The state of games: State of indies

In part two of a five-part series, Polygon evaluates the state of the indie game industry.
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This is the second part of a five-part series on the state of games, written by the editors of Polygon, following yesterday's "State of AAA." Parts three through five will be published separately each day this week. The entire series will be re-published in total on Monday. - Ed.

By now, anyone reading this has come in contact with Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja or Minecraft - games that have inspired sequels, toys, movie tie-ins, conferences and even Halloween costumes. The indie game renaissance has finally gone mainstream.

And yet, the average person might not know what an indie game is - a game developed without the financial support of a publisher - or why the indie community is important - because it is the first legitimate alternative to the publishing system since the majority of video game designers left their garages for office spaces in the late 1980s.

Times they are a changin'. Expect public awareness of the indie moniker to improve this year, as indie developers and fans begin to attract more publicity with their charity work, dramatic life stories and increasingly popular games.

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SUDDEN MAINSTREAM POPULARITY

The life of an indie developer can be dramatic, as they often scrape by on little to no income. This has led to a rush of mainstream human interest coverage. Earlier this year, the Atlantic ran a profile of indie superstar Jon Blow, and last year The New York Times Magazine told the story of brothers Tarn and Zach Adams, the lonely developers of Dwarf Fortress, a game played and funded by only a few thousand hyper-loyal fans.

At this year's Sundance Film Festival, Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary tracking the lives of three indie game makers, won the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award. Premium cable company HBO and superstar film producer Scott Rudin (The Social Network) saw enough material in the film's portrayal of the indie game scene that they optioned Indie Game: The Movie for a fictional television series. In June, following a short theatrical run, the film was released for downloadable purchase online, receiving publicity on national newspapers, including the blog of video game curmudgeon and Pulitzer prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert.

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INDIE GAMES ON THE FRONT LINES OF GAMES AS ART

At large, the critical elite are beginning to shift away from the once widely held negative view of games, now supporting games as a legitimate medium, one that can be used for more than entertainment. Indie games, which generally lack the bombast and blood lust of AAA games, are playing an important part in winning hearts and minds.

Tisch School of the Arts at New York University is the latest college to operate both undergraduate and graduate programs in the study of video games, joining institutions like the University of Southern California, Carnegie Mellon and MIT. The NYU Game Center is run by Frank Lantz, who is an indie game designer on the side. His company Area/Code was absorbed in 2011 by Zynga, itself an indie game developer turned publisher. Under Lantz's supervision, the program has spawned a number of talented indie designers, along with programs like annual indie game showcases. In the fall, the program hosts designers speaking to the future of the industry. In the spring, it hosts a Street Fighter tournament.

The ivory tower highlights one of the key differences — real or perceived — between the independent and AAA gaming communities. Where the latter gauges success from profit and Metacritic scores, a division of the indie game community prides itself on the romantic artistic ideal. They create games because they have stories to tell, and believe games are the medium with which they must be told. Obviously this philosophy reaches beyond the indie game scene, but these developers are known for putting that priority above, say, financial comfort.

These artists cover topics commercial publishers will not, like the tough memories from being a child, in Aether by Edmund McMillen, or the emotional toll of undergoing hormone therapy, in Dys4ia by Anna Anthropy. The medium provides first-hand experience, allowing the player to connect with a story personally. Games allow us to walk a mile in the shoes of another, and thanks to indie games, those shoes no longer belong solely to white beefy men.

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Small Games. Big Causes

The indie game community at large has begun to distinguish itself as the generous and collaborative division of the broader gaming community. The Humble Indie Bundles allow consumers to purchase collections of popular indie games at the price they deem fit, choosing to split the money amongst developers, along with Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Child's Play Charity. A number of imitators have appeared, each directing some portion of profits to similar causes.

