Developers and publishers are at odds. As Dan Cook would put it, they’re locked in a power struggle that will last for all time. Creators need platforms on which to sell and to promote; platforms need quality content. Platforms want to gain power, and extract money from it, usually as soon as possible.
In case you missed it, the Square Enix Collective is a platform now. I’ve had various people asking for my opinion on its place as a platform. Its role isn’t immediately clear.
At present, it’s a place for developers to gather feedback on their game ideas before deciding whether to launch a crowdfunding campaign or not, and adjust their pitch along the way.
It is not a place to host your actual crowdfunding campaign; it is not a place to sell your game. It’s essentially a platform of distributing ideas. It’s a platform of community building. Its “key application” is the theoretical ability to reach millions of fans normally reserved for Square Enix properties.
I say “at present” because it’s poised to change drastically in the next few months and years. It has tremendous potential as a marketing machine, and if its terms remain as they are at present, it might change the entire relationship between “indies” and “pubs”. Or it might not. Maybe “indies” will always distrust “publishers”* and that’s just the natural order.
Some reacted badly when they heard Square-Enix would put their “hand in the crowd-funding cookie jar”, indignant that they would try to take money from hard-working indies. It’s a best practice to be suspicious of any charitable-looking actions taken by a corporation legally obliged to seek profit at any cost.
Yet, as a team, all four members of Kitfox Games unanimously decided to put Moon Hunters up as a Collective project. Even though we’re not even done with our first game yet, and we knew almost nothing about the value of this platform.
Why? It’s simple. Competition’s fierce. It cost us nothing. We might get something. That’s all it takes.
Fierce competition doesn’t mean we believe in corporate dominance, or underhanded business deals. It’s just the opposite. If we can shed the burden of constantly needing to prove we’re “true indies”, we can use every opportunity to build each other up, and improve our capability as creators.
* “Pubs” could also be replaced with “pubs mostly other than Valve, who get special privileges because they consciously expend effort to build up contenders and put them on an even playing field with the goliaths”
Building Each Other Up
Game-making enthusiast groups and game jams are no longer the secluded coffeehouses of an elite niche; they’re cheering masses of talented creators, empowered and diverse with voices from across the globe. It’s an amazing time to be an independent developer. Your access to potential game collaborators has never been higher… as well as your comparison to potential competitors.
Some try to bring back the idea of exclusivity, creating “secret forums”, presumably fearing their own loss of credibility and wasted time if they dared to interact with (or, god forbid, praise) new, less established devs. I’ve never been to one of these. I assume their knowledge exchange strives to maximize prestige and efficiency.
Meanwhile, more inclusive groups are flourishing. The last few years have seen groups like the Mont Royal Game Society struggle to find a big enough venue. The hobbyist scene has skyrocketed, fuelled by university programs, AAA layoffs, and general good cheer. Game jam tickets are gone as soon as they’re available. Diversity-oriented initiatives grow the scene laterally into new demographics, with by-design viral effects. Communal game creating workspaces are suddenly sustainable because there is a critical mass of people who are self-employed making games full-time and yet don’t get (and often don’t want) investors to help them afford a “proper” studio office.
If Dong Nguyen is Kurt Cobain, the indie scene is a million garage bands in a Lollapalooza that’s everywhere, all at once, and it’s never going to stop. Eat the rich.
We Are Everyone
At IndieCade East last week, Bennett Foddy (QWOP) gave the closing keynote, saying “We’re not on top of a bubble that started in 2008, but on top of a tree that began in 1983.”
The tree grows, and grows, and grows. Insecurities about being a “true indie” are misplaced. Either your team is the size it should be to make the game you want… or it isn’t.
Some indies have savings. Some indies can’t afford the Steam fee. Some indies make art. Some indies make products. Some indies are students. Some indies have grandkids. Some indies are full-time. Some indies have a day job. Some indies haven’t made a game yet. Some indies have a day job at a AAA studio. Some indies will find financial and/or critical success. Most won’t. At least, not for awhile.
Sure, it hurts when this or that competition, festival, or convention decides that you’re not the kind of indie they’re looking for. Our vocabulary hasn’t quite caught up, and we find ourselves comparing Broken Age to Surgeon Simulator, or The Mandate to Howling Dogs. It's like roguelikes all over again. Everyone’s indie and nobody’s indie enough.
Something’s bound to get lost in that translation in this noisy world of ours, and sometimes it will be you.*
But you don’t need to worry about it so much. Words will catch up with us, amazing games with bullheaded devs will find their way, and in the meantime, we can make games and learn from it. Together.
* I’m so very, very glad I’m not responsible for curating an indie game collection. Judging a game jam is hard enough, and at least everyone can agree on the definition of a game jam!
The Good News
The indie superpower, across all budgets and sizes, is that we can always be the underdogs.
I learned this first-hand from Rami Ismail, who opens his mind and heart to up-and-comers around the world so often, it's nearly his full-time job. We can be the generous-hearted newbie that has plenty left to learn, no matter how many games we’ve made. We’re all independent and suffering in our own ways. Yet we’ll scrape by, somehow.
We are the Contender.
Best of all, when we’re secure in our identity of choice, we can make the decisions that have the most benefit to our games and to our studios, short-term and long-term. Suits call it branding. I call it reality.
And that’s why the Square Enix Collective makes me hopeful. Maybe there’s a place where the top-down ideas and bottom-up ideas can meet. Maybe, with a little bit of borrowed credibility and branding, the internet hive-mind can award AA budgets to non-celebrities. Personally, I’ve had nothing but great experiences working with Phil Elliott, who manages Collective projects at present… and if he stays in charge, I’m optimistic. Maybe Square Enix will be less schizophrenic than most companies, at least for a couple of years, and its mission statement will stay focused.
Now that we’re in the final week, the initial value is clear. We received a few hundred mailing list signups, 80+ fan comments on our project page, and over 10,000 views to our project page in the first 2 days. We feel validated that certain core systems in our concept (personality archetypes, mythology-building) resonate with at least some players, though it's still unclear how many are needed to get any kind of measurable momentum, if/when we decide to crowdfund. We've gotten something out of it. Maybe we'll get more. Maybe others will get even more than we did, over time.
And if not…? If it doesn't pan out, or if Square-Enix turns it into a predatory beast of a platform? Well, here’s hoping we can collectively rise up and form a shadow Collective of our own, because we deserve one, and our voices are growing. We are a global community of intellect, innovation, and passion. We’ll make our way forward, one well-meaning mess at a time.
When a corporation or rag-tag gang comes around offering to show your game/idea to a million players, of course, first read the terms. Assess the value. Is it a good deal? If so, jump on it. Make a good game, and then get that game to the players that will love it. That’s the goal.
You don't need to lose sleep over whether you’re “indie enough”. If worse comes to worse and the nightmarish happens, you’ll know when you’re not indie anymore. Your board of directors will tell you so.