When I came across Chris Bateman’s recent blog post “No-one is Independent” all I could think was: “Yes, but that is not the point!”. Then I started thinking about what might be the point. “No-one is Independent” is about the inability of being truly independent of corporations. Starting off with a brief history of the “indie” label – that was first introduced in music circles – Bateman argues that no video game production outside the influence sphere of corporations is possible. I agree. Paolo Pedercini’s (a.k.a. Molleindustria) earlier post-marxist piece “Toward Independence” similarly argues that independence is not an absolute position. Bateman’s article ends in a call to action to “begin discussing in earnest how we would like our relationships with corporate organisations to develop over the decades to come” whereas Pedercini is clearly more opinionated when he concludes that the next question is “how we can move another step toward independence”. In this article I want to go a step further than Bateman and argue a bit less political than Pedercini.
In August 2013, the Humble Origin Bundle generated US$10.54 million dollar revenue. Buyers received Origin keys for up to 10 EA games. Electronic Arts donated their share of the revenue to five charities. The bundle was sold by Humble Bundle, Inc. – the same company that runs the biggest indie bundle. What started off as an experiment for selling indie games – with the launch of the Humble Indie Bundle in May 2010 – had turned into a marketing tool for the mainstream.
The history of the Humble Bundle is well documented. The initial idea by Jeff Rosen of Wolfire Games met surprisingly high demand. He quickly formed a company around the bundle and managed to secure investment by Sequoia Capital, the same investment firm that backed Google, YouTube, Electronic Arts and Cisco. The first Humble Indie Bundle yielded DRM-free copies of the games for Windows, Mac and Linux as well as access to the source code of a few of the games. The Humble Origin Bundle on the other hand was only available for Windows and buyers could download most of the games from Steam and all of them from EA’s Origin storefront.
Humble is still launching Humble Indie Bundles and due to their reach, those are repeatably successful. What started out as a way to spread the word about some indie games became a serious commercial venture. What started out in the spirit of independent gaming has found its way into mainstream.
At the Game Design Challenge during GDC 2011, Jason Rohrer presented a game about religion. He had created a Minecraft world and copied it to one single USB stick. Players are permitted to play until they die once. Afterwards, they must quit immediately and pass the USB on to someone else. This way, the religion spreads from player to player. What is more interesting about this idea than the religious inspiration, which was the theme of the challenge, is the fact that this game is anti-capitalistic by design. It is futile by intention and bound to meet a natural end at some point.
Sarah and Colin Northway designed a game, Shader, that only runs on one single laptop. They glued the hard drive in place and destroyed all ports of the laptop so that the game can never be copied. Thereby they created a true original – a rare treat in the digital age. It’s easier to consider this game as an artwork and a comment on society than criticize it as game. It’s a critical intervention, more than anything else. The game could still be monetized, e.g. by renting the laptop to a museum, but it is denied the more common practice of commercializing games: selling copies.
Projects like the Northway’s Shader can only be produced if the makers are in the privileged position to not depend on the revenues generated by selling this specific game. Jason Rohrer is a strong advocate of open source, but makes a living from selling his games on closed platforms. Paolo Pedercini is an academic which puts him in a position that allows him to produce non-commercial games. These invaluable contributions to the landscape of games are only possible because these individuals are privileged enough to exclude specific works from the commercial sphere. Yet at the same time, this exclusion removes an important political aspect from the equation. By being non-commercial, the challenge of maintaining independence in a commercial setting is circumvented. It is a valid strategy to work with, but not viable for most of the independent developers out there. If developers have to make a living on their games they naturally are “all wholly dependent upon corporations”, as Chris Bateman points out. Bateman’s call to action that we should “begin discussing in earnest how we would like our relationships with corporate organisations to develop over the decades to come” is the true challenge that lies ahead. And non-commercial games are no answer to this challenge.
In a recent discussion with fellow indies, one of them mentioned that independence means separating the vision from the financial source. Striving for independence is exactly that struggle: a constant battle to push through your vision despite having to make a living from it the one way or the other. There is no single strategy but a multitude of skirmishes to be fought. One game might be a contract work where every piece of game design is fought for and a giant publisher is convinced that free-to-play does not work for a concept. The next might be created non-commercially, out of the privileged position of having developed AAA games for years. Yet another game might be a biographical game that could be regarded as a piece of art if there was an art market for games. There is no single answer. There is a wide open space to be explored. In order to explore this space, new initiatives are needed. There are dozens of areas where new arrangements between commercial enterprises and creative spirits can and should be attempted.
