Spelunky designer Derek Yu was on the leading edge of the ongoing indie development boom. He was one half of the development team for Aquaria, which launched in 2007, a year before Braid, World of Goo, and Castle Crashers would firmly establish the indie scene in the mainstream consciousness. Since that time, he's seen an explosion in the number of developers setting up shop as indies. But even with that sudden abundance of competition, Yu told GamesIndustry International at last month's Game Developers Conference that it's still a great time for developers to make the jump.
"The competition is only a good thing for indie developers," Yu said. "Especially for the ones who have the highest chance of making it, I think that competition just drives you to do more. Try harder, make your game more polished, try to think of something a little more brilliant than you would have if it was a less competitive atmosphere. So I'd say the good always outweighs the bad when you've got a highly competitive atmosphere."
"For a lot of developers, putting games on iOS and mobile feels like a lottery, and that's a real unstable feeling that's hard for developers."
There may be one exception to that, specifically when the market doesn't actually reward the quality produced by that competition, which is what Yu sees in the mobile market.
"I think it's tough because that market does have so many games that are there to be cheap entertainment and make a lot of money," Yu said. "That's just a difficult place to be for a developer who wants to make essentially a non-mobile style game for a mobile platform. It's just kind of intimidating. It's a very finicky business, too, in terms of what succeeds and what doesn't. For a lot of developers, putting games on iOS and mobile feels like a lottery, and that's a real unstable feeling that's hard for developers."
Aquaria was released for iOS, but Yu partnered with outside help to develop and publish the game. He said doing the port was worth it, but said the market is "just too scary" for him to explore further unless he came up with an idea that was perfectly suited to the platforms, with touchscreen controls and short bursts of gameplay by design.
"You could really just completely tank on mobile, which I don't think is true if you make a good game on PC or console," Yu explained. "If you spend a couple years on it, you're going to at least get back what you put in."
One of the reasons for that is the seemingly longer lifespan of indie games. Where retail releases tend to disappear from shelves once the launch window sales push ends, Yu said indie games appear to have a much longer tail. Aquaria is still a steady source of income for Yu, partly because like many indie titles, it didn't really have a marketing budget for launch. Because the game's entire addressable market didn't know about it on day one, every port and every promotion (like being in the Humble Indie Bundle) has spiked sales, providing "opportunity after opportunity" for the game to keep paying off. Spelunky appears ready to replicate that long tail, as 2012's timed exclusive for Xbox Live Arcade is heading for release on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita this summer.
"[T]here could be more people on the console side of things that just understand indie developers, that understand their culture, which is very diverse, very individualistic."
Speaking of console development, Yu said he had a "relatively positive experience" working with Microsoft. The platform was easy to develop for, and Yu had praise for his producer, who he said gave him support when needed and knew when to back off and let the developers do their work. As for suggestions that the next generation of consoles are intended to be more indie-friendly, Yu said the platform holders definitely have room to make strides.
"The main thing is there could be more people on the console side of things that just understand indie developers, that understand their culture, which is very diverse, very individualistic. If you're developing on a console as an indie, there's a lot to learn. And for people on the console side of things, there's a lot that they take for granted that we don't really understand in terms of the development process, even as far as, 'What does an alpha mean to Microsoft or Sony versus an indie developer?' It could be a very different thing...Just making the process as easy for indie developers as possible, removing as much red tape or paperwork from the equation would be the thing to do."
Even without those advancements, the independent community has become an accepted part of the game industry, Yu said. And as Journey's sweeping of the Game Developers Choice Awards at GDC showed, that indie community is increasingly competitive with the rest of the industry.
"Healthy competition is great within the indie community, but it's also great between the big companies and the small independent studios," Yu said. "Having them on the same tier is good for both sides."
This is one in a series of GamesIndustry International interviews with independent developers on the changing role of indies in the industry landscape.