* “mainstream” avec scare quotes – AAA, big budget, core gamer games – whether that’s even remotely “mainstream” is another discussion.
Some of us in the game industry have a secret. We do our profession’s equivalent of putting on a bat mask, going out at night and jumping around rooftops chasing bad guys. The reasons vary – all I can speak about here is what fuels my particular passion, and how it’s changed my outlook for the better.
The big budgets that define modern AAA development often put developers at odds with their own tastes. How many times have you heard some variation on “That would be cool, but it’d never sell”? Whether you hear that more as the voice of the devil himself or simple fiscal responsibility – the point is, devs can’t always run with the ideas that interest them most.
All that changes when you go home at the end of the day and slave over a hot debugger, on your own idea, of your own accord. Your primary motivator becomes your passion for the idea. This can transform your creative perspective completely. Often you’re making the game because it doesn’t exist yet, and you want desperately to play it. Artistic impulses don’t get much more simple and powerful than that. Can you imagine Dwarf Fortress coming into existence by any other means?
Creativity Within (Significant!) Limitations
The flip side to all that warm fuzziness is that you’re only one person, facing down an enormous, unknowable mountain of work, with no guarantee of success at the end of it all. If you get stuck on a tough programming problem for a few days, your project makes zero progress until you resolve it. If you’re collaborating with other folks for code or content, you’re depending on them to share your vision and enthusiasm, otherwise the whole thing falls apart.
This isn’t all bad though. Limitations define all creativity, and some truly amazing works have arisen from the most formidable of limitations. A good independent project embraces this. It pushes you in directions you might never have considered otherwise. It forces you to overturn assumptions and make creative use of your scant resources. There have been major artistic movements, such as the French New Wave of cinema, that have flourished by adopting constraints to better serve their focus.
Discourages the Use of Production Value as a Crutch
Modern games usually have a lot of content in them. Millions of dollars worth, generated by dozens of people over multiple years. You don’t have to be a jaded industry cynic to agree that it’s very easy to cover up a mediocre game design with all that content.
When you step into indie-land this crutch is kicked mercilessly from under you. You probably can’t make an epic story in an epic world with 100 hours of gameplay. That’s fine. There are billions of potential good games out there with none of these things and more of them need to be made.
Separation of Art and Commerce
I believe that every developer, mainstream and otherwise, has a long-term duty to both expand and sustain this medium. With lots of money on the line, however, most projects end up being much more about sustaining (namely, the company’s cash reserves) than expanding (namely, artistic boundaries).
Point being, big budgets and risk aversion go hand in hand. However as many have observed before, indie games can serve as the proving ground for ideas that could never gain a foothold in the mainstream industry. The pragmatic argument is simply that having one versus zero outlets for unproven ideas gives Art a better chance of flourishing alongside Commerce.
The student project called Narbacular Drop turning into the polished and highly acclaimed Portal is a very condensed, direct example of this effect in action. It all started with some students digging into a concept they found fascinating.
Conditions You to Many Small, Brief, Instructive Failures
You know what’s really scary about mainstream development? Sometimes you have to wait 2+ years to find out if you were wrong about an idea. The tech and content requirements of a design element take so long to come online, in the worst cases you’re committed to the idea even if the end result is highly flawed.
Conversely, you won’t get very far in indie development without learning how to “strangle your babies” – being the first and most unforgiving critic of your own ideas. You’ll learn to avoid becoming emotionally attached to ideas that aren’t panning out. Small scale ideas with iteration times of a day or less mean you can rapidly improve your sense for what works and what doesn’t. Will Wright said it best: “… Some of the most effective education is failure-based.”
Implementation Keeps You Honest
If your day job is a lead position, you may share my mortal fear of losing touch with folks in the trenches. There are plenty of ways to avoid this within the workplace, but making something yourself – having to think through the implications of everything, being reminded of all the little snags and technical compromises along the way – is also a great way to break down those barriers. The common term for this is “getting back to your roots”. I strongly endorse it.
Less Politicized, More Direct Interaction with Your Audience
If you’ve worked on an even remotely high-profile game, you know how scary it can be to have untold numbers of folks out there in internet-land who will be, with varying amounts of vitriol, unhappy if you mangle their baby or even just defy their expectations. This can do tremendous damage to your motivation and optimism.
Certainly this can still be the case on an indie project. But the odds are much higher that communities like the TIGsource forums will be a receptive, helpful audience for your efforts.
You know, I’d love to write more, but I really need to get back to work on my game. It’s callin’ my name! Hope this has been useful.