In E270, we touched on what ‘indie’ means today. Here, we invite five industry luminaries to dig deeper
Five industry luminaries discuss the meaning of independence in today’s game-making landscape
More diverse, more creative and more adventurous than traditional game-making, indie development is frequently held up as the solution to the industry’s problems. But is that really the case? As the boundaries blur – as self-owned studios find financial success and grow exponentially, tiny teams make enormous games, and big publishers form more small teams – what does the word ‘indie’ even mean any more? As if to make that point, the five people assembled here have wildly varying job descriptions. Mike Bithell made Thomas Was Alone by himself. Nathan Vella’s Capy employs two dozen people, while David Braben’s Frontier is making Elite: Dangerous with a team of 250. EA and Popcap alumnus Giordano Contestabile is a VP at Tilting Point, which provides support to mobile game developers. Siobhan Reddy, meanwhile, is studio director at Media Molecule, making games that embody what we used to call the indie spirit, despite being a Sony subsidiary.
Each of you represents a different aspect of the industry. How many of you still consider yourselves ‘indie’?
David Braben Does that make me not indie? The grief I got when I said Frontier was indie…
Mike Bithell I’m so done with the word. I’ve actually been in the pub and stood up for you in that debate. People have no sense of history, that’s all. Indie just means cool, right? That’s all people mean when they say ‘indie’.
Siobhan Reddy I actually don’t understand what it means. I understand ‘independently owned’; I understand ‘independent spirit’. I get that… When there’s a style more artistically free than another, made from an independently free place, then I think that’s independent. It gets into, ‘What type of game maker are you? Are you indie and cool? Or are you triple-A and the devil?’ We sit in a weird world at Media Molecule where we’ve never been independent financially, but does that mean we’re not cool?
MB You made LittleBigPlanet; you’re cool. These days it means what you want it to mean. I think a few people used it with beautiful, punk games, and then a bunch of marketing departments noticed they were getting more coverage, and then it became a thing that got twisted.
Nathan Vella It’s not as though there’s some kind of absolute requirement for defining a style. We don’t get really angry at people when they call their music hip-hop; we don’t know what it means and we don’t care what it means. I’ve listened to that genre of music for a million years, but I still have no idea what that means. I just associate the name with this massive bubble… You can’t avoid [the marketing side] at all, you can’t.
Giordano Contestabile It is a good marketing tool, something that gets you certain cred with certain publications.
Is there an independent spirit that goes beyond marketing?
DB I think the indie spirit [is] making a game for yourself, making a game for you to be proud of. To me, the antithesis of independence is focus tests. I’m not saying they’re a bad thing, and if you’re writing a game for an audience that isn’t represented on the team, you need that sort of thing, but it can lead to, ‘One guy couldn’t [complete] it; let’s make it a bit easier.’ It means you don’t know what you’re doing in the first place. MB But it’s useful for telling you how well you’re achieving the thing you are smugly trying to achieve because you’re independent. I’m not changing my game because of how they’re playing, but it’s informing me how well I’m achieving the objectives I have set out. If I’m trying to make a frustrating game and everyone leaves with a massive grin on their face, then I will tweak that to achieve my goal better.
DB When someone has worked a lot on a game, you get close to it and think, ‘This is too easy, I’m going to make it harder,’ and it’s a real problem with indie games. Focus tests can also be extremely valuable [to avoid that].
GC I think it’s important to expose your game to people outside of the development team. You need someone to tell you your baby is ugly, whether that’s a focus group, a friend or family.
Player feedback has never been more powerful. Microsoft’s rethought its entire Xbox One offering because of it, every big game is focus tested, and Kickstarter lets players invest directly in a game. But what happens to the creator’s vision? GC Without speaking ill of Microsoft, their [recent] business
decisions were kind of common sense, and the audience highlighted that they were common sense. There was a problem to start with. That’s business, but creative is different; on the creative side, I think it’s your choice whether you get the player to tell you what to do or not. A strong creative mind usually doesn’t do that.
DB I think our design discussion forum is great. It’s really friendly and people suggest changes. It doesn’t mean that it’s a voting system, it’s just to make sure all the issues are covered. I think you can still have that sort of approach, [especially with Kickstarter] where you have a self-selecting group. We said, ‘Hey, this is what we want to make. This is how we’re going to make it. Are you in or out?’ MB And they’ve literally bought in. DB That is a change… We sort of have a responsibility to make sure that we deliver something that’s as close to the vision that we put forward at the start as we can.
