In light of July’s first-ever Love Indies Week, kicked off by Failbetter Games, we chatted this month about our relationships with indie games, the games we love, and what the industry could stand to improve on.
Love Indies Week encouraged players and creators of independent work to celebrate one another through giveaways and reviews. Because indie creators don’t have the budgets of AAA developers, reviews from consumers are incredibly important; Love Indies Week suggested that players take time to review games they love, while also celebrating the relationships built in small gaming communities. By making it a movement and an event rather than an ongoing suggestion, the event hopefully cultivated a stronger sense of community for indie devs and players.
Here’s a big, unwieldy question to start with: how do you define an indie game in a space that’s rapidly melding together? We’ve got big AAA studios making titles that feel indie, like Ubisoft’s Child of Light, and indie studios like Chucklefish both developing and publishing wildly successful games. Is there a line? Do you care?
Melissa Brinks: I wrote this question, so I guess it’s only fair for me to tackle it first. Steam and itch.io have made it easier for developers to reach audiences regardless of studio size; it doesn’t take an enormous budget to find an audience anymore. But that doesn’t mean indie development is easy, nor that AAA is going away. They are very different spheres of development that offer unique experiences depending on what you’re playing—which is not to say that there’s any kind of trait that’s common across indie games, other than maybe budget and team size and, to be honest, even that’s tricky at this point.
All I know is that I find the work of indie developers generally more interesting than that of AAA developers. When AAA companies throw money at indie studios, either really, really good things happen, or really, really bad ones. Would that this industry cared at all about like, longevity or burnout or not driving indie studios into the ground by rushing development schedules and hanging review scores over their heads.
Zainabb Hull: For me, indie games retain the sense that the creator(s) are primarily interested in getting their creative vision out to an audience. AAA games, even the ones that mimic some popular indie art styles or gameplay, usually feel like they’re primarily designed to make money. Like Melissa, I think there’s a lot of blurred lines and crossover between the look and feel of both indie and AAA titles, but I guess the latter always feel a little more soulless to me.
I’m only just learning about the indie studios that get bought up by AAA companies, and I think it’s really interesting to see how work gets diluted and chopped up through that process. Offering a big budget and more creative freedom could, in theory, help indie creators to dream bigger but, so far, I see that same prioritisation of profit, resulting in the burnout and ludicrous scheduling issues that Melissa mentioned.
Heather Wells: I agree with you both, for sure! I think for me the biggest defining factor between an indie game and, say, a AAA game, is resources—there are some indie games on the market that were made by one- or two-person teams, and that’s really amazing to me. That’s not all that makes an indie game, but from a pure numbers perspective, it’s studio size and resources, for sure.
This is a totally different twist on it, but I often find myself associating “short” with “indie” in my head. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, because like Melissa said, a lot of AAA game developers are making indie-like games, but for some reason I just can’t break that mental connection.
MB: That’s really interesting, Heather, and now that I think of it, I have the same association. AAA games are often super bloated with collectibles and multiplayer and meaningless side content to keep you playing, likely in part because players often have a really weird formula for enjoyment that boils down to: TIME / DOLLARS SPENT = ENJOYMENT.
Personally, I prefer shorter games because I have very little free time, and I tend to prefer indie games because I find them more interesting thematically, so now I have an association between indie games and length. I’m sure there are practical reasons for indie games generally being shorter, but short AAA games now feel more indie in a completely nonsense way for precisely that reason. Weird!
Are there any indie studios you’re particularly fond of?
MB: There are a few studios whose work I will always pick up—Fullbright, Star Maid Games, Failbetter—but that’s more of a rarity than a rule. There are a lot of studios with only one or two games out whose work I’m pretty invested in and will likely check out more of as they release, like Infinite Fall and Campo Santo, but I’m generally more interested in individual games than the work of studios as a whole.
As developers build a larger catalog of games, they tend to venture into directions I may not be as fond of, which is both good and natural. But that’s why it’s hard for me to have any kind of “brand loyalty,” though I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. The moment I develop intense loyalty is the moment I stop being able to evaluate games as what they are, rather than as pieces of a larger body of work—which, while not inherently bad, is something I’d like to preserve.
HW: Supergiant Games was one of the first indie game developers whose games I’d ever really played. Bastion was a huge deal for me when it first released—to this day, it’s the only game I beat and immediately restarted on the spot—and I’m always paying attention to what that team has going on next. Chucklefish Games has only put out Stardew Valley so far, but that game was another indie I had a really strong positive reaction to, and their next game is supposedly going to be, like, witch school or something? Cannot wait. Oh, and China Room, because their games are just so beautifully written that I’ll play anything they get writing credits on.
Did you participate in Love Indies Week? How?
ZH: I finally set up an itch.io account and downloaded No Response, which I’m excited to play when I get some free time this week. I’ve been using itch.io for a while and I’m hoping my shiny new account will help me find new recommendations and hidden gems.
MB: Unless kicking off (but not coming up with) this roundtable counts, unfortunately, no. I think it’s an admirable thing, especially because a few indie games tend to get picked up and celebrated while the rest kind of languish because games press can’t possibly pay attention to them all. Though I didn’t participate, it was nice to see so many people celebrating their favorite games.
HW: I actually hadn’t heard of Love Indies Week until my coworker mentioned he was going to be blogging about it every day that week. I love the idea! Outside of tossing around games to discuss with him, though, I didn’t do much to participate, although this round table has definitely got me wanting to revisit some old favorites.
