Indie Video Games, Where Art Thou?
May 26, 2006 9:20 PM   Subscribe

Why aren't there any indie video games: "Indie rock fans may prefer somewhat muddy sound over some lushly orchestrated, producer-massaged score; indie film fans may prefer quirky, low-budget titles over big-budget special FX extravaganzas; but in gaming, we have no indie aesthetic, no group of people (of any size at least) who prize independent vision and creativity over production values."
posted by JPowers (29 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There are tons of indie video games.

Like most sweeping generalizations, made by niche journalists, this one's just wrong.
posted by delmoi at 9:27 PM on May 26, 2006

Would alien hominid qualify?
posted by puke & cry at 9:29 PM on May 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is sort of a weird article. His point is not entirely vapid, but as he admits, there is a large indie scene. At least in the PC world. Darwinia, Serious Sam, Counter-Strike, Excelsior (!), as well as the huge number of Rogue-likes and MUDs and web based games all spring to mind as low budget successes of various sorts.

As far as indie games for consoles though, it really seems to be the nature of the beast. I guess one could lament the fact that its hard to break into the console world for the finincial reasons he points out, but it seems to me that that's what PCs are for anyway. An analogous situation would seem to be someone complaining that they can't make an indie movie in hollywood. And I don't think anyone would sympathize with that.
posted by Alex404 at 9:30 PM on May 26, 2006

Even with just two seconds of googling I was able to find this and this.

God, couldn't this guy be bothered to even do any research at all? If he's complaining that there are no indie games released on consoles... well duh, why would independent developers target consoles, rather then then making shareware PC games?

Is he complaning that people aren't getting together to spend millions of dollars to make games outside of the studio system? Well of course not. You don't need to spend that kind of money to make a fun game, just to make a huge console smash with tons of content.
posted by delmoi at 9:33 PM on May 26, 2006

Um. There are tons of "indie" games. Open source, freeware, and shareware, on the PC...

There aren't many for consoles for several reasons -The big one is that making video games requires a ton of time and effort, much more so than even recording an album for instance. Closer probably to the kind of manpower and resources it takes to make an independent feature length film. There's a market for indie filmmaking, because there are a lot more established channels to turn your indie film into a product that can generate revenue.

There are a lot fewer for game makers, and those that exist are largely limited to the world of PC gaming (see the Counterstrike guys for example.) Even then, the process is essentially "make this thing and hope to god that someone somewhere in the games industry with some clout sees it, thinks it's cool, and makes a phone call."

Other reasons for the dearth of indie games as far as consoles go:

They're fairly hard to program for, they (console makers) generally charge tens of thousands of dollars for "dev kits" or hackable versions of the console hardware and documentation, and finally, they (console manufacturers) tend to hold their properties in an iron grip, and come down hard on unlicensed titles.

That's why you generally saw the only "indie" console games in the past coming from HK and other places that didn't give much of a shit about protecting copyrightholder's rights.

That's also why those games generally tended to suck. They were fly by night ventures, often ripping, mutilating, and otherwise modifying code from existing titles to create "new" games that generally "sucked."

Even still there are active homebrew communities developing new "indie" games for all those old dead systems.

Now, rumors are that Nintendo may be looking to open things up a bit with the Wii, via a fairly affordable (~$5000 USD) devkit, and support for emulation of various other consoles via emulation.

But that's essentially why there's not a huge "indie" game scene.
posted by stenseng at 9:34 PM on May 26, 2006

Note to self, proofread before posting. Huuuur.
posted by stenseng at 9:36 PM on May 26, 2006

Yeah, I was offering alien hominid as a console indie game.
posted by puke & cry at 9:39 PM on May 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Counter-Strike, anyone?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:41 PM on May 26, 2006

And there's no "indie aesthetic" in gaming because the whole goddam medium is brand new. We're a long way from settling down to a stable and mature set of production tools; there is nothing in game development comparable to miniDV + Premiere, or a $1000 home studio, because everything is constantly up in there air. There's no place for an aesthetic, and so you have everybody doing things their own way (and, as noted, an awful lot of folks doing so).

The console market is largely locked up by the big players—the occasional indie game manages to sneak into the production/promotion guantlet, but there's just no real room for entry. Any truly organized indie channel is a thing of the future.
posted by cortex at 10:05 PM on May 26, 2006

It's pitch black.
You are likely to be eaten by a grue.
posted by Balisong at 10:10 PM on May 26, 2006

What about MUDs? They're completely DIY.
posted by ori at 10:29 PM on May 26, 2006

Second Life is pretty much 100% independent video game in that it's almost completely user-created. Someone even invented a bingo-like game called Slingo within Second Life, which is now being licensed by lottery companies and the like. They sell Slingo scratchers all over the place.

