March 29, 2004

Indies – [rants]

Andrew@GTxA promises to write more about the controversy surrounding the Independent Games Festival last week.

While the concept of /independent games/ seems relatively straightforward, I'm having a hard time finding something to compare it to. Independent games aren't independent in the way that independent film is independent -- at least in terms of subject matter and audience. Independent film is free to deal with less popular subjects, like, say, drug addiction, while "mainstream" cinema brings us Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.

A small handful of exceptions aside, there's no distinction to be made in regards to subject matter or audience in the computer games industry. Here's a mainstream FPS, here's an independent FPS. Here's a mainstream puzzle game, here's an independent puzzle game, same subject, same audience. What, exactly, is "independent" about the independent sector of the mushrooming computer games industry?

To some, perhaps, independent means low budget or no budget. This definition attempts to find an analogy with the way independent films are financed, though it's a bit confusing, since even a low budget independent film might have a half million dollar budget. At the very least, film production always has some cost for equipment and film processing. But why would the lack of proper funding make something independent in the computer game industry? It's a young industry where the few successful genres are just barely removed from their poorly financed origins, and where many studios teeter on the edge of financial ruin on a regular basis. In comparison to the major film studios, who are able to bankroll a number of projects and can rely on fairly predictable revenues, almost all game studios are independent with regards to financial security.

Perhaps independent in distribution? Distribution of independent film parallels mainstream cinema; both are watched on screens, or rented on video and DVD, or broadcast. With the introduction of a web/downloadable subdivision in the IGF, distribution seems to be a significant distinction for independent games. But why not just make it the Downloadable Games Festival? Aside from how you obtain the game, the computer and peripherals are the same for both mainstream and independent games. (In this case, I would consider a game played on a non-traditional computer setup to be legitimately independent.)

There are weaker comparisons to be make between the independent game industry and the book publishing industry, which also has a thriving "independent" sector. Of course, game publication is much more like book publication than film publication/distribution. However, independent bookstores often specialize, for example by carrying an extensive selection of children's books; in the games industry, there don't seem to be any genres or specialties that aren't adequately represented by mainstream retail outlets.

I think the problem with both the games/film and games/books analogy is that "games" are themselves already specialized. A better comparison would be between software and film/books. This makes things much easier, as the concept of an independent software industry not only sounds plausible, it actually exists!

But who wants to talk about software? Software isn't fun, software doesn't have rockstars, Joe Lieberman doesn't care about software. Never mind the fact that far more people spend far more time using software than they do playing pointless computer games.

Anyway, I should wrap this up with some sort of emperor-has-no-clothes, there-is-no-independent-games-industry kind of conclusion. Instead, I'd like to offer some suggestions for some truly alternative and independent computer games.

Prison Tycoon - Along the lines of various simulation games, in Prison Tycoon your job is to build a jail and fill it with convicts. States will pay you big bucks for each prisoner you can house, but watch out for overcrowding! Will you build a SuperMax, or maybe a West Texas-style tent prison surrounded by desert wasteland? Hire a lobbyist and get the state to pass a Three Strikes law -- more money for you! Prison Tycoon is sure to bring you hours of entertainment.

SimHomeless - You control Alex, a mentally unstable homeless man trying to find his way back into gainful employment and a place to live. Where is Alex from? Where is his family? Who knows! Living on the street and begging for change, how long can you postpone his inevitable downward spiral? Play it on your Nokia N-Gage today!

TA: Teaching Assistant - Find out what going to graduate school is really like. Grade student homework. Design PowerPoint lectures. Grade student essays. Grade more essays.

Posted by B Rickman at March 29, 2004 11:23 PM | TrackBack

Damn, Brandon, I thought for a minute there you were going to steal my idea for the first in a series of three games (vis-a-vis "TA"). Think of this: a trilogy called, in order, "BA", "MA", and "PhD". The first is an arena-style fighting game with a flexible ladder, er, curriculum, divided into semesters, each match awarding new combo moves in different tracks like "Deconstructionism," "Political Economy," "Continental Philosophy," etc, and each semester ending with finals-royale. To spice up the character-customization-by-cours-selection, there's a side-mechanic for socioacademic prestige, whereby, for instance, the prestige gained for kicking ass, er, staging a successful argument can be modded down by siding theoretically with someone unpopular, too frequently invoking those cheap McLuhan spiritualism combos, or tag-teaming with that awful, computer-gaming, geek who keeps saying shit about "Human Nature." The second game, "MA," takes on the form of a free-form RPG/RTS at the squad-level with an isometric P.O.V., picking your factions, running errands and doing research for them, all the while under-handedly recruiting your own legion of undergrad NPC followers, publishing papers that won't be snatched up by your advisor, and questing after the rare and coveted Black Turtle Neck of Hipness +5 to go with those Black Plastic Framed Glasses of Vocabulary. Finally, we round things off with "PhD," a management sim in which you have to petition for the aid of three Tenured Deities, uphold their values while defending them from their adversaries, deftly avoid (or successfully take on!) committee work, amass your own following of grad students, carefully develop a tech-tree, er, I mean, first book, and finally, if you're lucky and quick, achieve the status of Full Professor. They wouldn't sell for shit, but damn the idea tickles my soul.

