What Does the Recent Success of Indie Games Mean For Their Future?

What Does the Recent Success of Indie Games Mean For Their Future?

How many times have we heard, ‘this is the year of the indie game’?  Although often proclaimed by an amateur journalist trying to generate some hype for his content, (*cough*) this statement is genuinely becoming more and more relevant.

The term ‘indie game’ most likely conjures up an images of games such as Minecraft, Super Meat Boy, Fez, or The Binding of Isaac as these four games are debatably the most successful indie games to have hit the commercial market in recent memory. Something worth noting about these games is that they have all been released within the last couple of years, (with Super Meat Boy being the oldest by the way, hitting virtual shelves in the latter part of 2010). The scale of success for an indie game is no doubt a tough thing to measure and this is due in part to the broad spectrum term of ‘indie’ itself. But one thing is clear, the biggest are getting bigger.

Cave Story

Cave Story was a genuine pioneer of Indie games.

However, the success of these games seems to go much deeper than the critical acclaim and innovative gameplay which the best indie games are known for. What sets these four in particular aside from the likes of Cave Story? To answer this question we need to look at the inherent differences between the games, the most obvious being the release dates. Fez was released earlier this year, 2012, while Cave Story was originally released back in ’04, and there are no prizes for guessing which of the two made a bigger impact. I’ll talk more about the implications of this in just a little while.

Aside from release date differences, it’s worth considering the development behind these games, the nature of which also provides insight to the evolution of the genre. Cave Story was developed by a single man over the course of five years, in his free time. The game was designed around a variety of themes such as ‘warmth’ and ‘depression’. Rather than molding his game around the legacy of games that had come before his, Daisuke Amaya created a unique experience in his basement. This turned out to be a revelation for the industry, and quite possibly the advent of indie games as we know them today.

Alternatively, Fez was developed as a collaboration of four developers over the course of five years, and, controversially, the creators formed a corporation during the game’s development. After playing the game it’s not hard to see the influences that games such as Paper Mario and Zelda had on the title. Fez was also published by Microsoft, as it was introduced to the XBLA, which ultimately led to some issues regarding patches. Those issues have long since been resolved but not without leaving the game unplayable for some players for some time due to costs associated with using Xbox Live as a distributer.

It might sound as if I’m being overly negative about Fez. In fact, that is probably a fair assessment, but I’ve only highlighted the key differences between what is undoubtedly a ‘pure blooded’ pioneer of the Indie franchise and what is a great, although corporate, success, indie hit of recent.

Unfortunately, the ‘corporatization’ of indie games isn’t reserved for just a few recent isolated events. Microsoft has made a big push to try and capture the innovative genre with a dedicated distribution system; Steam is also becoming an attractive option for Indie developers with the new ‘Green Light’ system. But more than that, the inherent publicity and recognition that a game can get for existing on these services almost guarantees more sales then the game would generate only being available from the developer’s website. The increase in sales from major distributers is now so large that you would have to be crazy not to join with a major company to get your game out to people.

Consider what the last game you purchased straight from the developer was. I guarantee that for many of you the answer is  Minecraft.  For the remainder the answer is probably Slender. There’s no denying that two games are hugely successful and both prove that a ‘true’ Indie game can still be a working formula, but for every Minecraft there are hundreds of games that have flown straight under the radar.

Minecraft Quote

Minecraft exceeded expectations, and has earned its developers millions. Proof that self-distribution can still work.

Over the course of the past few years, more and more people have turned to Indie game development as a career. The risk that the game they’ve spent years creating could just fruitlessly fade away is a scary thought, especially if your mortgage depends on the success of it. So while the need for industrial giants in the indie market is becoming more prevalent and as people become more serious about creating these games, where do we draw the line? What makes an Indie game Indie? Phil Fish created a corporation for the development of Fez, but if it has only three employees, then what makes it any different from a team of guys coding in their bedrooms? If the inclusion of distributors like Steam helps the Indie market grow, what’s the harm in taking advantage of it? On one hand, the development itself is still independent, but does it defeat the purpose of Indie gaming itself?

These questions are very subjective and although I think major distribution can take an ‘Indie guise’, like the Humble Bundles, more and more games are being developed by bigger teams, and they in turn are looking to large companies to help market the end product. This may only be the start of a very slippery slope.

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2 comments

  1. Great article, matey! It made me think about some things that I will now as a narcissistic a-hole share in the comment section of your article! Sorry! :)

    For your last question, “What is indie”, it is indeed hugely subjective and depends on the person. Me being a crazy bastard, my definition probably differs from most. I think an Indie Game company is one where their games do not have a big producer. I don’t think it matters how many employees they have. I even think Valve is technically a indie company, which just proves how goddamn crazy I am.

    I don’t think releasing your game on platforms owned by other makes you “not-indie”. I don’t think getting your game magically on Steam or XBLA turns you into a company-whore, but again, that’s just me.

    I think there has always been successful indie games, since the dawn of the internet, and few even before. First Bejeweled was released in 2001, which was made by 3 guys, an indie team in my eyes. Braid was 2008, as was World of Goo. There is a gap there, where you can fill what games you happened to play, since no truly successful ones spring into mind. I played a lot of Liero, myself.

    it’s true however, that the digital distribution services have helped the indie games to get more reckognition. Helps a lot. Having a successful indie game with direct download from devs is SUPER hard. A game like Slender comes by every 5 years. A game like Minecraft once a decade. And that’s pretty much pure luck. If you want even a modest success using no publishers or their platforms, you have to be known that you do that. Otherwise you just need huge piles of luck.

    Anna Anthropy and Jasper Byrne have been fairly succesful without having their games on XBLA or whatever, but that’s because they are well known in the indie circles.

    AAA-sudios have always been boring and went with the flow, which at the moment is shooter-games. IF you want true innovation, indie is where you should go. Slowly, but surely people will move more and more towards the Indie-market. Then the AAA-industry reinvents itself again and people will come back. It’s a cycle that keeps on cycling.

    Just some thoughts your article brought into my mind. Maybe you will get something out of it, maybe you wont, but there it is. :P

    • Alex Bennett

      Wow, that’s some great feedback! I appreciate what you’re saying, and I’m not of the opinion that it’s a bad thing that Indie developers are using these distribution methods. But, in my opinion, it’s quite clearly a step away from what Indie games used to be, and has become the normal thing for an Indie developer to do.

      It’s very easy to go ‘corporate’ just a tiny bit at a time, maybe getting a game published by a larger company, or even just getting a bigger team to work on the game. I think the problem is, that once someone is successful with it, the rest of the market will try to emulate them.

      I’m not saying the future of indie games is certain, It’s far from it, but I don’t think the indie games we’ll be playing 5 years from now will be very different in terms of production from the games that were released a few years ago. Whether that is a bad thing remains to be seen, it could just make game development easier, and more accessible, which would definitely not be a bad thing.

      Anyway, thanks for the response, it was very interesting to hear another opinion.

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