Indie studios usually look up to industry giants, but it looks like the tables are turning. As the game industry becomes increasingly unforgiving, large game companies are going indie.
It’s a good time to be an indie game developer. Now, more than ever, there are some great opportunities for independent game developers – Kickstarter, the Humble Bundle (and others like it), various game jams, and many other outlets make it easier and cheaper to get your idea off the ground. Anyone who’s ever wanted to create a game can look to huge indie hits for inspiration: Minecraft is now one of the top 10 best-selling PC games of all time, Journey’s composer received a Grammy nomination, while other indies have claimed impressive awards at various conferences and ceremonies. So far, the game industry has been good to indies.
Meanwhile, large studios are starting to feel the burn of a vicious cycle: a lot of money must go into making technologically up-to-date games, but not enough money comes back from sales of these games. This past year has been plagued by studio closures and layoffs in large game companies. The AAA industry has a bad case of ‘sequelitis’ that it can’t break out of because no one can afford the risk. As the game industry becomes more accommodating for indies, it gets more and more difficult for the big industry games.
There’s a bit of buzz starting about how long it will be before the decline of indies begins. After all, as the saying goes, what goes up must come down. But instead, a different trend has emerged in 2012, and will only continue and grow next year: in an unfriendly world for AAA studios, industry giants are going indie.
The indie way
What does it mean to be “indie,” anyway? No one really agrees. Traditionally, being independent means not being associated with a publisher. But what does that make of large developers who are also their own publishers, like Square Enix? What about studios like PopCap, who were bought by EA, or thatgamecompany, who were seemingly unquestionably indie even when its games were being published by Sony?
It’s clear that being an independent game developer is about much more than funding or publisher affiliation – that technically correct defiition has been replaced by something far more flexible. Being indie now has a certain feel associated with it, and many fans responding to that feeling positively. In a fight between indie darling Valve and giant ‘corporation’ EA, for instance, Valve would win by the simple fact that its fans would climb into the ring and take out EA personally.
That’s because it’s easier to see indie developers as real people: when you think of Mojang, what you probably think of is Notch, while Valve is represented by Gabe Newell. At the same time, AAA companies seem more like faceless corporations. Some large game companies understand this, and are already doing their best to put a more personal approach on the way they communicate with their fans. Microsoft has Major Nelson and Nintendo has Satoru Iwata acting as the companies’ voices. Sony went a different route and made up the fictional spokesperson Kevin Butler (though they get points off for subsequently suing him).
Indie games are also traditionally underfunded, while AAA games are defined by their huge budgets. But the walls of this preconception are starting to crumble as well. Double Fine’s incredible $3.3 million Kickstarter campaign for Adventure prompted a number of industry giants to follow suit and directly ask fans for funding. One of the biggest success stories is Obsidian Entertainment’s Project Eternity, which made just under $4 million. Industry legend Peter Molyneux might not be working with a large company anymore, but he’s another big name who turned to Kickstarter to fund his newest project, Godus.
THQ went along a slightly different route. For the past year or so, the company has been teetering on the edge of financial failure. The company showed its willingness to think outside the box, though, and decided to do something that so far has been generally indie-centric. A few weeks ago, the THQ Humble Bundle went live, offering fans 7 of their AAA games in a choose-your-price deal. That’s 7 games that originally cost $60 each, that could now be yours for $6 total. The bundle made an impressive $5 million.
Whether they’re using indie tactics to gain fan love or some extra funding, big companies are learning that indies are onto something. But can a large company with hundreds of employees really adopt the unrestricted environment of a small indie studio? Increasingly, it looks like it can. Earlier this year, Valve released its employee handbook, which showed just how a company of about 300 can function without any hierarchy, managers, or bosses to speak of.
Mojang adopts a similar structure, although Notch has admitted that he’s “worried about growing”. That’s because being indie is about more than using Kickstarter or communicating with your fans. Being indie is a mentality, an atmosphere. Industry giants have a long way to go before they can truly learn the ways of the indies, but the transformation has already started.
Maybe it’s time to drop labels like ‘indie’ and ‘AAA’ as the two become increasingly intertwined. I can only hope that this trend means that one day in the near future, the games industry will be dominated by developers with enough funding to create not just polished games, but ones that innovate as well. Until then I’ll silently applaud when I see AAA studios doing things the indie ways. After all, we’ve got to start somewhere.