Unrelated, many of the major hit video games over the years have been "indie". Tetris, for example, started off as a competely homebrew effort that went licensed. The HalfLife/Counterstrike synergy is another example. The first Doom game was rather independently produced, and moreover, it single-handedly introduced a new way of doing real-time 3D modelling for games, sparking a revolution in the games industry.

This jerkoff seems to be confusing the concept of "independently produced" with the genre-specific output of certain very specific "indie" art rock and film wankers.

"Independently produced" doesn't automatically mean "dark" or "muddy" or "lowbrow production values" or even "art".
posted by loquacious at 10:57 PM on May 26, 2006

I'm not sure what this guy thinks he means when he says 'indie'. If he's talking about stuff that's produced without the backing of major companies, then yes, there aren't any indie console games around - as has been said, anything published on a console needs the approval of the hardware manufacturer. On the other hand, imagine a situation where, say, Fox, Universal and Dreamworks each owned a different kind of celluloid and the associated playback devices, and to release any film at all on any of these formats you had to, effectively, buy their approval. Would the indie films that this person's lauding still have been made? Absolutely, even if their financial backing structure was necessarily different. It's the same situation with videogames - absolute hordes of indie games are made, but you can't expect their financial backgrounds to exactly mirror the financial backgrounds of indie films (and nor should they) - the distribution systems for the two media are completely different.

Anyway, he clearly isn't talking about a purely (or even primarily) financial definition of 'indie', so much as a fuzzily-defined half-category that seems to encompass values such as undiluted artistic vision, acceptance of a niche audience, relatively low visual production values (even though this film-derived element is meaningless in games) and so on. And if that's the case, I can offer a million recent games for consideration - Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are about as indie in aesthetics, structure and audience as it gets, and yet they were developed by a studio directly tied to Sony itself. Okami is one of the most beautiful, genuinely artistic games I've ever played, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a more stylistically consistent example of the medium, and yet - yes! - it was developed by a subsidiary of Capcom, one of the biggest Japanese developers in existence. I could keep going for ages. Meteos. Disgaea. Electroplankton. Loco Roco. Psychonauts. Frequency, Amplitude and Guitar Hero. Rez. Ouendan. Gitaroo Man. And that's not even scratching the surface.

If you're determined to shoehorn a definition of 'indie' derived from film - holy, artistically pure, precious film - into a medium which is completely fucking different without making any attempt to understand said medium on its own terms, then it's not exactly surprising you'll be left without many qualifying examples.
posted by terpsichoria at 1:25 AM on May 27, 2006

Looking at consoles and asking why there aren't any indie games is like going to the only cinema in town and wondering why there are only Hollywood studio films showing.
posted by Navek Rednam at 2:37 AM on May 27, 2006

I thought Friday Flash at MeFi was the center of the indie gaming scene.
posted by fuzz at 3:01 AM on May 27, 2006

I can't find it, but there was an article in punk planet a while ago about people making their own games for the gameboy advance.
posted by brevator at 5:18 AM on May 27, 2006

Heh. I came into this thread all ready to be grumblin' and stormin', but the right points have already been made by you folks. What I will say is that as a journalist, this sort of shit always pisses me off. I mean, take a look at his sources— He didn't bother to talk to anyone at an independent studio, or a major studio, on why they thought there were no indie console games. He didn't bother mentioning that flash games and casual gaming has been making more and more dough each year, so that several developers have stated that they have no interest in working in consoles.
And man, it's telling that this thread is about a thousand times better than any that talk about indie music...
posted by klangklangston at 6:34 AM on May 27, 2006

that article seems deluded even its analogy.
Indie music? At least he avoided the term 'alternative'.

I understand fully the yearning for a more diverse universe of both music and games, but I've found music to be a much more powerful emotional stimulant than games, and (as I suspect this writer to be experiencing) you can form very strong bonds with older music than you can with older games.

This isn't a hard and fast rule, of course, Freespace2, anyone? my most anticipated game is a mod on Freespace2, based on the new Battlestar Galactica series. that's pretty independent, I'd say, since it's by unpaid volunteers. They're using the open source code engine, and running with it.

Consoles are a fairly closed system, though I've marvelled at the work going on for the PSP (even without access to the source code).

Great innovations are usually accompanied by great risk. Out of this World was a turning point. The entire thing was written by a single man. Now a single person could work full-time just working the IR light patterns in different environments. The gaming audience gets more demanding and sophisticated every year, raising the bar requires specialization.

As previously noted here, it doesn't seem this guy's done his homework. In fact, I'd wager that maybe that innovative game he's dying to find may have been made, he just hasn't heard of it.

Personally, I think ignoring MODs of official, big-studio games is literally slapping the face of all the people who labor at making a more unique, fun game out of a platform that took millions of dollars and a coordinated professional team to produce.

