Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

A Double Standard for Indies?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 8, 2011

Now that being “indie” has gone from being an almost unknown term to something of a badge of honor (with all the annoying pretension that sometimes accompanies it), there have been some accusations – not entirely unjustified – that gamers and reviewers both have a double standard when it comes to indie games, heaping praise on an indie game merely for the virtue of being indie where a mainstream, traditional  game would earn little but derision.

On the one hand, I bristle at this. In a sense, it’s like people heaping praise on their kid brother’s efforts at writing a story, simply because “he’s trying.” It indicates greatly reduced expectations. I don’t want to expect less of indie games. In many ways, I shouldn’t have to.  ‘Cause there are a lot of places where indie games are breaking new ground, doing what mainstream games are no longer willing to do, and accomplishing some pretty impressive things. And if you want to talk “fun factor” – the pure entertainment value provided for your dollar – my favorite indie games compare favorably to all but the most addictive mainstream games in my library.

But let’s face it: If I truly wanted to erase those distinctions, I wouldn’t be calling them “indie games,” now, would I? Just… games.

But on the other hand, there are no two ways around this fact: Indie games can’t keep up with the production values of the big games. The so-called triple-A development approach has been escalating for three decades now, and the big studio thing is a natural evolution from this. There’s a direct, causal relationship there – perhaps a positive feedback loop between methodology and marketing. Indie is pretty much by definition an abandonment of that runaway train.

The “biz” game has been rigged in favor of the big studio / big game approach. I’ve spent some time reading old game reviews in archived issues of Computer Gaming World from the late 80’s and early 90’s, and those reviewers gushed as much over the graphics and the pushing of the technology envelope back then as they do today. It’s been pretty consistent, reinforcing the message that better graphics, better tech = better game.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is an unnatural development manipulated by shady industry giants conspiring in smoke-filled back rooms conspiring to program the minds of gamers to only respond to the best visuals money can buy. I think to a large degree, they are simply responding to the demands of the market the best they can.

And the demands of going with that particular flow have gotten pretty insane. Or to use a popular (or unpopular) term these days, “unsustainable.” We’re past the point of diminishing returns, but there are still some pretty huge rewards for the behemoths who win those expensive battles. But even Nintendo has bowed out to choose different fights.

The indies are doing the same. The “indie” distinction really is there to change expectations and to draw a different battlefield. You don’t hold a pickup truck to the same standards and requirements you would a sports car, even though the primary purpose of either vehicle might be to take you to and from work each day. The two automobiles address different secondary purposes.

The problem is that “indie” isn’t really a category unto itself. A lot of poorly-informed industry and journalist personalities have made some assumptions about what the “indie” category is, semi-defining it alternately as casual games, free-to-play Flash games, retro-style shooters, social games, “art games,” or … uh, Minecraft.  When you are talking about indie games, you can only really talk about what it isn’t, because what it is is “everything else.”

So in the end, I feel like indie games should be judged differently. But though the criteria might change, I don’t know that it should be a lesser standard. Indie games are still about providing a satisfying interactive experience – they just aren’t (usually) attempting to do so by a brute-force pushing of the technological barriers, or even coming close.  Their success – or failure (and believe me, though I don’t talk much about ‘em, there are LOTS of failures) – aren’t quite so simple to judge.

Was The Path, by Tale of Tales, successful as a game? It pretty much threw all video game conventions out the window. My first time playing through it, I followed the instructions, avoided harm to my character… and by doing so, effectively “lost.”  Achieving the objective of getting to grandma’s house safely was not the real goal. The goal was to experience the game.  The jury’s still out on the game for me — it didn’t really hook me, but it was an intriguing experience. And unique. I do like unique, sometimes.

So to me, it’s not so much a double standard so much as being willing to suspend the traditional standards a little bit and take a closer look at what a game is offering without directly comparing it to the most recent best-seller that approximates its category. Sure, comparisons between Din’s Curse and Torchlight and Diablo are inevitable, but the “indie” label is there to remind the player that it’s okay for a game not to contain every single feature of its category peers, and twice the production values to boot. Planet Stronghold is not Mass Effect 2, nor does it try to be.

Let the games stand on their own, and judge them based upon what they are and what they are trying to be — not on what they aren’t. That, to me, is the real purpose behind the “indie” label.

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Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 14 Comments to Read



  • JadedDM said,

    Ugh, I hated The Path. Someone else recommended it to me, and it was only $10. And I still wanted my money back after ‘playing’ it. It wasn’t a game at all. Games are fun, or are supposed to be. The only thing The Path accomplished was possibly giving you a feeling of superiority over everyone else.

