The Post-GDC Indie Divide

by Scott Nichols

GDC 2013 illuminated an interesting trend in the games industry, specifically among indie developers. A divide in the indie community has become more prevalent, perhaps in part because of us (I include myself at fault here) thinking of “indie community” as some unified thing when that term is woefully inadequate for the sheer variety of what is happening in games.

In any case, Cliff Bleszinski astutely pointed out the divide in a blog post, which essentially characterizes the two most vocal sides as optimism and anger. I actually agree with that assessment in those terms, and I also agree with how the optimism angle is described.

“There’s this wonderful, organic, beautiful movement going on in the indie game space. The buzz is intense and all of those developers who have struggled for years to make personal projects, projects that push the envelope in unique ways, projects that are outside the norm.”

However, the other half of the equation has a more problematic description, attributed to having an “utter loathing and disdain for all things mainstream and triple A.” To his credit, Mr. Bleszinski admits that he doesn’t understand the anger. Targeting triple-A games is part of it, certainly, and I can see how someone could confuse it solely as that, but that is also a misunderstanding of where the loathing and disdain are actually directed.

To understand where the ire is aimed we need to first understand who this second group of indie developers are. These are the disenfranchised developers. Queer developers, women developers, people of color developers. This is the Twine movement and a desire to see video games live up to their potential to tell more diverse stories and be used more often as an autobiographical form by a wide range of creators and life experiences.

When Andy Schatz talks about the rise of indie developers during the IGF awards and that “the system we’re fighting kind of likes us now,” he is quite right in one sense. In an industry sense, being indie is “in.” Self-publishing is getting easier on Sony and Nintendo consoles by the day, and Steam’s top-selling list consistently includes indies right along with the triple-A. It’s also not uncommon at GDC to watch as developers at established studios gush praise for indies. It was difficult to talk to some developers without an almost envious adoration for FTL, Kentucky Route Zero, Cart Life, Gone Home, or 140 getting mentioned at some point. If the “system we’re fighting” refers to the general marketplace and publisher culture, yes, indies have made tremendous strides and will only continue to expand in the coming years.

But for the group of developers who are often portrayed as simply being angry and bitter, the “system we’re fighting” is a bit different. It’s a fight against established social systems and attitudes that they are more interested in, and games become the perfect weapon in that fight through their ability to build empathy through interaction. It is an area where the industry, and culture as a whole, have not made huge strides, and so the “indies are on the top of the world!” celebration seems premature in that context.

Other indies are not immune from criticism in this context, so it is definitely not a matter of being anti-triple-A; though triple-A games are the most frequent offenders in that area. Indies that are seen as “projects that push the envelope in unique ways, projects that are outside the norm,” will usually still be based on prevailing gameplay conventions. For example, 140 is an innovative rhythm platformer that is amazing for how it incorporates the beat of the music into jump timing and platform movements, but the actual platforming and level layouts are still fairly standard for the genre. That doesn’t make it bad, I totally think it deserved the audio award for how it all comes together, but to a certain perspective that firm adherence to convention at its core could make it less interesting, and that is totally fair.

(Just to be clear, I haven’t actually seen anyone say anything negative about 140, I’m just using it as a hypothetical because I’ve got that game on the brain after GDC and am blanking on remembering any specific arguments people have made.)

As for where my own opinion on this phenomenon sits, I love all of it. I love that the industry is expanding and shifting toward a more independent model. Triple-A won’t be going away, which is also great, but the greater accessibility to tools and distribution for indies is healthy and necessary for games to grow as an industry and avoid another crash.

At the same time, I love that there are developers addressing more serious social issues through games, because there is a ton of work still to do in that area. They have entirely legitimate concerns with how the industry still operates, especially in terms of diversity, and to simply write them off as angry at triple-A games does every game creator a disservice. I also have an optimistic streak in me, so I want to believe that the expanding of indie games will lead to more games like Lim and Dys4ia. And watch Twine, because that scene is on the cusp of exploding into more mainstream consciousness and becoming the new 2D pixel-art platformer of the industry.

I believe that there is room in the industry for all of this, and that each perspective of developer can learn from the others. But first we need to understand what those perspectives are, which is why I wrote this in response to someone who didn’t seem to understand that. It is also entirely possible that I’ve misinterpreted some perspectives, and I welcome a response from anyone correcting me. This is just how I saw the trend at GDC, and it makes me think video games are heading in an interesting direction. I am very excited to be a part of it as it all unfolds.