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Since this week is The Escapist's Indie Developer Showcase, I've been thinking a lot about indie games and the people who make them. I'm particularly smitten by Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV, the latest mind-bending platformer to take the indie world by storm. For anyone who believes that completely fresh game designs are impossible four decades after the medium's inception, VVVVVV provides plenty of evidence to the contrary. Every room feels like it was painstakingly constructed to provide an entirely new take on the game's signature gravity-flipping, space-warping mechanics. I can't remember the last time a game has so consistently surprised and elated me.
Yet each time I've enthusiastically recommended VVVVVV to one of my friends, I've added a single damning qualification: It's probably not worth $15.
On the face of it, it's an absurd claim. I could truthfully call VVVVVV one of my favorite games of the year so far (and it hasn't been a dull month for new releases). I've played through it once, which occupied about three hours of my time, and I intend to have a second go 'round after I've found all the game's collectible trinkets. I've even bought the soundtrack, PPPPPP, which I'm happily bouncing along to right this moment. It's a pretty safe assumption that I've gotten more than fifteen bucks worth of value from my purchase.
But VVVVVV is not a game for everyone. For one, it's absurdly hard. Years of playing Mega Man in various friends' basements while they begged me to go outside have made it impossible for me to give up when faced with a near-impossible challenge - a handicap that I recognize many do not share. Then there's the retro-minimalist visuals, which will likely prevent anyone who demands a veneer of verisimilitude with their gameplay from enjoying it. (Personally, I think the simplistic graphics give you a less obstructed look at a seriously brilliant design.) And if you don't enjoy electronic music, you might not be moved much by Souleye's completely bitchin' chiptunes grooves. In fact, I have to concede that, without ever having met me, Terry Cavanagh may have created a game that caters exclusively to my bizarrely specific tastes - in which case I probably owe him a lot more than $15.
So what is VVVVVV worth, then? For that matter, what is any indie game worth? That's a question that I imagine a lot of solo developers struggle with. For one, there's simply no consensus on the matter: Unlike AAA titles, which we've been conditioned to believe are worth $60 even when they're obviously not, you can find great indie titles from anywhere between $20 and completely free. Then there's the matter of perspective: Publishers have entire departments dedicated to making sure a game's budget doesn't exceed its projected revenue, while all indie developers have is the memories of a hundred miserable, sleepless nights in front of a computer screen when they sit down to calculate the "costs" of their project. Indie game development is still a business, yes, but when the same person who spends a year on his labor of love is forced to put a price tag on it, there's no wonder it can sometimes feel a little wide of the mark.