How Independent Development Has Changed Gaming
The video game industry is going through a time of change as we move inexorably towards the next generation of consoles.The changes are both deep and far-reaching, impacting both consumer and developer. Business models, consumer attitudes, and development cycles are all evolving; any organization unable to move with this evolution risks being left behind. Many already have been.
This shift owes a great deal to independent game development - though in a way, this too is a symptom of the industry's evolution. The immense popularity of independent games - the unspoken connotation of quality associated with marking a title as "indie" - has caused many developers to take note.
"Why," they wonder, "are these smaller titles so popular? Why do they resonate so with fans? What do these developers have that we lack?"
The main thing is creative freedom. Independent developers are accountable to no one.They're entirely free to do whatever they desire with their titles, to toy with new concepts and address new ideas in whatever way they see fit. They don't need to worry about shareholders, or multi-billion dollar projects, or marketing teams. They can simply do what they do best: design.
Consequently, most independent developers have a great deal of passion for what they do. They're sharing their work as much for the sake of creating it as anything else.
The success of these unique, interesting, comparitively low-budget games is being marked. We are of late seeing a great many more developers taking risks in AAA development. Studios are becoming more willing to take chances and stick their necks out. Indie gaming serves as a proof of concept: departing from the norm isn't a bad thing.
The nature of independent development also means that the individuals and studios involved often establish a direct dialogue with gamers. They speak directly to their potential customers; they've the capacity to interact with fans on a near-personal level. Fans are thus more often than not drawn directly into the development process - systems such as Steam Greenlight further ensure that gamers have a direct say in what the final iteration of a title looks like.
Again, we're seeing echoes of this in AAA development. EA and Bioware for example - realizing their blunder with Dragon Age 2 and the ending of Mass Effect 3 - announced a while back that they would be taking fan feedback for the upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition. Developers, it seems, are realizing that including their most passionate fans in the development process is a very, very good idea indeed.
After all, people know what they want to play.
While we're on the topic of consumer attitudes, independent gaming has bled over into mainstream gaming to such a degree that many studios are actively judged on whether or not their support indie games. Organizations such as Nintendo, Valve, and Sony are put on a pedestal for offering full and open support for independent developers, while Microsoft's apparent refusal to support independent developers on the Xbox One has been cited as one of many reasons for the Xbox One's PR disaster at this year's E3.
Ironically, though independent developers and independent development studios are often dwarfed by their AAA kin, it could be said that they wield just as much influence as the larger organizations - perhaps more.
Lastly, a great many studios are beginning to realize that one doesn't necessarily have to be blundering ahead into the future in order for a title to be a commercial success. Many of the most successful independent titles of the past year are undeniably old-school: a combination of quality and nostalgia has secured their success. RPGs in particular are getting a lot of love on Kickstarter - just look at the record-breaking Kickstarter for Torment: Tides of Numenera. Their success is such that some publishers are actually flirting with the idea of funding more.
The emergence of the indie games market is just one of many ways in which the video game industry has shifted over the past several years. Looking at the big picture, this increased prominence is ultimately just the side-effect of a larger evolution. Still, its influence on AAA development - on game development as a whole - has been both positive and noteworthy.
There will always be a large helping of tripe in AAA gaming. Sturgeon's Law dictates that it is so. Due in no small part to the effiorts of independent developers, we're starting to find more and more diamonds in the rough, as many large studios come to realize that it's creativity - not copycatting - that truly makes a game great. It's tough to say what the future will hold, but for the time being, it's good to be an independent developer.
And even better to be a gamer.