At the birth of the video game industry, games were made much the same way indie games are made now. Small groups of artists, writers and programmers came together, often with very little money, and big ideas, and created some of the most memorable experiences early gamers had. Some of these games are still remembered today as classics, and the foundation of what we have now. Over the years larger games, larger budgets, and massive enterprises have come to make up the bulk video game industry, but there is still a healthy indie game market that can’t be ignored. As a matter of fact, I think it needs our support to make sure we get better games in the future. I’m going to give you a breakdown of why I think that’s the case, and a few of my concerns over indie studios.
First and foremost, supporting indie devs can mean more innovation in games. AAA studios and big publishers continue to push out the same old games, with the same stories and mechanics, with few innovations year to year. They do that because they have to guarantee a return of the huge budgets they have to get to make the games they make. It’s why we have the same COD game every year, another Battlefield with all its bugs, Halo, Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed and on and on. Many of these games are fun, people love them, and buy them by the boat-load, but at the end of the day, there’s little difference between each installment of the game. Companies don’t want to take the risk with so much money involved.
Indie companies, on the other hand, can take those risks. They have smaller budgets, less risk, and fewer ‘big shots’ making the decisions. Often they fund themselves, or get funding through crowd sourcing, so their only risk is making enough sales to make the next game, not to make shareholders rich. If a truly innovative idea comes out in the indie market, and does well, you can bet your ass the AAA companies are going to borrow the idea, clone it, or, in some cases, buy it like Valve did with Narbacular Drop, which became Portal.
When we find these innovative games, and if they’re worth the money, we should give them a look. If they live up to expectations, and we have a lot of fun playing them, then we should tell our friends. As the support builds, then bigger developers take note and new games get made with these new styles and features and the industry gets better.
Sending a Message
AAA companies have a huge padding when it comes to losing a few customers. They’re almost guaranteed to sell enough copies of any of their tent-pole titles to keep the ship moving. When we support a good indie game, give our money to them rather than one of the big titles, we send a message that sometimes the flashy lights, good graphics, and huge budgets aren’t always good enough. When you find a game that has a great story, is cheaper than a AAA title, and maybe doesn’t have quite the polish, give it a shot. You’re helping tell the larger companies that distracting us with shiny things isn’t always going to work. The padding the big companies have, however, means it takes a lot of us to send that message.
What can happen, though, is that we increase competition for other developers, which just benefits us. The more companies making games, the more choices we have, the more companies strive for our money. If we pepper the market with more options, then those companies try new things to get our attention, new ideas, stories, designs and styles all to be noticed among the herd. You never know which small studio might rise up as the next Blizzard, Black Isle, or Valve, but I don’t think any gamer will deny that we need more of those. We also need them to stop being bought out by larger companies and then shut down, but that’s a tale for a different time. What indie developers have that gives them a little more power is their smaller budgets, lower overhead, and smaller teams. While your $60 is just a drop in the bucket for Activision or EA, $20 dollars to an indie has an actual impact. It could mean the difference between people getting paid for their work rather than just breaking even. It could also be the difference between said developer being a one-and-done venture, or making their next game.
Hidden Gems and Minefields
It’s not always about getting AAA games to get better, or taking money away from the big dogs. Sometimes you can find true hidden gems that are well worth your money. You might find yourself with a library of wonderful games, often for a fraction of the cost of lackluster AAA games. I don’t buy a ton of games myself, I’ve become very picky over the years, but I do find some surprisingly good offerings out there when I do some looking.
Unfortunately, the ease with which games can be made now, given the right software, more markets to get them to customers, and crowdfunding outlets have all given us a flooded market of indie games. The number of games on Steam, GoG, and Humble is staggering, and quite a few of them are in early access or alpha stage with no finish in sight. It makes it difficult for a gamer to know what’s good, what’s worth the money and time, and where best to spend their cash. That’s the crux of it. While the gaming industry continues to grow, it’s not a zero-sum game. Gamers only have so much disposable income, and it’s easy to become frustrated when you spend money on a game that isn’t good or never gets finished. People lose faith in the developers, and unfortunately that’s a huge risk when it comes to indie devs. We know we’ll have issues with the big companies, but for the most part we get complete games that are playable. When you put money on an indie early-access game, or spend a lot of money on a game that winds up being very short, it makes it hard to take that risk again when it doesn’t pan out. Each of us has to determine the value we place on our time, and hope that we can find some honest reviews, which, with the current games media market, isn’t easy. Some people might not mind spending $20 or $25 on a game that only takes 2-3 hours to play, while others look at games we’ve spent $60 on and payed over a hundred hours to complete and don’t consider 20 bucks for 3 hours a value.
Speaking of the money, we have to remember that these developers operate within a market just like the big companies do, but they are more affected by what happens in that market. They need money to keep going, but we want to drive that market in a way that benefits gamers and reflects the industry we want. When they operate under shady pretenses, like taking money on Kickstarter and letting a project die, or have poor customer service, or consistently release games that don’t deliver on value vs. cost, we have to treat them like any other business and take our money elsewhere. So support indie devs, it’s important for the future of gaming going forward, but do it with eyes wide open. Don’t just throw money at Patreons, Kickstarters, and early-access games because you feel obligated to help out, but really look, dig, and make sure that you’re putting your money where it will do the most good for you as a gamer. They are a business, not a charity afterall, and you want them to deliver a product that is fun, and makes gaming more fun in the future.