Why are all the Video Game Companies competing for Indie Game Developers?


I Love Indie
It was a talking point of E3 2013 but the roots of this movement started a year before. Sony (Sony's support for Indie Games on PS4) and Nintendo were getting lauded for opening up to indie game developers, and Microsoft was being criticized, in contrast for not opening up XBLA to allow indies to publish their own games on the platform. All three console companies loudly proclaim their support of indie developers. What's going on here?

Now more than ever, the scales have tipped for indie games from AAAs. This isn't just pretty talk meant to make indies feel warm inside. The successes of the Rovio(Finnish developer who developed popular game Angry Bird) and Gungho of the world show that smaller developers making simpler games with modest graphics can make the same big cash grabs that Rockstar Games and Activision Blizzard does.

There is an elephant in the room we need to acknowledge out of the gate: indies became important because of the new app store market. These are mostly mobile games on the iPhone and iPad, but also include the markets under Android, Windows, Blackberry, etc. Games like Plants vs Zombies, Angry Birds, Words with Friends, Cut The Rope, and others replaced traditional models of designing and selling video games with their own. In this way, they expanded the market for gamers to the ever expanding market for smartphones and tablets. In many ways, the growth and strength of this market is overrated; for example, only a small minority of the many indie developers actually make money, and even less become world famous successes like Rovio (How Rovio made Angry Birds a winner?). Still, the point has been made that there's a lot of money to be made in the new generation of indie games.

However, the same games that were hugely successful on iPhone were not expected to hit it as big when they came to traditional game consoles. Angry Birds Trilogy infamously made $ 1 million in sales across the board between Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and 3DS, in a year when the same game saw 1 billion downloads. Rather, consoles experienced indie hits of their own, the big names being the likes of Fez, Super Meat Boy, Skullgirls and the juggernaut that is Minecraft.

For the first time, console companies are competing, not just for consumers who will purchase games on their systems, but for indie developers to make games for them too. This is a particularly interesting time for it to be happening, because AAA game development has moved towards getting riskier and more big budget, killing off the concept of the mid-tier game. As a consequence, indies face less competition from AAA developers as they carve out a space for more modest, affordable games on these consoles.

Of the big three, Microsoft launched the opening salvo with Xbox Live Indie Games for the Xbox 360 in 2006. Microsoft came up with a set of development tools known as XNA, and indie games started seeping onto the 360 by 2008. Sony and Nintendo responded with Playstation Store and WiiWare respectively, but Microsoft was to get there first with the successes of Minecraft and Super Meat Boy (Super Meat Boy Reviews). Given this history, its ironic that Microsoft is now positioned to be behind its competitors in terms of indie support, but Sony and Nintendo learned their lesson.

For Sony, the move to support indies was slow but steady. Sony has their own laundry list of indie hits, such as Flower, Journey, Fat Princess, PixelJunk Shooter, etc. Sony's indies haven't gotten as successful as Minecraft, but Sony cultivated a market for moderately successful games, in some ways making it more viable than XBLA. Nintendo was the worst of the lot on the Wii, placing outdated restrictions and limitations such as 40 MB size limit and minimum sales requirement. In spite of itself, WiiWare was able to attract a few notable indie games, such as the Bit. Trip series, Cave Story, and Toki Tori.

In the move to next generation, both Sony and Nintendo faced similar problems for the Vita and Wii U. Both platforms suffered a glut of game releases as major 3rd party developers failed to make good ports of games for them, and then stopped making more games for these systems. Although there are nuanced differences in their approaches, both companies essentially came to realize the value of approaching indie developers to keep their platforms active with new games, and made huge strides in their efforts to approach indies.

Vita has seen results sooner, as Guacamelee and Retro City Rampage rapidly came out as quick critical hits for the system. The Wii U actually launched with a few notable indie games, like Trine 2, Chasing Aurora and Little Inferno. Unlike Vita, Wii U hasn't seen that many indies come out in the pipeline in the succeeding months, save the oddity Mutant Mudds HD, but there's actually a more interesting narrative coming up for the Wii U.

For the past few months, the words Wii U and indie have been getting connected to Kickstarter, as indie projects big and small have been pledging and requesting funding to get their games on the Wii U. Nintendo fans hungry for more Wii U releases have been paying for these Kickstarters, and Nintendo has also aggressively approached these indies, rapidly signing them up to be official Nintendo developers, loosening restrictions and even giving away developer kits.

Both Sony and Nintendo have inked deals with Unity, a popular game engine, to make porting from iOS to their platforms painless, as well as stalking and representing at indie game events around the world closely. To put this in perspective, it's more than what Microsoft, Google or even Apple have done to encourage developers to come to their platforms.

As AAA game developers struggle to meet sales targets and get future games off the ground, indies will continue to claim new ground in the market. Sony and Nintendo recognizes change is in the air, and they're not getting left behind.

Written By: Ryan P., Philippines (A Gamer)

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Edited by: Rajesh Bihani ( Find me on Google+ )

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