What is the role of the indie games market?
Why do we need one? After all, we already have a neatly striated games market
with the upper market producing glossy expensive übergames and crassly
expensive film tie ins, a mid-market of successful franchises and more modest
licensed product, and a lower market of budget games and minority niches. Where
does the indie market fit into all this? The answer to this question is as a
source of boundless creativity to inspire and infect the rest of the industry.
Just like in films.
Greg Costikyan makes for an uneasy indie
messiah, but he wears this uncomfortable mantle well. Recently, he’s been pushing
the business case for his new direct download indie publisher Manifesto Games,
as well as noting the large amount of money that is theoretically lost in the
long tail most publishers have abandoned as too fractured to pursue. Since my
game Play with Fire is going to be sold exclusively via Manifesto, I
admit my own bias in this regard. But there’s a reason I’ve decided to back
Manifesto to the hilt, even though I could arguably make more money by accepting
the non-exclusive offer Greg and his team actually offered.
I was an indie kid when I was growing up –
mainstream music didn’t interest me very much, but the wildly inventive
nonsense coming out of artists like Spacemen 3,
At university, I became sucked into helping to run the film society, which also allowed me to attend press screenings for all manner of films with dubious commercial value. The indie film movement wasn’t worried about commercial success, but about exploring original themes and ideas. Sometimes these were floundering muddles, sometimes they were masterpieces – the films of Wim Wenders spring to mind. As works of art, indie movies were often worthwhile in and of themselves – but they also served a very important secondary purpose.
Indie films provide inspiration to future mainstream film makers. Indie music provides inspiration to future mainstream musicians. In short, indie is the creative breeding ground for new ideas – which can then be commercially exploited by the mainstream industries. Now this doesn’t necessarily sounds like a good thing – but would you prefer the stagnation of a mainstream market which is dominated by its own self-made restrictions to a mainstream market occasionally invigorated by stolen ideas?
And this is the reason that an indie games
market is something vital to the games industry. It is already the case that
the upper market is stifled with severe limitations forced upon it by
hierarchical, risk-averse, profit-driven decision making. Publishers are so
focussed on what is currently successful - chiefly games of hard agon,
which is to say, games which invoke fiero (the feeling of triumph over
adversity) that they persistently ignore most other approaches to play, with just
a few notable exceptions.
But there are many different ways to play! I hope I have amply demonstrated that even if we only use Caillois’ model, alea, ilinx and mimicry all provide a completely different basis to play from hard agon – and this is not to mention the equally distinct experience of easy agon, or the “toyplay” of paidia. And we could equally use a different model to see this issue from a different perspective, but seem reach the same conclusion – play is a highly diverse activity.
The mainstream publishers remain focussed
on hard agon because this is where they make most of their money. But at any
moment a new genre could break onto the scene and captivate a new audience. One
can argue that this is already happening.
It is in the best interests of the entire industry to have a vibrant indie games market that can explore the full extent of game making creativity without having to be too concerned about profit and risk. The mass market publishers will be able to copy the successful game ideas and attach licensed IP to them, while players interested in new and inventive ideas will have a place to find games that meet those needs.
Support the indie game market by buying something that didn’t come from a multinational corporation every now and then. I’m not asking you to stop playing the obvious games – I will certainly continue buying and playing some of the best of the games coming out of the mainstream market – but go out there and buy and play something different every once in a while. We all stand to benefit.