Our first indie game success story of 2012 concerns the hit first-person puzzler Q.U.B.E., made by fledgling, three-person U.K. studio Toxic Games. It’s already sold more than 12,000 copies since its release on Steam earlier this week, recouping the game’s full $90,000 development budget in just four days.
It’s the first game to be bankrolled by new investment group The Indie Game Fund. Founded by a faction of noteworthy independent game developers – including Jonathan Blow ( Braid), Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler ( World of Goo), Kellee Santiago ( Flower), and Canada’s own Nathan Vella ( Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP) – the firm provides the means for promising young game designers to realize their projects.
However, the question I’ve found myself mulling is whether Q.U.B.E.’s initial success is due to the quality of the experience it offers, or if it’s a result of the natural publicity that comes with being linked to an organization like The Indie Game Fund.
I've spent a couple of hours with Q.U.B.E., and there’s little denying the game’s cleverness. Its environments are composed solely of blocks, most of which are monochromatic, a few of which are bright primary colours. Players can manipulate the hued cubes by left- or right-clicking to activate their abilities. Red cubes increase and decrease in length, yellow cubes (which come in groups) transform to create staggered steps, and blue cubes act as launching platforms. Additional interactive elements come into play as the game progresses, creating a satisfying amount of diversity as players work through its labyrinthine puzzles. It’s immediately accessible and instantly engaging – key attributes in creating indie game success.
However, it also mindlessly emulates the look and feel of Valve’s massively popular Portal games. From its rat-in-a-maze concept to its sterile, lab-like environments, it feels a lot like something the American company might have designed, only without the studio’s trademark humour and visual chutzpah.
This tonal imitation doesn’t make Q.U.B.E. a bad game. I’ve still had loads of fun with its smartly concocted 3-D conundrums. But it does detract from its achievement in original play concepts. And critics seem to be in agreement in chastizing its derivative flavour (review aggregator Metacritic is tracking the game at a middling 67 per cent).
Its imitative style might have been enough to cause innovation-hungry indie game fans – who seem to have a built-in alarm that detects anything that might reasonably be deemed a knockoff – to lose interest. However, even this hardcore lot could prove capable of deferring to their idols at the Indie Game Fund, who offered Q.U.B.E. implicit approval via their investment.
Add to this the fact that the Indie Fund’s involvement has led to a level of press beyond what is normally allotted an indie game from a first-time studio and and we may have an odd case of an indie game that has achieved a level of success beyond its merit.
That’s not necessarily bad. Heaven knows plenty of mediocre big studio games have benefited from sky-high sales that aren’t an accurate reflection of their innovation or entertainment value.
It is interesting, though, that the ballooning popularity of indie games and their growing fan base seems to be leading us into an era in which even those games that aren’t unequivocally and relentlessly brilliant still have a chance at making some pretty good money.