SR We tend to stay within the team at first to get to a point where the team is happy making what they’re making. Then it starts spreading out. Throughout Tearaway and LBP we would do… not so much ‘focus testing’, but getting to know the audience. I like the testing, but I don’t think you need to listen to all of it, and actually I want us to reserve the right to say, ‘Thank you, but we just really like that. And you might not like it, but we love it, so we’re going to keep it like that.’ Hopefully somebody, somewhere will agree with us.
NV I think making the game to appease everyone is the fast track to a complete bomb. [Graphic designer] Tibor Kalman said, basically, ‘When you make something no one hates, no one loves it’. When I first read that, I was a university student thinking, ‘Fuck everybody. I want to make what I want to make.’ The more I have thought about it, the more I believe [that]. We’ve never done the same genre [twice], never done a sequel. I think it’s important for us to make things that are not going to appease everyone.
SR I think that’s what is really strong – there is a Capy style, which comes from the personality within that group of people working on it. It’s the same with Molecule; it’s the collaboration of everybody coming together. [We shouldn’t] start watering that down with unknown people outside. We have a great relationship with Sony in that we’re never forced to take creative decisions. I think that would be the death of that relationship.
Are smaller and larger developers very much different today in terms of what they’re trying to achieve?
NV I have a friend who works very high up in the COD franchise. We sit on his patio, drink beers and talk about what development means. He’s talking about it on a $10 billion franchise, which is the most consistently villainised of any game that has ever existed, and I’m talking about it from a small studio having never worked anywhere else in games at all. And most of our problems and passions are completely aligned.
MB I think most stuff is unanimous. I’ve heard triple-A devs moaning about pretentious indie games, and I’ve heard indie devs moaning about COD, and neither of those groups have ever met each other. I don’t buy into this argument that indies are in any way more creative or idealistic. I worked at Blitz, and I poured just as much love into Wii games as I did into Thomas Was Alone. It didn’t matter what I was working on. I’ve seen exactly the same amount of passion on both sides of the fence. I bet the COD designers who stay late every night do so because they believe in it.
NV [Treyarch design director David] Vonderhaar works harder than anybody, and he gets death threats in the mail.
GC I used to get those for Bejeweled! When I was at EA, I met people from the Madden and FIFA teams. You think of those as massive, impersonal franchises, but then you meet the team and the game is absolutely the expression of the team.
SR I had the same experience encountering people who worked on Madden. I’m not into sport at all, but these people were so into it; they loved the sport and they loved the rules and they express it in just the same way that I love the games I love making.
While interests and investment are similar among the creative people in the industry, how do you think games are perceived outside of that bubble?
DB There was this piece in The Sun recently, ‘Games Are Worse For You Than Heroin’, or some such headline. I remember getting quite angry about it. I had hoped we’d seen the end of articles like that, and hopefully it just reflects worse on the paper that’s printed it than [it does on] gamers.
SR I think the mainstream press moves really quickly to focus on the negative. We have so many skills, and yet one of the things that we can’t crack is being able to figure out how to talk to people who don’t understand what games are.
DB There’s a set of people who don’t understand games. The games they’ve seen are from 20, 30 years ago. They remember them as repetitious, irritating, annoyingly difficult to play and that’s it. That’s certainly true of a lot of politicians. These people don’t appreciate how big our industry is, how important it is. The bonkers headline ‘PS3Playing Dad Kills Baby’ – I mean, for pity’s sake! Maybe more than half the population plays games regularly. You wouldn’t call it out as, ‘ToasterUsing Dad Kills Baby’.
MB I look at a lot of this stuff and I think, ‘This is just because a lot of old people don’t know what videogames are’. But then Barack Obama was the first president who was a kid when videogames existed. I look at that and think, ‘Maybe this is the shift’. You start to see stand-up comics incorporating a videogame bit into their act, or you see games mentioned in a TV drama. We’re seeping in because the old people are dying.
NV The flip side of that, though, is that it still has the ‘toys for boys’ mentality attached to it. The end result is exactly the same for outsiders as it is with the older generation. That, I think, falls a lot on what Siobhan was saying about how we do a poor job of showing the breadth of it. I try to explain Superbrothers: Sword &
Sworcery or Super Time Force to someone and I start by saying, ‘Have you played Mario?’ I hear myself and I want to punch myself in the face, because the second I do that, the association is ‘toy’, and immediately the cultural value seeps out.
