Sunday Thoughts: Independents

There’s always been a perception that independent gaming is the ‘little leagues’, that it can’t compete with the likes of EA or Activision. The big boys have tens of millions of dollars to spend on making a game, then even more on making the public realise that the game’s worth paying attention to. When indie developers are putting things together on a shoe string budget, they’re obviously not going to create titles that have the same scope or feel as a Call of Duty or Gran Turismo 5. Or are they?

This week we talked to Adhesive Games, the developers of Hawken. They’re a tiny team right now, with just 9 people working on the game, but the look of Hawken puts many games from more established developers to shame. Of course, we’ll have to wait for the game’s release to make a final call on whether or not it can hang with the big boys, but indications are pretty positive right now. So are we really starting to see the emergence of a new breed of small developer?

By that I mean a developer who can make games that looks stunning, but stick to a more industry standard art style. I mean there’s no arguing that titles like Limbo or Flower aren’t visually stunning, but it’s their unique art that draws them attention. They look great because they’re not employing a look that feels standard, if they attempted to go for a more typical presentation style they likely wouldn’t hold a candle to work from development teams that have the resources to employ dozens of artists.

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[drop]However, whilst titles like Hawken or even Shadow Complex are rarer from independent developers, there does seem to be a subtle shift that’s starting to occur. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with a smaller developer creating something that’s clearly influence by the art style of bigger developers, it’s perhaps more unusual.

All of this ignores that, with the growth of digital distribution technologies and the mobile gaming market, we’re seeing some what of an indie renaissance at the moment. As it becomes easier and easier to get your game out for less and less (the price of admission for the App Store is just $99, and Android is free), more and more individuals seem to be seeing game development as a viable career. Just ten years ago Introversion labelled themselves “The last of the bedroom programmers.” Now it seems like they were just the last of the old breed, with a new, ever growing group creating titles in the Internet eco-system, and this time it doesn’t look like they’ll be going anywhere.

Whilst we seem to hear of the depressing closure of bigger studios that fail to perform with worrying regularity, I don’t know if the same is true of small indie studios. The overheads are lower on an indie team, and many aren’t even doing this as their day job yet. It’s similar to the reason that Kevin Smith says he’ll always have work as a film maker, whilst his titles don’t ever pull in the mega bucks, they aren’t costing that much to make either. When you’re outgoings are so much lower then it can be easier to get your revenues into the relieving positive numbers.

[drop2]That’s not to say it’s easy being an indie developer, it certainly isn’t. Looking at Introversion again, on the day that they announced pre-orders for DEFCON they spent their last £1500. Fortunately the game was successful and they survived. However, you can’t imagine a bigger developer ever getting to that situation. Even when Activision closed Bizarre Creations down in February, I doubt there was a meeting at Bizarre where anyone said “Well we’ve got no money, lets close up.” No they had a couple of games that, unfortunately, didn’t quite hit the targets set for them and they were closed down. People lost their jobs, and that’s always sad, but at least everyone got paid. No-one had to file for bankruptcy or raid their personal savings just to keep the studio afloat, both of which are likely outcomes for a floundering indie studio.

Ultimately, it looks like we’re going to see a continued growth of the indie scene, and that’s certainly a good thing. Games with the looks of Hawken may well become more common, but hopefully we’ll also see the unusual design that indie titles are famous for surive. With larger companies, perhaps understandably, putting their money on franchises that are “safe bets” the indie scene can provide some much needed variety, and maybe even give some fresh ideas to the bigger developers.

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7 Comments

  1. Personally, the company really makes no difference to me. If a game is fantastic, then let it be regardless of developer. Look at Hawken. The graphics are fantastic, and the gameplay looks mindblowing. I sincerely hope it’s good and that it promotes other indie companies with the same potential to bring out stuff of the same caliber

  2. A lot of the best games about have come from indie developers, back in the day of the amiga most of the games going were made by some brilliant random guy’s in their bedroom and passed around to their mates. I wish things were a bit more like that, Minis are good but I feel like Apple and Sony could do with pumping a tiny bit more cash and expertise into these little nuggets of fun.

  3. It makes sense that smaller companies are where we see a lot of innovation and ideas, having fewer resources can inspire a more creative approach and also they are not setting out to build on an existing franchise. They can try things that a publisher would be afraid to risk.
    I would like consoles to be a bit more open in their architecture. An indie game should go directly from the game’s creator to your console without having to be approved by a publisher or store imo. It works that way on PC and although consoles understandably have to be locked to specific content, a secondary boot mode like PS3’s OtherOs was a step in the right direction … *sigh*..

    • Ignoring the whole OtherOS debacle I’m with Mr Bonyman on this. Take it to the next level and let’s see Sony supporting single-man outfits all the way up to the likes of Activision and everything in between. I want to see Sony-sponsored competitions in the media. Every bloody year! Promoting innovation and start-ups. Categories can be set up. For example:

      1-2 staff, no turnover
      3-6 staff, low turnover
      7-10 staff, moderate sized SME, etc.

      Okay, that’s a truly awful breakdown but you catch my drift. These guys might be the next award winner at the VG Awards, etc. In an industry of ever-increasing franchises we need more risk taking at grass-roots so it feeds the entire system.

  4. Great article, I’m just about to teach this subject to my students. Very enjoyable read and excellent discussion resource for one of my lessons!

    Cheers ;)

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