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Soapbox: The Rise of the Auteur & the Return of Indie Development

Borut Pfeifer gets on the Soapbox to explain why the rise of the videogame auteur will signal a resurgence of independent videogame development within the next five to ten years.

There's been a lot of doom and gloom about the industry lately bemoaning the lack of innovation and indie development. While the outlook today is bleak, the only constant in this industry is change, so it's not likely to stay that way forever.

Well, ok, it could actually stay that way forever, but there are a number of factors coming together over the next five to ten years that will change the nature of indie game development.

The Role of the Auteur

First, a little bit of definition for those not familiar with the term auteur - it first arose in film criticism in the early '50s and rose to prominence in the '60s. Auteur theory refers to the notion that a film (or, to an extent, any medium requiring extensive creative collaboration), can be message of one person's artistic vision. While many people may work together to form that vision, one person (in some productions) serves as the driving force behind the wide range of elements in the film or game. This is evidenced by a consistent selection of various stylistic elements - all crafted to present the message the auteur wants to express.

While not an explicit element of the basic theory, auteurs typically have a comprehensive understanding of the structural elements of their medium. In film, a director considered to be an auteur often has a solid grasp of screenwriting, cinematography, production, beyond just directing. An auteur uses this to convey his stylistic requirements to those people responsible for creating each individual area of the production.


Illustrated by Greg Brauch

While the game industry has had individuals who have fit this description, they have been few and far between. Where is this new breed going to come from? Well, there's always the roundabout path for any auteur motivated enough to get the knowledge he or she needs to succeed, but that's changing. As existing game design schools & programs mature and as new ones are created, students with the desire to express themselves in their medium of choice, one they have grown up with) will flock to them.

I'm not going to argue the effectiveness of these programs, since I currently teach in the Vancouver Film School's Game Design program (so I'd be a bit biased). While it's probably not possible to cover every topic involved in game design in depth in a four year program much less a shorter one, students do get exposed to a lot of ideas across disciplines; the motivated ones will follow that up with their own studies.

Market Factors

Now that we have a group of educated, passionate auteurs, what difference will that make in an industry even more risk-averse than Hollywood? Additional economic factors will provide a breeding ground for these developers to capitalize on their self-expression.

Market Size & the Indie Niche

For every marketing dollar EA, Microsoft, Sony, et al spend, some small tiny fraction of that goes to increasing the overall size of the market (attracting new people via TV commercials, MTV shows, etc.). Meanwhile, the "casual" game market is expanding as well.

As the overall market of game players increases, the subset of people interested in indie development will naturally increase. Have an interest in indie artists in any medium usually takes more effort (finding new artists via word of mouth or niche communities) and so most people are not interested in putting forth that effort. The formulaic nature of most game development will slowly help spur some of these new players to look for new sources of game experiences.

Production Costs

With production costs rising for traditional retail development, how can indies compete? How can they get attention when traditional retail games have such high production values? As they always have in any medium, via their creativity and drive.

Game middleware manufacturers' typically have an independent developer program, for instance - their costs for an additional client w/lowered support is negligible, but the potential payoff can be large should the indie succeed. As game middleware matures a smaller team can compete by wisely using the tools they can get access to.

The easiest way to compete against rising production values is to incorporate aesthetic and stylistic devices with cheaper costs but big impact into the production. Introversion's Darwinia is a great example of this - faced with a small team and the desire to build a compelling real time strategy game, they adopted a retro, Tron-like art style which was not only easier to build but gave the game a unique feel. An auteur's vision for a production often ties together these stylistic elements that provide more resonance, but at cheaper costs.

Console vendors will realize they have a vested interest in encouraging indie development on their consoles. For all the independent games they help develop, even one runaway hit helps to differentiate their console from their competitors. They have to some extent already done this, as with Microsoft's developer incubator program. Hopefully, this trend will continue, including both access to development kits as well as funding programs.

Procedural content will burgeon in the auteur-driven indie market. With their combined technical knowledge and design vision, they can build procedural content systems that provide both compelling gameplay and simplify production. Relying on techniques like these is the hallmark of the indie - work smarter, not harder.

Funding

Today, it's nigh unto impossible for an indie to get funding from a traditional publisher. This probably won't change much. However, the number of people disposed to invest in indie development on any scale will increase, a simple byproduct of the market size increasing. This in turn will make it easier for auteurs to use their creativity to find diverse sources of funding. Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, et al. funded Evil Dead by collecting investments from local doctors, dentists, and anybody with cash they could convince. Then there are other creative examples like Robert Rodriguez, who earned the $7000 he needed to make El Mariachi by joining experimental drug testing programs. I'm not encouraging anyone to expose themselves to experimental drugs for the sake of making their game, but my point is the motivated usually find a way.

