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.
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.
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.