Back in the pre-internet / download store days of the Console 'Bit' Wars, the way we bought and enjoyed games could not have been more different. Video games were expensive store purchases, and often you'd rely on renting games that you couldn't afford or couldn't 'commit' to buying. No downloads, not many discounts, and the market meant that a relatively small number of companies held all the cards.
Releasing a game aspiring to sales success in the '90s, for example, was a logistical challenge that only the big publishers could handle. There was manufacturing, distribution, retail, all steps in the process that required staff, contacts, and large amounts of money. Like anything else in the entertainment industry back then, there were multiple gatekeepers and locked doors if you didn't have corporate weight and resources. Nintendo was certainly one of those gatekeepers, with a draconian licencing arrangement that ultimately drove several companies away to work with Sony when PlayStation launched in the mid-'90s.
Nowadays a game can be made by a few people, released with little help and sell hundreds of thousands, even millions, of copies. This is a recent development too, in the broader picture, over the course of little more than a decade. Back in 2012 'Indie Game: The Movie' captured attention because it went behind the scenes and showed some of the early trailblazers and their — at the time — shocking success, namely Team Meat with Super Meat Boy , Number None with Braid, and Polytron with Fez. There were other early successes, of course, but those examples in particular showed a wide gaming audience — and a growing community of small developers — just what was possible.
The term 'Indie' made sense at that point — after all, it's short for 'independent'. These really were individuals and small teams going it alone, then being courted by platform holders like Xbox, Nintendo and Sony as it became clear that relatively new download stores needed interesting games to lure players in. On top of that, these independent developers were producing the sorts of games a lot of people hadn't seen before: small, clever, sometimes emotional and, above all, impactful. Not having a big budget didn't mean that the actual gameplay experience couldn't be enthralling. It seems obvious now, but go back over a decade and this felt like a revelation.
Not having a big budget didn't mean that the actual gameplay experience couldn't be enthralling.
This was, in reality, a progression towards the mainstream for a scene that always existed in gaming but rarely had a chance to shine. 'Bedroom coders' really gave birth to the industry on pre-NES gaming systems, and the PC / early internet scene was a home for these sorts of games. What was changing was the fact that the most powerful gatekeepers of all, console platform holders, were now interested in these small, independent teams and their intriguing games.
Now, we still have some of these Indies today; small teams producing amazing games that become hits, doing so on their own. That group of talent that goes it truly alone is still out there, and it's remarkable.
Over the last decade, though, we've seen the rise of Indie publishers, too. While a lot of download-only or smaller games still don't get picked up and supported by the big players of the traditional retail scene, a new side to the business has given rise to these publishers of download-only games, and of course limited release physical editions.
These publishers naturally vary wildly in size and resources; in some cases they put up significant amounts of money to help a small game evolve and reach the next level. In other cases they just focus on all the stuff some developers can't or don't want to tackle - marketing, PR, quality assessment, and the nitty gritty of submitting and releasing a game on a platform like the eShop. The idea is similar to those all-powerful publishers of the '90s, but typically the sums of money are lower and it's a largely digital undertaking for most smaller games. Smaller and more flexible, a natural evolution in the internet age.
Now, however, popular use of 'Indie' as a term has evolved to the point where it doesn't really mean 'independent' by any sensible metric. Nintendo's Indie World broadcasts are an example — some of the publishers involved have included Thunderful, Devolver Digital, Team17 and even Konami. To say this upfront, this isn't a criticism, but the issue is that applying 'Indie' to companies like these makes little sense. What are they 'independent' of, exactly, considering the size of their businesses?
To take Thunderful, Team17 and Devolver Digital as examples, it's important to say that they've achieved huge success as publishers and developers through savvy business, investments and, more importantly, outstanding games. Thunderful emerged from the triumphant story of Image & Form, which achieved initial success with the SteamWorld series. Devolver has become a byword for quirky, bold, imaginative 'boutique' games, a company with an outstanding eye for top-notch titles and impressive viral marketing techniques. Team17 has shaped itself into a champion of games from smaller developers, while modernising its own iconic brands like Worms. Yet they are all, as entities, well beyond being 'Indie' in the original sense of he word; they are powerhouses in their own right, with varied departments to suit the trappings of bigger business, plenty of employees and a lot of clout.
In the pre-internet era developers would need the backing of Capcom, Electronic Arts et al, but now there are dozens (maybe hundreds) of publishers that offer a route into the new indie scene.
In a previous job I attended multiple game industry events in a business capacity, which takes you into separate areas from the main show with lots of meeting areas and even some suits to be found. Devolver Digital often had a similarly-sized meeting space to the likes of Nintendo and Microsoft — the scale of that operation is impressive. There have been reports this year that the company may go public with a stock offering that could potentially reach £1 billion.
But, the key point is that I don't say this as a negative, but rather as a sign that the game industry continues to evolve. Companies like these aren't Indies in the accurate sense of the word, but they often help to elevate games by small teams to mainstream attention. Just like the once upcoming social media platforms, the 'Indie' scene has — over time — grown and monetised through more traditional patterns. In the pre-internet era developers would need the backing of Capcom, Electronic Arts et al, but now there are dozens (maybe hundreds) of publishers that offer a route into the new indie scene, where influence and clout doesn't get shelf space in stores, but rather prime billing in media and platform holder showcases.
When you combine the influence of these wealthy publishers with small development teams still making innovative, fascinating games, you have what is an exciting era for fans of the download/non Triple-A space. Technology and tools also give indie developers the means to make games that are not only impactful, but beautiful, and some projects with careful budgeting and the right contacts are able to achieve the sort of production values that, a decade ago, wouldn't have been dreamed of outside of big-budget titles.
If there's a negative at the moment, it is that 'Indie' can be hijacked as a term for a degree of 'cool'. Konami apparently qualifies for an Indie World broadcast, which seems extraordinary, and there are relatively large, heavily resourced development studios that form and brand themselves as 'independent'. We recently received a press release promoting a new independent studio filled with big-name industry veterans that ended by thanking their partners: Google, Tencent, and 505 Games.
The problem with this, and with also applying the Indie tag to big-time publishers like those mentioned above, is that it creates new gatekeepers that could make it harder for those that actually stick to the independent route. It's not impossible, as games like Among Us and Valheim have shown, but we shouldn't treat a relatively small amount of break-out successes as an indication that the issue doesn't exist. If the likes of Devolver, Team17, Annapurna Interactive and more are a new generation of gatekeepers, it's important that as the years go by the growth of their wealth and influence doesn't undo the Indie spirit. Right now we're in a wonderful sweet-spot where small teams are found and given significant backing and eventual success, but we've also seen developers fall out with publishing partners. It'll remain a balance.
Unfortunately, we've seen in the 'triple-A' industry how profits and big finance can contribute to the erosion of ethics, worker rights and the actual quality of game experiences. Let's hope that, as this era of Mega Indies continues to unfold, those pitfalls can be avoided and the diverse range of games and experiences we've enjoyed over the last decade only gets better, as the 'Indies' get bigger.