How games are born: indie studios and creativity. What big publishers can’t do

They’re scary, ugly – this is about indie games. Hand on heart, it is worth admitting that such an assessment of projects by independent developers is often fair. But it is independent developers who do not let the AAA industry die, and thanks to these bright minds, new ideas and genres are born.

How games are born: indie studios and creativity. What big publishers can't do

On the pages of our publication we have already addressed the topic of indie games. It’s hard not to agree with the conclusion that was made at the end of that note: “ Indie games have a number of advantages and disadvantages over big games, but this is a stormy element in which developers are not afraid to try something new and capable of revolutionizing it. And this happened more than once. Enthusiasts set trends and rule the world .”

However, many players are still skeptical about indies. They don’t see the point in such games. Meanwhile, the conclusion made by Dmitry Krivov in 2022 is perhaps worth expanding: it is only thanks to indie games that there is still life in the video game industry. As we already wrote in the article – about why many people think that it was better before – thanks to the indie startups of the 80s, this industry appeared, lived and still lives, without turning into ossified dead matter.

What is indie

Before we talk about why indie games are important to the industry, let’s first define what they are? At first glance, the answer to the question may seem obvious, but this is far from true – there is no established definition. On an intuitive level, both players and developers roughly understand what we are talking about. But, as practice shows, disputes constantly arise about classifying this or that game as “indie”. Players, developers and journalists argue. Our authors also argue in the editorial chat: some are ready to consider Immortals of Aveum an indie project, because the project was developed by a small studio, while others are not ready to consider Tevi an indie, since there is a publisher.

The question is not trivial, but important. Thus, Dave The Diver’s recent nomination for best indie game at The Gaming Awards 2023 caused indignation among many. The game looks like a typical project from a small studio of 30 people (see review by Maxim Ivanov). During development, we used the approach that is practiced when creating indie games. But there is a nuance. The studio where the game was developed belongs to the large and wealthy publishing house Nexon. Geoff Keighley, longtime TGA presenter, had to justify himself for including Dave The Diver in the nomination.

Another triumph of 2023, the game Baldur’s Gate 3, can also be considered an indie project, because Larian Studios, responsible for the development of the project, independently financed the project and published it independently. But there is a nuance here too. The development was funded by profits from the sale of two parts of Divinity: Original Sin (which, by the way, had a publisher), money received on the Kickstarter crowdfunding site, as well as funds collected from the sale of BG3 in early access. The game looks no worse than other AAA projects, although not without its shortcomings (see review by Maxim Dragan). And the number of developers at Larian Studios has tripled since work began on BG3 – from 170 to 450 people.

Following this logic, Valve and Nintendo can be classified as indie studios. They develop it themselves, release it themselves and, by the way, like Larian Studios, they try to maintain an atmosphere of creative freedom in the teams.

So what is indie? The term came to the video game industry from the film and music industries. Behind the beautiful word “indie” lies “independence”. Independence from publishers who order the work, fully or partially finance the product or publish it. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t work very well in the video game industry. The mere presence of a publishing house cannot serve as an unambiguous criterion for an indie project. Let’s try to give a definition that takes into account the peculiarities of the gaming industry: an indie game is a game created by a small team, the development of which was initiated within the team and it owns the intellectual property; there is no external creative control during development. Thus, an indie game must have three characteristics.

Small development studio. Studio size is a relative value. Is a team of 50 people big or small? In Russia, a micro-enterprise is considered to be an organization with up to 15 employees and an annual turnover of 120,000,000 rubles (up to $1,500,000 depending on the exchange rate). For small businesses, turnover can be up to 800,000,000 rubles per year (up to $9,000,000), and the number of employees should not exceed 100 people. Quite clear criteria – they are quite applicable to video game developers. Thus, Baldur’s Gate from Larian Studios will not meet this criterion both in terms of the number of employees and turnover. And Kodjima Productions, for example, which has 80 employees but receives funding from Sony and Microsoft, does not meet this financial turnover criterion.

