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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why Indie Games?

So, with the game I'm working on successfully submitted, I'm able to take some time to think about stuff that's less that and more other stuff. This boils down to me trying to decide what video game I should review next, and while I went on a spirit journey about that I decided I might as well think about what my criteria are for picking games to review, and why I think those reasons are important.

1) Reviewing indie games draws attention to games with smaller budgets.
If this is a site where people come to learn new things about games (and I hope it will be, if it isn't yet), then I want them to be seeing games that don't have the benefit of a huge advertising budget, or a recognizable studio name behind them. To me, it's important that people learn about games that don't have that, because as with all art (or all business, really) sometimes the best ideas come from outside what's already established, because they're less restricted by previous successes or the expectations of their audience. Granted, a lot of the games I've reviewed so far have already seen immense popularity or been reviewed by publications with a much broader readership than this one has, but I don't think it'll always be that way, and I'm hoping that people discover a game they wouldn't have otherwise because of this. Plus, I want to believe that there are lots of people like me who want to draw attention to small, independently-produced games, because someday I hope one of them is drawing attention to my own game.

2) Reviewing indie games gives indie developers more power.
When those little games with smaller budgets do enjoy success, that success gives them the ability to take concepts further. Look again at Frictional Games. When they released the Penumbra series in short, episodic form, they were taking some older concepts (point-and-click adventure, first-person action) and by combining them and adding in some really novel horror concepts (like getting frightened by looking at monsters), they created something truly innovative, to which people responded well. With that success under their belts, they took even more risks with Amnesia, making a longer, more-involved, higher-quality game that explored the same concepts. This happens in big industry games too, of course, but what's exciting to me is that successes in the established industry often lead to less experimentation, not more; people loved Portal and Bioshock because they were brilliant and innovative and eye-opening but when the sequels came out, public response was a little wistful. People loved the new games, which executed the original concepts more precisely, but din't really deviate enough from the original to give us the same wonder. Frictional, however, took more risks with amnesia, removing the combat entirely and almost singlehandedly giving new meaning to "survival" in "survival horror." I think a lot of indie developers work independently because they want to take more risks, and if we support those endeavors with our voices (and our wallets), we can effect some really significant change in the industry.

3) Indie games often have lower barriers to entry into the medium (for players).
It's just impossible for me to review a new 40-hour title every week with a day job, and to spend $60 on that game, and I think this belies significant barriers to entry into the hobby of video games. Even for people with sufficient disposable income to plop down $300 on a new game console, or $800 on a new gaming PC (that's if they have the technical know-how to build it themselves) and still have enough left over for $60 games, you also need to have the time to play. Once you factor all those things together, it's a pretty exclusive club. Shorter games lower the barrier to entry created by time, and since game length and price are often interconnected, the cost barrier is reduced too. Moreover, remember how I said indie games can be more innovative? That sometimes (not always!) means they expect less of their players coming in. Sure, your problem solving, rational thinking, and platforming skills are helpful in playing Braid, but those puzzles are probably pretty new. Same with Amnesia; it's creepy as hell, but it doesn't ask a lot of you technically for the most part, and that's important. Skill, time, and money barriers are all reasons why people don't play, and indie games, exploring new concepts and ideas, can compete with big-budget games along these axes even without having a lot of money themselves. I'd like to think that sometimes these reviews might convince someone who doesn't play a lot of games to pick something up and try it out, and they're most likely going to go for ones that won't take a lot of time or money, and that won't make them feel bad if they have trouble with it.

4) Indie games often have lower barriers to entry into the medium (for developers).
I mentioned this before but I wanted to mention it again. I really can't overstate how important the broadening of the developer community is. Not only does it mean that we get really cool games, games that push the boundaries of what qualifies as a game, but we get broader perspectives, broader ideas, and maybe most importantly, broader voices. If video games are going to be treated as an art form, we need the breadth of experience - both technical and personal - that lets us feel, at the end, like we're experiencing something real and significant. All the blog posts and retweets and Facebook shares and Kickstarter donations are our way of saying "We want to see this succeed. We want to tell our friends about this. We want the idea you had to be successful." And sometimes that's something that just seems like a really fun idea, and sometimes it's something really strange and neat that could give the medium a little bit of a shaking up, that could give other developers new ideas and carry the conversation to places it hasn't been yet.

At the end of the day, that's what I want: to be part of the conversation, as a writer and as a developer. There's a lot that's been said but there's a lot more to say yet; I'm excited, really genuinely quite excited, to see how that conversation will go.

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