2013: The Year of the Indies – Development and Journalism
It’s so tempting to say that, with approaching next gen technology, the notion: “2013 will be the year of the indies” is absurd – but is it? EA have cut 10% of their work force, and Chris Roberts can “be more profitable than AAA games on a fifth of sales.” Let’s talk about indie games, AAA games, and games journalism as though I weren’t an E-in-C, and you weren’t already bored of this article.
Let’s not jump to any conclusions (although some will argue I just did), but there’s something to be said about the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013. A few of the games on our top 10 list for 2012 were indie games, and whilst it’s true that more of them were AAA titles, that’s not the point. The point is that there was a time where an indie game wouldn’t even come close to a top 10 list, and actually most sites still wouldn’t consider them an option.
Natural Selection 2,
Natural Selection 2,for me, was when I really thought for the first time “wow, a small indie developer built their own engine, and released this incredibly balanced, incredibly polished title?” Then we saw Hotline Miami, a game that arguably opened many peoples eyes to the idea that simplicity with drive is something beautiful – more beautiful, perhaps, than $60′s worth of iteration. Many of these games were better than those the AAA publishers were offering.
Now, a lot of you are going to argue that the transition between effective “homebrew” and high quality indie releases happened a lot earlier, and perhaps it did, but there’s something to be said about the boldness of tone, or the disparity between the success of indies, and the decline of AAA. “AAA isn’t declining, sales are as huge as ever!” Gamers aren’t concerned with sales. The amount of something sold does not denote the quality of that which is tendered. There’s a mood… and it’s one of celebration in the indie arena. I’m not deciding your opinion for you, I’m just dipping my toe in the water.
In 2013, I’ve been criminally enjoying games priced between 6.99 and 11.99 much more than I have the 35.99+ games. I say criminally, because I’m the Editor in Chief of a magazine which is supposed to effectively massage the mechanisms of the PR of powerful people who give us exposure. I don’t do a whole lot of corporate cunnilingus, but when I choose to support a project, or give exposure (I suppose I mean positive exposure) to a product, it’s because I agree with its ethics, or it’s just totally awesome or mechanically magnificent. I’ve been kind to Larian Studios, and I’ve tried to give a little exposure to Spiderweb Software. We thoroughly enjoyed OldSchool Games’ God Mode, and we’re not ashamed to admit it. We’re also not ashamed to shout at EA with the rest of you. We even gave them a homework assignment which probably fell on deaf ears. That said, we’re not always on your side. I don’t consider SimCity to have always on DRM, so much as it simply being a Facebook social game, decidedly outside of Facebook. Is it our place to do those things? I haven’t worked that out yet.
Before I digress into our business ethics too much, I want to make the point of it clear: people, including some journalism outlets, are beginning to care about the ingredients in their food… sorry, every aspect of game creation, and how it affects them and others around them. They’ve adopted a sort of purists diet – but it is more altruistic than it is elitist. Polygon took a strong stance against SimCity and Star Trek, for example – and Kotaku were very cross indeed when they found out [decided] there was rape in Tomb Raider.
Kickstarter. I was one of the many people who expected Kickstarter to face a huge array of problems, since often it’s basically a group of X people asking for money for what is essentially a proverbial light-bulb above their heads. Give me money, and I’ll make you this. Really? How. How do I know you can, and how can you really promise something so stringently without having to change your plans during a games very long, and very arduous development period. I thought that people offering the world would usually merely offer a slice, and probably mistake Africa for North America. Who are these people, and why the hell should a trust them?
“These people”, it has been proven, are intelligent albeit under-funded genius’ lacking in the resources to bring their imaginations into fruition. They are artists without commissions. We are the investors, and we’re investing in ideas. Isn’t that beautiful? The only return we want is to enjoy the fruits of their labour. I’m getting all warm and tingly inside just talking about this.
Sure, Kickstarter has a lot of problems where projects have fallen through, and money has been put back into the pockets of the investors, but the worst case scenario is a little rant on the forums, or some heart-break for those who tried and failed to make their dreams come alive. Everyone survived, and no one was really ripped off. All things considered, Kickstarter is going… suspiciously well. Since when were we allowed nice things? You can, if you wish, link some Kickstarter horror stories, but I’m talking about a positive mood, we’re not strictly looking at the facts. Kickstarter is doing amazing things for amazing people. Deal with it.
My horrendously self-affirming digression, you understand, is my way of saying: journalists no longer have to sit and beg for review code, or worry about the reception of their work, or how it’ll be perceived by X publishers PR. If I want content, I merely have to turn to this approachable gentry chap over here, and say “hey! Your game looks cool. Fancy some exposure?” Most of the time, I don’t have to worry about it completely sucking, because indie developers seem to all share the same ethos: build with love, care, and attention. They have a great core concept, and they often – but not always – have the technical know how to make simplicity simply fascinating. The relationship between indie developers and journalists is one of mutual benefit. It’s close, warm, cuddly, and exciting. I love games, and you make them.