At the core of the problem lies the dependence on established markets – be it the iOS store or the Humble Bundle. Apple has clear guidelines for the kind of content they allow on their marketplace, which is their right. They provide a service and you have to play by their rules if you want to make use of their ecosystem. Humble Bundle also has its rules – e.g. there needs to be a Linux port of a game in order to be considered for the Humble Indie Bundle. There is but one rule-free market out there that is not governed by a commercial entity: the internet itself. Yet at times where even credit card companies (and PayPal) let their business policies be guided by their distinctive moral standards, payment options remain a problematic area. While indies might be able to start their own marketplaces, they still depend on those payment services. And of course, establishing an indie marketplace means that a commercial entity is born that might grow out of its indie-ness just like the Humble Store did. Yet commercial thinking does not necessarily have to affect the vision of your games. A new decision has to be made with every new project. A decision how to commercialize a game without sacrificing the vision.
Things are simpler when it comes to technology, because the Open Source movement opened up this space in recent decades. Strong ties between industry and academia allowed for the creation of a huge ecosystem of technologies that cover the whole spectrum from totally open and non-commercial to commercial licenses for open source software. It is not required to ignore closed-source software either as long as there is a tool open enough for the project at hand. In other words: developers are very free to choose which tools they use for a specific project and some of them impose no restrictions whatsoever. What is needed in this area though, is education and information, since the freedom of choice is only granted to the well informed.
The law is another area where independence is a struggle. Especially the area of intellectual property right is a minefield for game developers. While there are non-commercial entities making games, those are usually very limited in the kind of projects they can realize due to limited budgets. Commercial entities, on the other hand, are often not flexible enough to cover all possible forms of game development. And upon success, they easily become the target of lawsuits. That leaves self-employment as the option that yields a lot of freedom yet it also bears the highest risks. Big corporations have been in a position where they can influence law-making for years, yet there is no lobby for indies. Just like the legal landscape of the music industry is shaped by big labels, the legal landscape of games development is in favour of traditional enterprises. The only reason why indies can thrive in this environment is because they are small enough to be ignored by copyright and trademark trolls.
Last but not least, there needs to be a theory of independence to which I hope this article – just like Paolo Pecercini’s and Chris Bateman’s – contributes. This is an opinion piece and I know that a lot of points in this article could be critzised. We have to keep the discussion going about what we mean to achieve, no matter how tired we all are of talking about what the term “indie” even means. The independent gaming scene is full of creative idealistic individuals and a lot of them turned away from industrial games production because they believe that there are values that are more important than profit. The motivation to go this difficult path is different for each of them. Some just want to be able to live the lifestyle of their choice. Some want to change the world. Some just can’t integrate themselves into a corporation. With each perspective comes a chance to expand the very notion of what constitutes a game. Games are an important cultural achievement and it is down to the indies to give them meaning beyond mere entertainment.
Why would indies even strive to be as independent as possible? The general consensus in the indie sphere seems to be that games could be much more than they are now. That games could reach out to other aspects of live – enrich, educate and inform. Just like the independent movie industry does not have one single agenda but a multitude of different motivations, each player in the indie games scene has a different motivation to do what she does. Autonomy is required to allow a wide range of ideas to become public. There is no inherent right to be able to publish your game on any device out there and even less to make use of existing corporate-run market places. There is no obligation to gatekeeper companies to allow game developers to make a living from their games. Yet it is the games with a reason or a message, the games that present the chance to experience something that enriches your life, that make the medium valuable. The values of those creating these games are more likely to make the world a better place than the exploitation-based capitalist motivations that govern corporations. This is the simple reason why independent game making is important.
How to stay independent despite being part of the commercial landscape is the big challenge. It’s a technical, social, legal as well as intellectual challenge. A lot of indies are in constant struggle, walking a thin line. We will have to continue making compromises because we are part of the bigger picture, unable to reach a state of full autonomy. In order to true independence to emerge, our whole society would have to change. As long as it does not, all we can do is work hard to open small pockets of autonomy and fight back corporate interests that restrict the space our games can explore.
Thanks to Chris Bateman and Paolo Pedercini for inspiring me to write this text.