Posted by: Ben B. at March 31, 2004 12:26 PM

Ack! And here I've been planning on making something called "Academic RPG", which sounds almost exactly like what you're talking about, Ben. It's supposed to follow someone as they go from completing an MA (where administrative mishaps prevented you from getting into the PhD program) to taking over an entire department. Isometric in the style of Japanese RPGs (primitive 3-D environments, sprite-based characters). Goofily violent and often nonsensical. Ability to summon the spirits of dead academics and cast spells (arguments) by reading magic tomes (books) and scrolls (papers). And so on.

Posted by: Walter at March 31, 2004 12:49 PM

An independent game is a game that was developed with a budget that is considerably less than what most AAA titles have. That budget cap is arbitrary and changes with time depending on what the average budget for a mainstream title is, but being a moving target doesn't make it illusory. The budget restriction directly impacts production values and often, indirectly, subject matter. The distinction seems pretty clear to me, and I'm sure it does to other indie developers as well.

"Here's a mainstream FPS, here's an independent FPS"

Really? Where? I've never seen an FPS that would be considered "indie".

"It's a young industry where the few successful genres are just barely removed from their poorly financed origins"

The FPS genre may have started with Wolfenstein but now we regularly see titles with 7 and 8-figure budgets. There are very obvious differences between such games and the zero-budget artsy FPS game I'm working on.

"many studios teeter on the edge of financial ruin on a regular basis"

If Paramount Pictures spends $100 million making a film, whether they are on death's door financially or swimming in profits has no bearing on said film's indie or non-indie status.

"Never mind the fact that far more people spend far more time using software than they do playing pointless computer games"

I honestly can't tell if you're being facetious or not here.

Posted by: JP at April 1, 2004 08:48 AM

The budget restriction is not a satisfactory condition for determining independent status, as there are both low budget games produced by established companies and high budget games produced by "independent" companies. And there's no real significant difference between the types of games produced in this industry to be able to identify a field of independent games; it would be great if there were, but for the most part it is a stangant industry with a diminishing number of original ideas and titles each year.

The industry's appeal for an independent games movement is quite suspect -- /especially/ if their idea of independence is based on extremely low production budgets. After all, why spend profits on innovation, when you can get a bunch of guys in a garage to produce top quality work for almost nothing? We already know that the industry is struggling with ballooning budgets, so we should be immediately suspicious when that very same industry says, "Hey, we need more independent games that cost lest to develop."

JP writes: "I've never seen an FPS that would be considered 'indie'."

What about the modding community? What about Counterstrike? Here we do indeed have an independent community of game developers. One whose main distiction is that they do not get any real compensation for their work. Otherwise, the subject matter and the audience is indistinguishable from the mainstream.

JP: "I honestly can't tell if you're being facetious or not here."

I'm very serious about studying software. There's just as much art and expressive power in a spreadsheet as there is in Doom 3.

Posted by: Brandon at April 1, 2004 11:05 AM

Quick comment: I really think that the controversy here is about the garage game ethos versus matter-of-fact independence(which I take to simply be: self-owned). Presumably, we want the IGF to be about garage games and not anything that can claim to be developed by an independently owned and operated company.

Posted by: Walter at April 1, 2004 11:33 AM

So how would you describe the garage game ethos?

Posted by: Brandon at April 1, 2004 12:36 PM

"there are both low budget games produced by established companies"

These are "budget" titles. They are sold at retail for a reduced price, and their budget still amounts to far, far more than almost every indie game budget.

"and high budget games produced by 'independent' companies"

A company's independently owned (ie not part of a publisher or some larger company) status has nothing to do with whether or not its games are indie.

