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The Indie Singularity

Red Thomas Posted:
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It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.  The promise hinted at by games like Ultima Online and EverQuest had been promptly followed by a decade and a half of industry-enforced entropy.  Then, like the hammer-wielding heroine from Apple’s iconic Super Bowl XVIII commercial, Minecraft came sprinting out of nowhere to crack the face of established mediocrity.

Most in the gaming industry missed the significance of the event, but looking back, the importance seems obvious.  The instant he decided to embark on creating the game, was the moment that Notch put the power-house developers and publishers on notice.  Your time has passed.  We are coming.

Like many revolutions, this was slow to take off, and then there came a day when you looked up and realized you stood amidst one of those world-shaking events.  I’ve sort of seen the writing on the wall, and I’ve certainly done my share of proselytizing on the impending event over the last few years.  Then, last week I got a call from Jacques Rossouw from NeoJac Entertainment.

Jacques and a few of his colleagues decided a while back they wanted to build a game their way, and like most hardcore geeks, they decided to do it ground up when they couldn’t find another engine they liked for the right price.  That was the genesis of their Atavism engine for handling the backend of running MMOs, the professionally developed package which has now has been put on Steam Greenlight.

Why is this a big deal?  Because this software is already being used by over 150 different companies to develop their own MMOs, and now it’s likely going to be made available through Steam.  Maybe it doesn’t seem as big a deal at first glance, but think about it.

This means that established professionals in the gaming industry are recognizing the power and momentum of the indie movement.  More importantly, some of these professionals want to support that growing movement, and appreciate the innovation it heralds.

Neos Land is being built with the same backend technology now up on Steam’s Greenlight.

NeoJac isn’t the only company out there to note the power of the people, either.  Planetary Annihilation, Star Citizen, Shroud of the Avatar, and plenty of others have turned to the crowdfunding model to build their games.  In part, it’s because games like Star Citizen and Minecraft have demonstrated how financially viable it is, but I think there’s also more to it.

For years, developers have complained about the restraints put on them by the publishers and associated venture capitalists, who exert considerable control over development because it’s made with their money.  Crowdfunding instead ties the game’s financial success directly to creating something the players want, rather than something that’s “accessible” to as many players as possible, and this is a very good thing.  It allows developers to take chances and innovate new ideas like they never would have been able to do under a more traditional funding model.

Star Citizen has certainly shown how effective the model can be, and done so in a lot of ways.  For instance, I’ve visited their Austin facility a number of times, and I’m always stuck by how much feedback they’re processing from the fans.  By making crowdfunding a part of their model, they included fans in development much earlier than they would have otherwise, and the difference shows.  Developers can make immediate changes to game design and mechanics based on backers’ feedback, and do it at a point in the development cycle when it’s much more cost-effective.  That means more fan-concerns are addressed, and the game should release with much less risk of game-breaking design flaws. (Yes, even Chris Roberts sometimes makes mistakes, folks.)

I think it also forces the developer to really think about what they’re spending money on.  One of the results of that is smaller teams, composed of more high-impact individuals.  Richard Garriott mentioned in his Game Infomer interview that he felt development teams were getting smaller, and that it’s a very good thing for the industry.  Smaller teams mean more excited members, and that results in a more energized development cycle for the game.  The net result of which is full of all sorts of win.

On the subject of Richard Garriott, the rise in indie development has created something else that the guys at Portalarium are taking advantage of, crowdsourcing.  Chris Roberts has mentioned that there will be a crowdsource opportunity towards the end of Star Citizen’s initial development, but Shroud of the Avatar is doing it now.  Richard often proudly points out the fact that SotA already includes elements developed for the game by the community, rather than staffed developers.  In some cases, it’s environmental elements such as artwork or a player-designed camp.

Even cooler, players are creating some major game elements, as well.  Players have designed the system for creating custom arms and worked with the developers to create a method for importing those arms into the game.  Other players have created music or written prose and poetry that will be included in the game as in-game cultural elements.  All are things that serve to make the game deeper and richer, but will cost the team a fraction of what it would to do the same thing internally.

Shroud of the Avatar even offers tutorial videos for backers who want to contribute.

I would submit that the rise of all these great new ideas in crowdsourcing and crowdfunding are directly tied to the rise of the indie market.  Maybe Shroud of the Avatar isn’t exactly indie since it has a team of professional developers, and Star Citizen certainly left the label on the wayside several million dollars ago, but both are hugely benefitting from the indie movement and community.  They also serve to highlight how significant that movement has become.

The film industry has long benefited from creativity sourced from an active indie community, and it’s about time the game industry had the chance to do the same.  Indie games are where new ideas get tested and improved, and it’s where the everyday Joe has a chance to build something great.

Part of that opportunity requires the tools to assist in creating greatness, and that’s why I like a lot of the things I’m seeing on Steam and in other communities around the internet.  Indie film makers have access to a lot of the professional film and sound editing tools that the major film industry uses.  Small software developers can access the same IDAs and testing suites that major developers use.  Thanks to NeoJac, Unity, and the host of other developers making their tools more available to the indie developers, rising game studios have the some of the same opportunities as well.  That’s the sort of thing that immediately went through my head while Jacques was telling me about their product being added to the Steam Greenlight initiative.

Goats will set you on fire and watch you burn. #GoArmy

It’s a seriously good move because that’s the sort of thing that creates a wealth of talent available for larger studios to hire, making all our games better in the long run.  It provides for and improves the technical capabilities among the fan-base of games like Shroud of the Avatar that aid so much in the development of a great game.  It also helps expand that fertile idea-generating ground that will help define the next decade and a half of game development.

Let’s face it.  If it weren’t for the indie community, we’d have never had the awesomeness that is Goat Simulator.  Could you even imagine a world where that doesn’t exist as a possibility?  I know I don’t want to.  Well, I guess other than goats.  They probably don’t like it as much.   So don’t be like goats.  Support your local indie development, if for no other reason that it’ll make for cooler games on down the road.  Plus, you never know when you’ll be playing the next big hit that no one has yet to hear of.


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.