Do Video Game Publishers Need To Push Indie Games More By Creating New Labels?

I wrote this a few years ago since it was a topic that was really lingering in my mind way before games from smaller devs had as much momentum as they do today.

Looking back at this it’s kind of funny since some companies, such as Electronic Arts and Take Two, are slowly beginning to roll out initiatives similar to this.

Original article follows below.

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The video game business is still booming despite the recent financial trouble that has shaken both the industry and the world as a whole.  People still love playing video games for various reasons; some dig the mindless action while others use it as a source of entertainment to escape from things.  There’s no doubt that video games are still entertaining but the creativity found in most of them are hit and miss. Of course, there’s always the old standby of games developed by indie studios as a last bastion of creativity.  Games such as Limbo and Crossfire are perfect examples of how small developers can put out titles that are familiar to players but are presented in a unique way we haven’t seen before.

When it comes to indie games being published by publishers, whether it’s Sony, Microsoft or even EA, all of them seem to fall into a familiar foothold.  Considering the desire gamers have for creative games, whether they’re of the niche variety or not, it’s surprising that publishers haven’t pushed indie games harder, not only to bolster their own portfolio but to help better the industry.  But just like my previous thoughts on game developers taking a note from Hollywood via Inception, game publishers should also look towards the film industry for inspiration as well.

Yeah I know some reading this may be thinking I’ve officially lost it once again or I’m in complete fantasy mode.  While I may be off kilter a tad bit, my core argument does make sense. Each of the major studios in Hollywood (Warner Brothers, Fox, Paramount and Sony Pictures) has smaller subsidiary film studios such as Paramount VantageFox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics etc.  The purpose of these film labels is to release smaller indie films, some of which are bound to be nominated for Academy Awards like “127 Hours” (Fox Searchlight).  By now most of you probably know what I’m getting at.  If the film industry can have smaller indie based distribution labels, most of which have been around for ages, then why can’t the video game industry?  Aside from a few labels which are no longer with us there really aren’t any true subsidiaries of the major video game publishers outside of a few focused solely on the casual audience. It’s often just one whole entity which pushes out a mass influx of games geared at completely different target audiences, all with varying degrees of quality. That system has obviously worked but now may be the time to change things up if only for the betterment of the industry.

One reason publishers should perhaps adopt the indie label concept is because it may give them more freedom in the titles they release.  Sure, we’ve seen some nice unique titles pop up but outside of releases from Sony such as Flower, Everyday Shooter and Linger in Shadows, game publishers have stuck relatively close to their guns with the indie titles they pick up. Creating indie sub labels should be a way to create a true identity within a publisher along with telling consumers “hey, if you see a game published by Label X it’s going to be something different.”

But like sometimes is the case, even creating a sub label may not be enough since there could still be a level of tinkering involved on the publisher side that would essentially either diminish the quality of the games released or things would effectively remain as they are and the situation would become locked in a stagnant stasis mode.  On the topic of whether publishers should create indie labels, Smart Bomb Interactive VP Clark Stacey said “The only problem with this idea is that these labels then become divisions of the major publishers, subject to the same internal competition for resources and expectations for profitability… in other words, they cease to be indie labels.  Indie games should be the frontier of creativity; a chaotic primordial ooze that periodically burps up a new organism that’s ready to try its lungs in the marketplace.  Indie games SHOULD fly under the radar, and it usually won’t be the participation of major publishers that brings them their audience.”

Mr. Stacey’s points are definitely some I can agree with, even with my stance that indie sub labels could turn things around.  In a way, the indie scene is a very grassroots one, with the word of a new game quickly spreading amongst friends who in turn post about it on Twitter or Facebook and then in some cases, people like me find out about it and write about, like Liferaft: Zero for example.

But, just like every argument there is another side to things, which what makes topics like this so interesting.  While Mr. Stacey, who is part of an indie studio, doesn’t necessarily think indie sub labels could effectively work, another developer does think the idea would be welcomed by some.  Jason Pecho, former Project & Tech Lead on the indie titleDevil’s Tuning Fork, does think publisher based indie sub labels would be a viable concept as he said “I think that would be a great thing for the indie game scene. All too often, as was the case with DTF when we wanted to continue working on it, the money for an Indie title comes from the pockets of the devs. When those pockets are empty from the get go, it becomes a real challenge to work on a game and eventually, again this was the case with DTF, the project has to be abandoned or put to the side so that the devs can actually earn a living.”

Situations like the one Jason described is far too often the case with indie publishers and in some cases can sadly lead to a studio closure.  That’s why, despite as silly as it may seem, I’m quite adamant on major publishers at least taking more of an initiative with indie games as it would be a godsend for certain indie developers like the Devil’s Tuning Fork team.  “When we were pitching to publishers, there were very few that we could actually get the game in front of through normal means (sending emails and harassing people).  The rest of the publisher meetings we had were gotten by knowing other people in the industry.  If there were known publishers who specialized in Indie games, especially if they were known to be sub-divisions of major AAA publishers, the benefits would be numerous for indie devs” said Jason Pecho of the issues indie developers sometimes occur when searching for a home for their project.