Of course, you might now worry that since I’m so keen to talk bull about games with indie developers, I’d be biased in any content we produce. Not so – and here’s a point of contention – because indie developers are a dime a-dozen. That might sound cruel, but honesty will always come first. If Larian Studios’ Divinity: Original Sin really does suck, I’ll tell you exactly why. I’ll cry whilst I’m doing it, but I’ll do it.
Is it okay for journalists to get close to developers, and get pumped for their games? I argue that it is. We journalists love videogames. We don’t love all videogames, but we love the art, the music, the technical aspects; how they’re created, to how they’re marketed. That shit is fascinating, and it’s our life-blood. The thing with indie developers is that they’re much more open about their games in the early stages. Hell, I saw Original Sin when it was jankier than a Colombian drug smuggling submarine. David Walgrave, the games producer (and father, I guess) simply pointed out what was missing, how they were going to implement it, and why it was necessary. If there was a problem, he pointed it out. “This doesn’t work, but it will, and here’s how we’re going to fix it.”
We are aware that some users run into problems starting a co-op game on PC & others are having no issues at all. We are looking into this!
— STAR TREK Video Game (@star_trek_game) April 24, 2013
Unlike Digital Extremes’ Star Trek, which was released on PC through Steam with broken coop. I’m following, and being followed by, a couple of guys from Digital Extremes on Twitter. If they read this, they might get annoyed. I can’t help that. I’m not blaming those guys specifically, but their product was released unfinished, and the way they handled the situation was down right disrespectful to their consumers. Tweets were cleverly designed to imply that only a small amount of people faced issues, and they completely blamed Valve for the problem. Everyone saw through it, and that’s part of the reason the “gaming zeitgeist,” if you will, is bringing indie developers and gamers closer together. I’m sorry for picking this particular example, but it is the most current one.
“& others are having no issues at all.” – You had one job, Kennith!
If you want some examples of indie’s being dicks, well: Gettysburg: Armored Warfare, Dino Beatdown, and to a lesser extent, StarForge, which wasn’t too keen to point out that much of the content in their videos wasn’t actually in the game, yet. Naughty naughty.
At this stage, cautiously analytical readers will say “well, both sides are as bad/good as eachother.” To an extent, yes. But aside from the mood, there’s also the facts.
AAA games are hugely expensive to make. They’re so expensive in fact that they don’t make as much money (profit) as you’d think. I’m not merely reiterating Roberts’ sentiments here, it’s common knowledge. I mean, Ubisoft even said that microtransactions on top of the $60 price tag are “essential to AAA.” They’re not making enough money. They’re making a lot of money, sure, but they’re not making enough for investors to be comfortable. Investors, of course, are the life-blood of publishers. Graphs dictate whether or not a game gets made, and those graphs are about profitability. Profitability is basically all an investor cares about (you didn’t think they cared about the games, did you?) so that’s key to whether or not a project is green lit. It’s also why there are so many sequels. Tried and tested ideas, proven to sell. What can go wrong? Well, actually, in 2013, quite a lot. Let me be clear: publishers are not evil. Business is not evil. I’m simply saying their current model of doing business is harming their relationship with their consumers. Free-to-play isn’t helping (The Office of Far Trading is investigating the model for a reason.)
The more sales, the more profit. To maximize sales, the game needs to appeal to a broader demographic. Demographics merge, mechanics are more iterative, and innovation dies. There’s no way around that. Not everyone is going to love John Doe’s super-brilliant-wonderful idea, although 100 thousand might. That’s how cult-classics are born, but something only becomes a cult-classic in retrospect. Mirrors Edge is great now, but where were you when the game released? That idea can’t be successfully pitched in a boardroom. The only argument they have is “everyone’s talking about it, so let’s capitalize on that?” It’s not a good enough argument, sadly.
Crytek called it gamer fatigue. Fatigue? Are you fucking kidding me? I’m having the time of my life this year. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed started the year off a treat. A new Sherlock Holmes game from Frogware’s is on the way, along with Magrunner, a Portal inspired game from the same developer. God Mode was an absolute hoot, and recently released Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine has taken the whole Hotline Miami thing to a new level. A new Wargame title is on the way, and a Canadian Warewolf killing game was unapologetically (just kidding, of course it apologised) awesome. Papers, Please, an enigmatic dystopian bureaucracy simulator is coming up, and Daedalic games is coming up with new adventure titles. Knife of Dunwall was great fun, and Arma III is about to consume my life as its precursor once (and still does) did. BioShock Infinite shocked no-one by staying in the number one charts for a while, and even Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2 managed to reinvent the MMS, to a degree. Tomb Raider saw Lara Croft’s psychopathic roots sprout, and Thief will similarly deliver nostalgia and innovation upon its release. Omerta. Antichamber. Ace Combat Assault Horizon was even a great time. Do you want me to go on? Who’s fatigued? I’m sure as hell not. Bring out yer’games, I say.
