Why Has Indie Gaming Become So Popular?

It should be clear to anyone who's been watching the games industry that indie gaming is big business. New video game projects are popping up on Kickstarter every day, the Humble Indie Bundle has never been more popular, and many major studios are actively being judged on whether or not they support independent developers. In short, it's a good time to be indie. 

Today, I'd like to examine how we arrived at this point. Why are indie games so popular? How have independent developers gained so much influence with consumers, so much standing in gaming culture? In short, what elements have combined to make indie the new black? 

Let's back up for a moment. Before we go any further, it'd be a good idea to first define what I mean by 'indie.' It is, after all, a deceptively simple term. On the surface, its meaning is simple: if you design, develop, and distribute a game without the aid (or interference) of a publisher, then you're an indie developer. If your studio is not owned or operated by another organization, you're an indie developer. Easy, right? 

On closer inspection, things get a bit more complicated.

See, not all indie developers are created equal. On one end of the spectrum, you've personalities like Pixel(Cave Story), Jonathan Blow(Braid) and Phil Fish(Fez). They're individuals; as 'indie' as you can get. On the other end, you've huge studios like Mojang(Minecraft), thatgamecompany(Journey, Flower, FL0W), and Trendy Entertainment(Dungeon Defenders). Although such organizations often employ hundreds of staff, they're still indie; they simply aren't often viewed in the same light as smaller developers(more on that in a moment). 

The Mainstream's Creative Drain

War...War never changes.War...War never changes.

Now that we've got ourselves a working definition of what makes a developer and its titles independent, let's move on and try to find out why such titles have become so popular among gamers of late. Again, on the surface, it seems quite simple. The problem seems, quite clearly, to lie with AAA development.

The perception is that mainstream gaming has, for all intents and purposes, begun to sag under a crippling, creative drain. A crippling ennui has settled over AAA development; a vast and boring expanse of cover-based shooting mechanics and brown backdrops and bloom has all but consumed the industry. Everything's sort of washed together, like murky water. It's all started to look the same.

I fail to see the resemblance.I fail to see the resemblance.

Much of the blame for this lies with risk-averse publishers who, beholden to clueless shareholders, cringe at anything markedly 'new' or 'different.' Instead of trying anything unique, they simply enmesh themselves in sequels and copycats, in old methods, mechanics, and concepts. They go for what they feel certain is going to sell, instead of fiddling with what they aren't certain will work. In a sense, this is an understandable process. AAA Gaming isn't exactly cheap; many titles now have budgets in the billions. In light of this, publishers go for 'mass appeal.' For quantity over quality. 

It may well be that many publishers simply can't afford to take risks. 

In light of this sad trend, indie games - which aren't held up to the publisher's lens - feel like a breath of fresh air. By removing the middleman, independent developers are free to design as they wish, to develop as they desire. Further, they represent simultaneously a return back to the roots of game design and a step forward to something wholly unique.They represent game development for its own sake, creative works by people who care about something more than money.

Watch this movie. Now.Watch this movie. Now.

There's also the matter of price. Given that they aren't pushed out by massive studios, given that they don't have shareholders to consider or marketing campaigns to run or thousand-strong teams to support, indie games are naturally cheaper than AAA titles. In many cases, they're just as good. Often, they're better. Since it's a well-known fact that people don't like spending money, it's fairly obvious which side wins out in a fight. 

A New Landscape

Here's a sunrise, to represent a new frontier.Here's a sunrise, to represent a new frontier.

To assume that the advent of independent development lies solely with the "Hollywoodization" of games publishing would be an oversimplification. Another reason independent development has kicked off to such a degree - perhaps the prime reason, beyond even frustration with publishers - lies with the fundamental changes the Internet has effected, both in distribution and in the way we connect and communicate.

Only a decade or so ago,  the concept of digital distribution seemed almost entirely foreign to gaming. Brick-and-Mortar stores were the primary avenue by which games would be dispersed to consumers; developers hence had little choice but to find themselves a publisher. 'Indie' wasn't really a word anyone would think to associate with game development.