    Indeed, when I went to the forums, I found numerous people like myself had complained, only to be talked down to condescendingly from the devs about how we just weren’t smart enough to ‘get it.’ Clearly, we should just go back to our button-mashing in Halo. (I don’t even play Halo!) Bleh.

  • McTeddy said,

    I completely agree about the purpose of the “indie” label… though I think that it demonstrates a larger problem.

    Peoples expectations have reached a point that games are no longer judged on their own merits. They are judged vs. Call of Duty or Mass Effect.

    It bugs me that in the mainstream industry not everyone is Bioware… yet they are expected to perform like them. The game’s that I worked on were made by about 12 people on a shoestring budget… yet our animations were compared to those of the big budget studios… of course they won’t be as good.

    I understand that there are plenty of reasons for it… including the industries obsession with 60 dollar price tags. I just find it to be a bad state of things when a game can’t be declared “Fun” unless its flawless.

    Yeah… the Indie label is a good thing right now… but I find it sad to think that it is required before people can judge a game on it’s own merits.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I’m torn on the issue of whether the double standard for indies is good or bad.

    While I certainly don’t think indies should be judged by the same AAA production values as the big industry titles, I do think indies should hold themselves to higher production values than they do now.

    Let me explain, so I won’t be eaten alive by the indie makers. (Maybe I still will, but at least it will be for the right reasons.) Independent films aren’t judged by the same standards as summer blockbusters – no one expects them to have CGI characters and massive explosions and a billion crane shots – but they are still expected to have their own beauty and good production values, in addition to telling a story just as good or better than the blockbuster.

    I believe indie games have gotten the “story-telling” part down pat. Indies are offering game play that is just as compelling or even better than the AAA titles. However, many of them skimp on the production values part of the equation.

    I’m not talking about matching AAA values, or having global illuminated environments with 15,000 polygon normal mapped characters and tessellated terrain. I’m talking about having a cohesive, attractive art style and presentation, whether that be nothing but silhouettes, or illustrations in art deco style.

    We can’t match the industry now, but why aren’t more indies matching the industry from 15 years ago? That’s more than possible. Why don’t we see more games with the beautiful little sprites like Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger had? The almost water-color-like backgrounds of the PC adventure game Beneath a Steel Sky?

    Why do so many indie makers give the look of their interface and menus short-shrift? Willing to use a default Windows or Mac cursor? Willing to use a default font like Arial or Times Roman?

    These may be small things, but they add up over time, adding to the cheap look of a production as surely as an indie film where they couldn’t be bothered to re-shoot a flawed shot, or used a cheap camera and/or couldn’t be bothered to hold it still.

    The story or the gameplay can still come through, and it can still be a success, but such indie productions could have been so much more with a better eye to detail and attention to aesthetics.

    Not to pick on you Rampant, but it is similar to a month or two ago when we brought up the square gray buttons on your interface. You’d been focused so much on the rest of the game you hadn’t paid them much attention, but there they sat in the middle of a wonderfully detailed framing window and parchment textured background, like a game of “One of these things is not like the others” waiting to be played. Too many indie games will ship with something like this, when an extra evening of work could have fixed the problem.

    Like they say, “The Devil is in the details.”

    A lot of indie makers seem to be excited about their ideas and showing them to world (as they should be), and don’t take the time to slow down a little and put the extra polish on the execution of the idea.

    I’m an artist, so I probably pay more attention to some things than programmer indie makers. But we have a saying in the art world – “What is the difference between an amateur artist and professional one?” “An eye for detail and time.” By ‘time’ we are referring to the length of time spent on a piece of art. Amateur artists are often quick to finish a piece, or spend only a day on it, or do only one pass, etc. Professional artists will spend as long as is necessary to achieve the details. Many of the Renaissance artists we admire spent YEARS per piece.

    A game is a package. If all you have are gameplay and art consisting of sqiggles and clashing colors with a windows interface – congratulations, you’ve made a proof of concept for the investors. Indie filmmakers don’t shoot a movie on a cell phone and expect you to love it because the script is like a lost Shakespeare play finally come to light. Neither should we allow indies to get a free pass on the aesthetics and presentation of the total game package because they have amazing gameplay.

    In short, I want to play an indie game and be fooled, or transported back in time, believing I am playing some lost gem from two decades ago produced by an innovative company.

    I’m afraid too many indie titles use the excuse of “we can’t reach the art quality of the AAAs” to let the art slide, instead of reaching as high as they can.

    I want to finish by being clear – I’m not talking about all indies. Many do put the polish on everything, art included. But many don’t, and I dislike them getting a pass by hiding behind the double standard.

