On One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.
One thing that does not differentiate between your regular developers and the more independent developers is the limitation of resources. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, there will always be something that needs to be cut, refocused or rethought in order for a game to progress from idea to reality. Though it might seem like an entirely negative process, considering that it is by definition cutting back, it can lead to some interesting design decisions in order to compensate for lack of sufficient time, money or technology.
Many of the qualities that are often associated with indie games are simply remnants of a limited budget. Crude artwork, obscure music and simplistic control schemes have turned out to be qualifiers of indie games for just this reason. The lack of a big publisher or developer hinders the design process in the worst way: lack of available resources. Resources being broadly defined here as time, money and technology. To be fair, an indie developer consisting of, say, four students at Digipen have all the time in the world to make their game. Even so, they are still limited by the sheer amount of work ahead of them with such a small team.
In a way, this limitation becomes the inspiration for innovative thought. As an anecdotal example, it’s often claimed that back during the development of Silent Hill, the developers at Konami had wanted an open game world. However, the hardware at that time just could not handle rendering such an expansive environment; the technology just wasn’t there to realize their vision, regardless of how big a developer they were. Instead of eliminating an open world, they added a layer of fog to the mix. And so the foggy environment of Silent Hill has since been dreary and bleak due to limitations imposed on the original. It’s pretty much a series trademark by now.
So how is it that indie games continue to be produced, even on their much lower budget of limited time, limited money and the ever-present limits of technology? One look at the amount of sheer garbage in any given indie games section offers a pretty good answer. But a better question might be, how do indie games of such quality continue to be produced under these conditions? Braid, at least the Xbox 360 version, is sitting pretty at around 92% at GameRankings while the WiiWare version of World of Goo has a whopping 94%. Apparently, it’s not as if these so-called limitations have actually hindered them critically. At least not all of them. But it doesn’t answer the question of how.
To put it simply, indie games aren’t actually designed to be fantastic games. Instead, the majority of them seem to be designed to provide a distinct and unique experience in order to make up for that fact. The game is just a vehicle for the experience. Much like films or books are intended to convey experiences, games are only a means to an end. Arguably, almost all games tend to work toward this outcome rather than rely entirely on visuals or gameplay. Developers tend to strive to be more like the Steven Spielberg, as opposed to the Michael Bay, of the game-developing world.
Depending on what sphere of influence you are in, all of these limitations can either be a frustration or joy. Or a bit of both, as is the case for Fumito Ueda, the man behind Shadow of the Colossus and the cult-hit Ico. Speaking with Level, a games magazine, Ueda said, “If we don’t have any limit to work from, it becomes hard to make anything good out of an idea. But if we on the other hand have a very distinct technical limit it’s impossible to go beyond it. It will put the bar in a certain place without any way to raise it.”
On the flip side, many of those in the indie community see these sorts of limitations as more of a challenge or puzzle that needs solving in order to adequately and accurately convey whatever experience they intend. In an interview with Indiegames.com, Wan Hazmer, the guy behind Ballistic Wars and The Last Canopy, said, “The more limitations, the more creative one gets!” Designers are required to constantly rethink and rework things when they encounter an immovable limitation.
And it seems that many in the indie game community agree with him. A member of Kokoromi, what Wired refers to as a collective of experimental game designers, Damien Di Fede was quoted back in 2007 as stating that “[t]he hardest thing in the world is to decide what to do when someone says, ‘You can do anything.’” It’s the age-old problem of the blank page—where to start. Being given absolutes, as in you have to be finished in this amount of time or have to be able to fit it in 256 pixels, leads to creative design solutions. Don’t believe me? Just check out Jason Rohrer’s Passage.
Passage is and was Rohrer’s entry to the competition called “Gamma 256″. It fits in 256 pixels, can be played with an Xbox 360 controller, and has a 5 minute span of playtime before the game is considered ‘over’ and completed. It’s simple. There are not a lot of visual accolades that can be crammed in with the limitations imposed. And yet, people still thought an awful lot about his game and Ian Bogost, a rather prominent name in the field, even praised it outright in an article of his own.
“But James,” you might say, “what does this have to do with the majority of indie games out there and why should I care?” Well, theoretical reader, here’s why: indie games will lead the way in terms of original ideas and innovation. And it’s because of, you guessed it, the limitations they handle. Lack of huge payrolls might mean that there’s no massive backing for any project, but it also frees a developer to create games that may never have seen the light of day otherwise.
Jason Rohrer’s newest project, titled Sleep Is Death, is a two-player story-telling game that involves using one player as the actual player and setting the other up as a “game master” of sorts where they respond to all the text-based shenanigans of the first player. In order to pre-order the game, you just need a measly $9 or $14 if you purchase past the release date. Clearly, it’s not marketed like a regular videogame, so that takes some of the expenditure off, but there are still resources tied up in it and it does represent an investment. Even so, if the game is absolutely horrid and nobody understands it or how to play, it is only a drop in the proverbial bucket overall.
That is not to say that companies like Sony don’t have the capital to blow on these kinds of projects. They do and at times make the leap of faith to a place that isn’t a sure bet. (Heavy Rain, anyone?) But you have take into consideration the sheer amount of money spent on developing a AAA title in this day and age. Too Human, a AAA game that ended up being a massive disappointment in sales, cost over $60 million dollars to make. Part of the problem with Too Human was a lack of limitation. They even built their own engine after deciding that the Unreal Engine 3 was too confining for them.
Rohrer’s projects, on the other hand, are financed and developed on his own. The same goes for Wan Hazmer’s games. Being that their design team is composed of only a single person, themselves, they are allowed to set their own goals and only use as many resources as they care to expend. In a similar fashion, many iPhone applications have incredibly low production costs, sell for less than a dollar and finish it up by reaping major profits—even when they don’t sell all that well. This has also caused a massive influx of games that are, well, garbage. But that’s for another column.
What it comes down to is that companies like Sony are more concerned with ensuring that they will make money off any given venture. They want a game that sells. In fact, more than simply wanting a game that sells, they need a game that sells. Their investors demand it. Rohrer and Hazmer want a game that people will play and enjoy. Sure, there’s money involved, but it’s not the ultimate goal of either of them.
In short, they design to design. They approach it as a puzzle and, like Gregory House, enjoy the thrill of it. Basically, they are the kind of people who think inside the box. In this way, they seek to change the way we fundamentally approach gaming. Somewhat ironically, that’s why indie developers will continue to be the ones to push the boundaries. Not because they have unlimited resources or because they have access to all the best tools, people and public relations but because they have limited resources and tools.