With the internet community providing information on new tools, instant feedback on design and functionality, and software resources, indie designers are increasingly finding success in a market dominated by big firms.
To gain insight into the evolving environment, we reached out to some indie game designers. They were open and frank in their discussions of independent video game design, the challenges of taking the indie route with their work, technology’s impact on the industry, what it takes to remain independent and what they feel are the future developments and directions of indie games and the gaming industry as a whole.
Independence, Defined & Explained
“Being independent means you make the rules,” states indie game designer Edmund McMillen. Since being laid off from a job as an animal control officer back in 2003, McMillen has helped design games such as Chronic Logic’s Bridge Builder and the IGF 2005 grand prize winning game Gish — an idea of McMillen’s about a black blob of tar. He says that although the walk is admittedly difficult, not being a member of a mainstream team means freedom — the freedom to create what you suspect might be interesting without answering directly to anyone. “I have the ability to express myself however I feel like. Independence means being able to take big risks, experiment with game design, push the limits of what can be done with game design as an art, to have the ability to change the future of video games, to seriously mold the future of the industry.”
Having previously worked as an environment artist for Relic Entertainment on games like Company of Heroes and Dawn of War II before making the leap to independence, Thinking Studios cofounder John Warner’s first indie game, Raycatcher, was, as of this writing, scheduled for a March 2009 release. He says change is in indeed in the air. “The AAA titles that have become so popular over the years are starting to prove to be cumbersome and expensive to make. Also, there is an economic crisis happening all around the globe. Purse strings are getting tight, and working conditions in an already abusive industry are getting even more grim.”
Up For the Challenges
Freedom, it’s been said, is its own reward, and with the creative and artistic freedom independence grants these game designers also come some very real challenges. Having the resources to see a project through to completion is, in itself, a hurdle. Some designers are working in micro-teams of three, two or even solo. They often do all of the conception, drawing, animating, programming, sound design and more while working from home offices or in the case of some, bedroom and campus dorm work spaces.
Enter Naturally Formed Studios founder and current University of Washington junior Matthew Kaplan, the mind behind the game Machiavelli’s Ascent. The game was developed in roughly “six days during one of our breaks from school” reveals Kaplan, who has overcome his fair share of challenges to succeed as an indie game designer. “Using our personal resources to create games is definitely financially challenging,” he remarks. Marketing and promoting the game has been a major hurdle for Kaplan and company. In an already extremely crowded field, smaller companies find it’s difficult to garner sufficient attention for their games.
“Trying to get noticed is a bit of a task,” Kaplan concedes. “It’s definitely a struggle to keep the attention of gamers, as new games come out every week. We were really pleased to find ourselves on the top 10 list for a few weeks. But after falling off the radar, trying to bring attention back to our game has been our biggest challenge.”
The studio has employed traditional media (print packaging design), new media (the web) and personal/professional networking methods to create market awareness for Machiavelli's Ascent. “We knew the box art would be the first thing people saw in the marketplace, so we put a lot of care into making it stand out. We’ve also tried to take advantage of social networking — we have a Facebook page for Naturally Formed Studios,” he adds.
In addition to overcoming the marketing challenges of promoting an indie game with an equally indie budget, unaffiliated designers face a sizable amount of personal sacrifice in terms of financial resources (or the lack there of) … including a certain amount of seemingly unavoidable — even required — professional isolation, which decreases time for personal life.
Ska Software founder James Silva — whose Dream-Build-Play Contest award-winning game The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai has recently garnered its creator an Xbox LIVE Arcade contract — says he had to overcome starvation and cabin fever. “The amount of work it took to get The Dishwasher into shippable form has been absolutely, relentlessly daunting from one day to the next. The thing about Xbox LIVE Arcade is that every game that gets on it has to be approved by Microsoft, be developed — working closely with Microsoft — to meet some very exact specifications, and finally pass rigorous Microsoft certification. For The Dishwasher, this process took just over a year. On the other hand, I gave up a brand new, fresh-out-of-college full-time programming job to work on The Dishwasher.