  • jzoeller said,

    like myself a lot of indies are one man, sometimes two man teams, working out of our house in our spare time. I’m a software engineer and would consider myself pretty good at game design also, graphics.. I totally lack that area. Unless you are lucky enough to pick up a partner that is a graphic artist you will find that any royality free graphics are expensive.

    When I set out on DarkLight Dungeon I wanted to have 3D models for the creatures in the dungeon. Nothing hi-poly, but decent. I shoped around and around it the best I could find was a $20,000 investment, and that would only cover half of what I had designed for. So I went whith stock 3D images for monsters, looked good and hundreds of dollars instead of thousands.

    A few years ago I looked at doing an oldschool dragon warrior online game, seems finding pixle artist is harder and more expensive then the 3D models.

    I do believe however, if you have the right team, with each memeber being great at what area they do, (programming, design, sounds/music, artwork, modeling, etc), and you can agree on a company structure or at lest profit structure, then you have a chance to make some good game that really shines in every area, within reasonable time.

    I read all the time about AAA game studios that had several hundred members on the team for 3+ years to make their game, and from where I am sitting, with my experience, there is no doubt.

    The early indie games that I remember were ugly, but their design involved something unique, or somthing refreshing, a different twist.

    I know I can do my best, get suggestions from other, etc, but there is always going to be a wall to run into without a larger team or investment. Neither of which are too realistic for a family man at 34, but that does not stop me from doing it, because I enjoy it and I it makes it worth it when others do to!

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    @jzoeller

    My point (which may have gotten a little lost) is not that indies should have “great art” but that their games should have a cohesive and suitable visual aesthetic all the way through, in every element of the game.

    A game made of nothing but children’s crayon drawings would be fine in my book, as long as the menus and everything else carrying the same style. It could even be beautiful. But if the characters were crayon drawings, the backgrounds photos with a Photoshop filter applied, and the menus gray and using Time Roman, it would look awful and lack cohesion.

    I do know I’m lucky to be an artist. I certainly couldn’t afford my rates if I had to hire myself.

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    Okay, let’s talk indie films, with a look at wikipedia.

    Brick is an indie film. Its budget was $475,000. Welcome to the Dollhouse is an indie film. Its budget was $800,000.

    I see several Sundance winners whose budgets were around 5-10 million. This is still much, much less than a big studio film. And still much, much more than most people working in indie games can stump up. :)

    A lot of indie games fail on the art side because they’re made primarily by one person, who isn’t an artist and lacks a strong artistic vision, and who cannot afford to fully employ an artist rather than hiring in piecemeal bits and milestones.

    An extra evening of staring at your game won’t turn the lightbulbs on if you don’t have the art chops to see the problem yourself. :)

    Yes, indie game makers probably should pay more attention to overall-look-and-feel. But for most of us, until we luck into finding a permanent artist partner…

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    (I’m not saying you shouldn’t criticise! I’m only saying that knowing the problem doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, on a developer’s end.)

  • skavenhorde said,

    Indie RPGs and other indies are two different catagories, imo. The majority of the Indie RPGs are trying to offer the consumer something that is not available anymore from the AAAs and other indies are just plain weird :D.

    I do judge these games differently than I would something from a AAA dev. Graphics, on the whole, are not taken into consideration when I buy an indie rpg. There is no way they could compete with Dragon Age or other RPGs released today.

    On the other hand I do judge them based on the gameplay. Take Din’s Curse as a good example of why I think that one is not a good game. It’s interesting, but not good. It’s just another Diablo clone in a land filled with Diablo clones.

    However, Soldak’s first game, Depths of Peril, was far from just your run of the mill Diablo clone. I’d go as far as to say that it opened up a whole new genre. A mix between an action-rpg and a strategy game. Why he hasn’t revisited what made Depths of Peril unique is beyond me, but he hasn’t and I really wish he would. The factions, companions and dynamic gameplay made for one awesome game that I still play today. Din’s curse while it has dynamic gameplay doesn’t offer the unique experience that was in Depths of Peril.

    As for other indie-rpgs/strategy games I judge them whether or not they try to offer something that I have longed missed from the gaming world. Whether it’s Eschalon’s turn-based almost Ultima-like gameplay, Solium Infernum/Armageddon Empire’s unique gameplay and excellent AI or Geneforge/Avernum’s return to good ol rpg party system and turn-based combat while having an open world and choices to make that matter. These games I will never judge on graphics alone, but how fun they were and what they offered that can’t be found in today’s Best Buy.

    There are three indies that I’m dying to get my hands on just for their complexity and what they offer that isn’t around anymore the first two are Dead State and Age of Decadence and the last is, of course, Frayed Knights. I would not care if they made these game with ASCII graphics, although that would suck a little ;), but these games offer something that is not around anymore.

