17 September 2012

Going It Alone - A Chat About Indie Games

The global video game industry employs millions of people around the world, as developers, as retailers, as publishers, as journalists and analysts and in a plethora of roles beside. Today it is an entertainment sector worth an estimated $50 billion and within three years of now that figure is estimated to have nearly doubled to $90 billion.

At this point in time games are bigger than the music industry and they’re bigger than Hollywood too.

Yet for every major developer studio, sometimes employing hundreds of people each, there are those who have struck out on their own.  

For the first time in decades – thanks in large part to the opening up of new development tools and platforms - the video game industry is a viable place for small teams, even individuals, to pursue the hobby they love and make great games for the tens of millions of players on PC, consoles, social and mobile platforms.

There is a common thread running between these game makers, they make games because they love gaming, and want to share their passion with the world.

“I've been a gamer my whole life,” says Ryan Watkins, the sole developer of upcoming  shooter Existence for PC, “video games have made me who I am and I'd probably be dead without them, there's a long sad story behind my life and I’m here because of them.

A character model from Existence
"I love video games and I believe I owe [it to] them to make video games to help people like they helped me,” he continues.

His views are echoed by Mike - he prefers to go by his first name – of Psychotic PSoftware, who says “besides girls and singing in my band, games and game art were really the most important things in my life throughout my formative years.

When I was about 9, my mum got me and my little brother a Spectrum +2, 128k computer for Christmas. I was totally blown away. I had no concept of a home computer or a games console before that so my expectations were simply non-existent. Imagine that!...”

While Primož Vovk, Emberheart Games’ founder and sole employee, shares a similar tale when it comes to working alone in the world’s largest entertainment market:“I always loved to play games as a kid (not computer ones at the start) and when my father bought our first computer I was 8 years old and world of games changed for me.

“Suddenly there were so many genres to enjoy and explore. It was really fascinating and soon questions started to pop up how these games are made,” Vovk adds.

A screenshot from Courier of the Crypts
Love is a word that comes up often when asking developers to describe why they became game designers. Freedom is another; Mike, working on Power Up for Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG) and Vovk, developing Courier of the Crypts for PC and Mac - as well as Watkins - all point to the independence afforded them by working alone as one of the greatest incentives for doing so.

“Well with this being my first game this opens a lot of doors, a lot that many people wouldn't consider. Making existence will allow me to get a job in the industry, if you show someone you can make a whole game yourself at this young of an age they tend to be pretty impressed,” Watkins comments.

And goes on to add that: “Apart from that you allow yourself complete freedom for where you want to go with the game, there no restrictions, not even a conversation with anyone, but that comes with the downside of doing a lot of work.”

The capacity to make the games that a developer envisages – without the constraints placed upon them by the studio structure and publisher relationship – is something that’s often cited by games developers for why they choose to break away from that model.

Peter Molyneux, industry luminary and founder of Lionhead Studios and 22Cans, in an interview with Develop, gave his reason for leaving Microsoft earlier this year as the lack of freedom offered within a major company in the industry.

“I had this unbelievable desire to make something special. Of course I didn’t have the idea for the game itself, partly because when you’re at Microsoft any idea you have is property of Microsoft,” Molyneux said.

This is common throughout the industry with intellectual properties (IPs) almost always being the property of the publisher – a notable exception being Bungie’s forthcoming unannounced title, which is being published by Activision.

Molyneux went on to stress the nature of the working environment in a major platform holder saying:
“I was in a creative padded cell. Microsoft was so safe. Microsoft was so nice. You’re so supported. I realised I had to go.”

Microsoft was a “padded cell” Molyneux concluded; this sentiment, the ability to make a game your own or the lack of that ability, is reflected in Mike’s comments about the opportunities of working alone.

“Having worked with plenty of teams in my time I can say I’m totally fine with [doing] that. I generally like playing with other people’s ideas and making their games. 

"...but this one’s mine! Right now Psychotic Psoftware is where I get to develop my skills and create something that’s totally my own.

Taken from Power Up
"From the initial design sketches on my little art pad, through to the final post produced 2d and 3D art assets. From the little melodies in my head that I hum into my phone to what I later create as complete in-game compositions.

"From the nights I lie awake in bed imagining how this new baddie is going to swing around and blast off a few rounds in your general direction, to the moment I’m dodging those bullets on the screen,” an ounce of pride shines out too, though in the context of making an entire game a reality on your own that’s eminently reasonable.
“I made it happen... and I can still remember a time that I never dreamed I could,” Mike concludes.

Vovk comments “working alone gives me more freedom with the game and time management while there is no pressure from other members. Sometimes I wish I had another person or two on the project but overall I like it as it is since I can express myself completely through the game.”

