Zeroing in: Treating indie developers with kid gloves

There seems to be a common misconception going around about independent game developers. More often than not, you see people all over the internet praising them for their ideas while simultaneously emphatically talking about how they did so much with so little. This may refer to the technology and resources indie devs have at their disposal, the amount of time they spend making their games, or the monetary funds they have available. Ultimately, it seems as though fans are both applauding indie efforts and dishing out insults in disguise.

It’s true that most of the time indie devs don’t have the same technology and funding as major publishers and developers. Companies such as Activision, EA, and Ubisoft among others are known for their huge reveals, cinematic trailers, and costly investments. Indie devs don’t have that luxury, but they also don’t need that luxury. Sure, a few million bucks would definitely go a long way in helping to create an impressive indie game, but that’s not what that particular spectrum of the industry is about. Indie games are about personal, meaningful, and heartfelt experiences that really reflect the developers’ intentions and spirit.

Thomas Was Alone - PC

Thomas Was Alone didn't have the biggest budget, but its art style, sound design, narrative, and gameplay were absolutely brilliant.

I recently watched an episode of Rev Rants, a now-defunct web series where Anthony Burch, who most recently was credited with writing Borderlands 2, discussed the topic of “indie mercy.” In his video, Burch talked about the skewed mentality of gamers who say things like, “Well, the graphics are pretty good for an indie game,” and, “The graphics aren’t that good, but it’s okay because it’s an indie game.” Those are probably two of the most insulting comments anyone could possibly ever make about an indie game. By approaching an indie endeavor with that mindset, individuals are already downplaying the efforts, abilities, and potential of said endeavor’s creator.

Indie developers don’t want to be seen as weaker game makers who make do with that they’ve got. They want to provide experiences that are unique and personal. To say that these developers “do the best they could” is insulting and harsh. What these developers do, in actuality, is work around their limitations and create experiences that they’re proud of. They don’t do the best they could; they do something that they want to do because it’s special to them and they want to share it with the world. Indie studios don’t have the same amount of resources as huge companies, but that doesn’t mean they want to be seen as inferior competitors to those companies.

A heated topic recently arose when Valve implemented a $100 fee to any developers attempting to get their game approved through Steam Greenlight. Detractors argued that asking these small studios – some of which consisted of five individuals or less – to pay up was an unfair strategy because “indie devs don’t have a lot of money.” These ignorant individuals brought classism into their argument, essentially saying that small studios shouldn’t have to pay money to get their games on Greenlight. To quote Danielle McMillen, wife of Super Meat Boy designer Edmund McMillen, “Bottom line about the Greenlight thing, if you can’t scrounge and save $100, you don’t have what it takes to achieve your goals anyway.”

Robox - Wii

While Robox boasted beautiful graphics, it suffered from poor controls and lackluster gameplay.

When people used classism as a point for their argument, the seemingly did so to come off as heroes, defending the indie devs that don’t have millions of dollars to create, launch, and sell their games. At the same time, these people brought up a topic that had absolutely no place in the matter. The Greenlight requirement of $100 wasn’t about class; it was about filtering out the garbage submissions that too many individuals had already begun submitting. Mike Bithell, the developer who brought us the brilliant Thomas Was Alone, explained his thoughts on the matter, saying, “I could understand criticisms of whether this is a good way to stop spam (I’m on the fence), but the idea that reactions to this problem define my economic politics, standing, or class makes zero sense to me.”

Bithell was one of many individuals who stated that this whole mess didn’t have anything to do with classism. A large majority of the detractors reacted by blindly saying that these folks felt that way because they were “rich” or “had a lot of money.” The funny thing is that a lot of people who were okay with the $100 fee (as well as those who didn’t make a big deal about it) were indie devs and indie game fans – people who understand that the independent side of the gaming industry isn’t exactly the wealthiest. By childishly resorting to “it’s because you’re rich” arguments, individuals took on the role of sanctimonious douchebags who thought they had a better moral understanding of the indie game industry.

Ultimately, these hypocritically pious people delivered an argument that was not only wrong, but insulting to indie devs. Studios that create independent content are well aware that they don’t have the biggest budget for their games; they don’t need people feeling sorry for them because that accomplishes absolutely nothing. If Indie Game: The Movie taught me anything, it’s that indie devs can rise to the occasion and overcome the odds. They can deliver a hell of a gaming experience that’s on par with content created by major publishers and developers.

Mighty Jill Off - PC

Mighty Jill Off can be beaten in 15 minutes, but its challenging gameplay, pleasant visuals, and refreshing plot make it a great example of a quality gaming experience at its finest.

And that brings me to my next point: Not every indie game out there is good. I adore indie games and developers and proudly have a vast library of downloaded titles from studios like Die Gute Fabrik, Smudged Cat Games, VBlank Entertainment, and Zeboyd Games to name a few. The content I’ve played from these developers is some of the most entertaining I could ever ask for, with games such as Where Is My Heart? and Retro City Rampage being among my favorite indie titles. But if a game has poor graphics, weak controls, and terrible gameplay, and people dismiss that because it’s indie, it’s not helping the industry get better, and it’s not helping the indie studio in question to improve and create better content.

Gamers need to understand that indie devs shouldn’t be treated like feeble individuals. They’re competent companies (for the most part) that work around their limitations and create content that’s different from what the major organizations are doing. They do things their way, and oftentimes they struggle. But they manage to jump the hurdles placed before them to give us, their audience, something unique and entertaining. Games like Johann Sebastian Joust, Hotline Miami, and Spelunky give us experiences that are different and completely unlike Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, and Mario. Is endearment toward indie devs  justified? Of course it is, because these folks rise above their hardships, work their asses off, and give us some great content. But by no means should any studio, no matter how big or how small, get a free ride. In the long run, any individual with a passion for making games will appreciate fair, honest, and insightful criticism.

Want to talk about indie games, Kirby, or cheap pizza? Follow me on Twitter @dr_davidsanchez.

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David Sanchez David Sanchez is the most honest man on the internet. You can trust him because he speaks in the third person.
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