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Harnessing the “Indie Spirit” for Big Budget Game Development


There’s been a lot of talk in the industry lately about the “indie spirit”.

Indie Spirit is loosely defined as a style of game development which tends to be more free flowing and artistic than traditional triple A game development. This fosters unique ideas that seem to only manifest from small teams working out of garages and basements. Great games like Anti-chamber, Proteus and Fez are just a few examples of this radically different style of game making. Large game publishers usually lack this edgy development philosophy and there are a few reasons. Let’s take a closer look at how publishers could, won’t and can’t shift to this more radical and the innovative form of game design we refer to as “indie”.

Love him or hate him, Blow has become something of a poster child of indie game development

How They Could

If publisher and developers really wanted to harness the creativity of the “indie spirit” they don’t need to look far and wide for quirky developers. They don’t need to purchase the titles for millions of dollars either. All they would have to do is take a look around them. The odds are high that the developer sitting in the office next to them has a fun pet project that they’d love to get developed. The game industry is packed with incredibly intelligent and creative people. It’s almost a shame that these brilliant and creative minds are busy creating someone else’s idea. The intelligent thing to do would be to harness this creativity and let them express their artistic side, but how does one do that exactly and still pay the bills?

Why They Can’t

Many large companies sit and wonder what the next big thing in their industry will be. Bill Gates has said that he doesn’t fear the multimillion dollar company that is churning away on their next great iteration of hardware or software, he’s more concerned about the one or two man team that is toiling away in their garage on something new and innovative. He’s absolutely right. So why not harness the creativity of your individual employees? Why not allow them to go off on their own and create their own works of art?

The biggest reason is because you’re not playing with your money, you’re playing with shareholder’s money. Most large investors are not interested in the game industry as a whole and trying to advance it as an artistic medium. When they look at the latest progress report of a game, they don’t see fun factor or artistic integrity. They know Call of Duty sold a bazillion copies last year and they want the game you’re building to do the same. They knew Call of Duty has dudes with guns and that’s what they want to see in your game. If you don’t want to play along, they may very well take their money and leave you high and dry. Once a developer is so large that they are forced to take money from a publisher/investor, they are giving up a large amount of their creative freedom.

Even Activision has investment interests to look out for.

Why They Won’t

When you start to grow as a company and add throngs of employees to your roster, you have to start making rules and roles. There are assigned tasks, responsibilities and duties that must be carried out and straying from those may be considered a form of insubordination. This is also when people will start turning off their creativity and lean away from new and innovative ideas. They work within the perimeters given to them and rarely color outside of those lines. That’s a big problem when trying to cultivate a creative workplace.

True innovation and creativity come from outliers. They come from people who haven’t been given boundaries to work within. So why not let everyone just do what they want? Because large organizations need structure to function efficiently. It’s hard to fire someone for not doing their job, if their job hasn’t been clearly defined. It’s difficult to know who to blame for a bad mechanic, when you don’t know who all worked on that section of the game. In the long run, it’s just easier for a company to have set rules and leave the creative thinking to a select few, regardless if they are qualified.

Once the team is big enough, people start appearing more like cogs than people.

Why There’s Hope

There are those who are taking steps to overcome these limitations and attempting to progress the medium as both a business and an art form. There are programs in the game industry being helmed by some of the best and brightest our medium has to offer. Double Fine has a program called “Amnesia Fortnight” where the studio takes two weeks to come up with unique ideas and create prototypes to pitch for full development. Volition, the creators of Saints Row, has a program called “awesome week” where the team spends a week creating and implementing new ideas for their current games. Valve is attempting to overcome role limitations by not giving people official titles or roles…it seems to be working out well for them so far. These are just a few of the programs that the industry is trying to implement to interpolate more creativity and innovation into their products.

Tim Schafer and Double Fine are helping lead the charge with game development innovation
There is no doubt games offer some of the richest experiences available in the electronic age.

With all sides being measured, it’s important to note there’s nothing wrong with big budget games. They may fail to innovate, but as long as they are still enjoyable that’s all that matters. Would it be ideal to have every game bring something new to the table? Absolutely. But until the industry evolves to that utopian paradise, we can always rely on the small indie developer to help remind us that game development can be considered an art form.
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About DanielCampbellone of us since 1:19 PM on 05.11.2009

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