September 10, 2012 by raconteurmagazine
By Sam Flintlock
I talk to the long-time indie standard bearer, the game designer, author and consultant Greg Costikyan. With a pedigree in the games industry stretching back over 30 years, Greg is something of an elder statesman to the discerning indie gamer. His Ludography includes notable RPGs like Paranoia and Toon and boardgames such as The Creature That Ate Sheboygan and the computer game Mad Maze, the first online game to get more than a million players. Founder of the site Play This Thing!, set up to promote indie games, the 2007 winner of the Game Developers Choice Awards Maverick Award, the author of the article Death To the Games Industry (Long Live Games), the seminal game design text I Have No Words And I Must Design and co-author of the angry anti industry rant The Scratchware Manifesto, Greg has strong opinions on the subjects of indie gaming. Even if, as he freely tells me “at present I’m working for Disney Playdom, on a high-budget (by social gaming standards) social game exploiting Disney IP, which is about as non-indie as you can get”.
We start off by discussing the commonality between the various types of games he’s designed and game design in general. I ask him if he thinks his breadth of game design experience influences him as a designer:
“Absolutely. The broader your knowledge of mechanics and what games can do, the greater your potential range as a designer. There are some who view digital and tabletop as totally unrelated, but I think that’s narrow. For what it’s worth, I have a book called Uncertainty in Games coming out from MIT Press next year that analyses a whole slew of games, from Chess to Mario Bros., from the perspective of the types of uncertainty they foster; and obviously there are great differences, but also some fundamental commonalities”.
One issue that does arise for him is how indie is defined. Mirroring the fierce debates that once took place in the NME about the placement of Stock, Aitken & Waterman artists at the top of the indie charts, he says, “Originally, it simply meant ‘an independent developer,’ that is, a studio not owned by a publisher. By that standard, Epic is an indie developer (and in fact they have claimed to be so), which is kind of ridiculous”.
However, he does try not to take sides on the old art vs money argument that he sees taking place in the indie community currently. “In the indie community itself, there’s something of a split between developers with commercial ambitions, and those who, like Cactus, have none; the latter sometimes deride the former as ‘not really indie,’ and the former sometimes view the latter as ‘amateurs.’
To my mind, this is foolish; it’s fantastic that the market is now open to smaller-budget games created by individuals or small teams, something that was basically untrue a decade ago, and it’s also great that non-commercial developers can reach an audience”.
That isn’t to say that indie is a meaningless term for him. He thinks a big part of it is people being able to follow their vision. “I think there is a difference in attitude as well; in conventional game development, commercial interests and not creative ones have the whip hand. It’s rare for a developer in the conventional market to be able to work on a title that’s remotely original; independent developers, by nature, work on the games they wish to create, and while they may not be oblivious to the market, the game comes first”.
Greg sees a direct kinship between indie games designers and indie musicians, film designers etc., saying “In all such media, creators are taking control of their own work, and creating works that, in many cases, would never see the light of day through conventional channels”.
He observes real parallels between the various creative sectors, suggesting that in each case “conventional publishers strive continually to reduce risk, and since the numbers people rarely have any real understanding of the creative side, their first impulse is to eliminate any creative risk — which means any real innovation”.
“The result is that, over time, the medium becomes stale, with the number of publishable genres dwindling, “new IP” becoming viewed as risky and therefore rarely explored, and competition based more on things that are in fact largely irrelevant to the experience, such as visual detail and size of explosions”.
So, Greg tells me, it is not just useful to have a thriving indie arts sector, it’s vital for creativity to flourish, “The medium — and not just games, but others — needs a way for creators to find an audience outside conventional channels, and at lower budgets, because this is critical if we are to sustain innovation and creativity into the future. A thriving indie sector will, in fact, ultimately rebound to the benefit of the conventional market as well, by establishing the viability of new gameplay patterns”.
I ask if the indie gaming sector is directly opposed in spirit to the mainstream games industry. “In some ways, yes; most indie developers, in my experience, are sick of the conditions of the mainstream market, either because they are experienced professionals no longer interested in working on the same-old same-old, typically at ridiculous hours, or because they are young Turks turned off by the constraints of the conventional industry and eager to make a place for themselves in the field”.
That isn’t to say he doesn’t think things haven’t improved since his writing of Death to the Games Industry (Long Live Games) and The Scratchware Manifesto, “Of course I do. But yes, things have gotten dramatically better in the last few years. Online distribution and mobile markets have opened up great opportunities for independent developers, who could almost never claim shelf space through conventional retail; a number of independent developers have even gotten rich through their efforts; and there are more opportunities for funding and distribution than there has been since the 80s”.
He sees the role of Play This Thing! as playing a relatively small part in the promotion of indie games. “It’s minor. Our traffic isn’t huge. But by reviewing “everything cool outside of the mainstream,” we at least do a little bit to draw attention to more obscure titles”.
But what are the main problems facing indie games developers today? “The basic issue is a combination of growing clutter in distribution channels and what business people call ‘the discovery problem,’ but might be better described as “moronic failure to understand merchandising.”
“An example is the Apple app store, in both cases. There are so many available titles that it’s well-nigh impossible for an app from an indie developer to gain exposure, now; about your only hope is finding out whose cock to suck at Apple in order to get yourself on the featured list. Most people browsing the app store see only best-sellers and featured titles, and it takes dedication and effort for anyone to go beyond those lists”.
“This is, of course, idiotic. The problem of how to surface titles to individuals based on their individual taste has been solved for more than a decade — by Amazon, of course. In other words, Apple could create a far more vibrant business system, far friendlier to smaller developers, and more engaging and useful to users, by adopting well-understood technology. They’re not alone in their foolishness; virtually no other online distribution channel merchandises effectively, either”.
“The danger is that, as these markets mature, they replicate the circumstances of conventional retail that eventually crowded out all but the biggest publishers, scarcity of shelf space being replaced by a wholly artificial scarcity of portal placement”.
We round off by discussing where the games industry is going to go in the future.
“It’s pretty obvious that the industry is in the throes of creative destruction. The conventional retail market is ailing, and while I expect the next generation of consoles to continue to require physical media, at least for triple-A titles, it’s likely that eventually distribution will be primarily digital. Kids now play primarily on mobile devices, meaning both that handheld consoles will likely be dead within a handful of years, and that there is now (again) a huge market for arcade-like skill-and-action games. And the free-to-play model, despite its manifold flaws, is likely, in the not-too-distant future, produce considerably larger revenues than the application-sale market”.
“Because everything is changing, and so quickly, there are, and will continue to be, opportunities for nimble developers, but the reality is that virtually none of the new distribution channels — Steam may be an exception — are curated by people who fundamentally give a damn about games, or understand the necessity of building and sustaining a viable business ecosystem for smaller developers. Consequently, I expect the future to be in some ways much like the recent past: new market opportunities opening up, a handful of people achieving initial success, a flood of new entrants, and the market eventually falling under the sway of a handful of monopolistic companies. The hope is that change keeps coming quickly enough to avoid a long period of creative stagnation, like that of the 90s”.
Ironically, if I didn’t know better, I’d have assumed he was talking specifically about indie music and the rise of Britpop. In our multi-media world, it makes sense that our problems and solutions are also multi-media.