Fans of indie games have also played a role in this communal undertaking of goodwill. Kickstarter and Indiegogo, websites that allow people to pay money to game creators (or anyone, really) in exchange for a promised complete product and other optional incentives, have helped to fund a number of projects that otherwise would have never made it off the ground. Developers can now go to the consumers directly for advance payment, rather than borrowing from a publisher or a bank.

IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INDIE GAMES AND INDEPENDENT GAMES?

Artistic integrity and goodwill pervades a significant portion of the community, but that doesn't make the indie development scene immune to money woes. Most indie developers are focused on becoming successful businesses.

Spelltower, developed by digital artist Zach Gage, has sold over 80k units. In an interview with New York Times Magazine, Gage confessed to not liking word games, and designing Spelltower as a sort of antithesis to what he didn't like about the genre.

Sword & Sworcery, developed by Superbrothers and Capybara Games, is the opposite of Spelltower. It is an ode to the AAA games of the late 80s and early 90s. It sold over 350k units on iOS devices, and has since expanded to PC and Mac.

Minecraft is what you might call a AAA indie game. Developed by Mojang, originally the trio of Markus Persson, Jakob Porsér and Carl Manneh, Minecraft has sold over 9.2 million units on mobile, console and PC platforms combined. It operates a now annual conference, the first held last year in Las Vegas, and the second to be held this year at an unannounced venue in Europe. A cottage industry has formed around Minecraft, selling everything from t-shirts to plush toys.

With this level of success, the line begins to blur between indie developer and something less defined. It's an interesting question: Are ultra successful indie games, with large teams and flush bank accounts, still indie?

An example of an independent developer generally not perceived to be part of the community is Rovio, which has seen its Angry Birds franchise nested atop the iTunes App Store since it landed in December of 2009. Like Minecraft, Angry Birds has spawned an entire subculture of fans. Unlike Minecraft, it is developed by dozens of people, and its fans are non-traditional gamers: older women, commuters, the star of Mad Men./p>

One could argue Angry Birds isn't indie simply because it doesn’t have a legion of gamer fans willing to define it as such.

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THE CORPORATIZATION OF INDIE GAMES

Successful indie game studios like Rovio, ones that possess a popular property, have become targets for publisher acquisition. Last year, Electronic Arts, one of the largest third-party game publishers, picked up beloved independent game studios PopCap and Firemint. They are now part of EA's coterie of mobile and casual game studios.

Larger studios, noticing the popularity of the "indie aesthetic," have also begun imitating the style. In 2011, Capcom released MaXplosion, a game eerily similar to 'Splosion Man by then-indie studio Twisted Pixel Game (appropriately enough, the studio was acquired by Microsoft in October of last year).

Even television channels and advertising agencies have turned to indie developers to capture their type of young, hip, technologically savvy audience. Studios like MediaTonic and This Is Pop are independent guns-for-hire who specialize in web games for large non-game-related companies.

And there's a real problem with indie studios cloning the work of other successful indie studios. Something we've covered rigorously.

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INDIE CASE STUDY: MOMMY'S BEST GAMES


The romantic idea of the indie game designer is a bespeckled twenty-something artist sacrificing his health and happiness for his craft, but the reality is indie game design can be quite suburban.

Nathan Fouts is inarguably the happiest indie game designer I know. He has the tall lanky frame of a basketball star and always wears a t-shirt and a goofy smile. My first interview with him, back in 2008, was delayed 15 minutes because he was midway through repairing the front door of the family home. Every interview since, I've noticed that when given the chance he likes to bring up his wife and child.

"The best part," says Fouts about being an indie developer, "is feeling like you're out on some boat on the ocean ... charting the course ... deciding where to go. You're like, 'I like these games. I like to think about these problems. How do I make gameplay out of this? What would be an interesting project?' And also, 'what would contribute to culture and game design? What would maybe enrich someone's life if they played it?' I know we make violent games, but that kind of stuff, just thinking about it and talking to my wife about it is really fun."

