Indie games are dead, long live Indie games. 1/3

At the recent Rezzed games event in London, I attended an expert panel discussion on indie games. This blog was prompted by my strong reactions to, and critique of, the panel’s observations. It is in three parts.

Part 1: Misunderstandings of the history of indie development and how the Rezzed panel sold short the significance of indie games. (this post)

Part 2: Why indie development is still important, developer’s motivations and the value of games education. Read here

Part 3: Unlocking the huge potential of indie by challenging the attitudes of the industry. Read here

As background, I should declare my interest. I teach a progressive BA in Games Design & Art within an Art School, Winchester School of Art, which is part of the University of Southampton a research-led Russell Group University. I see the power of games to tell hidden stories, evoke emotions and build bridges for social good and as a strong future part of diverse game making. This might be through ‘serious games’ but more likely it will be through great game play and games that entertain as well as provide moments of thought and ponder. Games are an art form that can comment on society and fulfil the function of art. So, I hold games in a very high regard. I see the possibilities of these types of games coming from the ‘indie’ artists, makers and designers. In this 3-part blog, I will unpick these ideas further. Oh, and by way of a disclaimer, I have never worked in the games ‘industry’.

Part 1: Misunderstandings of the history of indie development and how the Rezzed panel sold short the significance of indie.

Prior to attending Rezzed I pointed out to my final year students that the Leftfield Collection space was the area to focus on. Although there would be other rooms devoted to ‘indie’, the Leftfield Collection would give them opportunities to speak directly to makers, not community managers or publishers. As a fan of ‘indie’ games, I was also pretty excited about the expo’s ‘30 years of indie’ talk, coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of UKIE (The Association for UK Interactive Entertainment). Rather than a conventional talk, it came in the format of a panel discussion that was recorded as a podcast (and can be heard here).

As the panel discussion drew to a close the question, I was formulating was something along the lines of:

At the start of this talk you alluded to the UK indie scene starting more than 30 years ago in the games of Matthew Smith and Jeff Minter. It is a fact that this type of game making and creativity was gone or pushed to the fringes when money, the marketeers and publishers took over. UKIE have just reported the biggest spend on video games in the UK and yet the titles you mentioned now as ‘indie’: Cultist, £140k to make; Monument Valley somewhere in the region of £2m to make. And thus, you laughingly suggest indie is dead. Instead, shouldn’t the ‘industry’ and UKIE look for ways to better support emerging talent and truly diversify game making?

Perhaps it’s a good thing that I didn’t get picked to ask my question as I’m not sure that, at the time, it would have fully conveyed my thoughts. Hopefully, with this 3 part blog, I can unpack more of my thoughts and try to consider alternative solutions to those the panel partially painted for emergent ‘indie’ game makers.

You will have gathered that I was pretty frustrated at the direction the panel took the discussion, but it solidified in my mind clear issues that could see the real growing demand for a diversity of games and game makers crushed by ‘the industry’.

Actually, I should probably start with a point from the panel which I agreed with. The term ‘indie’ is now problematic and not so relevant today within games. And yes, the term indie was likely connected to certain types of game making from around 2004 and was clearly appropriated from the music industry and the indie music scene which had seen a huge growth in the late nineties and early two thousands. ‘Indie’ games have been typically seen as falling into these concepts.

  • no publisher
  • independent
  • personal
  • experimental
  • creative
  • low budget
  • niche
  • cool
  • intellectual
  • pretentious
  • artistic
  • weird
  • cheap
  • no profit

However, I believe the panel missed a key concern by not seeing a direct connection with the current situation and one that decimated the emergent UK ‘indie’ scene in the late 80s. The older games mentioned - Manic Miner (UK, 1983) and Hover Bovver (UK, 1983) - were followed by a limited number of later ‘indie’ game references, such as Fez (Canada, 2012) and Florence (Australia, 2018). Evidently, there was a decades-long time gap between the games the panel touched upon - something that seemed to go unnoticed.

It seemed that the vast majority of the discussion actually focused on the need to be business-savvy and to understand the commercial aspects of making games. The focus on return on investment was disheartening. While I’m confident that the lead designer of Florence, Ken Wong, is very business-savvy, his comments made after winning a BAFTA reveal his motives:

Amazing things can happen, my greatest hope by Florence winning awards, getting press, a getting good reception, I hope it encourages creators to strive for the same goals and tell their own stories (BAFTA , BBC Radio 5 interview)

In an MVC interview the Florence team also showed how they regularly discussed how film and books often explored love and human emotions, but that this was less explored within games and was something they wanted to tackle. The game wasn’t led by business motivations, but motivations to tell new stories.

With this in mind lets take a brief look at what the panel host stated as the start of the ‘indie’ games scene in the UK, the work of Mathew Smith and Jeff Minter. This start had a direct connection to the home computer scene: the home computer was between £125-£175 and Sir Clive Sinclair inventor of the Spectrum saw the power in getting computers into people’s homes. This was the start of democratisation of computing in the UK. The ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64 lead the way in encouraging creative game making.

Manic Miner was one such game although the panel mistakenly connected its influence as a statement on the mining crisis and battle during the political reign of Margret Thatcher, something that still has ripple effects today. It was in fact Peter Harapp’s game Wanted: Monty Mole that took direct influence. However, the landscape Matthew Smith grew up in was one directly affected by the Miner strikes and creative work is always influenced by the climate it emerges from. Hover Bovver was a light hearted game, in what has become the traditional oddball humour of Jeff Minter. A simple maze game in which you have stolen a mower from your neighbour to cut your own grass with the opening theme a rendition of Greensleeves blasting out in pure chiptune style. This experimental bubble continued for a few years with many bedroom artists speaking through games. That is, until the money arrived and return on investment became a key concern. This decimated a large part of the creative side of the industry for years to come.

The discussion, I hoped, would have been a broader view of the background to, and history of, indie games in the UK. In my work, I give talks on various game and design histories to my students each year, one of which ends with the title of this blog and is about a history of ‘indie’ games. I attribute the history of indie and other areas as starting much earlier than many realise. Within video games I suggest it starts in the 1960s with the PDP1 and Spacewar! made by a handful of engineers at MIT. This type of innovation in the ‘indie’ space continues up until today. I thus feel I have a good level of understanding around the history of ‘indie’ games. I also grew up on the ZX Spectrum (with the rubber keys!), the Amstrad CPC and the Amiga 500 before going to Art School to study Animation. I am also a big fan of open education, Creative Commons, open source & free software alongside indie and alternative music.

In the next part of this blog, I will build on this understanding to argue that indie is still important, to argue that the value of games education was unfairly trivialised, and to consider developers motivations.

Adam Procter @adamprocter