What do you like about indie games? What don’t you like about indie games?
ZH: In my experience, indie games tend to be more experimental with gameplay, art, and structure. I prefer narrative-driven games and experiences that are invested in character, story, and emotion—both within the game and within the player. Night in the Woods is a great example of the kind of title that ticks all my boxes: broken characters, vaguely unsettling settings, light platforming, and exploration.
What I dislike about indie games are the same things I dislike about AAA titles: dull repetition, emotional detachment, and ugly artwork.
– Zainabb Hull
What I dislike about indie games are the same things I dislike about AAA titles: dull repetition, emotional detachment, and ugly artwork. In general, though, I find AAA titles are more likely to bore me. The indie gaming industry is a whole other topic, of course—there’s plenty I don’t like about that. Underpaid and underrepresented creators who often face little to no job security whatsoever; that’s a pretty major black mark.
MB: I have to echo everything Zainabb said. I love indie games because I love to see things done differently, and because I love story. Those are the areas where indies excel; without the huge budgets, indie developers experiment more and have unique ideas that don’t have to be watered down for mass appeal—though, to be fair, they struggle far more to succeed for exactly the same reasons. Exactly as Zainabb said, the parts of indie gaming that are most frustrating to me are the parts that mimic the industry as a whole, like the sheltering of abusers, the heinous work schedules, the prizing of “brilliant” but terrible straight white men over marginalized creators of any kind. But that’s why it’s so important to me that I celebrate the games that I love; there are marginalized creators making amazing work, and I want to see their games talked about as much as (preferably more than) those who get away with being shitty geniuses or whatever.
HW: Thirded! The variety of topics, the freedom to push the envelope in interesting ways, and the more approachable and friendly atmosphere surrounding indie games really appeals to me. Just look at the Sea of Solitude announcement at this year’s E3 and the sheer amount of emotion and passion present in Cornelia Geppert’s voice as she announced her game. That emotion and passion is why I love indie games and want to see them thrive.
What I don’t like is the sheer number of indie games that fall into the “2D puzzle platformer” category. Take a look through the indie games tag on Steam sometime and realize just how flooded the market is with 2D puzzle platformers. They might be perfectly fine games in their own right, but this oversaturation makes the industry start to lose that freedom and variety that made me love indie games in the first place. That and the pressure the industry puts on indie game devs to deliver as if they were AAA developers are the biggest bummers about indie games.
How do you find new indie games? Do you have particular people or outlets or curators whose recommendations you trust?
HW: The previously mentioned coworker, actually! He loves indie games more than anyone I’ve ever met, and he buys all of them. Always. Forever. Since I get the rundown from him after he beats them, I generally just go with what he suggests! I also really trust Austin Walker’s taste in games—he earned my trust during his Game of the Year deliberations at Giant Bomb a few years ago, and if he says a game is good, chances are I’ll also enjoy it.
MB: I follow a lot of indie game creators on Twitter and listen to a lot of podcasts, and those are great sources for games I might not otherwise hear about. It also helps that I read almost every press release on GamesPress.com for, you know, site-managing reasons. When it comes to games I actually pick up, I weigh who’s recommending the game (though I don’t have anybody whose taste always aligns with mine; I too enjoy Austin Walker’s recommendations and I enjoy listening to the folks of IndieComplete [I miss you, please come back!], and generally turning to friends for recommendations), the length, and my familiarity with the developer before I check something out.
I’m really picky, and my taste doesn’t always align with what’s considered good or necessary to play (guess who is probably never going to finish NieR: Automata?), so I’m trying to be more conservative about what I actually pick up. I also am consciously trying to be more experimental with what I pick up, because great as a lot of these games are, I don’t want to be adding to the cacophony celebrating, like, Gone Home. I love Gone Home! But maybe there’s another Gone Home out there that hasn’t been written about a whole bunch, including by me.
How do you think the indie games industry can improve over time to increase visibility, representation, and sustainability?
HW: Unionize. That’s really a thing for the entire game industry, but indie game developers face so many struggles without the resources to handle them. When developers aren’t killing themselves in a crunch to get a game out on a tight schedule, and when small indie teams have someone to support them and fight for them, the visibility, representation, and sustainability will follow suit, because more people will be able to break into the industry and actually make a living.
MB: YEP. YEP. YEP. I’m so grateful that there’s an increased movement to unionize the games industry, because it’s heartbreaking to see so many people get burned out or quit for financial reasons or any of the numerous other things that prevent game developers from continuing their work. Not every game will be a huge success, but the fact that people are destroying their bodies and minds to meet absurd standards with no protection from horrible business practices and abusive companies is unfathomable. Take a look through Game Workers Unite! to learn about ongoing efforts to support workers, and familiarize yourself with some of the harmful practices of this industry and the incredible pressure devs are under to succeed; these are things we should know about as consumers and actively try to fight however we can.
Also like, can we as a collective whole agree to stop promoting people we know are awful just because they are funny/smart/brilliant designers? I never want to hear the sentence, “Sure, he’s an asshole, but he’s such a good developer!” again. There are so many good developers who aren’t assholes being chased out of this industry (every industry) because of people who are abusive, exploitative, or just regular ol’ mean. Instead of continuing to celebrate them, why don’t we take a little time to promote the work of a creator who, y’know, isn’t a big scumbag instead?
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.