  • MalcolmM said,

    I’m not keen on the term AAA developer. It seems to imply that games from these developers are of higher quality. The production values – graphics and sound are obviously higher, but the games themselves are boring clones of games I got tired of playing years ago.

    I base my expections of the production values on the asking price. If I’m paying $50+ for a game, I expect high production values. Almost no idie game is in the price range, so I’m not very concerned with the graphics and sound.

  • Rich Hudson said,

    I think price plays a part in all this. If you price your game up there with the big boys then you will be (and should be?) compared to them as well. What “gets” me is when a small Indie team puts a game out for a dollar and gets criticized for it’s graphics, etc.

  • Styg said,

    While I definitely agree with the entire “consistent audio-visual experience” thing, I don’t think it’s necessarily easier to achieve this in older technologies. I think it depends. I doubt reproducing the visual experience of Beneath the Steel Sky would be easy despite its age. Games from this period tend to rely a lot on custom made graphics (making them more artistically challenging) as opposed to modern games where lots of fancy-shmancy effects are generated by tools and engines.

    Regarding the audio-visual expectations set by the AAA game industry, I wonder if perhaps bigger barrier to accepting retro/low-fi/lower-production-values games by the mainstream audience is in their usability rather than their inferior audio-visuals.

    Today’s computer user (especially one not working in the software industry) is used to highly usable software and this includes all types of software: games, word processors, internet browser, DVD players, you name it. Compared to these products, the interface of a two decades old RPG classic is horrifyingly unwieldy and unintuitive. Personally, this is my biggest problem with retrogaming. It takes me a lot of mental energy to force myself to wrestle with the crude interface/controls of an otherwise cool classic.

    So there’s a lesson to be learned here, I think, even if you are not mimicking games this old. If you are making a game, it requires no extra art skills to ensure that your game’s interfaces and controls are just as intuitive, responsive and fluid as those of AAA titles. This is strictly a game design and programming problem that no one, who has any business in running an (especially a one-man) indie game studio, has any excuse to ignore.

    Sure there are lots of people out there who just want high-end graphics who you just cannot cater to. But I suspect there are gamers, especially older ones, who would love to play an old school style game, but the reason they are not replaying those old titles (as much) is because they have been spoiled by superior usability of the modern software.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    @Styg

    If you are an artist, something like Beneath a Steel Sky is definitely easier and quicker to do – and relies on less expensive and hard to get software packages.

    I do both traditional art, as well as AAA game art. Tools and engines generate a lot less of that “fancy-shamncy” effects than you think. Bloom, ambient occlusion, and global illumination are about the only things an engine or tool does on its own. Everything else, an artist had to sit down and make, then tell the engine how to use it. We also have to tweak the bloom, AO, and GI on a per room, or per object level.

    A professional 2D image takes 10 hours or less, depending on complexity and use – sometimes much less than 10 hours. A professional 3D character or environment background can take 30-40 hours or more.

    BUT – you are SO, SO right about the interface issues. I loved the old games from SSI, but I can’t play them anymore. The EVA graphics don’t send me screaming – the interfaces do. I forgot how relatively recent mouse support is. I hate how I can to go through a dozen steps to do simple things – I hate how horribly slow the PACING of everything is. I guess that was fine when I was having to type commands into DOS to do everything, but I’m spoiled now. I want mouse control. I want a “Take All” button. I want to save anywhere.

    You hit the nail on the head.

  • Xenovore said,

    I think If you’re going to be a successful indie dev, you’ve got to have at least some basic art skills, enough that you can create a consistent aesthetic, as LateWhiteRabbit has mentioned above.

    But as Styg pointed out, useability really is king. If your UI is a pain in the ass to use, the quality of the game-play and visuals becomes moot; players will spend their time and effort fighting the UI instead of actually playing the game. And (as I’ve personally experienced with some bad console ports) if the UI experience is bad enough, the player will (attempt to) play for all of 5-10 minutes, before throwing in the towel altogether. (Fortunately for me, the bad console ports were demo versions, otherwise I’d be hella peeved that I wasted money on those. Every game should have a demo available…)

    So, the two key things here are consistency (design, visual or otherwise), and usability. There’s absolutely no reason indie devs cannot achieve the same (or better) consistency and usability as the so-called AAA developers, even with a small 1- or 2-man team.

  • Justin Alexander said,

    I tend to place less weight on labels and more weight on value: If you’re charging me $60 for a game, then I should get $60 of value from it (whether it’s a triple-A title or an indie title). If you’re only charging me $10 then you’ve got a lower hurdle to clear for being “worth it”. If you’re charging me $0.99 the bar does down again.

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