[In this in-depth Gamasutra analysis, casual game veteran Gril looks at the state and evolution of independent gaming, from PC to console, from Desktop Tower Defense to fl0w and beyond...]
Independent development is one of the hottest trends right now within the game industry. And fortunately the public is responding well (but not necessarily responding to an "indie" trend, as we'll see below). N+ is a success on Xbox 360. Kongregate's traffic is growing steadily. Pixeljunk Monsters and particularly flOw are doing well on PS3. If things continue this way, by the end of 2008 most innovation in gaming is going to happen in independent games.
But are they a viable venue for developers? Leaving aside the fact that for every N+ there are a lot of failures (that happens everywhere else and it's a redundant point) in order to make a game that finds its audience you need to be careful about the platform the game is targeted to. Let's look at the market analytically.
But wait -- what is an indie game?
There is a big discrepancy right now in the definition of an indie game. On one hand, you've got those who think that the word "independent" means "independent funding". In other words, the development is financed by the developer. On the other hand, you've got those who think that the word "independent" means "independent thought", which means those games where the design was not dictated by middle managers.
I'm more inclined for the latter definition, as the truth is that in most cases you will need a significant chunk of money to create an independent game, and regardless where you get that money from, what matters is that the game was created following a creative-led game design idea.
Here is then my own definition of an independent game:
An independent game is above all trying to innovate and provide a new experience for the player. It is not just filling a publisher's portfolio need. It has not been invented at a marketing department. And it has not been designed by a committee.
Please also note that I have taken out of the definition any references to the team's size. Even though today most independent games have been done by small teams, that doesn't mean it's going to be the case in the future.
Q-Games' PixelJunk Monsters
Who is the audience?
A good starting point to discuss the opportunities is to try to identify who the audience buying independent games is. In most cases, and based on my research, independent game players can be categorized in one or more of these categories:
- The Cult Gamer. This type of gamer is an active hardcore gamer, who is very well-informed about games and trends in games, and is always looking for games that are different and not part of what the masses play. The cult gamer may be also looking for a lightweight experience for a change (in let's say Halo 3 breaks).
- The Casual Video Gamer. This type of gamer plays games on the web, and maybe some downloads on PC or console. His/her first exposure to video games was when he/she was young, so it differentiates from the Solitaire/Bejeweled/Diner Dash/Mystery Case Files type of player in that the latter in general has started playing games in the late '90s or later.
- The Ex-Hardcore Gamer. The ex-hardcore gamer is generally 25 or older, and has played a lot of games. He may have a family and only 15 to 30 minutes to play games per sitting. The ex-hardcore gamer is aware of the new trends in gaming, although he rarely plays most of the new retail games, unless it's a party game such as Wii Sports.
- Game Industry Professional or Academic Gamer: That's some of us reading this article, and the smallest portion of the audience. Game professionals or academics need to be very impressed by the gameplay of a game in order to add it to their roster. We are a hardcore version of the cult gamer.