On the Power of Indie Game Development

LiveStrom on September 4, 2010 in Games

About 10 years ago, PC games were strong, with such titles coming out as Age of Empires 2, the Sims, and Diablo 2, with the Dreamcast,  PS2, and Nintendo 64 fighting for console market share.   At this point, game development was a club.  There were plenty of companies trying to break in, but as the dot com bust happened, a lot of these little shops had to fight over table scraps or close their doors.  Publishers controlled the store shelves, and online services such as steam and XBox live weren’t even on paper.  With a few notable exceptions, these big publishers determined what would be available to the mass markets to play.  Indie markets were very sparse, there just wasn’t any avenues to mass market titles developed by individual developers.

The landscape is much different now.  Consoles are each allowing smaller developers to have a shot through small downloadable titles, development has become easier with new game engines and tools, and the mobile market has exploded with apps developed by small teams in their spare time.  Publishers are still powerful, determining what games are avaiable at big retail outlets, and backing the more ambitious titles, but with the prevelance of online services such as XBox live, they don’t have a stranglehold on the market as they once did.

There is value in both ends of the spectrum: the massive companies producing the biggest titles such as EA, and the single developer creating an iPhone app.  And the amount of spread between them is enormous… nowadays the 1 person shop can coexist with the 10000+ employee publishers, and there is plenty of room in between.

So what does this mean to the gaming industry?  While it is obvious that the larger companies, with their IP and resources can produce titles that are huge and cutting edge, where do the indie developers fit?

Here are a few key things indie development groups have to offer in my opinion:

Innovation: The bigger a company gets, generally the more risk adverse they become. That means they will more likely use the tried and true game formats and IP. Original titles are few and far between, and if they are original, a lot of planning and marketing need to go in. Brand names help the big studios, but can hurt as well when expectations are raised. Indie developers don’t have the same restrictions. They can try new things, because that is one way to set them out from the masses.

Rapid development: Indie developers have a much lower bar when it comes to feature set and depth of play. They sell at lower prices, so gamers are more likely to give them a pass if things aren’t completely polished. Because of this, indie developers are able to turn out games quicker and with less churn time. This situation is improved even more on mobile platforms, which have a good update story… you don’t have to have everything polished to perfection before you ship an app, as you can update it after shipping it.

Support: When it comes to game support, the indie market has only one group to answer to: their players. If they act quick on bugs that arise, they are in a good position. There is no business case to present, manager to report to, so the indie developer sinks or swims based on the support he or she gives. Also, with a possibly smaller fanbase, the chances to be heard by an indie developer is much higher. Have a feature request? Indie developers that like your idea can jump on it without having to answer to anyone else.

Shallow org charts: Already clear from the two points above, the small organization (if there is any) of an indie development group makes the group agile, ready to jump on a trend or blast something out for a new platform. Also, without a business address and batch of employees, dry spells are not fatal.

Passion: The passion of an indie developer is undiluted by beuracracy, power struggles, or market pressures. Indie developers create games because that is what they like to do. This translates to the games they generate, as they are allowed to express themselves the way they want to.

I am convinced that now is a golden age for indie developers. As long as you’re not using your titles for your only income, you have the agility to create new titles the way you want to, with only your players to answer to. You can take big risks and dig new ground. If your titles fail? So what, at least you learned something and had fun. If you succeed, great! It looks great on your resume, you get a little fame, and maybe earn a buck or two.

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2 Responses to “On the Power of Indie Game Development”

  1. Leafworth says:

    I think the other thing indie developers have going for them is a resurgence in the retro gaming industry. A lot of mobile gaming platforms are reselling titles that are twenty years old to a group of nostalgic gamers. The things that made the original console gaming market great are the same things that drive the current mobile market. The things that made “Bubble Bobble” addictive, “Bionic Commando” fun, and “Dragon Warrior” compelling… are those same elements driving the mobile gaming market today. Ahh… memories.

    • LiveStrom says:

      Totally agree. It’s like going to Pojo’s nickle palace, with all of its old arcade games for two nickles a pop, except this time its on this amazing device in your hand. I’m looking forward to when developers can fully utilize the cloud for these old school games, making the experience seemless between the various form factors (laptop, slate, smartphone, and console). I don’t think we’re too far from that becoming reality.

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