The Future of Independent Games on Consoles

What are independent games? I would say indie games are characterized by small budgets, small development teams, and often feature experimentation with or development of unique and innovative gameplay methods. The developers of indie games could be anyone from a ten person team at a small development studio to a single person working on a game in their parents’ basement after school. Just as independent films rose to prominence in the early and mid-90s, so are indie games currently on a meteoric rise in both popularity and feasibility. Indie games have been around for years on PCs, but it’s only with the current generation of consoles that it’s been possible for a wide variety of independent games to be created on home consoles on a larger scale. The Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) this week has revealed more information about both Nintendo’s WiiWare and Microsoft’s XNA services. These details made me start thinking about the further evolution of indie console games.

The Wii, PS3, and 360 have all had downloadable content available for a while now. The Wii’s Virtual Console consists entirely of ports of old games, while the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade are also used for original projects. The ability of these consoles to connect to the Internet and allow downloadable content is the biggest reason indie games can begin to expand on consoles. It’s a lot cheaper to digitally distribute games than to make physical disks and packaging.

Nintendo should have around 100 games stockpiled for the launch of WiiWare on May 12, but they will slowly emerge on a weekly schedule according to Nintendo’s baffling logic, much like the Virtual Console. Although pricing is unknown, I’m sure some games will be bargains and others will be a sickening waste of money, also like the Virtual Console. At first, people thought only small teams from big, licensed developers can release games. But it turns out any developer can work on WiiWare games. Nonetheless, there are still significant costs associated with this approach.

XNA, however, sounds a lot more invigorating. My pedestrian understanding of XNA is that it’s a set of development tools designed for easy use that anyone can freely use. Microsoft hopes both independent developers and members of the Xbox community utilize it. With a peer review process of approval, this system is really in the hands of the community much more so than WiiWare. This sounds like a potentially good way for anyone with a good idea and a little talent to get their name out there and profit a little bit.

The PC has more room for small, individual game creators, and is much more open than consoles. Andy Baio on Waxy.org, as posted on GameSetWatch, summed up my thoughts nicely. He talks about the dominance of middle-men on consoles.

“In the web industry, there’s nobody controlling distribution and I don’t need anyone’s authorization to launch a new project. But the gaming industry is dominated by gatekeepers.

For consoles, you can pay through the nose for the privilege to be on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network or the upcoming WiiWare, and then wait months to be released into the pipeline. On PCs, there’s no clear monopoly, with distribution fragmented between a handful of game download portals and distribution frameworks like Steam.

Or you can go it alone and sell directly to your fans through your own web presence but, for the moment, this is very rare.”

While WiiWare is just a way for companies to make small games with lower production costs, XNA seems to be more open and allow more freedom for those outside the game industry. I’d like to think this is the future, where people with few corporate constraints are able to not only experiment, but also be rewarded for trying to change things. Of course, with more people able to develop and publish games, there will also be a proportionately greater volume of rubbish. Independent games are not necessarily worth your time, just more likely to be a little different.

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