• August 15, 2021

Soapbox: the term ‘indie’ is losing its meaning, but maybe it’s a positive sign

In the days before the Console ‘Bit’ Wars internet / download store, the way we shopped and enjoyed games couldn’t have been more different. Video games were expensive purchases from the store, and he often relied on renting games that he couldn’t afford or couldn’t “commit” to buy. No downloads, no big discounts, and the market meant that a relatively small number of businesses owned all of the cards.

Launching a game that was aspiring to best-seller in the ’90s, for example, was a logistical challenge that only the big publishers could handle. There was manufacturing, distribution, retail, all the steps in the process that required personnel, contacts, and large amounts of money. Like anything else in the entertainment industry back then, there were multiple gatekeepers and closed doors if it didn’t have corporate clout and resources. Nintendo was undoubtedly one of those gatekeepers, with a draconian licensing deal that eventually led to several companies working with Sony when the PlayStation launched in the mid-90s.

Today, a few people can create a game, launch it with little help, and sell hundreds of thousands, even millions, of copies. This is also a recent development, on the bigger picture, over the course of little more than a decade. In 2012 ‘Indie Play: The Movie‘captured attention because it went behind the scenes and showcased some of the early pioneers and their, at the time, shocking success, namely Team Meat with Super Meat Boy, Number None with Braid and Polytron with Fez. There were other early hits, of course, but those particular examples showed a wide game audience, and a growing community of small developers, exactly what was possible.

Image: Polytron

The term ‘Indie’ made sense at the time; after all, it is short for ‘independent’. These really were individuals and small teams going on their own, and then being courted by platform owners like Xbox, Nintendo, and Sony when it became clear that relatively new download stores needed interesting games to attract gamers. On top of that, these indie developers were producing the kinds of games that a lot of people hadn’t seen before: small, smart, sometimes emotional, and most of all, shocking. Not having a big budget didn’t mean that the actual gaming experience couldn’t be fascinating. It seems obvious now, but go back over a decade and this felt like a revelation.

Not having a big budget didn’t mean that the actual gaming experience couldn’t be fascinating.

This was actually a mainstream progression for a scene that always existed in games, but rarely got a chance to shine. ‘Bedroom encoders’ really spawned the pre-NES gaming systems industry, and the early PC / Internet scene was a home for these types of games. What was changing was the fact that the most powerful guardians of all, the possessors of console platforms, were now interested in these small, indie teams and their intriguing games.

Now, we still have some of these Indies today; small teams that produce amazing games that become hits, on their own. That talent pool that goes Really it’s just still out there, and it’s remarkable.

However, over the last decade, we have also seen the rise of freelance publishers. While many download-only or smaller games are yet to be picked up and supported by the big players in the traditional retail scene, a new aspect of the business has given rise to these download-only game publishers and, of course, physical editions of limited release.

These editors naturally vary enormously in size and resources; in some cases, they put in significant amounts of money to help a small game evolve and reach the next level. In other cases, they just focus on all the things that some developers can’t or don’t want to tackle: marketing, PR, quality assessment, and the nitty-gritty of shipping and launching a game on a platform like eShop. The idea is similar to that of the almighty publishers of the 90s, but usually the sums of money are smaller and it is a largely digital undertaking for most smaller games. Smaller and more flexible, a natural evolution in the Internet age.

GetsuFumaDen: Undying Moon is made by a smaller independent studio, GuruGuru, 'alongside' Konami
GetsuFumaDen: Undying Moon is made by a smaller independent studio, GuruGuru, ‘alongside’ Konami (Image: Konami)

Now, however, the popular use of ‘Indie’ as a term has evolved to the point where it doesn’t really mean ‘independent’ by any sensible metric. Nintendo’s Indie World broadcasts are one example – some of the publishers involved have included Thunderful, Devolver Digital, Team17, and even Konami. Saying this up front, this is not a criticism, but the problem is that applying ‘Indie’ to companies like these makes little sense. What exactly are they “independent” of, considering the size of their businesses?

To take Thunderful, Team17, and Devolver Digital as examples, it is important to say that they have achieved great success as publishers and developers through smart business, investment, and most importantly, exceptional games. Thunderful grew out of the triumphant story of Image & Form, which achieved initial success with the SteamWorld series. Devolver has become synonymous with quirky, daring and imaginative ’boutique’ games, a company with an exceptional eye for top-notch titles and impressive viral marketing techniques. Team17 has become a champion of smaller developer games, while also modernizing its own iconic brands like Worms. However, they are all, as entities, good beyond being ‘Indie’ in the original sense of the word; They are powerhouses in their own right, with varied departments to suit the characteristics of a larger company, many employees, and a lot of influence.

In the pre-internet era, developers would need the backing of Capcom, Electronic Arts et al, but now there are dozens (maybe hundreds) of publishers offering a route to it. new indie scene.

In a previous job I attended various gaming industry events in a business capacity, which brings you to separate areas from the main show with lots of gathering areas and even a few costumes to find. Devolver Digital often had meeting space similar in size to Nintendo and Microsoft; the scale of that operation is impressive. This year there have been reports that the company could go public with a share offering that could reach 1 billion pounds.

But the key point is that I am not saying this as a negative, but rather as a sign that the games industry continues to evolve. Companies like these aren’t Indies in the exact sense of the word, but they often help raise small team games to mainstream attention. Like the social media platforms that once emerged, the ‘Indie’ scene has grown and monetized, over time, through more traditional patterns. In the pre-internet era, developers would need the backing of Capcom, Electronic Arts et al, but now there are dozens (maybe hundreds) of publishers offering a route to it. new indie scene, where clout and clout have no space on the store shelves, but rather top-notch billing in the media and the showcases of the platform headlines.

When you combine the influence of these wealthy publishers with small development teams that continue to create innovative and fascinating games, you have an exciting era for fans of the download / non-Triple-A space. Technology and tools also give indie developers the means to make games that are not only shocking, but also beautiful, and some projects with careful budgeting and the right connections can achieve the kind of production values ​​that, a decade ago, would not have been dreamed of outside of the big boys – budget titles.

If there is something negative at the moment, it is that ‘Indie’ can be hijacked as a term for a degree of ‘cool’. Konami apparently qualifies for an Indie World stream, which seems extraordinary, and there are relatively large and resource-rich development studios that train and rate themselves as ‘independent’. We recently received a press release promoting a new independent studio full of big-name industry veterans who ended up thanking their partners: Google, Tencent, and 505 Games.

Among Us is developed and self-published by Innersloth, achieving incredible success in 2020 and this year.
Among Us is developed and self-published by Innersloth, achieving incredible success in 2020 and this year. (Image: Innersloth)

The problem with this, and also with applying the Indie tag to big publishers like the ones mentioned above, is that it creates new gatekeepers that could make things difficult for those who Really stick to the independent route. It’s not impossible, since games like Among Us and Valheim have shown, but we shouldn’t treat a relatively small number of breakout successes as an indication that the problem doesn’t exist. If the likes of Devolver, Team17, Annapurna Interactive, and more are a new breed of guardian, it’s important that as the years go by, the growth of their wealth and influence doesn’t undo the indie spirit. We’re in a wonderful sweet spot right now where small teams meet and receive significant support and eventual success, but we’ve also seen developers fight with publishing partners. It will remain a balance.

Unfortunately, we have seen in the ‘triple-A’ industry how profits and big finance can contribute to the erosion of ethics, worker rights, and the true quality of gaming experiences. Hopefully, as this was of Mega indias continues to develop, those pitfalls can be avoided and the diverse range of games and experiences we’ve enjoyed over the past decade only gets better, as the ‘Indies’ get bigger.


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