Fighting the Narrow Game Focus

The way I see it, modern indie development is imbalanced. Not in the way that a foul-tempered DotA player would scream “IMBA!” after getting killed for the fifth time in succession – no, I’m talking more about exposure, attention and who is playing what out there. I’m talking about everyone’s tendency to play the same narrow range of “cool” stuff without ever bothering to explore the wider market.

By now, most of you have probably fiddled around with World of Goo, and the news circuit was recently set on fire with the hotly-anticipated release of Zeno Clash. They’re both arguably very good indie games, but they’re definitely not the only ones in existence. Both of these titles most likely shared a release date with hundreds, even thousands, of indie unknowns which were doomed to be swept under the carpet amidst an incestuous media menagerie of hype, hooplah and horrendously ubiquitous reviews (“yeah, we gave this one fifty million thumbs up. Just like every other damn gaming site out there”).

I may sound disparaging about this situation, but that really is the way it works. Whenever a nice new title comes along, there’s bound to be somebody who gets excited about it. If that particular somebody has a great deal of media clout – or knows somebody who can put their foot firmly up the posterior of a nearby gaming journalist – it will enjoy a raging wildfire of coverage and exposure within the community. Other media groups will eventually see it, latch onto it and take their turn to ride the fad and praise its awe-striking wonderfullitude, perpetuating a chain reaction that will eventually consume the entire indie scene and cause them to shamble after this golden title of godhood like a bunch of zombies that have just heard about a brains sale at Walmart.

If the excited individual, however, is Billy Pinklewink from Nowheresville, chances are that the game isn’t going to receive quite as much attention. But hey, at least Billy will be happy with it.

In light of this particular media conundrum, it seems that the average gamer is exposed to only a tiny portion of the real indie market. This is an enormous shame: there’s already countless admirable offerings sitting pretty on the digital shelves of Xbox Live Community Games, and for every title that gets soaked in media coverage and critical acclaim, there’s at least ten more high-quality offerings out there which will never see any sort of market.

Personally, I’m not sure if this sort of situation can be fixed anytime soon. We only have a certain amount of time to play games, and no single individual can grant attention to all of them. Even media groups have to stick with trends and reader approval – everybody wants to read a Crayon Physics interview, but people won’t be quite as intrigued by an article entitled “Billy Pinklewink’s rant about teh_best gaem in EXISTENCE” (wait, scratch that, that does sound pretty neat).

Of course, marketing one’s title is the responsibility of whoever developed it, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t make the effort to become a more dynamic audience. For your own sake – and for your own growth as a developer – do your best to occasionally push the boundaries when looking for new games to play. Avoid the flashy reviews and hype: just pick up a random submission from a site like The Great Games Experiment or dig about in the archives of a developer’s forum to find something that looks cool.

If the game turns out to be awful, don’t worry too much about it: use it as a learning experience, and try to figure out what the developer did (horribly) wrong. If these sort of games can educate you through examples of what not to do, then you’ll potentially be able to avoid these pitfalls yourself in future projects.

If, on the other hand, you come across something truly addictive and awesome, then congratulations: you’ve just uncovered a hidden gem and proven that the indie world is about a lot more than the sort of stuff that hits the headlines. Enjoy the game and learn from the experience.

About Nandrew

Rodain Joubert is a South African game developer based in Cape Town, currently working for QCF Design. He likes his job. He likes being opinionated on the Internet. He likes fighting evil with his heat ray vision. And he also likes cats. [Articles]