(I created the above illustration for an essay on crunch time. It sort of fits the themes of this little essay/review and since I’m too lazy/busy to do a new illustration specifically for this, I’m just re appropriating it. I’m very post modern.)
I finally got around to watching Indie Game: The Movie last night. It’s a documentary that follows the development of three big indie titles: Braid, Super Meat Boy and Fez (all three of which were sold on the Xbox Live Arcade). Super Meat Boy and Fez were both still in development during production of the film; Braid had been completed (and really served as the point of reference for the other two projects).
It’s a really fascinating documentary, one I highly recommend watching if you’re at all interested in game development (from either the video or tabletop sides of the spectrum). Oh yeah, it’s on Netflix Watch Instantly.
The movie was simultaneously inspiring and devastating. I found myself at various points in time with the urge to jump right back into games development and at other times thankful that I’m out.
At one point in the movie, one of the on-air interviewees (and I can’t recall who) posits that the turning point in the current state of the industry came when Valve (developers of the Half-Life games, the Portal games and the Team Fortress games [mods?]) debuted their digital distribution hub Steam. According to the interviewee, Valve claimed no allegiance to the traditional physical distribution hubs and with a big “fuck it” created Steam.
Personally, I’d argue that the turning point was subscription based MMOs. Once the consumer became comfortable with a game being an intangible (EverQuest and World of Warcraft were both games that were much, much bigger than the data you’d buy at the store), the other pieces fell into place.
What depressed me most about this movie is what sort of depressed me about the games industry in the ’90s and ’00s: the relentless grind of making games.
If there’s one issue that most defines videogame development it’s crunch time; the tectonic clash of time versus money. Videogames are developed along certain timelines dictated by market pressures (basically, most videogame titles are developed with schedules designed to fill holes in the publishers’ calendars; those calendars are written to accomodate certain patterns in consumer behavior [e.g. holiday shopping…]). To meet these often arbitrary timelines, developers are [often? usually?] forced to work long hours to complete projects. Unless they happen to be independently wealthy (or have unusually long leashes, given to them by past performance), developers are more-or-less obliged to do the bidding of publishers… they hold the purse strings!
What indie game development promised was a divorce from [what I consider] the dysfunctional relationship between development and external market pressure as imposed by a publisher. Divorced from the whims of physical retail and the expectations of ever-growing budgets, indie game development promised true artistic creativity! Arcadia!
After watching Indie Game: The Movie, that’s obviously not the case.
All of the developers featured in Indie Game: The Movie worked long, long thankless hours on their titles. All of them dealt with stress and depression. Instead of a dysfunctional relationship between development and external market pressure as imposed by a publisher, indie game development has created a dysfunctional relationship between development and external market pressure as imposed by lots and lots of micro-financiers.
And I’m not sure that’s any better.
In order to secure the funding to make indie games, we’re forcing developers to scramble about and find many smaller backers. (Either through micro finance sites like Kickstarter and Indie Go Go, or though traditional methods.) Developers are using social media to create buzz around their projects. In doing so, they’re also building up expectation, and if things go poorly, entitlement and disgruntledness. (Underline away, Chrome. That’s totally a word!)
I don’t know what a solution to this problem looks like. Federally funded arts grants? We have them for film and other countries have them for game development. Even that invites pressure. Imagine having to justify your creative endeavor to a leathery congressman worked up into a lather about looming cliffs of fiscality. Doesn’t sound too appealing to me.
So, go see Indie Game: The Movie. And add your voice to the discussion.
Addendum: I think Braid is genuinely beautiful and certainly worthy of all its praise. Super Meat Boy and Fez both look excellent (I haven’t played either yet, though I have SMB). My argument isn’t that the current state of indie game development can’t yield true artistry (it can! it has!) it’s that the model is unsustainable. Eventually those involved in the process will burn out and leave and games will be poorer for it.