RIP, The Last Great Indie

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In 1963, The Beatles released Please Please Me, which spent 30 weeks at the #1 spot on the charts. The young men from Liverpool were suddenly becoming rich and famous at an alarming rate. What if, in an effort to capitalize on their success, they decided to hire four more musicians and make a spin-off band? Maybe they could call it “Beatles West.” These other musicians would write and perform new Beatles songs. This would enable them to produce twice as many records a year. Perhaps that cashflow would enable them to launch a third or fourth band. The opportunities would have been endless.

Of course, this is a stupid and terrible idea. The four new musicians would have no better odds at success than any other four guys trying to get into the business. It’s obviously nonsense to make more “Beatles” groups, because what makes a band work is the talent and creativity of the individual members and how well they can work together.

Yet this is exactly how game companies ran things back in the early to mid ’90s. Back then, a small team might be three guys, and a large team was perhaps six. If a team was lucky enough to strike gold and come up with a hit title, their first reaction was to hire a second team to expand their studio and work on two games at once. Having just won the lottery of business, they conclude that building a winning team is easily replicated and all they need to do is find a few bright people and the lightning will strike again.

Eventually one of the divisions would falter over a bad title. Maybe they would make mistakes. Maybe they would have bad luck. Sometimes both. In any case, money would be siphoned away from the original successful team to support the struggling add-on. Instead of one profitable team they would have two unprofitable ones. They would either go out of business or be forced to sell themselves to a major publisher. Either way, they would cease to be a small team of independent developers. Black Isle, Looking Glass, Westwood, and many others eventually folded or were absorbed, regardless of the fact that they turned out titles of legendary quality.

But one company steadfastly refused to expand. id Software – the company you never want to put at the beginning of a sentence because you’re not supposed to capitalize their name – constantly resisted the temptation to try and do more than one thing at a time. Their initial hit games Wolfenstein 3D and Doom gave them an enormous (for the time) supply of cash. When seemingly more sensible companies would take that heap of cash and grow the company, the id team took the money and bought themselves Ferraris. I remember the scoffing at these silly kids who didn’t know how to run a business, but I also note that they held out longer than anyone else. They focused on doing one thing, and did it well year after year, even as a hundred other companies came and went.

When id Software did want to do more than one thing at a time – such as when they wanted to do an expansion pack or a spin-off game like Heretic or Quake 4 – they licensed the required technology to another developer like Raven Software or Ritual Entertainment. This let them profit from opportunities without placing the company at risk. If Raven had failed in some spectacular manner, the Raven losses would never have leaked over onto the id Software balance sheet.

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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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