The “rise of the indies” in the gaming industry is nothing new for those who follow the business closely. And for those who don’t, they may be pleasantly surprised by the continuing growth and variety of titles emanating from this industry.
INNOVATION FROM THE INDIES
Typically, independent developers are either hobbyists-turned-professionals who dedicate their lives to designing great games (either individually or as members of a small team) or—as is the case with many—they’ve left the triple-A space to start their own companies.
The obvious benefit of being independent is creative freedom, and it’s one of the main reasons you may hear about developers parting ways with large companies to start up their own businesses. With the increase of available platforms, it could be said that some developers are itching to work on something new and give form to their own visions.
Some of the most exemplary titles of a deeply personal nature are the games released by Montreal-based Minority Media. The developer’s co-founder and creative director, Vander Caballero, is a former design director at EA Montreal. He created Papo & Yo, a deeply personal and emotional expression of Caballero’s own childhood struggling with his father’s alcoholism. The game received nearly universal praise, garnering accolades and endorsements from gaming blogs and even landing on the pages of the New York Times.
With Minority, Caballero’s goal is to create games that have meaning, and the company’s follow-up to Papo is another such title—Silent Enemy—which tackles another complex subject: bullying.
That Dragon, Cancer from American developers Ryan Green and Josh Larson is another emotional and personal game that has drummed up a fair amount of buzz, so much so that Ouya—the Android-powered console funded through Kickstarter—announced it would fund the title. The game places the players in the role of a father tending to his young son who has terminal cancer.
Another Montreal-based studio, Compulsion Games, is headed up by Guillaume Provost, who has experience in indie and triple-A from his days at Pseudo Interactive and Arkane Studios. Compulsion’s upcoming stunning film noir-esque Contrast plays with light and shadow, has been appearing at gaming events from PAX to Gamescom and will be available for current- and next-generation consoles this month.
INNOVATION FROM BIG STUDIOS
Of course, this is not to say that bigger studios aren’t open to breaking new ground. While they continue to bolster popular franchises with dedicated and ever-growing fan bases, we’re starting to see them take chances that were unheard of before.
For example, Ubisoft Montreal recently announced Child of Light, a beautiful JRPG that looks as if it’s been lifted from a painting and placed on screen. Modeled on a poem, this game is an unusual yet welcome move.
Child of Light is reportedly inspired by Thegamecompany’s equally poetic Journey, distributed by Sony Computer Entertainment. SCE has successfully published many blockbuster franchises from the God of War to Uncharted series, but has also supported several noteworthy independent games, including Giant Sparrow’s The Unfinished Swan and DrinkBox Studios’ Metroid-vania-style platformerGuacamelee!, to name but a few.
SUPPORT FROM NEXT-GENERATION CONSOLES
With the release of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One next-generation consoles, there is most definitely an appetite for great games. In many cases, independent developers can deliver a high-quality game more quickly than a traditional publisher or large studio, which can traditionally take up to three years or more.
Sony announced its continued intent to work with indie developers through its successful Pub Fund, which also supported the aforementioned Papo & Yo. Meanwhile, Microsoft proposes a self-publishing program to indie developers.
DIRECT SUPPORT FROM PLAYERS
Funding for indie developers is always a challenge, and many have successfully turned to crowdfunding. Space trader game Drifter, from Newfoundland-based Celsius Game Studios, raised well over its $50,000 goal, whereas the colourfully charming adventure/exploration game Night in the Woods from Infinite Fall is a Kickstarter project still underway that had raised nearly 300% of its funding goal at the time this post was put online. And larger indies such as Double Fine Productions have gone on to break Kickstarter records for its throw-back point-and-click adventure game Broken Age.
While it would appear less surprising that a high-profile and popular independent developer like Double Fine achieved—and surpassed—its Kickstarter goal, it’s worth noting that one of the primary reasons it launched a crowdfunding campaign was to create a game of a once-popular genre (point-and-click) that would never sell according to publishers. In his Kickstarter pitch video, studio co-founder Tim Schafer even stated this: “If I were to go to a publisher right now and pitch an adventure game, they’d laugh in my face.”
The persisting buzz and ever-growing success of these games point to a strong appetite for original IP that does not appear ready to go away anytime soon, whether it comes from the triple-A world or independent developers. And with the continued support of such titles through diverse funding options, from government to crowdfunding, it will be interesting to see how independent developers continue to innovate and surprise the industry.