Distribution Channels

Everyone has heralded online distribution as the savior of independent development, but it still has a ways to go. The answers to Gamasutra's Question of the Week on the topic of online distribution illustrates that its effect on traditional retail distribution has yet to be seen, but it is unarguable that the channel is at least available as a potential indie resource.

Community

There have been lots of strides towards a definitive independent game festival (the IGF being the best contender thus far). But what is really necessary is a circuit of festivals, because they are one of the main promotional tools an independent developer has to get their game noticed. These festivals also need to get better at getting indie developers talking to each other, sharing information and ideas. While game design programs offer the opportunity for auteurs to meet like-minded people, widespread indie game festivals are an opportunity to create a much larger independent game developer community. So we have a lot of work to do on this front, but it's getting there.

Publisher Consolidation

Surely if publishers are slowly gobbling each other up, this can't bode well for the diversity of games? It's not quite that simple. With more publishers, each one typically tries to compete in every major market segment, lowering their ability to find new ones. Let's say there are ten major publishers, and each one has to have a WW2 FPS in order to compete with the others in that sub-genre. Those ten publishers merge into five, but a newly merged publisher doesn't want to have two products competing directly with each other. It continues one WW2 FPS and searches for another product given its new development capacity. I'm not saying they won't make a WW1 FPS, but every little bit helps.

The Impact on Non-Independent Development

All the factors that will help promote independent development will also cause us to see more well defined auteurs in charge of non-independent commercial games. This will have an impact on the industry in a few visible ways.

Team Size & Structure

I'm sure everyone's read at least a couple articles, with notable quotes from EA executives, about rising team sizes for next-gen games. If everybody developed games the way EA typically has, this would be true. What is more likely is divergent team sizes. All the market factors that will help independent developers reduce production costs can be used to reduce team sizes.

Some teams will make a conscious decision to stay small and take longer to avoid problems of complexity caused by large teams. Others may adapt Wideload's model where a small team of multidisciplinary experts prototype a spec that outside contractors can work with. Regardless, an auteur needs to streamline the communication path to those people implementing his or her vision. This means a judicious use of hierarchy where necessary - more so than your typical game team today, but not to the point where communication is crippled because of too many layers of hierarchy.

Thematic Growth

The notable thing about artists with something to say is that they have something to say - most popular games today don't have much thematic depth beyond delivering on one simple fantasy. And while it's fun being an all powerful superhero, unstoppable gangster, alien fighting space ninja, etc. now that we have a market of older gamers, we have the potential to focus on gameplay that relates to more complex desires in the player, even if it's wrapped in one of those same fantasies.

Increased Auteur Branding

Jason Rubin argues that the industry should promote key developers of a game. The biggest successes of this will be those single individuals that most impact the overall vision of the game. Given the multidisciplinary nature of the industry and the people in it, this could be the lead designer, tech director, art director, or someone else entirely. As more auteurs work in commercial development, look to see an increase in publisher's attempts to brand them via press and box text. Double Fine's Psychomauts has "from the mind of Tim Schafer" on the box, for example. Just please, all I ask is that you don't put your name in the title.

A Timeline

So when might some of these factors have a visible impact? Given the state of indie development today, we can make some rough estimates:

3 years:

  • First definitively successful indie game in the retail outlet (or reaching a comparable market size via online distribution). We've seen partial successes like The Behemoth's Alien Hominid, but most of these haven't been a huge financial success (if their developers are lucky, it's enough to keep them going).

5 years:

  • A financially successful indie game competes with big budget productions in terms of production values.
  • An indie developer gathers lots of mainstream press for unique, not easily repeatable funding model.

6-8 years:

  • A reliable show circuit for indie games is in place.
  • Industry print magazine dedicated specifically to independent development.

8-10 years:

  • Multiple instances of cross-media indie success (independent game promoted with a comic, film, animation/TV, as Foundation 9 is attempting with Death, Jr.).

10+ years

  • At least one school's game design program has produced a notable financial success, causing it to serve as a major hub for incoming game design students.
  • The balance of companies in the industry shifts to more of an equilibrium between internal publisher studios and independently owned developers.
Make It Happen

While these factors may all be coming to a head, the best way to make sure it happens is to go out and make it happen. If you want to see more independent games, put your money where your mouth is. Download their games, play them, buy them, buy their t-shirts, and tell your friends.

If you consider yourself an auteur, want to share your stories from the trenches of indie game development, swap funding strategies, or just bitch about the state of the industry in general, I'd love to hear from you - email me at [email protected].



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[Article illustration by Greg Brauch.]

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