Back off, indies!

The other day (and by that, I mean “some undetermined date a really, really long time ago”) I was having a typical gamer’s discussion inside a typical gamer’s forum. The topic: piracy and all the pain, chaos, death and homeless devs that it brings about.

I quipped at one point about how distressing the World of Goo piracy figures were, expressing my sympathies for the 2D Boy crew and the crippling toll that the lost sales must have taken on their personal coffers (fun fact: Kyle Gabler starved to death in an alley three months ago – all public appearances are now being made by a stunt double who is forced to keep the secret under pain of death). A few scarce moments after these words had tumbled from my enthusiastically tapping fingers, I was challenged on the point by another forum-goer. The short of it was: “What the hell?”

Said forum-goer was a CG artist for a big CG company that did fancy CG movies and similar CG-related stuff. A lone worker in a great big corporation that happened to suffer from piracy just as much as 2D Boy did. A lone worker who was tired of struggling indie devs receiving barrels of sympathy when the “cold and heartless” bigwigs that she worked for couldn’t even receive a “LOL sorry” when their workforce got screwed over by poor sales. It was comparable, perhaps, to a crowd of concerned passers-by stopping to fuss over a little boy’s stubbed toe while a nuclear bomb eradicated the rest of the town.

Although I took out my Internet-sword and parried her barbs (offering the humble explanation of sympathy by association: I was, after all, a small-time hobbyist dev myself), the words of this “corporate peon” stuck with me and caused me to take off my indie-tinted glasses for just a moment to observe the greater gaming scene.

I know I’m not the only person out there who holds this indie bias. It comes naturally to most indies, one would think, but what I still find remarkable is the sheer number of devs who don’t only sympathise more with indie devs, but genuinely seem to despise titles which fit into the “mainstream” or “casual” categories.

This cancerous hatred from some individuals has made itself known in places like the TIGForums. While it’s certainly not a prevailing attitude (in fact, I absolutely adore the generally down-to-earth vibe that this community offers) , there seem to be too many newer devs holding the idea of indie game creation being an “us versus them” scenario. Errant comments here and there – quips about “commercial games being uninspired” or “if you’re not indie, screw you” – could be treated neutrally enough, but I recently got involved in a discussion about PopCap’s new game, Plants vs Zombies.

Some rather heated remarks were made about its status as a casual game, with one user even going as far as calling the “casual” label a direct euphemism for a “bad game” (he then went on to slag off the gaming media too, which really got my goat). There was no regard for whether or not the game was, at its core, fun – nor was there any mention of the carefully-designed ruleset, the amount of polish that went into the system, the overwhelming variety of tools and scenarios on offer or the clever integration of metagames into the broader experience. Nope, it was a heartless, candy-coated piece of tower defence crap that was unforgivably shallow and easy despite its unique approach and high level of polish. Had said user even played the game? I’m going to hazard a guess and suggest not.

Two questions burned in my mind from the moment I read that post: firstly, how would George Fan, the game’s designer, react if he could be there to see somebody lambasting a project which he’d poured such an enormous amount of time and effort into? And secondly, would Paul Eres’s popular tower defence offering, Immortal Defense, have received the same criticism were it not for the fact that the developer was indie? To argue that I enjoyed PvZ more could be considered borderline blasphemy by some of the more devout indies out there.

Folks, don’t get brainwashed. Commercial developers are people too. They enjoy making games, they work just as hard as you, and you shouldn’t resent them just because they’re part of the bigger and more mainstream projects out there. I, for one, can easily state that I loved Gears of War 2. I loved that Lode Runner remake on Xbox Live. I loved Plants vs Zombies.

When you see these sort of games, it’s a good idea to look past the labels and appreciate the passion, skill and dedication that fuelled each of these titles in exactly the same way that indie devs can lose whole nights and weekends to projects which are close to their hearts. Spend time with commercial developers, if possible. Observe their trials and tribulations, and do your best to learn from them.

If you have a bee in your bonnet about the mainstream, then perhaps it’s time to reconsider your outlook. Sure, there’s the cash-ins. There’s the sell-outs. There’s organisations out there which focus on businesses and fads to make their way through the gaming market. But there also exist the visionaries. Consider that the next time you feel like slagging off Major Developer X, and try to view the industry with a little more objectivity.

This opinion article is dedicated to the TIGForums, mainly because I feel oh-so-guilty for having to use them as an example. They’re actually filled with a really swell bunch of people, folks. And kudos to everybody on the PvZ thread who tried to reason with the game-hater!

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]