Are independent game designers really all that "independent"?


Last week, I attended a early screening of Indie Game: The Movie (which I have the privilege to be in!). The film is playing all week at the IFC Center and around the country and is a testament to the awakening of independent game development. HBO picked up the film to convert into a dramatic piece which makes sense. The themes of personal achievement, failure, and success should resonate with anyone who’s created a film, movie, book, album (or at least wanted to). Games, as a creative exercise are getting their due.

But one critique of the film was that it praised independence too much. It’s in the title, obviously, but one theme in game development has been that games are a collective effort. This is one of the many reasons that game designers are not celebrities just as we don’t praise the makers of the Prius or Chrome. In those cases, someone is certainly in charge, but the nature of industrial design and software development rarely allow for individuals to rise above their peers. But maybe independent creation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and today in Slate, Eric D. Isaacs makes a similar case about innovation in the world of science:

As Americans, we tend to embrace the notion that a brilliant inventor doesn’t need much more than a garage, a sturdy workbench, and a dream. From Thomas Edison to Iron Man, our inventor-heroes have been popularly viewed as single-combat warriors working feverishly in a basement or some other threadbare den of solitude

And that’s unfortunate, because the myth that innovative genius burns brightest in dingy isolation has a real impact on the way this nation views the importance of the knowledge enterprise and the scientific infrastructure that supports it.

Isaacs then looks at Edison, who was often hailed as the lone basement inventor, but in fact, was a “scientific captain,” who led large teams to discovery. Certainly, titles like Minecraft are examples lone genius and success, but many of the “independent” success stories of the day rely heavily on larger entities. Thatgamecompany struck a three-game deal with Sony. While Super Meat Boy was a popular Flash title, the creators Edmund McMIllen and Tommy Refenes, as Indie Game: The Movie shows, were still poor and struggling before placement on Microsoft’s Xbox Live led to more than 1 million sold units.

One could argue that independents are wonderfully self-funded, but part of the process of innovation is distribution. Indies are still heavily reliant on larger ecosystems like Apple or Valve to peddle their wares. Now, Isaacs is arguing specfically for support of large scientific institutions, but his warning at the close is nice check against praising the loner too much:

As a scientist, I know that every transformative idea is first born in the mind of an individual genius. But a lone inventor burning the midnight oil cannot match the impact of a team of brilliant experts working to develop that idea within a system designed to maximize discovery, with access to the best tools on earth—supercomputers, synchrotrons, accelerators, and all the other dazzling technologies that support science today.

Now, the rallying cry of indie development has been that big studios haven’t been innovating and are merely pumping out one hit title after another. Without a single vision, as Jonathan Blow suggests in Indie Game, there’s no vulnerability. That’s why big studios don’t innovate — no one seems to be running the ship.

But Isaacs is a well-placed corrective that we shouldn’t mistake process problems for people problems. Big studios may not be all that bad.

[via Slate]