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Daily Reaction: How Indie Games Can Move Us and Change the Industry

November 20, 2012 Written by Sebastian Moss

They might not have huge marketing budget or the fancy limos of big studios, but indie developers are able to push the boundaries of what games can do, forcing the industry to change with them. The Daily Reaction team of Seb and Dan discuss how, and get a little teary eyed in the process.

Seb: Assassin’s Creed III cost millions upon millions to make and was the main focus for hundreds of developers for several years. But it’s not moving. In fact, big budget games generally have a very hard time truly connecting with individuals. Behind all the glitz, the glamor, the explosions, there’s often a soulless experience devoid of any truly powerful emotions. Don’t get me wrong, these games can be amazingly fun, scary or adrenaline pumping, but they’re mostly devised by a huge group of people who all have the same general idea, but lack that focus a small or one man team can have.

Much like many American comedies, which are written by committee, it’s all about skipping from one punchline to the next, with less of an eye on an overall story arc. I have no problem with watching these comedies, they’re light entertainment and can be enjoyed as such. But TV shows that are able to move people are almost always written by one or two people.

There are notable exceptions in AAA gaming of course – Heavy Rain is one, with the clear vision of David Cage at the helm (and yes, Quantic Dream are independent, but they’re not ‘indie’). Kevin Levine’s BioShock is another. The fact is clear: games where a small number/single person takes the creative lead are far more able to create compelling experiences. Of course, it’s risky, and big publishers don’t like putting all their faith and all their money into one person on an AAA project, so it’s a rarity.

With indies, it’s the norm.

Dan: The main factor that’s pushing the indie scene to go beyond what the mass market titles have been is in fact their inability to compete on an overall development level. While some independent titles are able to create an impressive world, or have a few interesting concepts, they are not able to compete in all aspects of AAA titles. As the time needed to draft, create, develop, and proof is an expensive process, the more things that are added to development can exponentially increase the cost of a product. This focused development mindset allows indie developers to pay more attention to how a user will respond to a given stimulus, which in turn allows them to actually dictate a much more powerful message and/or emotion. The most common and relatively cheapest way to instill emotion in the user is simply through a well written story, and that is where the indie scene can surpass most major developers. While this is not always the case, as AAA titles are now spending millions to implement tales that can surpass the scale of any indie title, they are usually aimed at too broad an audience to have as much of an effect.

Also, the ability for indie titles to be created with only a fraction of the time and staff adds a number of benefits to the industry as a whole. As an indie developer is able to create a title on a much smaller budget, and is able to see a return with a significantly smaller subset of the audience – the ability for a publisher to fund and take chances on innovation are much higher than on an AAA title. The ability to create a title from beginning to end with a much smaller team means that you don’t have too many chefs in the kitchen, as well as allowing more studios to be run in parallel to each other, which means more games for everyone.

None of this can replace the need for AAA titles, as they are a completely different facet of the industry and have actually been a laterally growing part of it. While big titles like CoD have emerged, and the graphical power of games like Uncharted have set the bar for fidelity, countless other big budget titles have had to spread beyond the norm and actually become something new. Like you said, titles like BioShock are the best examples of the progression of the big budget game – the ability to push beyond what has been successful before and still hold the development standards of a big budget game. Luckily, we are not only seeing the progression of major titles, we are seeing a push from publishers into the indie scene as well.

Seb: Absolutely, Sony has been eyeing up the indie market for a long time now, trying to work out how to capitalize on the innovation and speed that it offers. But it’s hard – indie is all about freedom, while Sony wants to be able to control as much as possible. It’s a conflict that is unavoidable, but Sony has taken great steps to try and minimize the problems.

They have their hands on approach that they took with thatgamecompany and Giant Sparrow – that led to one of my personal favorite titles on any platform – Journey. It’s a vividly gripping game that deserves all its massive acclaim. It managed to move me, while the majority of PS3 games serve to pass the time.

Then Sony has their pub fund – where they help fund the development of an indie game, and don’t even take the IP rights. Except the problem is they pay the devs only after the game is made, as we discussed before. Pub fund helped create games like Papo & Yo which, despite its many flaws, pushed the envelope of what is expected of games. There has never been a console game that covered such a sensitive subject from the developer’s own perspective.

From today, there’s the $99 PlayStation Mobile platform. How successful it will be remains to be seen, but it gives the option to anyone to create their game, to share their experience. I can’t wait to see the outcome.

But Sony still has a long way to go – I want to be able to play games like Jason Rohrer’s Passage on my Vita. Or even political games, ones that push social taboos, that make you question your life, the universe. PSM is going to be ‘curated’, I just hope that’s to cut out cheap clones of titles, rather than risque ones.

However, it’s important to note that these guys aren’t just people who couldn’t compete with AAA. Some of them worked at AAA, but they knew it was not the place to share a vision. Until more publishers take bigger risks with individuals, indie will remain the place to share. And with dev costs set to rise next gen, I don’t see that happening.

Dan: It is true that more and more developers are moving towards the indie scene, and that the ability to carry out a vision by doing so is becoming more and more viable. The ability to improve upon or even develop a concept beyond theory simply by finding resources online is now easier than ever.

One of the most interesting ways that I have seen a developer turn the industry upside-down was when I saw a demonstration of J.S. Joust – a game that by its nature is only a mechanized version of the existing child’s game of tag, with a few twists. This concept which is now a part of the PS3 and PC Sportsfriends bundle, which is being pushed through by the hugely popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

The combination of a unique idea that extends the boundaries of the industry, as well as the strength gained by people supporting a product so early in development, really shows the true power of the indie scene. As more and more titles move closer to their audience we are seeing not only a greater ability for smaller developers to push their dreams, but we are finally seeing just how powerful a small subset of the gaming community can truly be. This almost grassroots movement removes a number of the barriers we see in big budget titles, as there is little need for PR and ad agencies to figure what is the best way to dress a character so that people will pick the box up in a store. What we see now is a movement of not just deeper emotional tales, but also a movement within the industry, that cuts through most of the crap found in dealing with billion dollar companies.

Have you found that you can have a more powerful experience with an indie game than an AAA one? Do you have any titles in particular that you’d love to talk about? Spout off in the comments below, email us or support your local indie writers by following  Seb and Dan from behind a bush.

For people really interested in indies, I’d recommend reading our ludicrously long interview with the director of “us and the game industry”.

Be sure to email DR ideas, podcast comments and general stupid stuff to DailyReaction@PlayStationLifeStyle.net to enter a competition to win nothing.