Independent games are the breath of fresh air. We all need to reinvigorate ourselves after seeing too many Halo knockoffs or GTA clones. However, a large part of the gaming public never really gets to experience these creative marvels, due to the simple fact that these titles cannot even hope to compete with the exposure and advertising budget of the big games. This has always been especially true of console games, where high development costs and the inability to procure shelf space has all but precluded most indie games. The playing field has been evened a bit with the advent of Xbox Live Arcade (and soon XNA), PSN, and WiiWare; however, independent gaming still needs help in order to break through to the next level. In order for indie games to get their fair share of the glory, two things must happen: big publishers must create independent gaming wings, and the industry as a whole must do more to recognize and award truly great titles.
First, a simple reality check when it comes to publishing a game. In order for indie games to ever have a chance to honestly compete with more mainstream fare, they must be published under the wing of a large company. As much as people hate to admit it, giants like Activision and EA have a lot of clout in determining what games get made, and independent developers would do well to really lean on these companies to create indie wings.
Really, it’s the same concept as the film industry, where giants like Fox and Warner Bros pretty much shape the landscape. Also, note that these studios tout fully-funded independent wings (Fox Searchlight and Warner Independent), and some of the best, most original movies of the past few years have come from under these banners. Triumphs such as Juno, Good Night and Good Luck, There Will Be Blood, and No Country for Old Men all came from independent or “art house” wings of film studios. Those who would worry that indie games would lose their identity if published by large studios need look no farther than the film industry model as proof otherwise.
When you think about it, it’s really not much of a stretch to imagine game publishers creating a wing devoted to indie fare. EA already features EA Sports and EA Big, and Take-Two releases games under the Rockstar label, so the precedent is already there. Even more than a new name, independent labels supported by large publishers would need to make sure they are headed by the perfect people, those with a deep love of indie games, and who are thoroughly respected by the industry. Heavy hitters such as Jenova Chen (flOw) or Phil Fish (Fez) would be a great choice to head up such a studio, and would lend the organization the authenticity needed to allow other independent developers to get behind the idea. With these new, fully-funded arms, it would be worlds easier for gamers to gain access to independent titles that really deserve some time in the sun, but would likely never see mass release otherwise. This would be a good and noble cause, and would allow us to expand the industry beyond business as usual.
Making a great game doesn’t mean squat if no one knows about it though, as underappreciated gems like Beyond Good and Evil and Psychonauts can attest. That is why gaming needs a big event, something on par with Sundance or Cannes for independent games. If a large event drawing all manner of exposure is created, then suddenly gamers have reason to get excited for a title they’ve never previously heard of.
A few indie gaming fans out there are probably harkening to the Independent Games Festival, and claiming that we don’t need a big event because we already have one. However, the IGF in its current form simply isn’t enough. The event essentially piggybacks on GDC, with little more to show than a corner full of kiosks on the expo floor, and an awards show that is attended by some, but not all of the industry and media. Rather than riding on the coattails of another show, the IGF should become its own event, with the entire shindig focusing exclusively on the past, present, and future of independent gaming. Imagine a three-day event where any indie developer is allowed to display his or her game and put it up for judging. At the end of the festival, the judges can reveal their Best in Show, and the winner would receive a cash prize, and a development deal with a major studio. I don’t believe I am being presumptuous when I say that developers would whole-heartedly support such an event, and I’m sure many members of the gaming media would welcome it as well. After the PR groomed and manicured appointments of GDC and E3, many journalists love talking to indie developers because they remember that the games are all about having fun, and they are more than happy to gab for hours about their latest project. No embargoes, no sound bytes, just pure gaming love.
In the current state of gaming a few major powers control the purse strings. This arrangement isn’t likely to change soon either, as the large companies have caught a case of merger fever, and we are slowly whittling down the field to fewer, larger players. In this environment, the only way for independent games to garner recognition will be for the major powers to spin off independent arms which can exclusively focus on making offbeat games a reality as something larger than a simple, small downloadable title. Couple this attitude shift with a new, more expanded IGF, and you have a recipe for showcasing what gaming is all about: embracing new ideas and having a lot of fun doing it.