The state of indie gaming

When is an indie not an indie? We investigate


Thankfully, the market is now so large it's becoming self-sustaining. For example, it now pays the middleware developers, who had previously only created multi-million pound game engines, to make cheap or free versions of their development kits. For example, Epic, an old-school independent developer that had diversified into engine development, has made it's Unreal Development Kit (UDK), available for free.

Several developers I talked to had particular praise for the cross-platform development platform Unity. As free as the UDK, this toolset allows for easy creation of games across all the current games platforms - Xbox, PS3, PC, iOS, Android, HTML 5 and so on.

Dan Marshall, creator of Time Gentlemen, Please, can't praise it enough: "It's a great way of making games quickly and efficiently, with a load of pre-baked goodies you can drag, drop, and endlessly modify. In Indie circles when someone says they're making a game in C++, DirectX, XNA or whatever, the catch-all phrase tends to be 'why aren't you using Unity?' And it's a good point. It's extremely versatile."

Unity also helps the Indies deal with another problem - the speed of change. "In the current climate, change happens so rapidly that what worked a few months ago may not any more," says Spilt Milk's Smith. Developers are constantly talking and sharing how the market's changing, driven partially by the eternal hunt for the new, and partially by hard metrics from their own games.

Andy Payne OBE, is owner of developer/publisher Mastertronic, and chair of both the British developer association UKIE and developer consortium Appynation. He thinks this adaptability to change gives Indies an advantage over the big companies; "The threshold of sales and revenues can be significantly lower for an Indie," he says, so they can target smaller niches. "Games like Minecraft, Limbo, World of Goo, Braid, Bastion and Frozen Synapse have proved that talent comes through. Indies invent new ways of playing games. As software transitions from products to services, Indie fan bases will be crucial."

In that sense, incumbent developers have a huge advantage. Whether their early games were great successes or not, they have ongoing numbers about how games are selling, especially on iOS. The more games they make, successes or not, the better they get to know the markets they're making games for.

Hardingham elucidates: "A fun fact I like to tell people who think that anyone can make the next Angry Birds; Angry Birds was Rovio's 150th game. There was an awful lot of experience behind it."

An 'indie industry'?


However, there's another sense in which incumbents have an unfair advantage. This sharing, this mutual support produces a similar self-supporting circle to that in the book industry, where authors routinely praise their friends' works.

In games, the outcome of this is no less corrosive to the open market as it is in books - the outcry when indie industry insider Phil Fish won the Independent Games Festival (IGF) main prize for his game Fez, was huge. This wasn't simply down to the game having been entered several years on the run, but down to the perception that he was part of a group working towards each other's mutual benefit through awards like IGF.

This isn't surprising; history's full of examples of groups bonding together for mutual benefit, such as unions or guilds. Problems only arise when these groups exclude other participants unfairly, for instance, in the way the unions do with a 'closed shop'.

Thankfully, this isn't dominating yet. Discovery, that is the ability of players to find new Indie games, is only getting better. The two key recent developments in this area are Steam's new Greenlight feature and Kickstarter's crowd-funding.