Mike Bithell on Why Indie Isn't Indie Anymore

By Leon Hurley on at

Crowd sourcing, Early Access and shifts in technology are changing what we perceive as 'indie'. Where once it was a coverall term for more experimental and creative projects, its games have broadened their reach. An indie game can just as easily be an innovative oddity as a crowd pleaser, and in some cases make the kind of money that would make EA execs spit-take across the boardroom table.

It's that width of potential and variety that's led Bithell to abandon the term altogether. "For me it's just a game. I don't tend to use the indie label anymore because there are value judgments built into it that I don't really agree with. I don't think it matters, we're all devs". In the past 'indie' told you what to expect, a word that often meant 'not like the others' but Bithell thinks that, as the scope broadens and gamers become more aware, the term "gets less useful".

If the term's no longer applicable then indie only has itself to blame. In a good way. "The brilliant thing about indie was that it led creativity and variety," says Bithell. "The second you have a genre that is creative and varied it almost kills itself because stuff moves beyond the remit". As soon as a movement has the potential to be anything, the first thing it becomes is something else. "We all got bored of puzzle platformers and started doing different things. If you look at The Witness, Volume or Nuclear Throne, and all these games, there’s not a shared genre they all belong to".

"If you look at The Witness, Volume or Nuclear Throne, and all these games, there’s not a shared genre they all belong to"

This isn't just a natural evolution, it's the result of changes in the cost and accessibility of development. Rewind 10 years ago and game making was harder and far more impenetrable; a few 'ordinary' people might makes games, but it was an exception rather than the norm. Specialist programming environments, knowledge and equipment, and the lack of free training from platforms like YouTube made it a difficult door to walk through. Cut to present day and, chances are, at least one of your friends has dabbled in something like Game Maker or Unity.

shot_2013.01.03__time_17_05_n01 The Witness, by Braid creator Jonathan Blow.

"You've always been able to make a game on a PC with some software", explains Bithel, "what's happened is the accessibility of those tools have got better. So you have something like Twine where someone who’s never made a game can learn how to make a Twine game in half an hour. That's amazing. That's reaching word processor in terms of approachability. And just like a word processor it doesn't mean you're going to become Stephen King. You're not going to sit down at Word and write the great American novel first time. But the tool is available and that will mean that, like writing, more varied voices will be heard."

The amount of money involved does still currently makes a difference. The example Bithell gives is of that between something like a Flash game and a £60 million open-world title, but "the scale of difference that money buys you in development is shrinking", he says. Highlighting Volume he adds: "I don't want to boast about my own stuff but this is a cheap game that looks, not as good as a triple A game, but it's edging into the same category visually".

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More people can now make games. It's easier. It's cheaper. "That's powerful", states Bithell, "that's a democratisation, that's a very cool powerful thing". And publishers have noticed with companies like Team 17 and Square Enix launching various initiatives or programmes to cash in on this smaller production line. "It’s a new publishing model", he says, "the return on investment is so high. If you're a triple A studio and you put 600 people on a project and it makes Assassin’s Creed money that's brilliant. But if I'm in one of those studios I'd be looking at the money made by indies. I’m not top tier but if you look at the top tier indies they make ridiculous amounts. If I had five of those people on a thing, it wouldn't make Assassin's Creed money but the return per head? You put three years into a game and it makes that sort of money for a team of two or three people - [publishers] have to be looking at thinking there’s something we can use here".

An issue in the past was that small devs simply didn't need help: "A lot of these publishers are looking at the indie space and realising we don’t need their money, because we’re either self publishing small games or we have legacy money from other games". However, in the modern space, where something like Nidhogg can access the same digital retail environment as Call Of Duty publishers do have one crucial advantage over indies: "We’re shit at QA, marketing; all these things that publishers used to do for every game," admits Bithell.

"Publishers will come back as a service industry. They’re not the bosses anymore, they’re providing services to those of us that need them"

In the past, dealing with a publisher meant both money to fund development and help with promotion. The obvious downside usually involved handing over a controlling interest in return. With more smaller studios making games (and more importantly having success) without publisher involvement, the money has been removed from the equation. Without it, says Bithell, that just leaves publishers to "provide the marketing support and visibility" and could spell a future where, "publishers will come back as a service industry. They’re not the bosses anymore, they’re providing services to those of us that need them".

What that future will ultimately become remains to be seen. But a niche that can hold things like Minecraft or Star Citizen at one end and Super Time Force and Luftrausers at the other isn't really a niche anymore. It's a canyon. And it certainly can't be contained by one word. Somethings may never change however. "I am still a bloke sitting around in a room" muses Bithell. "I just Skype a bit".

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