A shift is taking place in the world of video games. Many of the medium's most recent memorable moments - experiencing the life of a petal floating in the wind ( Flower), exploring a darkly beautiful silhouetted world as a dead boy ( Limbo), stretching out bits of googly-eyed goo to create teetering towers ( World of Goo) - haven't been the product of multimillion-dollar development efforts, but rather the result of small teams of just a few people working to create what they want rather than that what they're being told to make by studio executives.
The makers of these so-called "indie" games are often people who have quit jobs at big studios to strike out on their own. They share the same rebellious, autonomous spirit found in creators of independent movies and music. It's not unusual for them to endure financial hardships, often soliciting investments from friends and family members and taking on second and third jobs or contract work for other developers in order to see their passion projects through.
But ask them, and they'll tell you it's worth the struggle.
"It's about complete creative freedom," says Nathan Vella, CEO of Cabybara Games, an independent Toronto studio that just released an iPad and iPhone game called Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP that has a striking visual style inspired by the world of pixel art. "There's no one to tell you what is good or bad, what is approved and what isn't. This complete lack of borders and naysayers is why so much great stuff has come out of this space."
Ryan MacLean, CEO of Toronto-based studio DrinkBox, which recently released Tales from Space: About a Blob, a side-scrolling adventure inspired by vintage sci-fi films, says another draw is the ability to play a significant role within a group; something that doesn't always happen when working on triple-A games with teams numbering in the hundreds.
"Why make games to begin with?" he asks. "I think creative expression is a big part of it. It's rewarding to feel like your contribution to a project is really making a difference. When you're working with a small team you really get the feeling [that your role is important]"
But while independent game development might nourish game makers' artistic spirit, it wasn't until recently that a big enough market existed to sustain their bank accounts. New and prominent forms of digital distribution, such as the downloadable games stores found on modern consoles and mobile devices, have helped bring low-budget games into the spotlight and make them accessible to the mainstream.
MacLean also credits the gaming public's growing appetite for something different. "I think some people have just grown tired of seeing the same thing over and over in blockbuster games."
Vella agrees that many people are looking for something other than the latest first-person shooter or football franchise instalment. "The audience for video games is expanding and maturing," he says. "Gaming is a culture, and as cultures grow they spread themselves out to fill every nook and cranny."
The influence of indie game culture is being felt across the industry, if not because of the raves that many of these games have earned, then because of their surprising potential for profitability. Example: Minecraft, a game that allows players to create their own kingdoms using materials they mine from a virtual world, has sold nearly two million copies, earning more than $30-million in the process. It was made by just one man - Swedish programmer Markus Persson - and it's not even out of beta testing. That's the sort of success that would make any studio executive swoon.
"Big studios are trying to figure out what indies are doing," says Vella. "No doubt they see a game like Limbo [made by small Danish studio Playdead]sell 700,000 copies and want to replicate that. Consequently, artistic decisions made by indie artists are being adopted by mainstream game makers."
But capturing and bottling the indie game spirit may not be easy. Winnipeg-based filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, winners of a National Screen Institute award, have spent more than a year working on an upcoming feature length documentary dubbed Indie Game: The Movie. The film chronicles the creative processes of several notable indie game makers, including small American studio Team Meat, developers of last fall's breakout platformer hit, Super Meat Boy. Their subjects are portrayed as people with a fundamental need to act on their artistic impulses without any artificially imposed restrictions.
"These people create highly personal, expressive, and innovative games that are intrinsically tied to themselves, their experiences, beliefs, and thoughts," says Swirsky. "Every person we talk to is designing games due to compulsion more than anything else. They are brilliant, talented people that could have their pick of whatever tech job they'd like. But they find themselves going independent and creating the games that they need to create."
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