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

This is part 3 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” can be read here

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

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 Rezzed panel seemed to suggest, just to provide a route into the industry.

Games are huge. Games are the biggest entertainment medium on the planet. This provides a massive audience with diverse tastes. And this is a massive audience that can be spoken to. We see the systematic destruction of the planet, the rise in fear of ‘the other’ and communities breaking down. There is a power to be had in games as art, and games as social commentary, an opportunity to hold a mirror up to the world and see things differently.

Due to the popularity of Games they are in a unique position to do more than just entertain the 40 million plus players. Might this position be harnessed and become a force for good, a place for anyone to tell their story? Further, the creative thinking and the creative nature of games could be one of the puzzle pieces used to help solve some of the planet’s biggest problems to date: global warming and political unrest to name but two.

So, my call to action is that UKIE and the industry should do much more to encourage the truly creative side of games in the UK. The ‘indie’ panel discussion focus on skills, money, business planning and ‘what the ‘industry’ wants’ does little to encourage or ensure that there continues to be a diverse community of makers, lead not just by white men, money, and publishers that have “made it”.

We should note as well that the industry at one end has unstable employment, developer burn out and more games being made by contracting ‘teams’. While those making ‘indie’ games need to have a day job to support themselves and ensure they have the business acumen to go cap in hand to the publishers, who are not disposed to take risks. Where is the investment in new companies and creative start-ups?

There was some brief discussion on trickle down payment streaming services: making games that are twitchable or supporting games via services such as the Venture Capital (VC) backed Patreon. Although none of these options where discussed in much depth and the discussion was connected to looking at other industries that have seen change via digital disruption, specifically pointing to the music industry. The picture painted was that Games would move towards a market of the Beyoncé’s and the artists living off Bandcamp or subsidiary sales such as merchandise to sustain making ‘indie’ games. What a dividing and terrible situation. The Music industry is not in a good place. This is not a sustainable future I would want for games. So why not think differently? Why doesn’t UKIE lobby companies and governments to invest in these creative endeavours? The panel touched on mid-size companies folding or closing down and connected this to bad business, but I suspect this is a very simplistic view of the situation and again likely more related to demands for return on investment and VC exits.

Itch.io continues to be very interesting. Why not invest in a space for UK makers within itch.io? Perhaps UKIE already do? Why not look at the model of investment in the Arts in Canada? The UK games tax break is good, but the ability for only match funding schemes in the UK is very poor. A later panel on running a games studio asked for game makers to show products that shipped in their portfolios if they wanted to get selected to work on the contracted team within bigger products. How about supporting individuals to do this? That could be a very productive approach to ‘routes into the industry’.

Apple Arcade, for which I have positive thoughts, was also rolled out as one of the new Netflix style models for games. Yet all the companies showcased so far are well established and I do not yet see details of how Apple Arcade would support new initiatives. Will they still be left hidden in the ‘free to play’ wasteland? Have Apple hired a bunch of new individuals to even source and select great games? Should UKIE look for ways to support creatives to get onto this platform directly?

Sony have been incubating game teams and projects for decades and really understand games. Yet we don’t see Sony backing the types of risks much in recent years. E3 for example in the last 2-3 years in terms of showcasing small projects in the keynote has been particularly poor. A quick comparison of Sony over recent years shows a marked difference. Journey was delayed, over budget and yet Sony took the risk and kept faith in the team, adjusted schedules and injected money. No Man’s Sky, which is now winning awards and much delayed praise, was released - it appears - under pressure from Sony and in doing so damaged the team and the game. Yet it seems many of the things Sean Murray, owner of Hello Games, mentioned and was accused of tricking players into purchasing or over promising, now appear in the game after 2 more years of development. Hello Games have also announced a Hello Games Short.

A Hello Games Short. Like Pixar shorts it’s a way to foster creativity and new voices in the studio. We started by making Joe Danger, before No Man’s Sky, and we want to pay forward our success to give others the opportunity to do the same.

I would like to see more voices being fostered across the ‘industry’. Voices that understand the power of games as a medium for compassion, storytelling, empathy, understanding and as an art form. Then perhaps we can still wrestle back some of the potential of games without having to allow the marketeers and money makers to lead the way to Rockstars (no pun intended) and poor artists. The games industry could be better than this.

Indie games are not dead. I see Indie games as being a vital part of the games industry, the gamer community and society in general. Other funding models are out there, for example co-operative, open (source) business, ethical funding. They do exist and do work. Let’s see the ‘industry’ invest across the piece for both positive change and diversity as well as the next blockbuster hits. I call for Indie game makers to unite and ask the ‘industry’ to do more to support the wider field of game making.

Summary and conclusion

I really feel the expert panel missed the opportunities to celebrate what UK indie was, is and will be. Their focus on the business aspects was poor and the advice didn’t come over as well informed to support indie making in the way that it could. I would like to see the UK industry and UK organisations support the potential for indie game making as expanding and advancing games as an art form and games as social commentary, alongside the more quirky and innovative side of games as entertainment and escapism. A missed opportunity to really open the lid on the broad reach of diverse game making. There was no indication that the focus on money, return on investment and some rather poor suggestions for choices of new business models could in fact really impact creativity within the field and something we should be aware of. Investment, nurture and risk taking is what has gotten the industry where it is now, let’s not lose that to the drum of neoliberal capitalism.

Adam Procter @adamprocter