Friday, March 12, 2004

Welcome to Indietown

Independent games.

You hear the name bubbling up here and there across the internet. It's a concept that has even managed to get the likes of the IGDA to sponsor awards to honour. Reports from GDC are ever more interested in what the independent developers are up to.

And this is perhaps unsurprising in a risk-averse commercial climate. Many development and publishing staff will tell you that they privately wish for better times, when perhaps some measure of originality can be relied on to break through.

I mean, come on, we all got into gaming because it was very different, and well stayed there because it was consistently so for a long time. Games don't just divertingly amuse us (the good ones). They enthrall us. Or at least, they used to. No doubt a very few still do, from time to time, but the business is quite full up to the gills with commercial concerns and wags telling us that the bottom line is everything in game development. Forget originality. We want Def Jam Vendetta 5: Bikini Tour XXX2. Or something.

And that's where the indie idea takes root of course. Developers, ever keen to ape all the language of the cinema era, take a look at 'independent cinema', and appropriate wildly. The film people manage to have an indie sector, so why not us? Much fledgling effort is being expended to make it so, but indiegaming has several mountains to climb.

The games industry is not like the film industry. It is more like the film industry of 50 years ago. Two main points for this article are:

1. Games are now dominated by large companies peddling character/brand franchising. The film studios of 50 years ago had a similar system with actors on long-term contracts as matinee idols, making endless blah blah films to carry on their franchise.

2. Games are very expensive to make, and the technology to make them is largely controlled and over-priced. Hollywood studios of 50 years ago were in a similar position because film equipment was so expensive that they had de facto control. Ditto in both cases for distribution.

The combined effect of both climates is/was to create an averse culture. The prime difference between film of the 50s and the present day is that the whole film industry has gone through several cycles of crash and boom which have altered its climate drastically. One the one hand, the idea of star retainers has vanished, and everyone's a freelancer now. On the other hand, the access bar to get into the film has lowered hugely, to the point that independent film has become a reality. And thirdly, that independent movement has something of a market in that people who don't like Hollywood crap can find something worthwhile to watch. So both mainstream and indepedent fields exist.

In games, things are still in the 50s.

The games industry works in a retainer-driven culture. It has controlled formats that do not permit a whole host of titles to ever see the light of day. It is focussed on the mainstream market only, and is quite happy to cut customers adrift if they don't like the output. And there are no 'ins'.

The lack of in-roads is the thing that really stalls any supposed independent gaming movement. None of the console manufacturers wants to sponsor an independent label. None of the retailers believe that independent games will sell because they will look cheaper than 'proper' games. Among publishers, only Take Two operates anything like an independent label in the form of Rockstar, and calling that 'independent' is generous at best. Everybody thinks independence is bad for business.

What I would love to see is big publishers forming an 'indie' arm, like Miramax to Disney. The one thing that keeps a consumer like me coming back to the cinema is good films. I know that those films have probably been half funded by Home Alone 9, but that doesn't bother me, though. I'm quite happy to let the kids watch XMen 7 if it keeps them happy, just as long as I get to see 21 Grams.

Similarly, in games I would be as happy as Leisure Suit Larry if the games industry carried on making whatever license tosh it likes to make, on the proviso that there was a smaller side to it that produced innovative games. EA, for example, makes several trailer-trucks of money a minute. What do they plan to do with all that cash? Reinforce their franchises. Create new franchises. And what else?

Nothing, that's what else.

For a viable independent sector to exist, it needs to have a means of professional-level production and a means to market. Independent games have neither. The PC is not a viable platform because it is territorial and the standard of graphics etc push the price waaaaay up. The consoles are not a viable platform because they are closed. Handhelds are likewise. There is no retailer in the land that is interested in hosting an independent gaming section in its store, when space is at a premium and the stores are so directed toward kids anyway. The internet is proven time and again to be an uncertain means to market at best, rife with nothing so much as piracy.

There are no 'ins'.

And so independent gaming is doomed for the time being to a pipe-dream of mods and lonely awards that few even among the development community are even aware of. Is it a bad thing? Well do you want to play Def Jam Vendetta 5? Do you want to make it?

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