And train tracks for...trailblazing? Yeah, let's go with that.And train tracks for...trailblazing? Yeah, let's go with that.

I'd argue several factors were key in changing this.

The first of these is the inherent nature of the Internet; at once the world's largest storehouse of information and its largest community. Even in the early days of the 'net, it became clear that in the online world, everyone - no matter how seemingly insignificant- has a voice. Anyone with the right tools and the right knowledge could promote themselves, including an independent developer. Unfortunately, the infrastructure necessary for the widespread distribution of an independent game hadn't quite caught up at this point. 

That's where Steam comes in. Created by Valve (everyone's favorite development studio),  Steam was digital rights management software that worked. It was a completely virtual, entirely digital storefront, designed to allow users to purchase titles which could be downloaded at their convenient. In just a few years, Valve caused a colossal upset in the supply chain. Digital distribution was now a thing. 

Of course, Valve shouldn't be given sole credit here. The concept of digital distribution went hand-in-hand with the development of better networking infrastructure; the proliferation of networks capable of supporting digital games libraries. Further, these elements arguably had a relatively minor role in causing independent development to catch on.

By far the greatest contributing factor - perhaps the sole reason - for the indie boom is social media. These days, everybody's connected in a way that the Internet on its own was simply unable to provide. Everybody has a face and a voice. The global village has become even more personalized; the social network has become one of the primary means by which we communicate.

One impact of this is that consumers expect it to also be the primary means by which businesses and brands connect with them. They demand a humanized, personal approach. Coupled with what seems to be man's inherent tendency to demonize large corporations, it's no wonder independent developers have gained more ground than many larger studios. It's easier to put a human face to them; easier to see them on our level.

Of even greater import, however, is the fact that social media arguably led to the birth of crowd-funding: the primary mechanism by which many independent games are now developed. Instead of having to pitch their cases to publishing firms, investors, or shareholders, developers now go straight to the community with their concepts and ideas. They ask gamers directly what they want, and the gamers answer. Their customers are their shareholders. Social networks and blogs are their marketing division. 

The publisher isn't even relevant.

Other Factors

There are a few more elements worth noting before we wrap things up. The first is creative control. Historically, many of the largest development studios lagged behind when it came to updating how they operated. They didn't really establish a dialogue with their fans in any meaningful way, and it showed. Even in the case of those that did, the fans didn't really have much say in how the project was made. 

With independent development, gamers can actually feel as though they have power. They can exert some level of control, some degree of influence on the creative process that goes into making a game. Many larger studios have begun to clue into this, as well - but that's a topic for another day. 

Though indie developers hardly have the sole claim to 'nostalgia...'Though indie developers hardly have the sole claim to 'nostalgia...'

Further, a number of independent games carry with them a certain degree of nostalgie. They hearken back to a simpler time in gaming, with eight-bit graphics and stylish chiptunes. They favor grueling difficulty over hand-holding tutorials, sprite art over billions-pixel landscapes, and stark simplicity over pointless complexity. In many ways, they recapture what many feel to be the golden age of games. 

Closing Thoughts

Have another photo of a sunrise. Y'know...for inspiration.Have another photo of a sunrise. Y'know...for inspiration.

There are many reasons that independent developers are fast becoming the new celebrities of the games industry. Frustration with the lack of contact, originality, and foresight running rampant through AAA development causes the open communication, uniqueness, and freedom which defines many independent studios to look more and more attractive. The lower price point of indie games further sets them apart from their mainstream peers, while the nostalgia element of many indie titles draws fans in even greater numbers. 

All of this is enabled by new communication methods and new distribution methods, both of which empower the consumer over the corporation. 

As I've said, the mainstream has started to take notice. Indie gaming is big business, and many larger studios are beginning to see why. This immense popularity may well change the face of gaming as we know it, as more and more developers step forward to flex their creative muscles. We'll still have to sift through offal in search of gems...but at least they'll be more plentiful. 

In any case, I've rambled on enough. We'll talk more tomorrow, folks. For now, have yourselves a fantastic day.