Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Indie Games: Competition and Authorship

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 8, 2012

One of the complaints about the “Old-School RPG(s)” proposed by Brenda Brathwaite and Tom Hall was about “celebrity designers” and how they can command so much more Kickstarter backing than other, worthy indies working on similar projects. I thought I’d take some time to address it here.

As an aside, there was a complaint that it wasn’t  a very good Kickstarter campaign, and that it was relying upon the celebrity draw power of Brenda, Tom, and John Romero. That much I’ll agree to – it was weak. It’s improved over the last few days, but the pitch was definitely lacking (and, I think, hurt it – being only 20% to goal makes it sound unlikely that the “two RPGs” stretch goal will be reached).

Having worked in mid-sized (and larger) studios before, I also dismiss the “bigger studios don’t need the money like the tiny ones do” side of the argument. In my experience, the wolf being far from the door of any game studio is an aberration that rarely lasts long. (Keep that in mind, Mojang…) I do have some concerns – noted last week – about the ability of larger studios to handle small budgets as well as tiny indie teams with virtual offices. But I don’t consider one more worthy or needy than the other.

One aspect of this complaint is rooted in zero-sum thinking – money going to project X will means it won’t go to project Y or Z. To an extent this is true, in the same vein that somebody buying one of the other games I recommend here might do so instead of purchasing my own little old-school-ish indie RPG, Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon.  In fact, I could be in direct competition with Loot Drop’s RPG in a couple of years! The horror!

It’s true that on a small (but growing) level, we indies are in competition with each other. The economy pretty much still stinks everywhere, and games aren’t quite as “recession-proof” as originally thought. Indie RPGs have gone from being all but unheard-of to being a pretty exciting field that even I have trouble keeping track of – even if I generally focus on PC games.  But in my opinion, the zero-sum thing really doesn’t kick in until a market is really saturated. Maybe it is there already on mobile devices, but it certainly isn’t yet in our niche. Right now, growing the pie is a much bigger task than squabbling over the pieces, and IMO anybody who purchases one of Basilisk’s or Amaranth’s or Spiderweb’s or Soldak’s or Iron Tower’s or Aldorlea’s or Sinister Design’s or Olderbyte’s games – and has a good experience – is more likely to buy & play more indie RPGs in the future. Including mine.

While it’s certainly possible that I might say, “Oh, crap, I spent too much money on games this month between Kickstarter and purchases, so I cannot (yet) buy this really cool gaming that’s coming out this week!” But it’s not a direct, zero-sum relationship. I’ve had months where I’ve bought no games at all, and months – like this one – where I’ve gone overboard. There are a lot of variables involved. So while there is competition, it is not zero-sum, and money allocated to one title is not directly harming the sales of another.

Which brings me to one big variable:


It’s not so much “celebrity designers” as it is authorship. Authorship is something that has lost a lot of ground (by necessity and by design) in the AAA world. When you have a development team measured in triple digits, it’s going to be very hard for anybody’s contribution – even the lead designer’s – to really exert a powerful influence on the game. Really, it takes a commitment on the part of the studio and publisher to make sure that happens – and to give the responsible parties credit. Publishers have very little motivation to do so, as they can own a property, but they can’t own a designer. A designer who becomes too much of a ‘celebrity’ can very easily leave a former studio and franchise and do their own thing with all kinds of support coming from their “cred,”  and cast doubt as to the future of a company or franchise trying to soldier on without them – much like a rock band replacing its lead singer.

We used to have it in the old days, before publishers began dominating the industry like they did in the early 90s. That’s where a lot of these names came from. Or they came from the “indie” realm (like Tom Hall and John Romero), even before it was called “indie.” With tiny teams, no middleman, no external controlling influences, and the reality of ownership over their products, indie creators can’t help but infuse their creations with their own voice and personality. They own it, warts and all. In that way, they are more like authors of a book.

And it means I can have favorite game-creators again. If you read this blog a lot (or note the list above, where I referred to the sometimes lone-wolf team names rather than their games), you know some of my favorites.

Maybe all indies are created equal, but they don’t stay that way.  While I love to take chances on unknowns (and pleased often enough to continue the habit), I’ll still favor an indie who has earned his or her clout through consistent delivery of games that I really enjoy, that strike the right chords with me, that have a “personality” that I like and an acceptable level of quality. This is as it should be. Frankly, we’re getting enough “old school RPGs” (especially of the 16-bit console style) that we have to be a little discerning. There is (gasp!) some competition out there. What sets these games apart for me is authorship.

Again, I want to give the unknowns a chance – several chances, really – and I recognize that fame and success beget themselves beyond what might be justified from the quality of a product. I get kind of annoyed at “indie darlings” too. But relatively speaking, it’s the right kind of problem to have.

Developers should not be interchangeable commodities, as they have become in the AAA field. I want games from Thomas Riegsecker to have a different personality from those of Jeff Vogel. I don’t want the homogeneity that has afflicted the AAA side of the business. I want developer’s personalities to come through in their games. I want their imprint to be personal and distinguishable as any authors. It should be their competitive advantage, the reason why their games are distinctive and exciting over other titles that sound the same on paper.

We need games with personality and quirks. We need games that reflect the image of their creators. We need authorship. This is why indie gaming – in all its sizes and varieties – is so important.

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

  • McTeddy said,

    Today, is actually amazing on this note. I’m here… reading your words. Learning what drives your development… what inspires you to make a game.

    I’m commenting and you can actually read it too. I’m communicating with a game developer who made Frayed Knights.

    While the msinstream industry is still black box, there is room for names to develop again. Personalities can seen again. Actually, two way communication between gamer’s and developers.

    I can’t help but feel that this is a great thing for our industry.

  • OttoMoBiehl said,

    I like this post a lot. It got me thinking of any current developers out their who have the street cred like the old day designers. The only one I can think of, off the top of my head, is Notch from Mojang. I’m sure there are others out there but it’s really hard to name the Next David Crane, Will Wright, Sid Meir.

  • Craig Stern said,

    Well put, Jay. 🙂

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I think part of why it’s really hard is that it’s tougher to compare new guys against those who have stood the test of time and who have had decades to refine their craft. I mean, the Sid Meier of F-15 Strike Eagle era was a different designer (and a bit more fallible, I guess) than the Sid Meier of today… at least in the eyes of fans. At a certain point, we feel we’re insulting these old-school pioneers by daring to compare young turks to them.

    It’s also difficult comparing an indie with a tiny number of fans validating their work with the “old greats” who made (relative for their time) HUGE-selling games in a much more limited market. You mention Notch: Selling the kinds of numbers he has is definitely a validation, and makes it feel “safe” to compare him to other best-selling designers. But the thing that impressed me about him wasn’t just Minecraft, but a time-lapse video of an LD48 competition he participated in. That was when I realized that hey – he’s a dang good developer. Not just some guy who got lucky.

    But I think there are hundreds of indies out there who are just that good (or better), who haven’t yet gotten a lucky break like that, and probably never will. But I figure their best chance is to have some attention drawn to them as the creators of these games.