The development of the project was initiated within the team. The intellectual property belongs to the development studio. Games created under franchises, commissioned, or based on someone else’s intellectual property cannot be considered “independent”. With games created to order, we believe everything is clear. In this case, there is no need to talk about independence at all, so it’s not “indie”. Let us explain about games created under licenses. Recent examples include The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria, RoboCop: Rogue City (you can read these reviews on our website), games based on the Warhammer franchise. The brand imposes restrictions on creative freedom. So games created from someone else’s intellectual property, even by small companies with a modest budget, cannot be considered “indie”.

Creative control over development should be internal, not external. That is, the project may have external funding, including from a publishing house, but such funding should not limit the creativity of the developers. Not every publishing house will agree to this, not every developer deserves such trust, but there are such precedents. There are small publishing houses that specialize in such projects, and there are also relatively large ones – Devolver Digital has a unique nose for unusual projects.

This is the key and most difficult criterion to verify. In the case when the studio itself develops and publishes the game, everything is clear. But when a game has a publisher, we cannot verify creative freedom until we study the details of the contract between the studio and the publisher. However, sometimes even a signed contact does not guarantee that the publishing house will not dictate terms. The developers of Kerbal Space Program 2, whose studio was actually destroyed by Take-Two, will not let you lie.

Understanding now what indie games are, it is not difficult to imagine the typical appearance of such projects. Small budgets and teams mean modest opportunities in terms of game presentation. Therefore, “indie” is not characterized by expensive graphics. Even if the game is created in 3D, it does not look very attractive, for example, Lethal Company or Bomb Rush Cyberfunk (see review by Maxim Dragan). Pixels and 90s styling help smooth out the experience. Creating beautiful pixel art is also challenging, but it’s still easier than painstakingly detailing fine details for 4K resolution.

Small development budgets allow even single enthusiasts to create games (Vampire Survivors), which means that a lot of such games are being released. Some manage to catch on with the audience immediately after release, like the already mentioned Lethal Company, while others wait for their moment of fame for years, as happened, for example, with Among Us – when a small project in a short period became so popular that it established a global record for the number of players online. But most indie games are doomed to travel to the “Steam basements”, where unknown projects live.

But true creative freedom is capable of miracles. The desire to stand out from numerous competitors, to realize ideas – they give real masterpieces. History knows many examples when games were launched that contained “crazy” and strange ideas (see the history of Minecraft). There are also examples when ideas that had proven themselves to be excellent were incompetently ruined by a large publishing house because they were not understood by effective managers: the history of the development of the Plants vs Zombies series is a vivid example of this.

Indy vs Triple H

Large companies also try to create a creative atmosphere, but effective corporate managers find it difficult to give up control over the game creation processes. A manager who advocates for the creative freedom of a game designer is like a bee protesting against honey.

A certain amount of creative freedom is allowed among AAA developers. Thus, in 2012, David Cage, head of Quantic Dream, argued that “[Sony executives] gave us freedom, complete freedom, no restrictions on our ideas. After the success of Heavy Rain (sales exceeded 2 million copies), many publishers would say, “You should make Heavy Rain 2. Basically, do what you want, but the game should be called Heavy Rain 2.” We’ve never had these conversations with Sony. They just asked, “What’s next?” What would you like to do?“. I told them about my ideas and they immediately liked it.”

Perhaps ten years ago this approach was common among large publishers, which is doubtful. But what is certain is that there is no such freedom in large companies now. How else to explain Josh Sawyer from Obsidian Entertainment: “ It would be nice if the big AAA studios published (not published) more smaller games. We would have much more experimentation and freedom. Not everything has to be big .” The colleague was also supported by other developers.

The idea that experimental creative projects can be created under the wing of a AAA company is not new. From a journalistic investigation by Kat Beyer from IGN about the internal kitchen of Blizzard, it became known that the company created “incubators” designed to experiment with new gaming concepts. Designed as safe places to experiment with new ideas that could become full-fledged games, incubators became Blizzard’s black boxes. The result of their work was zero. According to IGN, at least two games have been cancelled. One of them was a shooter in the StarCraft universe, which was reported by Kotaku and confirmed by our sources at Blizzard. The second project was an experimental mobile game.

We probably won’t know what kind of experimental mobile game it was (was it Warcraft Arclight Rumble?), but a shooter in the StarCraft universe is clearly not an experiment with new gaming concepts!

