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Commentary: Blurring the Line

Posted on November 7, 2013 AT 03:38pm

Game Designers, Humble Hearts
Alex Kain and Dean Dodril

What really separates indie games from big-budget fare?

hen we were growing up, the gaming industry felt a great deal like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. As a kid looking from the outside in, with nothing but industry-produced magazines to let us know what developers were really like, it was easy to get swept up in a romantic vision of game creation. For the longest time, our knowledge of Nintendo’s inner workings was solely based on marketing materials like their Change the System VHS tape to promote the N64, complete with (preposterous, nonexistent) VR laboratories and padded rooms where they mo-capped Mario jumping into paintings.

When the Internet threw open the doors on the industry, it was a revelation. These fantastical developers were just like you and me, a collective Wizard of Oz behind the magnificent curtain that was the gaming industry. But in a few short years, that naïveté was replaced by an even more exciting revelation: that anybody could make videogames. At the time, the notion of the “indie” game and “indie” developer didn’t really exist. There were simply games and game developers, and there were simply good games and bad games.

Smash-cut ahead 20 years, and the landscape is barely recognizable. Like revolutionaries in some dystopian science-fiction tale, indie developers rose up from nothing as a force to be reckoned with, providing the populace with experiences both nostalgic and fresh in an industry used to hopscotching between triple-A sequels.

In truth, the story of the modern independent game developer has more in common with the roots of the gaming medium than the big-budget titles we commonly see representing the industry. The classics that built our understanding of game mechanics were the brainchildren of a handful of individuals, and that was in an era before digitally distributed content and pre-packaged SDKs. The stage may be different, but the characters are still the same to this day—a series of Campbellian archetypes fulfilling identical roles in this new game-development landscape. The only things that have really changed are the distribution models and the technology. Making and releasing games are still uniquely challenging pursuits, but at the same time, they’ve never been easier.

The stage may be different, but the characters are still the same to this day—a series of Campbellian archetypes fulfilling identical roles in this new game-development landscape.

One of the two axes we use to differentiate indie and big-budget titles is revealed by the very terms we use to describe them: We define them in terms of resources. “Big-budget” games have many. “Independent” titles have few. Yet the available resources are changing and improving every day. It used to be that you needed to build your own game engine from scratch to support your design; now, they come pre-wrapped. It used to be that if you ran into a problem, you needed to work through it yourself. Now, answers come in every flavor imaginable, thanks to social networks and Internet forums. In that respect, the definition of an indie title will have to change down the line to encompass more robust experiences that someday will even rival the big-budget titles.

The other axis focuses on the experience itself, and how developers hone the mechanics of their title to evoke (or prevent) certain feelings. Super Meat Boy wants you to be frustrated, but it knows its ideal player will overcome the challenges. Compare that to the highly curated, focus-tested New Super Mario Bros. series, which doesn’t want you to be annoyed or offended by it, and you’ll see philosophical differences in these designs that no technology improvement will ever reconcile. That, to us, is the core of the “indie” versus “big-budget” debate—that once you remove the disparity of resources, which should happen naturally over time as technology improves, all that’s left are the ideas.

Willy Wonka may have had a magical chocolate factory, but he still had to make chocolate. It doesn’t matter who makes the game—what matters is the quality of the end result. We do ourselves a disservice by pretending indie games are that different from big-budget games. They’re getting along fine together now, and the playing field is leveling a little bit more with each new release.

And soon, we’ll be back to games and game developers, and we’ll simply have good and bad games once more.

—Alex Kain is a game designer who writes and Dean Dodrill is a game designer who draws. They collaborated on Dust: An Elysian Tail and, for some reason, both liked Jurassic Park: Trespasser. They can be found on Twitter: @tdcpresents and @noogytweet, respectively. 

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