Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Indie Commercialization: Selling Out?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 30, 2012

At the A MAZE Indie Connect festival, Jonaten “Cactus” Soderstrom offered a keynote address commenting on the state of the industry – in particular, the ‘commercialization’ of the ‘indie game scene.’ It sounds like he dished out positives and negatives about how money has effected this side of the industry, particularly with its effect of ‘raising the bar’ on quality standards, based on this recap:

Indie Connect Keynote – Commercialization Raised the Bar for Indies

There’s another commentary on his speech here in German, with a google-translated version here in English.  Sounds like he might have been drunk-keynoting it as well.

It sounds like he countered some of his own arguments in the speech, and since I’ve only got the recap to go from I can’t comment directly on it.  So I’m just going to go off on the topic a little bit.

I think, like Cactus, I’m a little bit of two minds on the subject.  On the one hand, I love the raw creativity of the indie scene, and the removal of the barriers to entry – not to mention a flood of available platforms now – have really allowed amazing things to happen. I love how indies have gotten back to the roots of gaming – the love of games and of making games – and how this has allowed indies to do some really weird labors of love with little heed to commercial potential. This rocks, and is a big part of why I love indie games in general.

Indie gaming has surged. Actually, it’s surged more than once. There have been lots of surges, usually accompanying some major commercial successes. We saw it way back when it was called “shareware” with the generation of games that brought us the classic id games, Duke Nukem, Jazz Jackrabbit,  and more. We saw massive commercialization of the shareware games side of things, and the heaviest hitters really went on to be mainstream studios. We saw another surge in the ‘casual’ games side of the fence, which was followed by — wait for it — massive commercialization of that sector. Funny, that. And now, a few years later, we’re seeing a surge across all sides of indie-dom. And – surprise! – commercialization.

I’m more worried about the ‘bust’ that inevitably follows these booms.

The thing is – the ‘indie game scene’ is a myth. It’s a massive collections of (occasionally intersecting) groups and communities and lone wolves all doing their things. Yeah, the press tends to follow one or two of these specific communities, but while some of them are – or used to be – more tightly knit, it’s pretty localized. And if one ‘scene’ is transforming to become more commercialized- well, the other ‘scenes’ have never been that way, or always been that way. Some have a mix. For me personally, I’m associated with a Utah indie ‘scene’ that is a pretty wild mix of full-time professionals, curious wannabes, game-jammers, students, and part-timers.  I am also part of more professionally-oriented ‘scene’ that is actually more UK-based if anything.  All these different scenes, communities, and loose affiliations is a Good Thing, in my opinion. I worry about monoculture.

But amidst this flood of indie games, we’re seeing more of everything. More crap, more freeware stuff… and more (and much higher-budget) high-end stuff. We’re now in times where a niche game like Legend of Grimrock can support a full-time team of four for quite a while. This is pretty dang cool, as well. It’s definitely changing the gaming landscape, and like Cactus I’m not really sure where I personally stand with it anymore.  I do not want to see indie gaming go the way of the mainstream publishers – and I don’t think it will, though individual companies and studios may make that transition. I think “indie” has always been too broad of a category to really define gaming, and with the huge increase in number of games getting released each year it is going to have to be broken up into smaller categories just to retain any meaning at all.

But this is nothing new. I remember the arguments around 2004 when Savage: The Battle for Newerth won at the IGF, in no small part because its budget dwarfed everything else. In the casual game boom, bigger companies would clone the gameplay of other indie titles, throw much more production budget at it to make it prettier, and then make twenty times as much money as the original (and often hurting the sales of the original in the process).  We’ve got Zynga and others doing the same thing today.

I don’t like it. It’s not that I don’t like the bar being raised – or rather, I am happy to see higher production values in many indie games. But I don’t like having the comparisons so dictated by budget and commercial interests. And I do worry about ideas and concepts taking a second seat to commercial potential.  But it’s change, and you have to take the bad with the good. I see even more energy and creativity coming out of the ‘indie’ side of things than ever before, and I can’t help but think the good outweighs the bad.

Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Dennis said,

    Thanks for your thoughts and perspective, Jay! Much appreciated.

    I’m quite suprised, Google Translate made my article still mostly understandable. Usually, they only sound mad translated from German. Still, I submitted a cleaned up version.

    I would agree with you about the many scenes of indie. Sadly, it’s a perspective that I don’t see very often. Instead, we – the press – construct “indie-developers” as one group. And usually, we also seem to focus on games with high production values.

    Just look at Frayed Knights! It’s a fantastic game, but I only read about it on indierpgs.com, I didn’t find any in-depth on any of the larger sites.

    I hope I can try to cover games more broadly in the future (if only there was more time in a day!)

    Anyways! Thanks, Jay!

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    When some of the complaining about the last round of IGF results was happening, there were many mutterings about the effects of the “secret indie cabal” on the judging. Which for some of us raised some confusion trying to figure out exactly WHICH cabal was being discussed…

  • GhanBuriGhan said,

    I wouldn’t be worried. If certain aspects of todays indie scene become mainstream, it will just create new niches, new frontiers for new indies to prosper in. I think that’s the natural course of things, to an extent. Even FPS were once an indie (shareware) niche…

  • Anomalous Underdog said,

    “It’s a massive collections of (occasionally intersecting) groups and communities and lone wolves all doing their things” <– and there had always been people like that even before the "indie" buzz came out. Even when this "indie" becomes commercialized, there will always be lone wolves and communities.