Indie developers are great. It is truly impressive what these guys and girls can pull off with relatively small amounts of money while still being able to push genres forward. They have carved out their little niche and its great that they are able to make ends meet, to some extent, pushing the bounds of their creativity. It is even greater that the big platform holders are allowing them to self publish to reduce the burden of the commercial realities that may come with signing up with publishers. In short Indies are great.
But they’re not god.
There is something about the current state of coverage and discussion about indies that rubs me up the wrong way. They are little bastions of creativity that deliver us fun, often thoughtful experiences, usually at a far lower price than mainstream contemporary publishers do. But there is nothing inherently special about these creators that make them different to anyone else working in the industry. Every developer, big or small, is looking to at least recover the costs of their venture. That is for better or worse the way business works. When you are seeing a price point that is lower than that of full retail (or often downloadable) titles because it costs less to make these games. It is business at its most fundamental. They are doing what is right for them every step of the way. The stakes are lower, absolutely, but they are entirely self-interested both as creators and as business people.
That’s not to say the business model of indies isn’t different, because it is. The appeal of these games can often be far less broad than a publicly listed company and therefore greater risks can be taken. You would never see something like Papers, Please commercialised by a big publisher because, well, it just isn’t in their best interest to bring to market something that is unproven and incredibly niche. But don’t think for a minute that big publishers aren’t taking risks – they are – and if they weren’t we wouldn’t see businesses like EA posting losses intermittently. Every investment brings with it an element of risk and its important to understand that both indies and the mainstream games industry are taking very calculated risks every day.
Indies are important for a number of reasons; creativity, lo-fi development, back to basics game design. You name it they’re doing it. As start-ups they learn to be incredibly efficient to deliver on what they aim to. But here’s the kicker – so did Electronic Arts, Activision, and Ubisoft. Over 30 years ago Electronic Arts was personally financed by founder Trip Hawkins on around $200,000 and from there grew through numerous venture capital equity injections and subsequent acquisitions to be one of the biggest market players. The successful business model, but more importantly, the high quality of its product, allowed Electronic Arts to fund its expansion. The tale of almost every corporation, with the obvious exception being state-owned enterprises, is one of risk and hardship, not that unlike what we’re seeing with indie developers right now. And while the socialists among us, and those that like to feel they’re differentiating themselves by shunning the mainstream may not like that, we should all hope that the Vlambeers of the world continue their success and become bigger and great businesses as a result. I’m here to tell you there is nothing wrong with growth in a competitive industry like the games industry and there is nothing wrong with companies with large capital reserves. There are no monopolies in this industry and we should not treat successful businesses like they are.
You see I don’t have a problem with indie developers. Period. But I do have a problem with how they are treated and discussed on the internet. People defining themselves by their focus on indie games, people complaining about big publishers’ business models because they bought Luftrausers for $9.99 (which you should, by the way, its great) but then had to buy NBA 2K14 for $89.95 and then some. People talking about indies as the ultimate in virtuous development while ignoring the piles and piles of steaming excrement that sit on iOS and Android, developed I might add, independently. The internet is all too eager to point out when things go wrong, particularly when big publishers are involved, but almost never when things go right. I might point out that Trials Fusion was developed by former indie-gone-mainstream RedLynx whose parent company is one of the biggest publishers in the world, Ubisoft. It is a very one-sided take on the industry that has people clambering on and holding a mythical version of what indies have come to represent.
I love watching entrepreneurs go out and do what they love to do. I really do. I love even more when that results in them being able to earn a living. The same holds for indie developers – there is nothing more satisfying than watching an unknown be put in the spotlight for a nice little ditty they put together from very little money. Of course sometimes it goes horribly wrong and these developers are forced to retreat from their dreams and take up employment elsewhere. It’s sad, but this is just the way of life. Like it or not, we live in a society where we need to pay our way. It’s not the market’s fault, it’s not the economy’s fault and it sure as hell isn’t the fault of the big publishers. It’s just the way it is. It’s capitalism at its best and its worst. And while indies are a great little piece of this great microcosm we call the games industry, they’re not the ultimate bringers of truth and justice. They’re just another cog in the incredibly complex wheel that is the market.