How indie games went mainstream

If the video game press conferences, conventions and expos of the past year are anything to go by, the forthcoming console generation will be the first where games made by independent teams have shared almost as much of the stage as the blockbusters made by some of the world's biggest studios.

Both Microsoft and Sony have drummed up their support for indie games, bringing indie titles to their press conferences and devoting large portions of their floor space at events like E3 and Gamescom to smaller titles. Even newcomer console maker Ouya has based its entire existence around independent games.

It was only a few years ago when independent game developers sat on the fringes of the games industry — their numbers seemed small and their chances for success even smaller. Today, it's hard to imagine the industry without them.

This didn't happen by accident. According to the developers and publishers Polygon spoke to, many factors played a part in fueling the steam train that is indie games, and these factors are now changing the way the industry does business.

"... The ability to release a game on a platform does not outweigh the time spent negotiating a shitty deal..."

"For [the] indie [movement], things have really changed in the past five to seven years," Vlambeer co-founder and developer of Ridiculous Fishing and Wasteland Kings Rami Ismail told Polygon. "If you look back in 2008 when indie games were starting to gain ground, it was this underground thing. Since then, it has grown into this global movement."

According to Ismail, part of the reason the indie movement gained steam was because of breakout successes like Braid and Super Meat Boy. These indie titles launching on established platforms and showed other developers that small three, two or even one-person teams could find success without the need for big studios.

This initial spark of inspiration was then fueled by factors like the rise of digital distribution, which made it possible for developers to cut out the middlemen; the launch of initiatives like the Humble Bundle, which put indie games on people's radar; and the Indie Mega Booth at events like the Penny Arcade Expo, which gave indie game developers a presence in a space previously dominated by big publishers.

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But while the past few years have been a steady climb for indie games, Ismail says 2013 has been the breakthrough year for the movement, thanks in no small part to the console manufacturers.

"For the first time, indie is an undeniable part of gaming," he said. "It's an undeniable part of mainstream gaming where everybody sort of knows about indie and everybody sort of knows about a few indie games.

"The platform holders haven't really been able to ignore indies, although some of them tried pretty hard until recently. It's been an interesting, weird change because it wasn't that long ago that for an indie to get onto console was sort of impossible. Being able to get onto specific platforms was a necessity for survival, whereas with the way things are now, it's turned the other way around."

Where the console makers were once seen as unreachable by indie game developers, with Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade having a reputation for being both inflexible and difficult to work with, while Sony's PlayStation division was a faceless entity that was unapproachable and wrapped in bureaucracy, both parties have changed their tune in the lead-up to the launch of the next generation of consoles.

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Many of the developers Polygon spoke to, from Switchblade Monkeys (who are making the PlayStation 4 exclusive Secret Ponchos), to Muteki Corp. (Dragon Fantasy Book 2), to Vlambeer and Matt Thorson (Ouya exclusive TowerFall), said Sony has been proactive in searching for indie games and developers in a way that is unprecedented for the company.

"They're really just constantly reaching out," Thorson said. "One example is a representative from Sony actually came to our house and played TowerFall with us, and that's pretty crazy to think about. They were just talking to us as people. For indie game developers in particular, it's really weird for us because publishers are used to dealing with companies, so they sort of just treat you as a company.

"It's really weird to be treated as a company when you're a person, so it's cool that Sony gets that."

Microsoft has also changed its approach to courting indie game developers, adopting a new model that allows developers to self-publish. In addition, the company announced that every Xbox One will double as a developer kit, which means anyone who own an Xbox One will be able to make games for the console. This effectively cuts out a lot of the red tape that had come to characterize publishing on Xbox Live Arcade — red tape that Ismail says eventually became a deal-breaker for many indie developers.

Towerfall

"It turned out that even the developers that were really happy about the amount of money they made on XBLA were not happy about the way they were treated by the teams, and so XBLA kind of died [for us]," he said. "It sort of fell flat because nobody wanted to make games for Microsoft because Microsoft was not a good partner to work with.

"Again, for indie developers, the ability to release a game on a platform does not outweigh the time spent negotiating a shitty deal or talking about things that should be easy but are made hard. We want to make games and bring them to gamers, not make games and then pretend we're an accountancy firm and pretend we're a legal firm and then get thrown around through dozens of things.

"I think Microsoft moving away from not allowing self-publishing to now allowing self-publishing is such an obvious indicator of them starting to get that all we want is to release our game on their platform and not deal with the rest of it."

According to Ismail, the publishers working with indie game developers have simplified their processes, and both Sony and Microsoft are actively creating environments where indies can thrive alongside the blockbuster titles.

"It's no longer a case of 'you need us,' it's a case of we can work together to make things better for each other," he said. "And then they'll have an extra game for their console and we'll have more players and it will all work out beautifully."

Tracey Lien is a senior reporter for the site. Her last story traced a robot's journey through humanity.

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