Indie games are dead, long live Indie games. 2/3

This is part 2 of a 3 part blog, part 1 “Misunderstandings of the history of indie development and how the Rezzed panel sold short the significance of indie” can be read here.

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

The Rezzed panel discussion highlighted to me a worrying parallel with the changes in the emergent UK indie scene and our present moment in the industry. The few games the panel held up as indie included The Cultist Simulator which cost £140k+ to produce and Monument Valley which had nearly £2million in initial investment. In a year in which UKIE released stats showing a record spend on games in the UK where is this money going? Where could a new game maker or makers get access to this type investment, if this is what’s needed to make any game for market? Thus, the discussion ended up revolving mainly around how even indie game makers must become business savvy.

The panel mentioned Unity 3d (2005) and Unity’s position and claim to have helped democratise game making - which I agree with. When Unity came out it was a moment when I also thought ‘Wow - this will be how creatives and artists could start to speak via games’, and they did. However, I have to note that at the time, most of the ‘industry’ laughed at the release during Apples WWDC in 2005. “You can’t make games on macOS” was the cry. And only a few years ago another educator tried to belittle me and our choice to use Unity as our main engine, when in general conversation they advised me “you know that’s not industry standard”. The thoughts of what education is for also echoed in my mind at this point and it’s certainly not to teach Unity or Unreal.

The Graveyard (Belgium, 2009) is a fantastic example of what Unity could and would go on to do. Yet how can the so-called budget requirements mentioned support ongoing democratisation?

In 2008 the UK based Media Molecule released Little Big Planet and Sony talked about Game 3.0. Games that would allow players to be creators; consumers could become creators. We are now closer than ever to realising Game 3.0. In fact, a decade later, a recent Edge (March 2018) article nodded towards this and got me excited again. But this can only happen if we encourage creatives to use these tools and not be concerned with the commercial potential of their ideas. It is clear that Media Molecules Dreams is this type of Game 3.0 tool.

I have since spoken to some of the Media Molecule team and asked directly about paid content creation, which although currently is not an option, it is something they have thought about and very much see the value of paying creators. So we as artists and designers need to push developers such as Media Molecule, to not take advantage of free content producers. Those companies that start to pioneer in this emerging Game 3.0 field will no doubt draw more talent to the industry, with possibly interesting and sustainable business models for content creators. I will touch on the concepts of monetisation the panel nodded towards in my third post, but you may have guessed I didn’t agree with the panel’s thoughts on parallels towards following the music industry.

Towards the end of the panel discussion, one piece of advice was to not waste money on a Games Development course at University, and the suggestion that you can learn Games Development via a Google search. The panel were heard to laugh in agreement at this statement. Now I am a huge advocate of open education resources and I once learnt how to fix a problem with part of my car on YouTube; however, that doesn’t make me a mechanic and I wouldn’t advocate all mechanics should learn their trade on YouTube. Throw-away comments such as these, and other concerning trends, see people like Peter Thiel offering $100k “to young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom”. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the value of education.

I believe each panel member had a degree, albeit not in games, so I must assume they do in fact value the usefulness of higher education. In view of this, perhaps the wording of the statement should have been more carefully selected, or otherwise qualified, rather than being diminishing and dismissive. The benefit of working cooperatively with educators is much more useful than bashing them. Universities offer much more than skills.

If we agree that the way to solve some of the most complex problems is through creative thinking, then I am confident Universities offer this space through a variety of subjects. And I happen to think Games is a very strong area in which to apply this type of thinking.

Young people need to build confidence, collaborative skills, design thinking and creative investigation in order to create exciting and innovative games, be that for entertainment or social good. They also need structure and deadlines, and you can’t learn that from YouTube. I am learning the Godot Game Engine via Youtube and some paid Kickstarter content however my process of thinking was transformed by Art School and I know this still positively affects me today. I don’t think I can put it better than Douglas Rushkoff did in a recent article so I am just going to quote from him here:

School (University) is a means of promoting not social control, or even productivity, but the higher value of learning itself. School (University) is less valuable for the information or skills transmitted than the mimesis — the live mirroring and modelling — through which students learn to think critically, develop rapport, and establish solidarity. School (University) is not directed at our utilitarian value, but our essential, intrinsic dignity. How profoundly sad it is that many of us think of a Harvard education more as a professional credential than a pinnacle of humanism.

A talk I attended later, from the designer of Knights and Bikes, was excellent and his Art School Education was clearly evident in the level of detail in the game and the way the game is likely to speak to players. His final slide of a death metal poster where one band clearly stood out was a call for game makers to be that band. To be different and to say something through games. The ‘indie’ panel discussion instead seemed focussed on playing it safe and balancing the cheque book. I believe strongly that this is likely to lead to uncreative and unimaginative games.

I fundamentally believe we need games that speak to and from a diverse audience and this means taking risks and making projects that do not consider the bottom line or return on investment as the primary motivator. Indie game making is not, as the panel seemed to suggest, just to provide a route into the industry.

In my final part I will discuss the real potential of indie games.

Adam Procter @adamprocter