"The industry's appeal for an independent games movement is quite suspect"

What's this monolithic industry you're referring to? I haven't heard anyone who works for a big company issue such an appeal. Greg Costikyan is a vocal proponent of indie game development, and I don't really think you could lump him in with someone who works for EA, or a nobody like myself with a bedroom coding project. The mainstream does what it does, usually with a lot of money flying this way and that, and we work on the outside in a comparatively money-less vacuum. Many indies do try to make money off what they do by selling via the net with alternative distribution channels.

"What about the modding community? What about Counterstrike?"

Mods are a borderline case, arguably their own class, because they are building, usually for free, onto a base that still cost millions of dollars to make. I would consider CS to be an indie game, until the point when the team was absorbed by Valve and began selling as a retail product (early 2000?).

"the subject matter and the audience is indistinguishable from the mainstream."

A) Unless you consider the subject matter and audiences of rRootage, Puzzle Pirates and Fashion Cents to be "indistinguishable from the mainstream" that is incorrect, and B) I never said that either were part of the definition. It's definitely to the advantage of an indie to eschew mainstream subject matter because it typically requires you to put that subject matter across with production values, but that doesn't stop a lot of them from trying. I can't help it if most indies are just wannabe professional devs.

The recent controversy within the indie community over Savage, a title with a budget of $1.5 million, emerges because there hasn't been much of a standard for what constitutes "indie" for the purposes of the competition. There is definitely a large schism within a competition which pits a game like Savage, which walks and talks like a normal mainstream retail product, up against games like Bontago, and the indie community is going to have to define their terms more clearly.

"There's just as much art and expressive power in a spreadsheet as there is in Doom 3."

That doesn't really answer my question, which is whether you were being facetious or not with the "playing pointless computer games" comment. Is that statement aimed at Doom3 or at spreadsheets?

Posted by: JP at April 1, 2004 12:45 PM

I figure it'd be hard to describe the garage game ethos in unambiguous terms. There may not be a clear set of necessary and sufficient conditions needed to describe something as a 'garage game', but I take it that a single person working on an unfunded game (that he eventually plans to release for free) when he gets home from flipping burgers at McDonald's is definitely working on a garage game. Uncertainty is probably key, whether of financial support, game concept, development skills (newbies), and so on.

Posted by: Walter at April 1, 2004 02:12 PM

JP: The implication was supposed to be that yes, indeed, people spend more productive time working with spreadsheets than they do playing games, i.e. they are engaged in serious activity. The fact that what they do -- work -- is somehow invisible next to the "cultural phenomenon" of computer games is something of an irony.

You seem stuck on the relationship between financial resources and the independent market. If being crippled by a lack of resources -- financial, talent, &c -- is what defines independent games, well then having an Independent Games Festival is pretty much a Special Olypmics for computer games, except that not everyone in the IGF is a $$winner$$. And yes, the IGF is supposed to be more than just wanna-be game developers, but at present, and for the forseeable future, that is in fact what it is.

I'm concerned with independent as alternative. Garage developers who want to be just like the big guys are not alternative.

Posted by: Brandon at April 1, 2004 03:38 PM

Yes, I should recant / clarify by saying that the financial ceiling isn't the defining quality of an indie game. However at the moment, the ideological thrust and the financial realities are rather hard to disentangle. The alternative is, in part at least, defined by what the mainstream *isn't*, and one thing the mainstream certainly is right now is well-moneyed.

You seem pretty disgusted with the current independent development scene, and while I have to admit it's sad to see so many wannabe pro developers who'd drop everything to work on Max Payne 3, there *are* some promising ideas being explored. The example games you put forth aren't really so "out there" that I couldn't see them being worked on by a small team of crazies who believe in the idea.

Really, it's all we've got right now. We're doing all we can to make it better and a more worthwhile (if not visible) fringe of the medium. It took the Open Source Software movement a while (and an obvious, formidable enemy) to get their shit together as well, and I think that's an apt analogy in at least a few respects.

Posted by: JP at April 1, 2004 06:05 PM

A quick example of an indie FPS, .

Currenty they mod the Q3A engine for their game, but on April second they released the final Q3A-mod version. With their next release they will be building on the open sourced Enemy Territory code rather than modding Q3A.

That count?

Posted by: Jeffool at April 3, 2004 03:06 PM

Urban Terror fits pretty squarely into the "subject matter indistinguishable from mainstream" bin. I know they were one of the earlier "tactical realism" mods out there, but I don't really have much affection for Counterstrike clones, even well-executed ones, and I certainly wouldn't consider them part of the indie movement.

Posted by: JP at April 4, 2004 09:09 AM