The problem with such incubators is that truly bold experiments simply do not see the light of day. It’s doubtful that a company like Blizzard, Activision or Sony would be able to do this, because how would a game like this be perceived under a major label? Dave The Diver is a nice little exception, but Nexon is no match for Western AAA publishers.

Josh Sawyer can certainly be proud of Pentiment’s high critical acclaim, but the release of such a small game developed by Microsoft’s in-house studio, Xbox Game Studios, is a joke. The mountain gave birth to a mouse. The game was developed almost in secret at Obsidian Entertainment and became one of the few exclusives on the Xbox platform in 2022. By the way, Microsoft took the publication of this project very seriously. Even corporate lawyers were involved in the case .

Creative screws are not tightened in corporations, at least not at all. Products like Titanfall or Apex Ledends are coming out. But when did that happen! How often do AAA companies release major games based on new intellectual property that would surprise you with new or unusual game mechanics or gameplay discoveries? For 2023, only Hi-Fi Rush is remembered. Those interested can also add Starfield to this list. And so: sequels and remakes.

And much more often than statements about unprecedented creative freedom in large companies, we hear that the paths of excellent game designers and effective managers diverge. Thus, Hideki Kamiya, responsible for such titles as Devil May Cry, Resident Evil Zero, Viewtiful Joe, Ōkami and Bayonetta, recently left the Platinum Games studio with the words : “ I treat games not as products, but rather as works of art. I want to translate my art into games and create games that can only be created by Hideki Kamiya, so that players can enjoy Hideki Kamiya’s games exactly as they are. I decided to leave the company and follow my own path to continue making games that reflect the developers who create them .”

The reason for the lack of creative freedom is simple: large companies are not ready to risk big money by investing in unusual projects, even when there was a lot of money in the industry. And now, when the cost of money has increased greatly – and even more so. The risks are too high, according to effective managers.

And there are examples in the industry that prove them right: this year, Hi-Fi Rush, despite excellent reviews and awards, did not become a mega-hit; Immortals of Aveum flopped due to a poor release date and price; The release of The Day Before, during the development of which hell was going on and the publisher was not aware of it, became the scandal of the year.

The concerns of executives of large companies are understandable. Although companies find money to develop game services. How many of them have Ubisoft already “buried”, forgetting about their roots ? And how many millions of dollars has Sony already buried in them ? The AAA industry has become ossified in its development. Alas, there is little life in it now.

Diagnosis: Indie est vita

There’s no need to be condescending towards indie games. The gaming industry is largely alive thanks to them. In this primordial broth life is born. Thousands of games die, leaving behind only scraps of ideas and game mechanics. But others, having absorbed these ideas, continue to live and evolve – in order to shoot one day. There are few projects that have survived to this point, but they inspire thousands of people who are in love with games.

Indie games are easy to criticize. Often they are not attractive in appearance, sometimes they are inconvenient to operate or are assembled “on the knee”, and sometimes they contain a bunch of bugs. But indie developers are the last people who deserve this kind of treatment. On the contrary, the AAA industry does not deserve leniency, especially after some of them claim that players are out of touch with reality . Trying to understand and forgive this is strange.

If the modern AAA industry ever dies, it won’t die because the players were too toxic. This industry will die because it has stopped developing and moving – and if this happens, then that’s where it goes. As long as independent developers have a way to publish their creations, they will come to replace them this very second. And this will be a different, new video game industry. It’s not a fact that we’ll like it more. But if it refuses to develop, it will also die. Yes, we will only have games as long as life is born in the primordial indie broth.

Do large companies understand this? They understand. That’s why they buy up independent studios and, without a twinge of conscience, drag into their projects ideas born in the games of independent developers. Or they are trying to make their own “incubators”. But only independence and mass participation can give birth to ideas.

That is why we, on the pages of our project, have repeatedly called and urge you to support independent developers from Russia. After all, this is the only way we will finally see not vague opportunistic projects, but truly OUR GAMES. 

And for you, every month we make a selection of indie games that have earned the attention of players. Look at them, try to play. Yes, you probably won’t like most of them – well, no one canceled the refund on Steam. But those few projects that you don’t return will give you many hours of pleasure and new experiences that you will remember forever.

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