19 November, 2004
This is one of those topics I find myself posting about often. What is the role of the independent (indie) developer, especially when it comes to developing online games?
Warning, this is a long one….
To give some background, I’ve been developing games professionally for over 6 years now. I’ve been designing games for about as long as I can remember, even if I didn’t realize I was designing games. I’ve been playing games for even longer. I’ve seen a lot as a gamer.
It’s easy to look at it all and take the jaded view of things and say, “Is there truly nothing new under the sun?” It sure seems that there’s not much originality out there. The summer has been dominated by discussions of DOOM 3 and Half-Life 2, both sequels of popular games. Even the online space has been dominated by discussion of EverQuest 2 and World of Warcraft. One is a sequel to the biggest online RPGs in the U.S., and the other is a popular single-player franchise coming to the online RPG space. “Where’s the originality?” I often hear people ask. “Can’t they do anything original?”
Of course, this causes me to shoot people dirty looks if they do it in front of me. “Of course there is,” I reply, “but it’s not right in front of you, so you have to look a bit harder. I’m talking about the independent developers.”
The indies are doing very innovative stuff. We have to because we simply can’t compete with the budgets of the large games. In the online game space, you have such games as Meridian 59 (that I help develop, of course), that provides a great skill-based system with a fairly open PvP ruleset and is considered one of the first of the modern online RPGs (aka MMORPGs). There’s A Tale In The Desert that offers a focus on more community building and absolutely no combat in the game. Or, you could play Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates that offers great puzzles in a wonderful pirate-themed game world. All of these games show a degree of originality. Yet, these games rarely get the attention that the larger games do.
Even in the offline side of things, you can see some great games developed by independent game developers. Uplink is a terrific cyberpunk-themed game that was built by a group of indies for a very low budget. GarageGames not only provides top-quality tools for developers, but also had a shop with some really fun games. The game Zap! is a lot of fun to play. Most of those games are significantly cheaper than the US$50-$60 (or even more!) you’d expect to pay for a full commercial game. But, most people haven’t heard of the games sold there, even though they’re a lot of fun and many of them are highly original.
The problem here is one of money. Independent developers often don’t have a lot of money to spend on production values and advertising. The games don’t look as pretty as the games made by the big companies. The games aren’t advertised in 2-page glossy ads in your favorite gaming magazines (which also often means the magazine doesn’t care about covering them since they’re unlikely to spend money on ads). The indie developers focused on creating a fun and original game with the limited resources available.
What about the larger developers and publishers? They have the money, right? However, they don’t want to risk that money. They want a guaranteed return on investment, and sequels are more likely to make back their money than something “original” (read as “strange” by the people with money). Of course, one should note that it’s the landmark original games that have kept the industry moving forward; I’m talking about games like SimCity, Populous, Civilization, DOOM (the original), Myst, and The Sims. These games (re)defined genres of gaming, and captured the attention and imagination of people back when they were released.
That’s where the indies come in. The indies aren’t risking as much when they make a game. Uplink was made for a very small amount of money. Compare that to the multiple millions of dollars it costs to create a game like Half-Life 2. It makes sense for the small indie team that made Uplink to try something new and original that might prove unpopular with the marketplace. It doesn’t make sense for them to try to compete with games developed by the larger game companies. It makes less sense (from an investor point of view) for a large company to put millions on the line doing something original yet risky.
But, here’s the paradox: gamers aren’t supporting innovation. Gamers aren’t looking for indie games to support. Instead they complain about the lack of innovation in the mainstream games. But, it’s obvious that the large game companies aren’t interested in being innovative due to the risks. Those few gamers that do go looking at indie games often complain that they aren’t as pretty as the mainstream games, not digging past the initial poor impression to get to the innovative aspects of the game. Gamers seem to care more about how pretty the screenshots are than how fun the game itself is.
And this lack of support is a huge problem. If the market doesn’t support innovation, then the mainstream industry is going to continue to create derivative games. Again, their goal is to make as much money as possible, so you cannot expect them to innovate. The best way to see an indie game get better production values is to buy it and support it. Other developers will see how popular that game is, and will probably make an “enhanced” version of that game one way or another. But, the original idea has to be proven popular and potentially profitable before you see the larger publishers and developers doing this.
And, this philosophy applies to more than just games, too. Tired of “Top 40″ radio? There’s literally thousands of great bands out there creating cool new music for you to enjoy. Many of these bands are online, too, making them even easier to find and enjoy. Stop downloading the same music you claim “sucks” and go find some starving musician that deserves your support.
Finally, there’s one very important reason to support the independents: if you don’t they’ll go away. Many independents are independent by choice. The developers of most of the games I mentioned above are talented people. They’ve proven their ability to create and ship a game, which is exactly what large developers look for in potential employees. On a personal level, I made $90,000 per year at my previous job before Near Death Studios. Last year I made $12,000 from Near Death Studios and have many tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt. I run an independent studio because I believe indie games are important to the games industry, especially to online RPGs. But, I’m not rich by any rational financial measure. I’m not getting younger, and I would eventually like to do things like own my own house. I’m not going to be able to continue to eat ramen and live without health insurance forever. If I don’t see support for the games I develop, my alternative is to get a job with one of those large developers or publishers. I’ll be working on the sequel that retreads yesteryear’s already worn out ideas in order to maintain a reasonable standard of living someone with two college degrees usually expects.
But, perhaps that’s what the market truly wants? I sure hope not, as both an indie game company owner and a gamer that wants to see innovation.