This week’s article for the Green Dragon Inn blog.
With the advent of the new Xbox 360 dashboard, a series of changes have also been put in place in the Games Marketplace, shifting the indie-developed games into its own special corner, according to Kotaku. The dashboard has been redesigned to push these games back into a more accessible, as you can see from the article, but only after the independent game developer community raised its voice in a singular clamor.
What’s interesting is the influence that community displayed in this little spat, at least to the over-informed observer. You see, the thought that someone who had nothing more than a shoelace budget and a sliver of vision could release a game on a console would have seemed ridiculous five years ago. The process for a game to be considered for publishing is stringent, with demanding standards and bureaucratic hoops that must be conquered. That process used to be impossible for most developers that didn’t have a major publishing house to back them up. Now it’s difficult, but surmountable.
Indie games don’t tend to be wildly successful, but some of them have so much inspiration and style that they stand out of the crowd, such as Braid, which was featured on NPR, I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1, Super Meatboy, and others. This is noteworthy because, as difficult as making a game can be, as many tears and broken dreams from big, small and lonely-guy-in-a-garage developers, there’s still room for these games to grow. That’s where true art is.
PC gaming is a strange animal, with its own challenges and complexities, but it’s a wilderness where anything could show up and be judged on its merits alone. The consoles were the unassailable glimmering cities, where only Big Businesses could go to strut their stuff. Right now, the so-called AAA gaming world is locked in a quandary, where every game has a multi-million dollar budget, tied to expectations that are just as high as the price tag. Those big-ticket games have to sell millions of units very quickly to be considered a success; anything less than a blockbuster is a disappointment. Meanwhile, if an indie game sells a fraction of that, a few thousand copies, it’s seen as a phenomenon (see Braid).
These are contradictory tendencies, one of them promoting creativity and style in a Darwinian environment, while the other enforces adherence to form and institutionalized brands (think Halo, Call of Duty, etc.). According to Gamasutra EA Partners recently launched an initiative by which they’ll shepherd successful indie PC games through the costly bureaucratic process to bring them into the digital marketplaces on two of the major consoles, the Xbox360’s Games Marketplace and the PS3’s PSN, which can be seen as both generous and business-savvy. By promoting these passion-driven developers, EA can position itself as a nigh-charitable corporation, attracting talent and pushing their competitors aside in this particular niche. It’s all part of a complex, evolving industry.
The pressures and limitations that AAA games face have actually driven skilled developers away from making those would-be blockbuster games. By shedding the budget and the expectations, skilled yet smaller game studios can focus on making fun games rather than games that are all but guaranteed to sell well. You don’t have to look any further than Costume Quest (Thank you, joystiq) by Double-fine, who also developed the critically acclaimed Brütal Lëgënd (am I putting the umlauts in the right places, I wonder…) for an example of that. Fun games both, though with wildly different budgets and demands.
One way or the other, it’s all about those guys and gals out there that are coding their games themselves, with nothing more to guide them than their own vision. With the advent of digital distribution to consoles, indie development continues to survive, perhaps to flourish in a new ecology.
We’ll continue to watch developments as they take place.