A revolution in indie gaming development is making it more affordable and above all, more accessible. Perhaps it’s time for the Big League to take notice… By Andrew Solomon
Most of today’s gamers won’t remember this, but there was a time when games were issued on floppy discs. (If you have never heard of a floppy disc, talk to your parents – and be prepared for half an hour of boring reminiscences about how they had to program their PCs with MS-DOS before starting work with a pirated copy of Xyrite.)
But we digress. That long-ago era saw the emergence of a special breed of game developers who broke new ground with different ways of coding and unique ways of manipulating graphics. These developers didn’t always do it for money, but rather for the love of their art. That was the start of what has since become known as indie game development.
In the good old days, these developers released their titles as shareware or freeware via a formidably large network of shareware Web sites; the lucky ones ended up on a disc on the cover of a magazine. While this was undoubtedly good for morale, the limited commercial success of the indie products paled in comparison with the efforts of the bigger game publishers, with their generously funded marketing campaigns, better games and fancier graphics.
As a result, indie game development fell into the doldrums, continuing to lose ground until it virtually disappeared from the gaming landscape. The good news? Things have changed. Inexpensive equipment, coupled with cheap or even free software, means that if you want to be a game developer, you can be a game developer.
And it’s not just the development side that’s gotten easier. Games are no longer distributed exclusively via discs packaged in fancy boxes, with accompanying booklets and manuals. In fact, most of today’s games are sold via download to gaming devices, and the marketing often hinges on word-of-mouth star ratings. Easy distribution to platforms such as Xbox-Live, iStore and Steam have made it much easier for developers to get their products out to many millions of people with minimal effort, and at a reasonable cost.
Traditional gaming fans have begun to take notice of indie titles – and the results are evident in a sales explosion. One of the best examples of an indie game that has taken the gaming world by storm is Minecraft. Written by a developer in his spare time, the game is incredibly simple in its presentation but provides almost endless flexibility in its gameplay.
Two other successful indie titles are Braid and World of Goo. Both are examples of a very simple gameplay premise implemented with the utmost attention to detail. The physics employed in World of Goo is particularly good; so good, in fact, that it’s difficult to believe it’s the work of a single developer.
In celebrating indie game development, however, one should not imagine that the creators shun any mention of money lest it compromise their artistic integrity! Fact is, not all indie games are free – and neither should we expect them to be. Take the example of Markus Persson, creator of Minecraft: this guy has made over R240 million out of Minecraft alone, and he’s by no means a one-shot developer. Do you think he feels artistically compromised by the cash? Naah.
I would imagine that most of the big game publishers have taken notice of the indie success story. If they’re smart, they might interpret it as an early warning of what fans really want from games. Perhaps it will even help reshape some of the big game franchises that have become noticeably stagnant of late.
All of this is excellent news for gamers. If the growing popularity of indie titles is anything to go by, we can look forward to more indie influence in the mainstream gaming world – and only good can come from that.