“With some investment money from my wonderful parents, savings and frugal living — I’m all about the ramen — I’ve been able to scrape by. Since I am independent, this is a bit of a financial gamble, but if it pays off, it’ll pay off. As they say, paychecks are nice; royalty checks are nicer. Generally, I couldn’t imagine not being independent: I love coding, drawing, animating and wrapping it all up in an excellent game too much to give up. My development house, Ska Studios, consists of two computers, a bunch of Xbox 360s, a $70 drawing tablet and me in a bedroom office, where I am usually accompanied by at least one cat,” notes Silva.
Freedom + Passion = Innovation
A big part of the fun in imagining, designing and developing indie video games is the creative breathing room that enables one to take big risks. The risks, according to these designers, allow them to cultivate an atmosphere of experimentation in their designs. And this degree of freeform creative experimentation leads to innovative breakthroughs that probably would not result outside of an indie development atmosphere.
“Indie designers can work with very experimental game ideas, because the risk factor is small,” suggests McMillen. “If a team of two works on a game for three months, and it doesn’t do well, that team isn’t going to go bankrupt. You can take risks — huge risks. Everyone making mainstream games plays it extremely safe,” he feels. “If you look at the mainstream now, you can clearly see that the market is flooded with nothing but sequels and rehashed ideas. How do you expect the industry to grow without it taking any risks?”
“There’s a need for passion, creativity and sacrifice,” says Warner, when asked what’s required for success in indie game design. As Warner tells it, these three elements were at the center of the origin of Raycatcher. “Raycatcher was built by myself and my partner in our spare time. For a good chunk of that, I was unemployed, burning through my money and going a little bit into debt. We figured it would be a cool idea to create a game where instead of killing stuff, you’re finding a way to absorb your environment into yourself, and that would allow you to grow.” It’s a fitting metaphor for the experience of being an independent game designer.
Technology = Equalization
It’s no secret that today technology has allowed the indie game design scene to thrive. The web has become the great (and inexpensive) equalizer, having leveled the playing field, destroying the barrier to entry in terms of production and development, and dramatically reducing the distance between a designer’s game and his audience. Imagine it; develop it — in your dorm room, bedroom, garage and/or while sitting in a coffee house using wi-fi. Once ready, upload the game to the internet, share, distribute. It’s as close to instantaneous as it can get.
Xbox, understanding the importance of online gaming and its communities, has created an online space (Xbox LIVE), marketplace (Xbox Live Marketplace) and suite of game development tools (XNA Game Studio) geared toward the broadband community.
“Around the start of 2009, Microsoft launched Xbox Community Games, a platform that allows hobbyists to basically throw any old game on Xbox LIVE for mass consumption, having passed peer review,” Silva says. “Within a week [after posting The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai], it was live. When I got the Xbox LIVE Arcade contract, I had just started a career as a cubicle code monkey, which I gave up to pursue a career in indie game land. Hopefully I can stay here.”
Kaplan adds, “Most assuredly the internet has been a huge factor in the democratization of the field. Without digital distribution we wouldn’t be able to share our game with people outside those within throwing distance of a thumbdrive. While we study fields that are helpful in game creation, we’ve found the internet to be, as always, a wealth of information, where we can learn specific techniques and practices that a university education might not account for.”
The (Near) Future
So what does the future hold for the independent gaming set? “I’d like to think the industry is becoming more accepting of the indie scene — appreciating the risks we’re taking creatively that they’re currently not able to take,” McMillen says. “Right now good indie games are booming, so things could easily go two directions: Indies could continue making awesome games that are marketed in the mainstream, pushing the limits of game design … or mainstream publishers start making what they view as indie games to try and tap into some of that sweet indie cash, flooding the digital download services with more soulless games packaged to look indie.”
Wagner is optimistic, predicting a less ominous state. “I think that development is going to get a little bit easier, and there’s going to be more support for folks like us. Also, I think games in general are about to make a step into something more … abstract. That’s what I’m personally investing in. I think things are going to get a lot sillier. There’s going to be a new level of abstraction on top of games that we might not have seen before. Games are so ready for it now — so many of them are borderline ridiculous as it is. We’ve seen a lot of tough guys with big muscles shoot guns at hapless idiots. We’re just waiting for someone to come along and make fun of it all.”