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Keeping the Gaming Industry Fresh, Or Why I Love Indie Devs

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Posted by: David Sanchez

Prior to writing this piece, I brainstormed different ways in which I could approach the subject of indie game development within the video game industry. I could talk about how indie devs work their butts off to give gamers quality content that rivals that of major publishers'. I could give you the the tired speech about how small-scale teams need to rely on innovation to entice gamers to give their projects a chance. I could even go the elitist route and bitch about the industry as I praise the independent scene in as biased a manner as possible. The truth is, though, I'd much rather just admit that I love both facets of the gaming industry, but shed light on exactly why so many gamers appreciate indie devs so much.

The first thing that comes to mind when I play an indie game is the amount of work and dedication that must have gone into the project. In a sense, it almost reminds me of old school game design. Most gamers are familiar with the infamous North American Video Game Crash. This disastrous moment nearly spelled the end for the gaming industry until Nintendo came along and seemingly resurrected the medium single-handedly. The company had some funding thanks to being in business for a long time, but it was still taking a risk in an industry where there was hardly any room for error.

These days, big name publishers and developers can sometimes afford to make a few blunders because they have countless IPs that will make them money. Indie developers, on the other hand, are almost in the same position that Nintendo was all those years ago: there's little room for error, money's tight, and the franchise they introduce needs to succeed. Though indie companies aren't trying to revive a medium, they are trying to introduce themselves as a force to be appreciated within a highly competitive industry. They're not unleashing Super Mario Bros., quite possibly one of the most impressive concepts in the history of gaming, into a fledgling industry. No, they're taking their fresh ideas and attempting to convince us that we should be interested, despite the countless other brands in the industry today.

Because the barrier for entry is so high, there's no denying the fact that indie game development teams are indeed underdogs in an industry full of giants such as EA, Activision, THQ, and countless other entities. That's something I can really appreciate about these individuals. I love a good underdog story, so when I read about how Team Meat was allegedly put through hell by Microsoft, only to persevere in the end and deliver Super Meat Boy, one of the hottest 2D platformers in recent memory, I gain an even deeper respect for these folks. Zeboyd Games also had a success story of its own when Cthulhu Saves the World, an Xbox Live Indie Games original, managed to sell a high number of copies on Steam, quickly delivering better results than its Xbox 360 counterpart.

Unfortunately, not all developers see success with their games. A recent story broke out about designer David Johnston and his game The Adventures of Shuggy. Basically, Johnston was dropped by publishers and had a hard time finding the right company to fund his project and give it the proper hype. The result: numerous delays and lackluster sales for Shuggy despite the fact that it was a solid game. Now, Johnston is considering calling it quits in the game-making business. It's a shame such was the fate of Shuggy, and this situation is proof that indie devs truly do have to face massive struggles as they enter the industry.

Looking beyond the corporate side of things, indie devs are also worthy of admiration due to their constant practice of going back to basics, all the while providing experiences that fit well within the modern spectrum of gaming. Mighty Jill Off and VVVVVV are perfect examples of this. Both games offer a brutal challenge that will kill the main character numerous times, but thanks to some well-placed checkpoints and fair level design, the games are most definitely playable and rewarding. They're not discouraging, and they continuously provide gamers with a sense of satisfaction. Like so many games of the NES and SNES eras, these and countless other indie games are crazy hard, but they're still incredibly amazing experiences that keep players hooked.

Not all indie games are about retro-style challenges, though. Some indie companies focus on providing gameplay that's just plain fun. One of the most recent examples of this is Copenhagen Game Collective, a Danish developer who's known for thinking outside the box and delivering games such as B.U.T.T.O.N., which are more like group activities than full-on video games. Regardless of this, the art design and basic fundamentals are still rooted in video games, so they offer an inviting challenge that manages to engage gamers and non-gamers alike. When I first played B.U.T.T.O.N., it totally blew my mind because here was this inexpensive little download that was completely non-threatening but a sheer joy to play with my friends. It made me think that we need more party games like it because it's so unique and so compelling that almost anyone can enjoy it.

Another aspect that I, along with so many other gamers, can truly appreciate about indie games is their impressively low price threshold. You can snag an awesome indie title for anywhere between $5 and $15. Sometimes, you can even download an enjoyable indie game for free. And I'm not talking about the countless shitty Flash games you come across on the internet or those overrated Sonic fan games. No, I'm talking real video games like the aforementioned Mighty Jill Off, the quirky Alex Adventure, or the iconic Cave Story. These are games that play and feel like true console experiences, even if they may not have a major budget behind them. For the cost conscious or gamers who can't always spend a lot of cash, indie games are a godsend.

In all honesty, I can probably go on and on about why I love indie game development so much. The truth is I enjoy every aspect of it. I appreciate the dedication that these small companies put into their work. I like that these games are a throwback to the design standards of a nostalgia-inducing generation. I'm a fan of the underdog that rises up and overcomes all obstacles. Hell, I love the fact that the price is right and that I don't have to shell out $60 for an awesome game. Indie games and indie developers are a part of an industry that continues to grow, and they continue to grow right with it, all the while marching to the beat of their own drum and offering something unique, compelling, and totally kick-ass.

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