Fouts's good ol' boy personality and suburban lifestyle make his violent games all the more jarring. They're retro masculine shooters, odes to being a teenage geek in the 1990s when games were played in arcades on sticky floors, under the din of heavy metal radio stations. They're surreal and raw; when you play them you can feel the rough edges.

Fouts lacks any affectations, which is to say he doesn't try to be what people think of an indie game designer. Neither does he hold any grudges against his competitors at AAA publishers. Perhaps because he once worked for them.

In 2007, Fouts left Insomniac Games, the creator of big-budget shooter franchise Resistance. As Fouts puts it, the company, annually named one of the best places to work by Entrepeneur.com, had provided a comfortable home away from home, but after 10 years at a big business, the family man was ready to do something different: creating games on his own.

Mind you, this was before Apple's App Store would turn 99 cent games into overnight success stories. "[The time] was actually still terrifying," says Fouts.

Operating from his home in Indiana, he became one of the first experienced designers to release a game on the new Xbox Live Community Games service, an alternative to Xbox Live Arcade that didn't require a product to meet all the demands necessary to simply be considered for that service.

His first game, Weapon of Choice, sold moderately well. The follow-ups have sold similarly, some slightly better or worse. None have been megahits or made Fouts an instant millionaire like the designers in Indie Game: The Movie.

"The hardest part is the business part," he says. "Because those numbers are not fun. Those are the hard things to deal with when a game doesn't do well." Fouts is currently trying to win a $250,000 grant from Chase Bank, which would help to lighten the financial burden on himself and his team.

His most recent game was commissioned by another designer who wanted an indie reimagining of an already successful IP. Serious Sam: Double D, available now on PC and coming to Xbox Live Arcade this fall, is a side-scrolling shooter in which the titular hero can stack weapons atop one another. A shotgun, atop a chainsaw, atop an assault rifle, atop another chainsaw or three: all attacking in tandem, like different instruments in a symphony of fleshy giblets.

The project isn't a treatise on art, nor was it entirely self-funded. It's definitely violent, filled with weapons and severed limbs. But most importantly, it is the game Fouts wanted to make. That's why he went indie. To make what he wants to.

"I think [the indie community] is doing well," says Fouts, "but it's also kind of sink or swim. It's sometimes tough to be swimming and reach down and help someone else that's falling and be afraid they're going to drag you down. There's a little bit of that, there's a little bit of pretension, there's a little bit of snobbiness, and there's definitely a lot of goodwill. I think it's doing well ... I think the biggest part is it shows everybody cares about it. When you have people fight and argue that much, it shows they're really into this art."

IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS, I BELIEVE THE KEY DIFFERENTIATING FACTOR WILL BE AUTHENTICITY. IS THIS AN AUTHENTIC INDIE GAME EXPERIENCE, AN AUTHENTIC PORTRAYAL OF THE ARTIST'S VISION?

A NEW LABEL

We've begun to see the fissures in the "indie game" space. We have a groups of a handful of men and women pounding code in dark apartments or rental office space. That's one side of the spectrum. On the other are flush juggernauts like Rovio.

In the next few years, I believe the key differentiating factor will be authenticity. Is this an authentic indie game experience, an authentic portrayal of the artist's vision? Was their development process authentically indie? Were they Davids to publishers' Goliath?

Developers connected to big companies or profit-driven projects will be pushed outwards. From the authentication of indie games and the creative collapse of AAA games will rise a middle ground. Creative and ambitious, but financially responsible. Neither flighty artist nor corporate pawn.

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Rovio is an example of this in-between studio. Not a giant, but not a small fry. A company that produces what it wants and has enough in the bank to do so without worrying about paying rent. Their games, built by more people, may not have as pure of a vision, but they still take risks. Angry Birds Space is a weird, creative take on a property that could have turned out the exact same for the next half-decade.

The state of the indie game industry is so strong that it’s birthing a whole new development culture. A rival for both itself and the publishers. We're witnessing the game developer middle class crawl from the primordial ooze to new office space, not owned by a publisher but by themselves.

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