8 Dec 2010

State of Gaming: Indie Revolution?

Gaming has weird ups and downs. It started with a bunch of computer scientists tinkering around with their new hardware to make fun little diversions. After a while, people start making games for kids, with computers and game consoles becoming the new toy. The industry saw a huge surge in interest and suddenly it became huge business. Publishers stepped in to help promote, package and distribute games for various studios, trying to differentiate their product from the hundreds flooding the market.

Then the great video game crash of 1983 happened. Publishers became more wary and started dictating what was to be made in order to maximize sales. Innovative (or crazy) ideas were shunned while known brands flourished. As the gaming market grew and became a multi-million dollar industry, publishers became even more essential if you wanted your game to get noticed.

However, two things happened that helped grow the indie gaming community. Firstly, gamers have grown up. People who grew up gaming and now making games themselves. These games incorporate more mature themes, nostalgia, tighter controls, extremely simple and addictive gameplay, or very complicated strategies. Secondly, the advent of game download stores (Xbox Live Arcade, PSN, Steam, etc...) allow these small game studios to bypass the middleman (publishers) and release games at low costs. These platforms still take a percentage of their sales revenue, but they do not have a say in what can or cannot be published (as long as it does not break any law or is.... distasteful). Game developers are now free to experiment and show the world their creativity!

Indie developers have come a long way. From RPG copycats, to small experimental games, to big games that could challenge big budget, big name titles.

A particular favourite genre of mine in the indie space is Platformer. These games tend to play on nostalgia and simplicity (yet notoriously difficult precision) rather than the flashy stuff. World of Goo, VVVVVV, Braid, Super Meat Boy and N Plus, just to name a few. Experimental stuff like Flow and Flower are more artistic and often stretches the boundaries of what we would consider a game.

Developers like Behemoth and Runic Games (now no longer indie) on the other hand, make more games that would not be out of place on a game store shelf today. Castle Crashers from Behemoth might be a nostalgic trip for the side scrolling beat 'em ups of yesteryear, but more than that it is also a solid RPG with lots of replayability and large focus on multiplayer co-op. Torchlight from Runic Games might be a Diablo clone, but it improves on many important fronts that you wished would make it into Diablo 3 (such as the ability to get your pet to run back to town and sell your extra items). Both games feature enough content and polish for a boxed $50 game, but are instead $10 to $20 downloads. This lowers the barrier for entry and allows more people to try out these games they would have otherwise given a miss.

The indie game industry will continue to grow and evolve. Publishers no longer have control over what you are able to play. Of course, big brands and big budget titles will continue to rely on the major publishers to advertise and distribute in bulk, but now we have more choices should we want to try something new and different.

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