We didn’t know it when 2012 started, but I suppose, in some ways, the writing was on the wall. 2012 turned out to be the most important year for indie games… ever. Gamers were completely inundated with excellent indie titles this year. Awesomenauts, FTL, Mark of the Ninja, Journey, The Unfinished Swan, Fez, Hotline Miami, and Botanicula are all high-profile, successful indie titles from 2012. And those are just a very few. Now, I have my misgivings about the term indie game, but for the sake of uniformity and to avoid a conversation bordering on the philosophical, I’ll use the term rather liberally throughout the course of this piece. Indie games saw greater sales, greater exposure in the media and a rise in public interest in 2012. Which leads me to my next question: Why?
Kickstarter had a lot to do with it. Yes, Kickstarter campaigns like the one for Double Fine Adventure created greater public interest in games that were trying to obtain funding through Kickstarter; but, projects like that haven’t proven anything other than it is possible to raise obscene amounts of money for your game project on Kickstarter. FTL was the game that proved a Kickstarter game could achieve AAA-level notoriety. FTL was the game that made people take notice and think, “So, Kickstarter games aren’t just going to take all of my money and not make good on all their promises?” Kickstarter is the only reason we saw FTL in the first place, and that says something. It says that 1.) A sizeable portion of the gaming public is tired of the AAA rat-race, and 2.) People are willing to bypass publishers, spending their own money to fund a game that they want to play. And that last bit has important implications for 2013. If people can crowd-fund games they want to play, why rely on publishers? How relevant will publishers be if the balance of power in the relationship between consumer and publisher begins to tip in favor of the consumer? Yes, a lot of Kickstarter projects fail; but, that doesn’t lessen the impact that every successfully funded Kickstarter game has had on the industry. This topic will be even more salient in 2013 as many of the projects that were funded in 2012—$83 million worth—are slated to release this year. But, there is another reason why indie games were so big in 2012.
Digital distribution is an important aspect of the indie game’s success in 2012. Digital distribution allows developers to bypass corporate publishers, and while we haven’t quite reached the era of self-publishing the book industry did in the 90s, platforms like Direct2Drive and Steam have made it significantly easier for small developers to distribute their games. There’s a theme behind the vast majority of indie games that came out in 2012: They were all distributed as downloadable titles on Steam, XBLA or PSN. Some, like The Walking Dead, started life as a downloadable title only to go on to release physical copies in-store. Steam, and to a lesser degree XBLA and PSN, are yet another way publishers are bypassed, but this time it isn’t consumers bypassing publishers, it is developers. That also has important implications for the game industry in 2013. The costs of developing a game are at historic lows. Game software is cheaper and more accessible and the manpower required to develop a game is significantly lower than it used to be. If publishers are going to want to be relevant with developers going forward, they are going to have to realign their business model to accommodate the “little guys” and the rise of digital distribution. Currently, the only reason that indie games live on digital distribution platforms is because large publishers like EA and Activision aren’t interested in titles they can’t turn into yearly money-mills. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a variety of things that stand in the way of large publishers embracing a digital distribution future, and I’m sure many of them see the inevitability that lies before them and are trying to take the time to figure out how best they can control the transition to make sure that they stay relevant in the industry. But, if that transition doesn’t happen fast enough, look for them to become less and less relevant as a result. The future isn’t full of Call of Duty and Battlefield games anymore—this isn’t 2011. If publishers don’t make room for the indie guys, they are going to be left at the bottom of the bargain bin.
Which brings me to my last point: YouTube. YouTube is radically changing how we talk about and interact with games at a public level, and it is certainly having an impact on game media. But, more on that in another column. We are here to talk about indie games. YouTube game commentators like TotalBiscuit, Dodger, and Seananners have the ears and eyes of the hundreds of thousands of people who subscribe to them. When you throw in the grapevine effect it’s probably more toward the million mark, if not slightly more. That’s a million more eyes on your product. That’s a million more people who might want to buy your game. TotalBiscuit and his WTF…is? series are especially relevant, as they are, arguably, the most successful series of YouTube videos highlighting indie titles on a consistent basis. Yes, sites like IGN and Gamespot cover these games, but they don’t cover them to the extent that a YouTuber like TotalBiscuit does, and they certainly don’t get the attention from editors and writers that a big AAA release gets. Indie game developers know this, and that’s one of the reasons there is such a strong relationship between these developers and YouTube game commentators. There’s a niche audience for this material, and it has found its home on YouTube. Look at Amnesia. That lived on YouTube before the gaming public-at-large really knew what it was. Granted, most of those early videos are terrible, mindless scare-cam pieces, once the game got more exposure more videos with quality commentary started to eke out. YouTube game commentators were nothing but good for indie games in 2012. Sure, there are some people who are just jacking around, but there are a lot of people putting out quality commentary on great indie games, and I only expect that to continue to be the case in 2013.
Article by Jon Hamlin
Jon Hamlin is a freelance game journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He plays too much Mass Effect 3 multiplayer and enjoys a good glass of wine. Occasionally, he can be found commanding his legion of doom on Xbox Live as GeniusPantsPhD. Follow him on Twitter @WordsmithJon, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. All Articles by Jon.