Independent By Design isn’t exactly a book about video games, it’s about those who create the games and the personal stories that surround them. It’s a point that’s emphasised by the contents page, as it lists the studios and developers that are featured within, but not the games that they’re best known for.
There’s a pleasing parallel between the creation of Indie By Design and the stories that the book sets out to bring to the fore to readers. As the foreword says, those featured within the book have taken “emotional risks and intellectual chances, flirted with financial ruin and sought to redefine what a video game might be and how it might be made,” and there is common ground in independently creating, crowdfunding, publishing and distributing a book. Though it was successfully funded on Kickstarter, that’s hardly a cast iron guarantee of successfully being able to publish a book, even if it’s all been budgeted and planned out meticulously in advance. In the end, the book has finally been released almost a year behind the Kickstarter’s original estimate.
It’s fitting that the first developer to be featured in the book, 11 bit studios, is able to really bring that kind of risk to the fore. A Polish studio founded in September 2010, their particular story actually starts in earnest with the collapse of communism in Poland at the end of the 1980s, and as you read the story of Grzegorz and Pawel Miechowski over the twenty years that followed, it’s fascinating to be reminded of how the world has changed since then. Yet, the influence of those post-communist years is clear to see.
11 bit studios are just the first of the nineteen alphabetically ordered developers in the book. There’s a fantastically diverse set of studios from single person developers like Lucas Pope of Papers, Please fame, up to companies like Croteam and inXile Entertainment, that I struggle to consider as “Indies”, despite their independence. Similarly, there’s developers from all around the world, whether Eastern European outfits, developers in Japan, America, or the rather well represented UK indie scene – it is, afterall a book written by two British authors.
Many of these are developers that you would absolutely expect to see in a book on independent developers. Introversion Software have a storied – and well told – past, while The Chinese Room shot to fame with Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, however there are a number of big name developers and games that aren’t here, whether it’s Mike Bithell or Jonathan Blow. That’s a strength of the book, so that it has that all important variety between developers, including developers like Chris Hecker and Adriel Wallick, who are well known within indie development circles but aren’t anywhere near as firmly in the public eye.
If there’s one failing, it’s that the choice of developers can feel like a snapshot of 2015. That’s just the nature of the lead times required for this kind of production, as well as a side effect of the delay from the originally planned release, but 2016 has been another strong year for indie games with the likes of Inside, The Witness, Furi, Firewatch, Dangerous Golf, and so many more besides. Those stories will have to wait for another time.
Those discussions and stories with developers are punctuated by interviews with other notable figures from within the games industry, able to give different perspectives on how it has changed. Richard Lemarchand is an Associate Professor and Chair and the University of Southern California, best known for his work as lead or co-lead designer on the PlayStation 3 Uncharted trilogy, and he gets to see and foster how the next generation of developers learn their craft and grow. There’s a similarly industry-wide perspective offered by Graeme Struthers of Devolver Digital, albeit from the perspective of a publisher that deliberately cuts against the grain, helping to champion and publish independent games while keeping them truly independent.
There’s an uncompromising quality to the book itself. It makes an attention grabbing statement with it’s almost flourescent yellow cover, accented when light hits it at an angle and reflects off the many varnished squares. It’s luridly bright to the point that you might actually struggle to make out the white logo and title written on the front.
The pages within, retain a more traditional black text on white background printed on , with each developer’s chapter opening with a full page image that again highlights them as the focal point of the book, as opposed to the games that they’re best known for, which are almost relegated to being a footnote in comparison.
The overall layout and design feels reminiscent of when I still bought and read magazines, as opposed to living largely on the internet as so many of us now do. In fact, it’s a step beyond that – I dug out a few old issues of Edge and OPM to see if my initial gut feeling was right. It’s more often the case that entire pages are devoted to text or to large prints of concept art or images from the games, and that gives them both space to breathe.
As someone with video games in their life on a day to day basis, actually having met a number of the developers featured within the book, some of the stories of game development within Indie By Design are more than a little familiar to me. Yet whether it’s a developer that I know well or one that I’m much less familiar with, each chapter I read is engaging and interesting in different ways. Sometimes it comes from a broader insight into game development and how indie games can push against the established barriers, other times it’s something much more personal and how those hurdles have been overcome.
Whether you sit down for hours and read through chapter after chapter or occasionally take it off the shelf and dip into the book one developer and one interview at a time, the stories and insights within Indie By Design are well worth reading by those curious to peek behind the curtain of game development.
Independent By Design is available now, whether through Amazon or directly from the authors (where it’s discounted until the end of the year). Alternatively, you can enter our competition before 6PM today for a chance to win one of two copies that we’re giving away. If you just want a little taste, then you can read a sample excerpt over on Vice.