The Importance of Being Indie

Originally published in Exeposé – University of Exeter Student Newspaper

Marcus Beard takes up the fight for industry innovation.

Let me tell you about publishing giant Activision’s humble beginnings. Formed in 1979 by former music industry executive Jim Levy, Activision was the first game developer not to be owned by console manufacturers – the first independent developer. Creating games for the Atari 2600, just one developer would work on each game, creating titles such as ‘Tennis’, ‘Ice Hockey’, and the ground-breaking ‘Fishing Derby’ – each game having mechanics entirely new and different from the last. Levy would ensure a whole page in each manual was dedicated to the developer, in the hope new talent would be attracted to create the best games out there for consumers.

So what happened? Things went the same way as the music industry. Activision grew too large, core developers broke away, lawsuits were started, and smaller publishers were acquired; it became all about the dollar. Activision is now the top publisher in US, and after firing and attempting to sue the co-founder and lead designer that created the series, will be releasing its eighth Call of Duty game in five years. Almost indistinguishable from its predecessor and using the same stale engine and formula it has been for five years, Modern Warfare 3 is set to break all-time sales revenue records in entertainment industry. It is the videogame industry’s Justin Bieber.

It looks as though any hope of finding new, exciting and passionately developed games from the big publishers is gone when we look at EA’s digital distribution woes, Ubisoft’s overbearing DRM and Activision’s general alignment with the evil empire. Yet, there is a glimmer, nay, a beacon of hope in the industry.
Last year I found myself walking around Earl’s Court convention centre at Eurogamer Expo 2010 feeling completely apathetic towards the glut of sequels and stale franchises that surrounded me. I stumbled upon a corridor filled with desktop PCs and guys wearing programming pun t-shirts – the ‘indie arcade’. These games had the most innovative and new gameplay mechanics I had seen in a while. Hohokum and Tiny & Big were two of my favourites. Where are these games now? Still unreleased and in beta. As indie games lack the funding of big publishers, most of them are created by enthusiasts alongside a day job.

With the advent of new community funding programmes like Kickstarter, this is less of a problem. Users can pledge different amounts of money to projects for various bonuses when the project is released, such as a name in the credits or signed merchandise. Think of it as a glorified pre-order. Some developers have orchestrated this process themselves, such as in the Overgrowth Alpha release project. Minecraft is perhaps the most successful indie game of all time, selling over 4 million units, generating over $70 million in revenue, and a $129-a-ticket Minecraft convention that takes place next weekend. The game is still a Beta release.


However, just like the big developers that spend millions to combat the problem, indie games are victims of software piracy. A large proportion of people playing these game have not paid for them. 2D boy, developers of World of Goo were the first to take radical pricing measures with its ‘Pirate Amnesty’, encouraging those who acquired the game through less than honourable means to buy the game – at any price they like. Economic self-interest holding true, the majority of pirates paid $0.01. Yet, any revenue is better than no revenue and some buyers paid in excess of $100.

The Humble Indie Bundle programme extended this pricing scheme to packages of less well known indie games, also allowing buyers to make a donation to the ‘Child’s Play’ charity. An economics game theorist’s dream, most recently Indie Royale introduced a minimum price of $1 for their game bundles that rises with demand and lowers when the minimum is significantly exceeded.

A quick Google search for ‘indie games’ will return­­­ a plethora of resources to find the most enjoyable and best value games around. When you read the review of Skyrim on the opposite page that praises Bethesda for ‘revolutionising’ RPGs, spare a thought for the independent developers, the real innovators, and support the causes mentioned in this article.

Otherwise we’ll have another industry full of Justin Biebers.

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