Indie games aren’t just an artistic niche – this is where the industry’s creative and commercial future will be written
Since Microsoft’s unveiling of Xbox One earlier this week, the company and its shiny new device have been subjected to a number of different criticisms – some of which are a bit silly (“the name sucks!”), some of which deny the basic realities of the industry (“but I don’t want a console that does anything except games!”) but the majority of which are reasonable criticisms that will need to be addressed by deeds, not words, in the coming months.
One topic in particular stands out, because it’s become the subject of some slightly bitter argument within the industry and its associated commentators. In contrast with Sony’s highly developer-focused approach with PS4, Microsoft made no mention of indie or self-published titles during the Xbox One reveal, and in subsequent interviews confirmed that it’s going to remove the Xbox Live Arcade and Xbox Live Indie Games channels from the new consoles. Furthermore, it’s not going to allow any form of self-publishing on Xbox One; instead, it’s planning to work with publishing partners in the same way it always has.
In short, while Sony is making efforts to step back from its role as gatekeeper and knock down the walls around its garden (although it will no doubt still wish to maintain a quality control role), Microsoft is hiring new bouncers and re-grouting the brickwork. It’s an approach that runs contrary to the general trend in the industry, where strict curation is very much out of fashion; even Nintendo, usually the slowest of the platform holders to acknowledge wider cultural change in the industry, is now paying lip service to the notion of letting developers have more freedom on its platforms.
The counter to this, which I’ve seen expressed with varying degrees of force and occasional rudeness in the past few days, is that the sort of indie games that amount from opening up a platform are largely irrelevant. Most of the indie titles on the App Store or similar platforms are rubbish (that’s undeniable, though the rubbish titles quickly sink to the bottom of the heap and are never heard from again), and the minority that are interesting are really only of interest to a niche audience of soi-disant game connoisseurs. The implication is that there’s a slightly snobby hipster audience for this kind of game, but that their sense of self-importance is eclipsing the fact that what Real People actually want is exactly what Microsoft showed – FIFA and Call of Duty.
It’s a disingenuous argument, loaded with an ad-hominem sentiment about critics and indie game fans being disconnected from an audience that’s in some manner more Real than they are and swaddled in the sadly populist notion that liking non-mainstream things makes you an aloof “elitist”. Still, that’s how debate is conducted on the internet and I’m probably guilty of worse at times myself – so instead, let’s address the nugget of truth at the core of the argument. FIFA sells a bucketload of copies, as does Madden NFL. Call of Duty sells so many bucketloads that you’re definitely going to need more buckets. Isn’t indie stuff really just a sideshow – an irrelevance that the press likes to get excited about?
Helpfully, ironically, Microsoft provided the answer to that question in its own Xbox One presentation. In fact, it introduced the answer to that question in reverential tones, in a beat which was clearly meant to be one of the high points of the presentation.
The answer to that question is Steven Spielberg.
To be more accurate, the answer to that question is the generation of movie directors to which Spielberg belongs. Born during or just after the Second World War and coming to prominence in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, the “New Hollywood” generation spans the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Terence Malick, George Lucas and yes, Steven Spielberg. They’re a generation of directors who redefined what movies were and what Hollywood did – the language it used and the ways it engaged with its audiences. They’re also, it bears noting, a collection of the most commercially successful and wealthy creators of entertainment in history.
The New Hollywood generation came about because of two major movements. The first was film school. Most of these directors studied at film school, picking up on the emerging theoretical basis for film, criticising and analysing the work of earlier directors and engaging with the work of avant garde creators and foreign directors whose work had previously been obscure and unknown in the Anglophone world. The second movement that gave the New Hollywood generation a chance to change the world was a technological one. Their early experimentation with movie-making was made possible by the tumbling price and accessibility of 8mm cameras and film stock, while the rapid rise of television also gave many of them a chance to reach wide audiences without having to take the huge financial gamble of theatrical distribution. Spielberg himself made his early movies, including cult classic Duel, for TV rather than for theatres.
The parallels are relatively clear, I think. The New Hollywood directors were the generation who used technological progress to allow them to experiment with ideas that came from emerging critical theory and a wide swathe of international and niche influences, then used the shifting market itself to allow them to reach wide audiences with their work. This is the kind of exciting generation of creators that video games has been incubating in recent years. We’re at the cusp of seeing the emergence of the first generation of creators who have spoken fluently in the visual and interactive language of gaming since childhood; enabled by the accessibility of creative tools, inspired by the slowly coalescing critical theory of games and aware of potential and possibility for this medium which others simply haven’t tapped into.
Creatively, that’s important. Commercially, that’s absolutely vital. Remember that while Spielberg may have been engaged with a wide variety of niche interests which informed his work, his first full-budget theatrical feature was Jaws. George Lucas was obsessed with Akira Kurosawa’s foreign-language historical epics, but without that obsession – and the experience of making cult classic THX 1138 – he’d never have made Star Wars. We’re not just talking about a generation of creators who usurped the conventions of their artform to critical acclaim from snobby art types; we’re talking about a generation of creators who usurped their artform to create the modern blockbuster, and whose bank accounts frequently run into billions.
Is that the destiny of indie game creators? For some of them, ultimately, probably, yes. This combination of interactivity, visual art, audio, narrative and myriad other factors, this frankenmedia, is a very young artform and one whose conventions and ideas will be usurped many times in the coming years. Often, this will only happen to rapt applause from a niche group (but then again, if you have enough great niche titles on your platform that adds up to a very successful platform overall), but on occasion it will create a break-out, genre-defying title that’s also a blockbuster commercial success. Right now, Microsoft’s strict approach to gate-keeping is effectively saying that they don’t want the kind of people who make those games in its garden – or that it will only tolerate their presence once their game has already proved its commercial chops elsewhere.
Besides, in the rush to try to define the industry in terms of the niche audience of hipsters who like indie games stacked up against the teeming masses who just want football and man-shooters, we seem to have forgotten that those things aren’t mutually exclusive. The biggest FIFA fan in my life, painfully addicted to Ultimate Team, was enraptured by Journey. One of the regulars in my Xbox Live parties for several iterations of Call of Duty was someone who not only loves arty, thoughtful indie titles, he actually made a critically acclaimed one. There’s no cognitive dissonance to either of these people enjoying games from both sides of the divide; the flaw lies in the thinking which assumes that audiences are so easily shoved into pigeon holes. We’re all more complex than that, every member of the audience a one-person niche who won’t be wholly satisfied by the diet assigned to them by their emotionless assignation in a convenient demographic box.
In the end, though, the reason indie games actually matter, beyond any daft, invented culture war between “jocks” and “hipsters”, is because this is where the break-out hits of the future – and the creative forces that drive the video games of the future – are going to come from. In the end, Microsoft’s refusal to countenance a new business model for indie developers on its platform boils down to this; were Microsoft a movie studio, 50 years ago it would have been telling Steven Spielberg to take his 8mm camera and go home. You say “indie niche”; I say, “the future”