Of course one major sticking point with a company suddenly creating an indie sub label, which would require its own staff similar to how the film industry is set up, is that it’s a risky thing to do, even without the current financial fears plaguing some companies today.  Even the largest publishers in the industry are under a tight leash and one major component of the industry is to actually make a profit from the games that hit the market.  But one way publishers can perhaps lessen the financial blow with creating indie based sub-labels is to limit the actual budget for the games released under the label.  Yeah, restricting the money a developer has or the amount of money available to market the product sucks but it’s just one of those things where it’s a natural beast of the business and the same thing occurs with the film industry. The 2009 film Moon was almost criminally under promoted by Sony’s Samuel Goldwyn label, but not every movie receives a $30 million advertising budget. So if game publishers are willing to give developers a shoe string budget, creating an upstart indie sub-label could very well work.

I’m personally surprised Rockstar hasn’t done a similar thing yet as far as producing small titles and exploring the untapped frontier that is indie gaming.  While the company is focused on delivering cutting-edge thematic games with an unprecedented scope, it’s almost odd that the studio hasn’t pushed out any smaller scale games aside from Beaterator for the PSP/iPhone.  If Rockstar gave some members of Rockstar San Diego or the legendary Rockstar North a budget between $1-3 million (which is mere chump change given the budgets of GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption) we’d still probably see something special, even if the visuals were reminiscent of Manhunt or GTA San Andreas. And I’m sure if Rockstar did such a thing they would have a hit on their hands based on the creativity and pure talent of their developers and because of the Rockstar name alone.  If Rockstar Games would create an indie label with the intention of acquiring projects from outside developers, they would still find talent out there in games like Ghetto Golf from indie dev IllFonic, which with a little fine tuning by Rockstar Games team would be a welcomed addition as it perfectly fits the vibe many associate with Rockstar.

Ghetto Golf from developer IllFonic.

Going the low budget indie route may be a safer prospect for some developers than what they’re currently doing. Moving forward with low-budget games that are of decent to high quality is certainly safer than dumping $30 million into an IP or sequel that doesn’t have a chance of breaking through, or eventually loses faith amongst the publisher to the point where they dump it in an odd release window or cancel the project like Activision has done on several occasions. Gamers of course want their big budget games, whether they’re established sequels or new IPs from devs who are talented as hell, and as a core gamer that’s something I want to see continue.  But there’s always a constant pool of untapped talent out there in the form of various indie devs who either a). deserve to have their games released beyond the iPhone/iTouch/internet or b). can produce amazing games with a next to nothing budget. “For big publishers, it’s really a question of risk mitigation” said Pecho on the subject. “I think Indies have proven to be a lower risk investment. That’s the coolest part of Indie development. Great games are being made on little to no budget. Valve has opened up the Indie market a ton by giving indie devs access to the Steam sdk so that they can make money off of their games but I think the next step is for big publishers to invest in Indies.”

But the topic of money may not be the only thing publishers can do to improve the release of indie games. They could always you know, actually pay attention to what’s on the horizon instead of stay dead focused on releasing Sci-fi Bald Superhero Game #564.  Clark Stacey said “I think the publisher relationship to indie games is exemplified by something like Portal. If they’re smart, publishers and established developers will keep a close watch on what’s emerging from the indie / experimental scene, and draw talent and new concepts from it.”  Valve indeed has done a terrific job at looking at the indie scene and drawing talent from the pool with games like Counter-Strike, the aforementioned Portal (which originated from the game Narbacular Drop) and most recently DOTA (Defense of the Ancients).  So in a way, Mr. Stacey is right on the money in how if publishers look closely and keep an acute grasp on the indie scene, they could in turn give us the games we desire – something that’s original and fresh.

Amidst the various points made, I still think creating indie sub labels would be beneficial to publishers in two ways: 1. it would help expand their current library of games along with bringing in new customers and 2. It could serve as a launch pad to new full-fledged franchise games released under the main publishing label.  If a game is made for between $200K to $1 million and is a run-away hit then a publisher may be keen to give it a big budget sequel, or if they’re wise another small scale follow-up to ensure quality. Whatever the case is, the possibilities in creating an indie sub label are endless and if planned properly as risk laden as the business plan/concept appears to be.

There’s still one small problem and that lies in what games would be published if a publisher like EA or Ubisoft ever created an indie label.  One problem that seems to be ever present through the industry and even amongst gamers is what an indie game truly is. I’m not downplaying the talent that various indie developers have, as most of them are simply amazing. But it seems like gamers and the industry have fallen into a pre-conceived notion as to what makes an indie game truly “indie.”  With certain indie games, it almost seems like they need to hit certain buzz words to even be recognized by a publisher. As previously stated, I’m all for creativity in games but it almost seems like certain indie games are caught up in their own self-importance and so are publishers. When creating an indie label, publishers may be keen to release nothing more than games that hit the established key trends, thus even making the indie label nothing more than a small scale version of what we already have with most games: constant repetition.  That of course puts things in a quandary of sorts. But in a perfect world publishers would actually pick up small indie games like Devil’s Tuning Fork and others that regularly make appearances at events like GDC or new surprise hits like FOTONICA.

But alas I’m just a shlub who writes on a gaming blog so what the hell do I know what I’m talking about?  For as much money it earns and the amount of content it pushes out, the video game industry is still almost trying to find its true identity as it’s still an upstart compared to how old the movie industry is. That’s not to say the video game industry doesn’t do things better compared to Hollywood or vice-versa, as Hollywood is almost to the point of creative bankruptcy that the video game industry is fast approaching.  But with the talent that’s available in the video game industry, the desire from gamers for something different and the changing feelings about what a video game can truly be, now certainly would be the proper time to perhaps push indie games more to the frontline of audiences instead of banking on whether generic action game sequel #4 will be a proper hit or not.

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Article posted on February 10, 2011
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