So what’s the problem here? Well, AAA developers are fatigued, I say. They’ve taken their iterative sequels as far as they can, and aside from giving the titles an edgy name, there’s not much they can do. Ubisoft have reduced Assassin’s Creed to an annual stab fest, and Gearbox managed to sod-up Aliens: Colonial Marines. Crysis 3 was about as entertaining as… a modern first person shooter, and Defiance shares about as much in common with the TV show of the same name as I do with my mother. Star Trek doesn’t work, and SimCity is as controversial as a sex offender in a small suburban neighborhood (which probably suffers from less traffic congestion as a result.)
In fact, the biggest chip on my shoulder right now is how Deep Silver initially said that Riptide would be priced to “reflect the end of this console cycle,” but as I look at the Steam page, I see a big glaring £34.99 staring back at me. On PC, it’s actually more expensive than the average console copy in the UK. I guess we don’t get the price reduction, because, you know, it’s a port – largely the exact same game as the first – using the same engine. Somebody please explain that to me?
Another thing that’s pissed me off this year is that in Dead Space 3, money has basically been replaced by scrap, which is generated by time disguised as a robot. If you don’t want to wait for time to return, instead of just buying shit, you can use your actual money – you know, that stuff you use to purchase food for your family, even after you paid $60 for the game. They removed a feature in order to implement one as an excuse to charge you for the privilege. You can’t have scrap and weapon modifications without micro-transactions? No thanks, I’ll just use a trainer. Who wouldn’t? Is that illegal? Is that against the terms of service? Who knows. If it is, don’t do it… or something.
They’ve lost steam… and they’re blaming you. I don’t say this out of hatred towards AAA developers, I say this because that’s just how it is, and I’m supposed to be a journalist. This is all my opinion, but I’m reporting on what I see to be the state of the game. People get paid to do that; they call themselves analysts. We’re all analysts. The only difference between you and I, is that I have a website.
Steam Greenlight, too, is giving the label of ‘investor’ to its users, and you’re even able to purchase and play games in whatever state they are at the time of purchase thanks to the new early access feature.
You are the investors. You are the testers. You are the backers. You, for all intents and purposes, are QA. Your voice is the press, and your opinion makes or breaks games that matter. What’s fascinating about today, is that it marks the first day that Steam offer to manage your MMO subscriptions. Do you know what game is running their flagship model first? Darkfall: Unholy Wars, a full-scale MMO pushed through Greenlight, built by an indie developer.
The innovation is coming from the direction of an indie insurgency, regardless of the next gen technology. And do you know the best thing about all this? Indie developers know how to build on x86 architecture. They can compete on the next generation of consoles. Your most beloved developers will no longer be praised as Sony’s secret risk, with much larger ideas than the money they have to bring them into fruition (Journey, anyone?) They’ll just be developers making innovative games. They’ll be integral to the success and longevity of the next systems, much more than they were in this generation.
AAA has a competetor. Why spend $60 on a game you’ll spend 9 hours on, when you can spend $9 on a game you’ll spend 60 hours with? Your time is as valuable as your money, and with the polish and fidelity of AAA titles, without the price, I’m sure we’re going to be seeing a huge shift towards that ever-growing indie ethos.
The Europeans are the first to pick it up. Focus Home Interactive are publishing indie style titles, developed by people who were part of much bigger publishing companies. Atlus in the US, too, are starting this. We’re seeing a lot from Paradox Interactive (where did Magicka come from?) Publishers are seeing the value in “riskier,” niche titles, and that is something exciting, isn’t it?
As for journalism, in my opinion, the biggest problem right now is that the guy who loves X game is being sent to review X iteration of it, rather than the guy who enjoys and understands X genre is being sent to review Y game within it. Right now – as contentious as it sounds – ‘fun’ is being used to excuse superfluously high scores that seem at odds with consumer reception of the products they’re buying. Of course, gaming is about fun, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore any problems a game has. It’s okay to like bad games, but it’s not okay to hide their blemishes. Hopefully, with some time, the whole “under 85/100 on Metacritic and you’re fired” notion will be a thing of the past, the grip on the media and publishers will loosen somewhat. It’s not quite as bad as they say, but it’s still pretty bad. We’re not impervious to it either, although we try to be as honest as possible.
So with that I should probably close this potentially illegibly long opinion piece, of which almost none of it should be taken as fact. I speak to you from the perspective that I have an inkling of how you feel, in the hope that in reading this, you’ll get as hyped as I am for 2013′s year in gaming – a year that will, I argue, be shaped by independent development.
It’s a great time to be a gamer.