GC One reason why the press can latch on to this kind of stuff is that we are the only industry where most of the marketing is about killing people. We’re the only one. That’s the most visible part, and it makes it very easy for them to do those hatchet jobs.
SR It’s hard. We have Tearaway, which is charming and lovely, but there is still killing. We found it really tricky to come up with gameplay as immediate as pressing X and something [goes away]. GC Look at The Sims. The problem is that the interactions of The Sims are approximations of a romcom, and that’s not as immediate as press X to kill, which is an approximation of killing. It’s hard to make a fine and compelling game that doesn’t involve press X to kill, and instead involves feelings and relationships.
MB This is what I’ve found with Volume. It has no ‘kill’ button and it ruins it.
SR In terms of genres and story and experience, I still think there is so much out there. I would love to see a lot of the games that are onto their fifth sequel just not continue and for those teams to try something new. Not because I think those games are bad, but because I would love to find a way for us all to be inspired to invent a bunch more genres. A lot of it can all just look the same from the outside, even when it’s not the same at all when you get into it.
It wasn’t so long ago that people were saying all games are the same. A few years on, we have incredible variety from hundreds of studios.
DB Well, we were very limited by shelf space in Game. It was hard to get more than one facing in a shop and it cost a lot of money, so it wouldn’t stock games that were more than a few months old. Now we have infinite shelf space.
MB If you keep things small… With my new game, I need to sell 15,000 copies to get my money back, and it’s going to be incredibly hard to not sell 15,000 copies. This is the ridiculousness of it.
DB But sometimes it’s hard to sell that kind of number. You typically sell a tiny amount just to friends and family, or you sell really big if you capture people’s imagination. Most of our games have recently done more than four million downloads. Once you get that rolling, the word of mouth carries it forward.
Will currently niche genres – games about social interaction, say – ever rise to take on the current blockbusters?
GC If you look at the billion-dollar franchises, it’s shooters, GTA or sports, and all the market you see will stay around for those.
MB That excites me, because it’s so wrong. It’s true that’s how things are right now, but if you look at any other media – books, TV, film – we don’t live in a universe that’s just action movies, or where all the books [are thrillers]. That means the opportunity’s
there. The idea of a Seth Rogen videogame? There’s an audience that wants that.
DB Personally, I wouldn’t care if COD didn’t exist, because the industry would be so much fresher without it. I’m not here to criticise any individuals. But it has become, for me, very stale.
SR They’re getting to the point where they’ve finessed something so well… When I was going through an FPS phase, I discovered how good it was. I was like, ‘I understand why this is the one.’ It’s the one because it’s actually the best; I found it the most enjoyable experience to play. And the same with playing GTA – it’s just so well finessed. They all started somewhere and then they stuck with it until they were on to their n-teenth iteration.
DB The advantage for [studios like these] is they always have something to point at that is remarkably similar to the one they’re about to make to justify the budget. With GTAV, they used the sales of GTAIV, and said, ‘It’ll be better.’
MB The old guard are kind of losing a certain amount of relevance in terms of the triple-A stuff. We have got a resurgence in people doing the things they want to be doing, and we also have this new generation of the [devs behind the] indie hits of the last ten years setting up studios, growing up.
DB There’s also a missing piece of tech that will make a big difference to us, which is speech [recognition and generation]. We’re getting ever closer technically. Killing something is a very easy interaction; social interactions are way harder. The Last Of Us did a very good job with performance capture and actors delivering it, but then you’ve got a narrow story that isn’t very interactive. [It’s] a long way off, but it will come.
NV I think the flip side of it is the technological component, but then there’s also the pure craft component. The Last Of Us is an interesting one. Usually, you need a good story, you hire someone from Hollywood and they write the same garbage into a game. But you ask Neil [Druckmann, Naughty Dog creative director] and he writes what, in my opinion, is one of the better scripts for a videogame of all time. I think the way you solve the narrative problem in games is to either find good game writers and give them more power, or just get rid of the narrative entirely.
Is there really a narrative problem in games?
