Thinking Thursday: Why Does Independence Thrive In Gaming?


By: Stephen Crane (Photo: Indie Game the Movie)

There are independent scenes in most art forms. Movies have the Sundance Film festival and an active underground movement in both visual art and music. Yet none of these independent movement have achieved quite the mainstream success as found in video games.

Let's face it: indie games are everywhere. They're available on Xbox Live, Steam, and all over the internet. We hear stories of massive successes like Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, and Minecraft, not to mention other smash hits like Braid and tout those as shining examples of gaming. We use our indie game markets to show off experiences not typically found in AAA titles, and even though most independently made games are shorter in length, we love them just as much if not more than franchise hits like Call of Duty.

With the incredible attention being paid to the indie scene, the question comes up: Why does the community thrive, and why is it so mainstream? The answer is distribution, cost, and freshness.

With online platforms like the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, and Steam, game creators are presented with a unique opportunity. Instead of seeking for an audience who may or may not pay attention to a game, developers are instead able to create and release a game on platforms whose users number in the millions.

Further, digital distribution lowers costs and raises revenue per sale. Indie developers don't have to publish physical copies of the games, which means they don't have to pay for a physical publisher or manufacturing. Digital services like Steam also give 70% of the profit margin to the game producer, as opposed to the other way around with physical retailers. Considering the typically lower sales of indie games, the increased profit margin goes a long way to making the game profitable.

Let's not forget the mobile space, which has made games like Angry Birds very popular after being developed by an indie studio. Smartphone and tablet users often use their devices for games. In fact, the mobile and social sectors of the industry are the fastest growing.

Another massive part of the success of indie games is the low cost. The most marketable fact about any game is that it has a low cost-risk for the customer. It's much harder to experience buyer's remorse when a game will cost $10 max, but more like $2 or $3. The Humble Indie Bundle and other bundle/charity events have also created massive returns for developers.

When an indie game can be made for $10k-$100k, the low price is actually feasible. With exponentially less to recover, indie game studios require less sales to recover costs, and without a parent studio or a large corporation behind them, there isn't the requirement to turn as high of a profit as expected from other developers.

That's not to say all indie games succeed. It's still a fairly tough market saturated with programs that can barely be called games, and plenty of unoriginal titles. Even worse, it's not uncommon for art assets or even whole chunks of code to be stolen. Just look at all the Minecraft clones like Manic Digger or UberBlox. The moment a game starts to get popular, there will inevitably be those who want to copy and cash in with little effort.

Perhaps the most interesting reason for the success of indie games is how new they feel in comparison to AAA titles. Indie developers have an incredible amount of freedom to try to do something new with the medium. Braid was a fantastic example of new puzzles while Bastion showed the power to change a game's narrative based on gameplay, and the gameplay based on narrative. It's no mistake that when we discuss games as art, almost none of the positive examples come from AAA studios.

It isn't even just the gameplay mechanics, but the personalities behind the games. We can actually see and talk to the people who make and work independently in the medium. They often actively respond to and talk with players. We even get to see the game shape based on the requests of the fans. While the large corporations continue to be consumer-restrictive with DRM and unfair EULAs, indie developers like Notch or Phil Fish are happy to have people playing their games, and help cultivate the communities around them.

The industry is still very much in its infancy. We continue to fight for legitimacy in many regards, but one thing is obvious: independent studios will be a driving force of innovation and community. It's a positive sign for gaming that the consumers are so ready to trust indie studios and to try new experiences whether they are artistic, or rampant and silly like No Time to Explain.



About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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