Alrighty, here’s one of the posts where I talk about my half-baked and reactionary thoughts of the moment, and then everyone gets their panties in a bundle, and then later I change my mind, and everyone calls me a hypocrite, and it haunts me for the rest of my life. With that caveat, I’d just like to say that Alien Hominid represents a major turning point in the development of “independent games”, and I don’t mean that in the good way everyone else does.
To me, “independent” means “DIY”; it means someone holding down a day-job, or being a full-time student, or (worst of all) living in their mom’s basement, while pursuing their passion, “begging, borrowing, and stealing”, and wearing all or most of the hats, because they can’t afford to hire anyone else. In the end, after they’ve poured their blood, sweat and tears into the project, they have something that’s truly their own, and literally “independent”, because they didn’t depend on anyone else to make it happen. To me, it means Robert Rodriguez making El Mariachi, which he funded by volunteering for medical experiments, or Pixel taking five years to make Cave Story, because he was holding down a full-time job and raising a family at the same time. Independent comics hold true to that ideal, as does most independent music. Independent movies, however, are rarely anything even approaching “independent”, and I’m worried that independent games are headed that same way.
The first “independent movie” I remember hearing about was Reservior Dogs, which cost $1.2 million and starred Harvey Keitel. Did Quentin Tarantino save up that $1.2 million while working as a video store clerk? Did he cut a deal with Keitel to waive his late fees if he’d star in his movie? It’s a great movie, and Tarantino’s a talented guy, but there’s really nothing “independent” about it. Call it “low budget”, but not “independent”. Likewise with Sundance and Cannes, the “independent” film festivals that primarily show multi-million-dollar “independent” films, and are closed to the general public.
So here’s the crux of the biscuit: as a literally “independent” game developer, who has a full-time job and has to save up his own money for any expenses incurred in making games, it made me angry that Alien Hominid was not only accepted into, but also won HALF of the awards at The 2005 Independent Games Festival. Just like Reservoir Dogs, I think Alien Hominid is an awesome game, and Dan Paladin and Tom Fulp are very talented guys. But also like Reservoir Dogs, the game cost $1.3 million to develop, which was financed by a production company that broke off from Capcom, and financed full-time jobs for Tom and Dan to work on the game. Gish, which won two of the other three awards, had a budget of $5,000. That’s one two-hundred-and-sixtieth of Alien Homind‘s budget. The main draw of the IGF for many entrants is that the winners get A WHOLE THOUSAND DOLLARS, which means a lot when your game cost $5,000 of your own hard-earned money to make. When your game cost $1.3 million to make and was financed by an external company, that “IGF Winner” is just another logo to put on the cover of the game, just like the “Sundance Select” and “Palme d’Or” logos on DVD cases. It also sets a very nasty “whoever spends the most money wins” precedent that drives away potentially-great but low-budget games. If the IGF wants to become the Sundance of games, then I guess that’s their perrogative, but I was really hoping it would lean more towards Tromadance. Maybe that task will fall to one of the other members of the “indy games” community like TIGSource or GameTunnel. This year, in a fit of supreme optimism, I submitted my own $1,000-budget game to the IGF competition, in the hopes that Alien Hominid was just a fluke and this year the competition might be a little more… you know, “independent”. I know that I, just like the entrants last year, certainly couldn’t compete with a $1.3 million game, but I feel I have a fighting chance if the other competitors are in the same general budget-range as me.
At this point, one of the following things will happen:
- The Utopian Scenario: The indy gaming scene will realize that when their indy gaming friends make it big, they’re still their friends but they’re no longer indy. Dan Paladin and Tom Fulp both contributed a lot to the indy gaming scene before they made it big, just like Tarantino contributed a lot to the indy movie scene when he was working in a video store and teaching amateur filmmaking classes in his spare time. In fact, I think that in time Dan and Tom will be seen as “the Quentin Tarantinos” of indy gaming, especially if they use their newfound powers to continue to help their “still indy” friends (which New Grounds certainly does). The indy gaming scene will adjust, and indy games will return to their “independent” roots. When the next Alien Hominid shoots an indy developer into “the big time”, we’ll all see him off at the docks of Indy Gaming Island and wish him well now that he’s no longer “just indy”.
- The Dystopian Scenario: Things will continue toward the independent movie model, every major game company will start their own “independent” arm that makes games on “only $10 million each”, and everything under that will be “hobbyware” that players will expect to be completely free because, after all, you spent less to make it than even an “independent” game. When’s the last time you paid money to see a movie with a “less than independent” budget? That’s what I’m talking about.
- The *topian Scenario: It’s possible under both of the above scenarios that the term “independent game” will come to mean medium-budget, break-out games like Alien Hominid, and some other term will start being used to describe most of what is currently indy, like “garage” or “doujin”. At that point things will return to normal, and there will just be a new tier of game budgeting.
- The Killer Robots Scenario: I will receive the designs for an unstoppable robot army in a dream, think it’s actually just a really cool case mod, build it, and eradicate all human life completely by accident.
The future of indy gaming is in your hands!!! (cue rock music)
Wow, that was a lot longer than I thought it would be.
Update: A while after I wrote this article, I found this article by Ian Bogost, in which he clarifies that The Behemoth crew actually did finance that $1.3 million themselves by selling one of their houses, and mortgaging another (and probably dipping into New Grounds’ profits). This certainly defuses a lot of the arguments in this article, and puts them well within the traditional definition of “independent”, but I thought I should leave this article up anyway, since it still illuminates the HUGE disparity among the “indie gaming scene”.