With the nightmarish logistics labyrinth that is distribution no longer a concern thanks to the rise of digital services, amateur hobbyists that would've never dreamed of their code leaving their mothers' basements suddenly have a potential audience of millions for their avant-garde 2D platforming experiment about a young boy who symbolically discovers the meaning of life by getting all his limbs broken and his head smashed repeatedly by Cthulhu's massive iron dick.
But then, that's the thing. When I say "indie game," you probably think "2D." It's not difficult to understand why; as arguably the most complex form of creative expression yet, it takes a wide array of specialized skills and gonzo amounts of time to make even the simplest, crudest, basic-est, and underfunded-est of modern videogames. Where one or two people could theoretically pump out a trashy novella or two-minute pop-song with only a little more than a meager knowledge of writing or music, developing anything more complex than a Doodle Jump clone requires knowledge of and skill with 1. Programming and Logic, 2. Visual Art and Animation, 3. Audio Design and Musical Composition, and, of course, 4. Game Design.
There are people who can slide between each of these roles seamlessly and effortlessly. There are far more who can't. If the programming prodigy isn't lucky enough to know a competent sprite artist, he either needs to spend money on hiring one or reconsider his career choices, working directly against the advantage that the recent removal of 5. Shite-Loads of Money for Distribution has provided. Add an extra dimension to the mix, and the challenges and costs launch headfirst into the stratosphere.
And it's less than half of the next Battlefield's marketing budget!
The fact that film was suffering from similar restrictions -- good luck if you don't have access to giant-ass cameras, expensive microphones, and such annoyances -- shows to me what I believe is the last key ingredient for a thriving, successful independent scene: the handheld camcorder. All the complexities, technologies, and idiosyncrasies of the medium reduced into an easy-to-use device. A teenage undergrad with a good eye for angles and a couple of theater buddies can now take serviceable stabs at full-on movies. While they'd never be mistaken for a multi-billion-dollar CG blockbuster, there's enough available to create something meaningful and layered for a fraction of the cost and time investment, especially when combined with readily available commercial editors.
Thanks surely in part to the fact that this generation has dragged on longer than a Sunday sermon led by Kristen Stewart doing her best Keanu Reeves impersonation, developers are already taking steps toward this idea of streamlining and simplifying the process. Last year's delightful Rayman Origins looked as crisp, vibrant, and animated as it did through use of the proprietary UbiArt framework, which allowed its artists -- many of who had zero game development experience -- to simply draw, test, and draw some more. And one of the upcoming Unreal Engine 4's big selling points is how quickly developers can implement and iterate on ideas, with its fully dynamic lighting and visually-oriented scripting models cutting back on the abstract and arcane voodoo standing between ideas and working systems.
A behind-the-scenes look at one of today's most bleeding-edge design interfaces.
With rumors abounding that the next Xbox and PlayStation won't provide nearly as big a technological leap as the previous ones, I can't help but feel that speed and agility, rather than power and strength, will be the defining improvements this go around. And with Epic and Crytek already having released free-to-use versions of their flagship current-gen engines, the implications for independent development are nothing but positive.
While it's too early to be throwing balloons into the air and planning my upcoming masterpiece Ultra-ShootDeath Chronicles: GUNS GUNS GUNS, of course, I can only imagine what's to come when the boundless creativity already lurking in Steam and PSN is unshackled from the increasingly homogenous sterility of sprite art and platforming gameplay. As much as the industry seems poised toward the contrary right now, that'll be the dominating theme for the upcoming years, I think: creativity.
New ideas, new people, new ways of thinking, new ways of playing -- and I'll be way surprised if it's not little groups of four or five people with crazily user-friendly new tools at the head of it all, as increasingly-irrelevant billion-dollar explosion-orgies stumble half a mile behind, mouths agape, drooling slightly, trying desperately and futilely to catch that sparkle of agile innovation.
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