact that the word "publisher" is sometimes a bit taboo in the indie scene.
"There's this perception that the value of a publisher isn't worth their potential of a third party meddling with your design or taking ownership of your IP," notes Rob Clarke of Curve Studios. "Indie publishing is the solution to that, offering the support of a traditional publisher while understanding the importance of creative control and IP ownership for independent developers."
These indie publishers can offer development, production, QA and marketing support on a level that actually makes sense to the average developer, since these companies have all also been involved in indie development on some point.
"The reality of indie console development is that things like testing and submissions and marketing take time and resources that not all indie developers have, especially those working in alone or in small teams," adds Clarke. "Ultimately our job as a publisher is to take the burden away from the developers to allow them to concentrate on what they actually enjoy: making games."
The end of 2012 saw Sony attempt to resurrect its self-publishing PS Minis platform with a new name. PlayStation Mobile looked promising, but soon degenerated into the same afterthought that Minis and XBLIG became before it.
This leads us into 2013, where there's a notable shift of indie power happening. While Microsoft still has numerous big-time indie titles on its belt, like Skulls of the Shogun, State of Decay and Charlie Murder, the company's indie showing has actually declined. This year's Summer of Arcade, for example, only featured a single indie title, with published games filling all the other slots -- a far cry from previous years.
Sony, on the other hand, is going full indie pelt. Guacamelee, Thomas Was Alone, Hotline Miami, Ibb and Obb, Divekick, KickBeat and Lone Survivor are just a handful of the major indie offerings the PS3 and Vita have both splashed across the PSN Store this year.
The floodgates open
The most interesting part of this entire timeline is that the last few years of indie progression have been a mere catalyst for what is to come.
Earlier this year, both Sony and Nintendo broke from their restrictive rules for independent developers, essentially opening the indie floodgates for the PS3, the PS4, the Vita, the Wii U and the 3DS. Microsoft, no doubt taking notes, unveiled its [email protected] self-publishing program months later.
Not only that, but indie games have been a genuine part of the public advertising for the PS4 and the Wii U. Sony didn't just mention indies in passing during its big PS4 E3 showing - instead, it put nearly a dozen games and developers right there on stage for the world to see. Meanwhile, Nintendo has been dedicating sections of its popular Nintendo Direct broadcasts to the indie movement.
Of course, while many would argue that this next generation of consoles isn't going to be directly competing with the mainstream mobile games space, it's impossible to ignore that fact that while console games were the main games market at the start of the current generation, mobile dominates in 2013.
"There will be no XNA for the Xbox One, or anything like it as of yet, which puts us in a tough spot," Michelle Juett from Ska Studios admits. "James is looking to Monogame for future development but that also is not supported by the Xbox One. We've been suggested Unity many times but it does not work well with James' development flow, though it's not entirely removed as an option for us."
As for mobile, Ska Studios thinks both mobile and console will see growth, especially where indie games are involved. "The quality of what an indie game is will improve and hopefully the definition will broaden as we get more creative minds into the community," says Juett. "More creativity can only lead to greater things. This competition between the console giants to serve indies is a healthy thing that will benefit everybody."
Q-Games' Dylan Cuthbert agrees, noting that his studio might have to consider going with a publisher for its future releases, simply to lift itself above the huge influx of indie titles on the horizon.
"What's cool is that the bargaining position will be much better and publishers and developers can work together on a more even footing," he says. "A lot of indies like playing with tech as well as gameplay, and there is a ton of really cool tech in the new consoles that is going to really whet people's appetites. The video streaming side of things alone is something that hasn't been mainstream or easy to do until now on PC and both consoles have this as a core feature."
Renegade Kid's Watsham is happy to stick with Nintendo for now. "It seems as though companies such as Sony are getting a lot of positive praise and attention for embracing indies in recent months," he says, "but I have to say that Nintendo has been courting indie developers for a very long time. Nintendo doesn't toot their own horn as much as they probably should when it comes to their love and efforts towards supporting indie devs."
The Mutant Mudds dev is excited to see the waves of new indie devs splashing onto both the mobile and console shores.
"It seems as though we're already seeing more indie games on consoles than before," he adds. "Sony has certainly relaxed their rules more than in the past, and are making great efforts to get indie games on their platforms. Nintendo is continuing to do the same, but the Wii U stigma of low hardware sales right now might presents an obstacle until that is improved in the public eye."
Regarding the Xbox One, he says, "Whether Microsoft really does what it has promised remains to be seen. I would like to see the Xbox 360 and Xbox One be valid options for self-published indie games."
Other developers are more wary. Ace Team's Bordeu, for example, is interested in the self-publishing possibilities, but more interested in how the new consoles will tackle discoverability and promotion amongst this indie uprising.
And Introversion hasn't been taken in by all the new promises from the console manufacturers. "Introversion may work with Microsoft and/or Sony again, but we wouldn't be doing any exclusivity or extra content special content deals - it just doesn't make sense," says Morris.
"Prison Architect is our best ever selling game, and when it's finished - if it does come to a console - it'll be a while after the PC version has launched. Microsoft and Sony are second class customers to Humble and Steam."
And what of the indie publishers? If it's now so easy to self-publish on next-gen, are these companies going to have a hard time finding suitable partners?
"The two big changes in the next generation are in making it easier to develop for consoles, and making it easier for indie games to get placed front and centre alongside bigger titles," answers Curve's Clarke. "Both of those things are absolutely awesome, but it's important to remember that the floodgates are only being opened so far. For developers used to working on a platform like Steam, the level of QA and production expected from the platform holders may come as a big surprise."
The other issue with indies on next-gen, says Clarke, is that leveling the playing field exposes a space to a hell of a lot more competition - and while the number of available indie games will change dramatically, the number of consumers buying them isn't going to explode so rapidly.
"With a more crowded market space, indies are going to need to do even more marketing and even clever marketing than they are doing right now," he notes. "That's not to say self-publishing isn't an excellent route for some developers to take, but it doesn't mean the value of a publisher is being diminished just because the platforms are becoming more open."
One thing's for certain -- the next generation of consoles is going to be far better for indie games on console, but a lot more difficult for the developers in terms of discovery. Of course, this is the story all over, what with Valve's Greenlight antics, the tidal wave of games in the mobile space and challenges other new, low-barrier platforms.
No-one ever said it was easy being an indie developer.