With the games industry returning to the point where it is possible for individuals to make games and for those games to reach potentially massive audiences thanks to channels of distribution over the internet like XBLIG, Good Old Games, Steam and more there exists a challenge for existing major studios.

And an opportunity for indie developers. Steam, recently announced Green Light, a project that will see gamers vote for the games they want on the store. The possibilities presented by Green Light will surely be grasped by the studios too small to afford a marketing budget, or which are passed over by publishers.

With retail sales of video games in the UK at their lowest level since records began according to MCV Online the challenge for large developers is how to combat the rise of digital distribution platforms like Steam.

The set of circumstances surrounding the abysmal sales both in Europe and US is due to a unique mind-set that exists in the game industry. Unlike Hollywood publishers shy away from releases during the summer months, with Sony and Microsoft respectively hosting Summer of Play and Summer of Arcade digital campaigns instead. Valve also hosts the Steam Summer Sale.

This phenomenon – the complete absence of summer blockbusters –  is always reflected in the charts were for weeks on end a single game can dominate. Yet there is more to it than that. The current console generation, the third generation of three dimensional consoles, is the longest ever. 

Sales of new IP are always higher at the start of each generation and at this juncture consumers have reached the point where they are choosing established franchises. Call of Duty Black Ops 2 will almost certainly be the biggest retail launch of the year.

The final aspect of this fall in spending is the emergence of tablet and smart phone gaming which has largely drawn the casual gamer market away from consoles and PC gaming.

Yet there is future for so called Triple A titles, those games which publishers invest tens of millions (one of the most expensive games ever made is Grand Theft Auto IV with a price tag of around $100 million). These are the games that shift consoles, the games which  are the result of massive investment and the priority attached to the title by the publisher – contrary to popular belief the AAA label has nothing to do with quality.

“Anyone that says ‘triple A isn't feasible,’ is lying,” Watkins says. “There are so many games that make stupid amounts of money that have had so much time and people working on them that it just seems ridiculous.”

Vovk points to the difference in the type of player who is drawn to both small indie titles and major studio releases: “AAA development will remain, in my opinion, because it’s different from indie scene. There is no place for innovation (well, at least you don’t have total freedom), they have to make sure their game works out and pays out all the big numbers budget.

But we are different and there are people that put a lot [of emphasis] on graphics and all the special effects and then there are others that enjoy playing something new and that’s exactly why both will stay.”

That is likely a claim that would be hotly contested by many AAA developers such as France’s Quantic Dream who are pushing the limits of motion and face capture technology to make highly emotive games such as their forthcoming Beyond: Two Souls.

David Cage, the studio’s founder and president, told Edge that his desire for Beyond is to "create something different.

"My goal is to surprise people, to give them something they want without knowing they want it," he informed them. "I want to create an emotional journey, a unique experience.

"I am not interested in giving them 'fun', I want to give them meaning; I don't want to challenge their thumbs, I want to challenge their minds."

It seems in at least one AAA studio innovation is alive and kicking - how many games set out with intention that players will not have after all? Though, I fully expect to. And let's not forget other new IP coming out over the next year; Capcom's Remember Me, Media Molecule's Tearaway, Japan Studio's Rain and Naughty Dog's The Last Of Us.  

Yet the stagnation and similarity between many major console and PC titles, especially in the crowded first person shooter market, is a criticism levelled often these days: “I wanted to develop for consoles since I was a teenager,” says Mike. 

“More recently I realised that this was because my consoles were the Megadrives and SNES. Games were bright fun and snappy. Often formulaic, but elegance and charm were in abundance if you knew how to throw in the love and flourishes. I recognised them easily. The same kind of applied with the PS1 era.

“Don’t get me wrong. I love modern console games that cost a fortune to make, but I think I found myself having less fun as an artist when the art became more about the suit being the wrong shade of grey and the mud is not looking real enough on the end of the gun.

“When the knife you’re bludgeoning the enemy soldier with in an FPS [that] you know is mediocre (when you consider its cost) gets pulled for another day’s work because there’s one too many serrations on the blade for it to be perfectly on model you find yourself hearing vast amounts of money pouring down the drain.

 “While you long for the days when you were working on art with panache embedded in really imaginative game mechanics, running on machines that simply shouldn’t be capable of this amazing stuff!”

The separation therefore between indie games and AAA titles is the freedom to innovate and the capacity to take risks that major publishers can’t or won’t.  

“That’s where I get my biggest kicks,” Mike continues. “Sometimes a seemingly new control mechanic will just come out of left field, sometimes an amateur artist will create a world to the horizon from a few simple blocks and textures or a novice coder will produce something abnormally juicy and satisfying to play.

“Mostly it’s from a raw, uninitiated mind. Mostly, it happens in indie games.”

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