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The Evolution of Indie

We always knew "indie" meant SOMETHING. But no one could ever define what it was. With the success of high-wattage IGF winners and the divorce of the casual gaming market from the indie gaming market, it has become clear what indie games are.

Originally posted on my blog, and republished on Gamasutra,  this post explores the changing definition of "indie" from the customer's perspective.

We always knew "indie" meant SOMETHING.  But no one could ever define what it was.  With the success of high-wattage IGF winners, the divorce of the casual gaming market from the indie gaming market, and the continued commoditization of free-to-play flash games, the beast has finally emerged from the mud.  It has become clear what indie games are.

This article is on the evolution of indie games distribution and how it has shaped the content and helped to finally define what "indie" means as a genre of game.

The 80's were defined by the golden age of computer games, the rise of the console, and the apex of the arcade.  The 90's will probably be remembered best for the move to 3D.  And it is becoming clear that the 2000's are defined by the rise of the casual game and the subsequent birth of the modern "indie" game.

What blessed road hath led us here? (2003-2007)

The first half of the decade saw the rise of the portals on the strength of sales from games like Diner Dash (2004) and Zuma (2004).  This opened up a digital distribution route for smaller games made by small "proto-indie" teams.  The fact that some of these small teams were making buckets of cash turned the heads of game industry execs and spurred many devs to quit their jobs working on AAA games to try to strike it rich working on smaller, more personal projects (see LastDayOfWork, makers of Virtual Villagers).

During these times, "indie" just meant small and unfettered.  A majority of the people making "indie" games were actually making "casual" games intended for distribution on portals like Yahoo Games, MSN, and the like.

From 2004 to 2007, two things began to happen:

1) So many people were trying to get into the game that production values (and thus cost) started going up.

2) Portals began to switch from finding games with hidden potential to spending their time and money on sure-bets - games in proven genres like Click-Management (Diner Dash) and Hidden Object (Mystery Case Files).

Then, portals like BigFishGames started the price wars.  Big Fish started offering "game passes" to customers, where they would pay a subscription fee in order to pay a small amount (7 bucks) per game purchased.  Eventually, the other portals followed suit, most recently with Reflexive's price drop across the board to <$10 per game.

The Road Forks (2007-2008)

The next two years will be remembered as the high-water-mark for indie games.

As the casual game market became inhospitable for indie developers, a few other big players saw the casual portals covered in cash and decided to open up their own distribution portals.  Like the earlier web portals, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, Valve, and others decided that there was a fortune to be made on the backs of indie developers.  Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, PSN, iTunes, Facebook, and Steam all offered distribution routes for the indie devs who made games that no longer fit into the narrowing definition of "casual".

Like the golden age of the casual games, these new portals are still searching for a formula for success.  Every time it seems that they have it figured out (XBLA with retro and casual games, WiiWare with their Nintendo back catalog), an indie game comes along to break the mold: World of Goo, Castle Crashers, Audiosurf, Braid, Everyday Shooter, and fl0w have all broken rules and bended genres and proven that in the entertainment world, there is still lots of money to be made with innovation.

There may be dark times ahead, though.  Microsoft dropped the developer's share of the royalties in half on Xbox Live Arcade.  After a very strong start with the iPhone store, games have been dropping in price dramatically and the indie applications are slowly getting choked out by licensed brands.

New Allies

Luckily, indies have a new ally in their relationship with distribution portals.  Indies have a new ally in the Gaming Press.

Hard-core gaming has plateaued in popularity with this round of consoles.  The PS3 flopped, the Wii attracted a big casual audience but has failed to excite the hardcore audience, and the Xbox 360, while the best of the bunch, feels mechanical and corporate (a little like a really good Led Zeppelin cover band).

The lack of excitement about hardcore gaming has left the gaming press starving for content.  Low and behold, indies come along to save the day.  Sites like Kotaku and TigSource have benefited hugely from the oddities coming out of the indie gaming world.  And their attention has allowed indie devs to command more lucrative deals and even make a fortune on direct sales.  Distribution is no longer the only key to success in the indie world; PR is the second avenue to indie success.

A sidenote: GameTunnel used to be the authoritative voice on indie gaming back when indies were focused on casual games.  The editor of that site, Russ Carroll, has broad tastes that do tend to skew towards casual games.  These days, TigSource, run by Derek Yu, is pretty much the undisputed king of indie gaming news.  Derek's tastes run more towards retro-arcade games and "weird" games.  It's a chicken-or-the-egg situation: did the attention of these sites shape the content or did the content provide the audience for the sites?

Is THIS the Promised Land?

If the quality and innovation of the content is defined by the distribution opportunities, we are currently hitting a high point in independent game development.  The "core portals" (steam, XBLA, etc) are still experimenting, and smaller distribution avenues are opening up as well (see Kongregate and Newgrounds).

In 2006, indie games were lumped with serious games and casual games, because they all had one thing in common: they were less expensive to make than AAA games.  But the changes in funding and distribution has split those markets from one another and helped define what "indie" games mean to the customer.

Gamers, CUSTOMERS, now see indie games as the poetry, the short stories of the gaming world.  They are different, they are thoughtful, and they make you appreciate nuance.  As Kyle Gabler said in his recent Global Game Jam keynote the best games made in game-jams "introduce one new concept to gaming as fast and as clear as possible".  This is largely true for all of indie games as well.  The finalists in this year's IGF competition also tend towards this concept.

Why is this important?  Because in the past, "indie" games didn't mean anything to customers.  WE, the DEVELOPERS, knew what it meant -- it was important to us because it meant that we were unfettered.  But customers didn't have expectations about what an indie game was.

Customers DO have expectations now.  Indie games are games that, by definition, don't fit into any other box.  They cost from 0 to 30 dollars.  They are "cool" -- knowing about them is "cool".

5 years ago, the market looking for games that fit this description was very small.  Today, it's a viable market, and one that is likely to be resistant to overly oppressive distribution portals.

The Future of Indie Games

It is ALWAYS true that EVERY business-related article in ANY publication is WRONG.  It is the visionaries that find and exploit exceptions to the rules.  Take Grubby Games for example, they still manage to exploit the casual gaming market with My Tribe, while developing the ultra-indie, ultry-nerdy, web-based community game, Incredibots.

Indie games will change.  But "indie" has finally emerged from its adolescence and found its own identity, unique from "casual games".  Indie games have come of age.

 

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