Experienced Points

Experienced Points
RIP, The Last Great Indie

Shamus Young | 10 Jul 2009 20:36
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id was acquired on June 24 of this year by Zenimax, ending the reign of the longest-running independent developer. They were the one company that had both the cash and the clout to do as they pleased, without needing to get the blessing of a publisher or the support of a patron. Their games have been derided in recent years because their gameplay hasn't evolved much from their original formula of gunning down aliens and demons while exploring insufficiently lit industrial complexes. It's true their gameplay didn't change much, but I love everything they've ever made simply because their enthusiasm for it shows through in their work. They made the kind of games they wanted to play. There is an elegance and a purity to their approach that I admire, even though I normally favor games with more story and deeper gameplay.

Despite my lamentations about losing the last great indie house, I think the move makes sense for id Software. While video game teams started out like rock bands - small groups of creative people with a common vision - they have since morphed into something that more closely resembles movie studios. With team sizes now in the dozens and sometimes hundreds, the business is less about having a few brilliant people and much more about healthy business practices, smart management, and a good company culture. The days when 20% of your team can be John Carmack are long gone. The cost of making games has skyrocketed, so that now a single dud can sink an otherwise successful studio. It makes more sense than ever to have a publisher backing you to help mitigate risk.

I don't know what Zenimax plans to do with id. Zenimax's other major holding is Bethesda, the company behind titles like Morrowind, Oblivion, and Fallout 3. Bethesda games have always been a little wonky in the technology department and they could certainly benefit from a robust and stable core for their games. This is something id Software has always done well. On the other hand, id Software has spent just short of two decades making linear games set mostly in dark indoor tunnels. Bethesda makes open-world sandbox games. This is like hiring the world's smartest aircraft designer to help you make tanks. Sure, id is a smart bunch - but how useful will their skills be in practice? (I'm assuming Zenimax bought id for their ability to make graphics technology. It's certainly possible they bought id because they wanted another development house, but that's like buying the goose that lays golden eggs simply because you want a pet goose.)

Earlier, I said id refused the urge to grow, but a few years ago they finally relented and built a couple of small teams to work on mobile games and Quake Live. I think it's noteworthy that they were sold just a couple of years after giving in to the siren call of expansion.

In any case, it's the end of an era. I don't know of any developer from 1991 that is still operating independently today. They have all been acquired by publishers or been carved up in liquidation. Nobody stood alone as long as id Software did. I don't know what they'll end up doing for Zenimax, but I'm eager to find out.

Shamus Young is the guy behind this movie, this website, this book, these two webcomics, and this program. He was hoping that id would release Rage this year, but no. Who do they think they are, Valve?

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