I'm actually quite thankful that I got to watch the gaming universe bloom into the behemoth that it is today. Judging by the amount of Super Mario Brothers tributes in pop culture now, I'd say that kind of phenomenon is pretty much dead. Not that I'll is Pacmania...
posted by Busithoth at 7:05 AM on May 27, 2006

I think you've all pointed out major arguments against this article, but one thing I think the author does rightly pick up on is the question of audience. So much of the conversation about indie games seems to come from the side of the developers. While there are a lot of people playing indie games (however you want to define that), we still seem to be the hardcore gamers (often involved in the industry ourselves) who are willing to seek out the new and unusual. The thing that appeals about indie film as a point of comparison is that it has a history of bringing in the non-hardcore niche demographic audiences defined by traits other than a pre-established taste for the medium; i.e., audiences based on age, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. In doing so, it goes a long way to establishing that "indie aesthetic" that is so loosely thrown around as a term. So far, it doesn't seem like indie games target audiences in quite the same way. When people in the mainstream start specifically seeking out games because of their independent status or because they offer something not seen from the majors, as audiences do at scores of indie film festivals each year, that will be the major turning point for indie games.
posted by ga$money at 8:39 AM on May 27, 2006

Katamri Damacy was an excellent independent game for consoles.

"while Namco did release the game, the objects in it were built by students in a computer graphics design class assigned it as a project. That explained the specificity of the objects — there’s a learner’s permit, for instance. It also pointed at another possibility for game development beyond the game company model."
posted by oddman at 8:41 AM on May 27, 2006

Not to quibble, but I'm not sure Katamari Damacy qualifies for indie status if defined by development status. The core design and development was done by an internal studio created within Namco based on Takahashi's student project at a Namco sponsored university; students did the art development, but the design, coding, art direction, etc., was done by Namco employees. But I agree that it's a kickass game that captures the innovation normally associated with independence. Link for Takahashi's postmortem.
posted by ga$money at 8:51 AM on May 27, 2006

Thanks for the postmortem link, that was fascinating.
posted by nev at 9:04 AM on May 27, 2006

I loved that postmortem link. There need to be more people who think like Takahashi. I thought it was especially interesting how he had to make serious efforts to establish his individual vision and then balance that with working on the team, and in the Namco dev environment. It's a reminder of how focused-grouped-to-death a lot of movies and videogames are these days.
posted by davidnin at 11:07 AM on May 27, 2006

The indie aesthetic is the rejection of popularity as a valid clue in the search for quality. But popularity is actually a reliable clue to find fun. The occurence of indie games making it big throughout the recent history tends not to be due to their obscurity but their novelty. The popularity of Katamari, The Sims, Sudoku, Popcap's Bejeweled, the unpopularity of sequels with no gameplay changes, and the frequent use of unoriginal or "brings nothing to the table" as vicious insults on game reviews are examples of this. It is rarely the best iteration of a game that makes it big, but the first. The prevalent quality finding heuristics in game purchase ends up being novelty, indie games so often being the most original of them all get the most benefit from this. As it is also the common story in the industry where a small garage company makes something like Ultima or Counter-Strike then proceeds to make a thousand modernized iterations of its big break.
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:46 AM on May 27, 2006

It's been beat to death that this isn't true, but just to prove that it's not just us saying it. Within the last two days at slashdot:

May's Best Indie Games

Indie Games Go Retail

It might be true that there's not going to be an indie HL2, but as has been pointed out, that's ignoring the mod community, which has in several points crossed back over (see counterstrike). And look at Neverwinter Nights. There are literally thousands of home-made levels that have been made and a super active community around them, including a couple that got picked up by bioware and are now being sold as 'official'.

There's a huge indie games community, if you, I don't know, use google or something.
posted by lumpenprole at 2:29 PM on May 27, 2006

Even on consoles this is quickly being changed. The Wii's virtual console may open avenues to indie developers. Xbox Live Arcade already has. Unless you count the likes of places like Garage Games not to be indy.

I currently own more xbox live arcade games that actual games I bought in a store for the 360.

If you're determined to shoehorn a definition of 'indie' derived from film - holy, artistically pure, precious film - into a medium which is completely fucking different without making any attempt to understand said medium on its own terms, then it's not exactly surprising you'll be left without many qualifying examples.

Spot on.
posted by zabuni at 2:31 PM on May 27, 2006

I'm not disagreeing with all that's been said. But...

I don't think his point is that indie games don't or can't exist. Rather, I think he is saying that tiny games can never cross over to the mainstream like a tiny movie or band can. That's his dilemma.

"Napoleon Dynamite" and "My Big Fat Greek Whatever" were miniscule, low budget films that became massive mainstream hits. This is true because mainstream film-going audiences are sometimes willing to sacrifice production quality for story. Mainstream gamers aren't. Ever. That's his problem with the VG industry.

(Note: I wrote this almost word for word somewhere else, just wanted to disclaim that.)
posted by JPowers at 4:50 PM on May 27, 2006

Stav... This is awesome. Thanks!
posted by JPowers at 10:01 PM on May 27, 2006

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