MB We are one of the only mediums that doesn’t have the writer show up first. A producer may say, ‘We need a Batman movie,’ but the writer is the first creative on the project. The screenplay happens first, same with TV and everything. We decide we need a level in the Amazon, a level in the military base and then we then hire a writer to explain why that is happening.
DB There is another point to it, though. We’re not really just a storytelling medium. I know some of the games we do are ways of telling stories, which is great. But you’re also [an explorer] in the world. [Take] Assassin’s Creed. You’re simulating a guy climbing around, and you’re thinking, ‘I bet I can get up the top of that.’
NV To me, that still counts as narrative, and that’s still very important. You talk to Patrice [Désilets, Assassin’s Creed creator] about that game, and the thing he talks about before anything else is what he wants the player to feel, what they want to achieve. MB It’s simulation with narrative objective as well. That’s the story that’s been constructed. It feels emergent and it is. I’m sure there’s stuff I do in
AC that no one ever intended me to do, but it’s still a written [design].
NV That’s actually very much in line with my point. If you go out and hire a Hollywood writer, you lose that ability [for playerdriven narrative], because they have no concept of this entire other space existing. Below has no text at all; you don’t get told any type of story. You find it all yourself. That’s something you can do in a videogame. But the narrative for Below is longer than any we’ve ever written.
SR You can’t just come and get someone to write it for you. Our scripts are always written by whoever cares. But in some ways, we could probably get rid of the text and dialogue a lot of the time. What we’ve tried to do is guide someone through an experience. It’s always been difficult to figure out how to do words, and how to bring the writer to the team. I actually really like our process in a way, because it does reflect how we make it – nothing works in a linear fashion. MB On smaller projects, the writer is often the designer. I can think of two or three designers, myself included, who have had to learn to write because they were the people who had to write. This is why indie games are always celebrated for their stories; I don’t think indie writers, or the people responsible for writing in indie games, are usually any better. Often a lot of us are worse than the triple-A equivalents. If the story wasn’t working, I could just change it. I could make something more cohesive. I’m not that
“I’m not that good, but because I had the freedom to lead the experience, I create the illusion of being a much better writer”
good, but because I had the freedom to lead the experience, I create the illusion of being a much better writer.
SR [As developers] we have to build a bunch of things, figure out a bunch of things and always in our mind we have to keep an idea of what the world is, what the story is and what the player’s journey will be. I think that works pretty well in the way that we do it, but I think we could get better at it. When I think about hiring a Hollywood writer… When we look outside the industry to solve the problems, [you find] nobody works in exactly the same way, or works in the way where we do, from granular choices to high levels, to deleting everything and starting again. Very few processes have exactly that many different brains all working together, where a new idea one day can shift everything. It’s a very different process. One of the reasons for why it’s never going to be a completely black-and-white answer of how we improve writing in games is because every team will have their own tweak.
MB It’s the end result that matters; there are multiple routes to the best solution.
GC One thing I’d like to change is that in every discussion like this, we end up comparing ourselves to the movie industry. I’d like the industry to lose its inferiority complex to the movie industry. We now reach the same amount of people and we are a bigger business. People now have as much emotional attachment to games as they have to movies. Yes, there might be problems, and, yes, the writing might not be of the same level yet, but the fact is that people love games. We have billions of people who love games, and we know which are important. I don’t think we’re doing such a bad job. We should be a bit more assertive and say, ‘This is a craft that is as important as movies’. Shigeru Miyamoto says he worries about virtual reality, that the point of gaming is to bring people together, not to isolate them. Can wearable tech, whether it’s smartphones or VR headsets, ever be a mainstream phenomenon? SR I’m really excited about being able to work with Morpheus. Even if it is a fangirl sci-fi future dream, it’s just a really cool thing to witness as a human being, to be completely immersed. I don’t yet know what the longform game should be. I know there’s a leap between it now and getting it in to everybody’s living room and that may take a bit of time; it will take games and I’m actually really hoping that this is a way to bring in new experiences, new ideas, new things.
MB The Miyamoto thing is interesting, but I think that’s specific to how Miyamoto designs and plays videogames. I don’t play videogames to share a room with people. I play videogames to sit and pretend to be Altaïr, to jump from rooftop to rooftop, and my girlfriend occasionally watches. I think Sony’s solution – putting the VR picture on the TV at the same time – is incredibly smart. That makes it much more socially acceptable to me. I think [the concept of] wearables in your own home is interesting, but it’s going to take a lot to convince me that this is mobile technology, stuff you want to take on the go with you.
