Independent Spirit

In this generation of amped-up budgets and development teams numbering in the hundreds, it is impossibly reassuring to me that indie gaming is stronger than ever and gaining momentum. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not one of those gamers with a knee-jerk distaste for high-profile gaming because it somehow dilutes the art form. I love me some Mass Effect, BioShock and Crysis as much as the next guy, and I realize that a big-budget frontline is the driving force behind the $17-billion-and-growing entertainment powerhouse that has become modern videogaming, but as I download Poker Smash for my Xbox 360, having just put some quality time into Sins of a Solar Empire on my PC, I am reassured that the model for game development that I grew up on is also still healthy.

And you should be, too.

Valve’s recent decision to make its Steamworks publishing and development tools available for free doesn’t just make sense in reinforcing the strength of the company’s digital store and download service, it also unlocks yet another avenue for independent and small developers to hock their increasingly appealing wares. It’s been a surprisingly common theme of late. Considering that small, manageable development houses enjoyed both broad and cult appeal last year with games like Peggle, Dwarf Fortress and Puzzle Quest, bringing more of this kind of product to growing digital distribution bases like Steam makes sense for everybody. More exposure for indie game makers, more exposure of Steam as a retail force for Valve and, of course, more exposure to these games for us.

I understand the complaints by larger developers on the state of this console generation that has pushed the cost envelope nearly off the table, and I shudder to imagine how much money goes into bringing a Grand Theft Auto 4 or Metal Gear Solid 4 to bear. But, at the same time, the widespread adoption of digital download services, from Xbox Live Arcade to Steam to the PlayStation Store, has also opened a mainstream audience to games that had traditionally only been adopted by the indie market. In a reversal of longstanding trends, we are seeing some high profile names abandoning the big-budget model and returning to more manageable game development houses, like David Jaffe of Eat Sleep Play or Raph Koster of Metaplace. It is a sign o’ the times.

There has been a stigma against the term “independent gaming” that it must somehow be unlovable, unapproachable and high concept to legitimately be indie. The term conjures images of graphically anemic games with steep learning curves and limited appeal. And that vector is certainly well traced, though the definition has broadened over the past few years into something a little more complex. After all, Half-Life 2 is technically an independent game, but to describe it as such would somehow break the spirit of the meaning. So, too, there exist independent publishers like Strategy First, Stardock, PopCap and GarageGames, and yet the moniker “independent” conjures images of eschewing the traditional developer/publisher model. In the end, what we think of as indie games is defined by titles created with small budgets from small developers with limited resources, both for production and publishing. In the past that has meant we have to throw small audiences in as part of that set which describes indie games. That’s not so true anymore.

Let’s be clear: That’s good.

Not only because it means more games – often for less money – as consumers, but because it broadens the breeding ground from which big developers and big publishers can pull. The gulf between the developers of independent titles and of big-name titles is not as great as it seems, and with the budgets on AAA titles soaring, being able to pull from a talent base that has experience with actually selling games improves the stock. It is a curious symbiosis that this generation is defined by high costs and high prices, but it’s also defined as the tool of revolution for the independent movement.

And, for the PC fans of the world, our numbers too often minimized in a market infatuated with the console industry, independent gaming manifests not only in the latest puzzler from PopCap but in endless in-browser diversions. Those who followed Raph Koster’s presentation, titled “What We Are Missing,” at last year’s GDC Prime already have an inkling of the potential power of gaming on the web. Dismiss it at your peril.

Broaden your perception of what defines independent gaming and you may be surprised to find that you spend as much or more time in the realm of the indie than in the mainstream. Ever stumbled onto a new version of Tower Defense that absorbed an hour or two? Ever downloaded and played an Xbox Live Arcade game? Ever picked up a copy of Peggle, or taken a stab at an ARG, or tried your hand at Line Rider? These are games that are actually redefining the next-gen and building a healthy gaming industry that supports and bolsters the sometimes bloated, big-budget method we’re all so very familiar with.

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