The Indie Game Conundrum

So indie games are cool. It’s true! They’re easily distributed, they often pursue pretty lofty artistic goals, they’re fun to play and cheap to buy. And there are literally THOUSANDS of them. Hooray for the indie gaming world!

Now that I’ve effectively summed up my opinion on that particular subject (and there is ample evidence in previous posts of mine that this is really, really true), let’s talk about what makes them so problematic. Because there are problems. I think that indie games are a godsend for game developers everywhere, but boy, they have their downsides.

The main reason for this post is because Notch (the near-god-status creator of MineCraft) did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit recently, and said some things that are very profound in terms of indie game development. Now, Mojang really only has ONE game. They may have some in the works, they may have put out a couple silly little projects before MineCraft, but MC is their big one. So, I guess we can’t call Notch “experienced” in the art of making indie games. But, actually we can! He’s had the chance to meet with, work with, fraternize with, play Halo and drink beer with every big name in the indie gaming industry, and some who are even bigger than indie games as a whole! He knows EVERYBODY, and thus knows a lot about the world of indie games and how they are made.

The big thing that totally struck me is the hype surrounding MineCraft and Mojang. EVERYONE who plays it loves it. There are a ton of people who are just completely apey over it, and I’m one of them. It’s a brilliant game, it keeps getting better, and every time I play it I look up and like 5 hours have gone by. (I’m not proud of that… okay, maybe a little, but in a very nerdy, self-loathing kind of way.) So what’s next for Mojang? What is going to capture our lives and our attention NEXT? It’s gotta be GREAT! It’s gotta be BETTER than MineCraft! WAY BETTER! CAPSLOCK! But the reality of the situation is that it won’t be. It can’t be.

And why not? Well, because it’s MineCraft, Notch says. He explained that MineCraft’s popularity was a fluke, a one in a million chance that he happened to get lucky on. It wasn’t intentional. And certainly, if we play MC ourselves, we can understand how this can be said to be true. The limits of the game are not imposed upon the player, they are imposed BY the player. Therefore, if players find it too difficult to embrace their creative desire, or an elite few hadn’t decided to make scale models of the Arc De Triomph, Neuschwanstein castle, and the FRICKIN’ U.S.S. ENTERPRISE, then perhaps others wouldn’t have picked it up and tried their hands at it. It really WAS a fluke. And the next game they put out won’t be. The reputation of Mojang is not enough to make a game that isn’t %100 awesome succeed.

Also, we must consider some other things. A different artistic goal must be in mind for their next game. To make a game quite a bit like MineCraft would make their fans jaded and let them down. In the indie game industry, novelty is a strongly attractive attribute for a game to have. The reason people like Haydn or Mozart were able to write so many symphonies and concertos is because they had a formulaic approach to composition. The same cannot be said for indie games. So, while Mojang may do sandbox games really well, they have no choice but to abandon that genre if they wish to make another game.

Finally, we must consider the people themselves. The gamedevs for indie games almost never number more than 12 or 15. There might be some indie studios with more than 20 people, but it’s very rare. When you have a close group of people like that, creativity is very hard to come by in large amounts. To produce awesome (and different) games consecutively is a very challenging thing for all game developers, but when you have such a small group of people, it becomes nearly impossible. Not every game can be utter genius. Not every game can be the most brilliant child a game company brings into the world. That’s not how it works.

To be an indie game company presents a very interesting set of challenges, and they’re ones that big game companies don’t have to face. They have the ability to create franchises out of their games that allow for a somewhat formulaic approach to how they do business, even if the artistic aspect is changed a bit (Final Fantasy or Tekken, anyone?). They have a lot more manpower, which, while it doesn’t create something completely mindblowingly brilliant very often, there is a base level of artistry in every aspect of the game (writing, 3d modeling, gameplay, programming, environments, music, etc.) that provides a quality product a lot more often than any indie company can hope for. And there’s the advertising. Big game companies throw around a lot more money, and can expect to make a lot more money from their investment. It’s the nature of the beast.

It’s a wonderful path in life to take if you love creating games. I would get up every morning and love my job if I could make indie games or write their music. But… everything that makes it so wonderful can also give these creative individuals a lot of problems and obstacles to their success. How does one continue being successful after one STARTS being successful? Notch says it’s not possible. Perhaps he’s right? Well, given the profits of MineCraft, he can AFFORD to be right! Frickin’ millionaire. For the rest of us, however, let’s hope he isn’t!

~Another Gamer


About Isaac Smith

I write about music, technology, video games, and probably many other subjects that don't bear mentioning here. Either way, most of it's worth reading, and you may even enjoy yourself!

Posted on August 3, 2012, in Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Now for the first time in a while (if not ever) I have to disagree with you. Knowing me, as well as you knowing me (I hope you do at least lol) I know that creativity in some people is a bottomless well. I never stop thinking about new and intuitive ideas for how to go about creating a game. Yes, large teams of hundreds and thousands of people can produce more games, both in volume and size, even graphically being able to push the boundaries or setting them. But as Indie -being completely independent- you get to set your own rules for how you want to go about making a game in the first place. Look at Super Meat Boy: Team Meat may not have been completely original, but their creativity and freedom to do what they wanted and parody anything and everything gave them the blockbuster hit game that Super Meat Boy is today. Its a matter of mentality minus logic that can allow creativity to bring successful games, and pushing the barriers of that creativity to its far edge of limitations – exceeding limitations. It kinda goes back to what Steve Jobs said “Stay young, stay foolish,” and that really worked out for his company’s creative edge (at least for a while). We all have our moment in the limelight, so that you have to make the most of.

    Also, yes its true that the people who play your games are the ones that make it popular, and thus more successful. But being able to reach people is powerful. Just the fact that you can promote your own product to people you know like it’s genre is very controlling, manipulating even. Heck, you will always have followers who play your game because they have been there since the beginning, just because you hype it up as the NEXT BIG THING! You can even hype up crappy games and have ordinary gamers buy into them like drooling zombies (YAY ZOMBIE REFERENCES!) So knowing how to reach people is a powerful thing, and can give your games the edge. In fact, that is why huge game companies put out crap games – because they lost their central edge of creativity. They make a game and become successful, but then never plan ahead. They make their game they always wanted to make but then lose creative focus when realizing they now own a business and are in deep, having to keep people employed instead of thinking of other ideas for how to make other fun and inspiring games. You may think its impossible to stay successful once you reach success, but I know its possible. Bungie is a shining example of this – and always will be. They have achieved every step to their World Domination Plan, and now continue on into space (quite literally lol). They even knew when to stop with Halo, where 343 Industries have mistakenly continued on with it. And since I know how they have gone about achieving their success, I know that our Creative Group will too.

    Because knowing is half the battle…

  2. I’m currently exploring the world of indie pc gaming through Steam. It’s like a wonderland. I actually made a list of games on my blog to buy in case of money. 😛

  3. Possibly. I haven’t read 100% of your posts, but I happened to pick out Amnesia beforehand and then saw later that you’d started playing it. 😀 I also reeeally want to play The Dream Machine, for the pure and simple fact that I have hoped and dreamed that someone would create a game using clymation.

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