DB It’s also to do with social acceptability. When smartphones were first around, people were seen as [being] geeky to start fiddling with one. Nowadays, people don’t bat an eyelid.
GC But then it also crosses this threshold. The reason why it becomes big is because it’s cool and looks good. Currently all that [wearable] stuff makes you look like a dork. They need to be able to make it in a way that makes you look good.
SR It would have to get to the point smartphones did. They enhanced our lives immeasurably in terms of being able to get in touch with our friends, not get lost, do our work, blah blah blah. Anything that’s wearable has to be something that actually fits in with all of what we’re doing right now. The only thing I can imagine people getting used to is a watch, because we’re already used to it. How does the industry tackle the ‘boys’ toys’ problem that Nathan mentioned? Is it a matter of greater diversity? SR We’ve started to get a lot of young women apply to Media
“There’s a whole lot we can give back that will just show people that you can be anybody and make games”
Molecule. Not a lot, but a lot in comparison to before. I’ve been wondering whether or not that’s because they know that there are women in the company, and if that’s true, all it means is that studios need to properly expose the diversity that exists within those studios.
DB There are several things there. I think we have a lot of women [at Frontier] as well. I’ve been in computer science lectures at universities where there’s not one single female face. That’s the group we’re choosing from. It’s a systemic thing. SR It goes right back to primary school. Right back to the toy shop. DB One of the things that frustrates me is the way that IT has been taught in schools. It’s very off-putting, particularly for girls. It’s very hard not to [sound] sexist, but women are so much better than men at a lot of things; one of them is viewing something as a means to an end, not as a means in itself. Women are more inclined to say of a car, ‘Where can I drive in it?’ It’s more practical, and computers aren’t any different. What I would love to see in education is not teaching programming for programming’s sake, but to solve a problem.
MB The folder on my computer for Thomas Was Alone was called Teaching Myself Unity. I didn’t sit down [time after time] because I wanted to learn Unity [for its own sake]; the objective was to make a game.
SR I’ve been really happy to see so many people joining in as parents at coding clubs within schools and that kind of thing. There’s a whole lot we can give back that will just show people that you can be anybody and make games. It even takes an effort in our studio with women wanting to make things.
DB It applies to [all of] STEM actually. The tendency is to get things that are boy-focused. It’s hard, but you’ve got to stop it. It’s not that we set out to be discriminatory. It’s just the way that our culture is, to some extent.
MB I hear a lot of indies talking about how we’re so much better than triple-A in terms of diversity, and how we’re doing a better job at capturing this stuff. I think we are to an extent, but if you look at what the financially successful indie games are, there’s still a lot of heterosexual white men making those games and at the top of those companies doing that stuff. I refuse to believe that’s actually a meritocracy. I think [indies] might be inheriting some of the industry’s issues and that’s a risk.
SR We have this audience – it’s young kids, older kids, people of all the genders, all sexualities, all nationalities, the whole thing. I want to make things that are inclusive for people, but we have to remember to do it. Everything is so much richer for doing it. I would like us all to sort of make love not war, and find a way to get over some of the polarisation there is now. I don’t think that it’s necessarily that bad. There are some really terrible stories out there to do with our lack of diversity and, yes, actually there have been real problems with sexism, homophobia and those issues. But I think we’re a really smart industry full of smart people; it’s time to move on and close those chapters. There are so many wonderful people. I would love to see us have an industry-wide epiphany.
Vice president, product management at Turning Point
Studio director, Media Molecule
Founder and CEO, Frontier Developments
Co-founder and president, Capybara Games
Sackboy would not exist today without Sony’s dollar, but his games capture a spirit that tends be called indie
“I try to explain Sword & Sworcery and I start by saying, ‘Have you played Mario?’ I hear myself and I want to punch myself in the face”
ThomasWasAlone won a BAFTA for its narration. Bithell says working on writing alongside design improved his game’s story
Tearaway’s quirky charm could easily have been polished out, but Media Molecule knows when to reject focus test feedback
Capy’s SuperTime Force is bold, brash and loud, but also intricately systemic and seeped in ’80s culture and NES-era homage
GTAV demonstrates what’s possible with iteration – and how budgets continue to grow at the highest end of development
Wearable tech and VR offer new ways to interact with games, but it will take experimental success stories to popularise them