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Independency: The Pros and Cons of Going Indie

Column By Lisa Jonte on May 22, 2013

There’s no doubt about it, independent games are everywhere; so common that it seems  you can’t sling a dead meme without hitting one these days. And it must be acknowledged, that there are some definite perks to going the indie route, for both creators and players. However, it must also be acknowledged that there are some definite pitfalls as well.

What are some of those pros and cons, you ask? Well, I have a few here…

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CREATOR PROS

Total creative freedom: for a game creating crew, (or really anyone in a creative field) this is the Big One. Be they young and idealistic, or ever-so-slightly road worn, the siren song of doing exactly what you want with your creation has enormous pull. To make a living at what you love, and to do it without the sacrifice of artistic vision and integrity is the Holy Grail of the creative industry. Sadly, thanks to the lure of paying one’s rent and eating regular meals, the temptation to “sell out” becomes difficult to resist, and indy creators often feel compelled to either seek a corporate partnership, or worse, get a day job. Total creative freedom is rarely achieved, or maintained. 

Lack of name recognition: While you might not immediately think of this as a plus, having a new game come from a studio that isn’t tied to a known brand can actually help. By being a relatively unknown quantity, new games aren’t tarred with the brush of a name brand’s failures or bad PR. They’re a blank slate, with all their public mistakes still ahead of them. Wrapped in that cloak of public anonymity, indy creators are free to make their own name in the larger industry.

CREATOR CONS

Potential lack of editorial oversight: The difficult thing with indy houses is that the creative team is often a small one. And when everyone on board is overseeing a number of different tasks, it’s inevitable that some of those tasks just aren’t going to be done as well as they could or should be. A coder isn’t necessarily going to be any good at character design. A character designer isn’t necessarily going to be any good at community management. A community manager isn’t necessarily going to be any good at writing dialogue or world lore. There’s a reason why big game publishers have so many people on staff, and it isn’t because they’re too nice to fire anyone.

Things can spiral even further out of control when those indy game creative-types are called on to take care of the business end of things, like bookkeeping, payroll, taxes, advertising (which is a multi-headed beast in and of itself), etc…

The Danger of Overreaching: When one runs one’s own shop, especially a shop based on creative dreams and aspirations, there can be an unfortunate tendency to try and achieve all of one’s fantasy goals in one go. First-time authors are often plagued with this; overwhelmed with the reality of finally being published (and secretly afraid that it will never happen again) they succumb to Too Many Ideas Syndrome. Alas, a game that tries to shoehorn in an entire catalogue of, “wouldn’t it be cool if…” options, is likely to lack focus and as a result, lose its audience.

Potential lack of funding: Crowd-sourcing has opened up whole new worlds for the independent creator, but that crowd is quixotic, and often the funding just doesn’t come. Moreover, that funding which seemed limitless early on is easy to squander. When that happens, (or is perceived to have happened) any goodwill you might have had in the community dries up and their donations dry up with it. Without a constant, dependable stream of funding, game companies (indeed, all companies) dry up and blow away.

Lack of name recognition: While not being tied to a brand’s failures can be freeing, not having the heft of that name brand’s successes can be a drag. Along the lines of, “No publicity is bad publicity.” even the notoriety of an infamous corporate backer can give a game a visibility-based leg-up. Say what you will about companies like EA, horrendous public missteps aside, they still have a significant industry presence and market share.

PLAYER PROS

The field is wide open: Indy creators are free to think outside the fetch-quest, and innovate. This gives players the chance to play games that would never have passed the usual, careful and risk-averse corporate approval gauntlet.

Easier access to the game’s creators: With small, independent start-ups, players have a much greater chance to get closer to the game devs than any corporate machine would allow. This allows for the giving and getting of more direct and immediate feedback. A community that springs up as part of the development process (rather than after the fact) can be an enormous factor in players’ enjoyment of that game. Moreover, the relationship can be mutually beneficial to both players and game company, as an involved community (that feels its input is valued) can also be a major force in that game’s continued existence.

PLAYER CONS

Potential lack of professionalism: There’s a reason why corporations employ people specifically to intercede between the production team and the public. When dealing so closely with indy game developers, especially early on, without the benefit of community managers and forum mods, there’s plenty of chance for communications to go awry. Again, the creative genius behind the code is not necessarily going to be as adept at dealing with message board encounters as s/he is at designing instanced encounters. All it takes is one unfortunate argument to start a flame war or sour a player’s experience, if not an entire community’s.

Instability: Lack of predictable funding/support means that a game can vanish, often without warning, effectively tossing players’ collective efforts and investments of time, effort and money into the dumper. Even corporate funding isn’t a guarantee against a shut-down. So indie gamers have to be even more guarded against the possibility that their present favorite might suddenly become a thing of the past.  

Well, that’s it for now. Have some thoughts of your own? Think I missed something? Have your say in the comments!

All images are copyright free, via Wikimedia Commons.


Lisa Jonte / Mother, writer, artist, editor. One time (print and web) comics creator, and former editor of the fem-centric GirlAMatic.com; now a secretive and hermit-like prose writer, (and not so secretive nor hermit-like blogger.) A gamer since way back, (no, seriously, waaaay back) her collection of gaming paraphernalia is older than most game store clerks.

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