The world of independent development is poised to become even more diverse, according to an expert panel at Berlin's Quo Vadis conference last week. A combination of better tools, bigger online communities and increasingly viable digital marketplaces have created an environment in which more ambitious "triple-I" games will thrive.
The relative youth of this triple-I concept - which was occasionally referred to as "triple-A indie" - was evident in the panel's difficulty in establishing its parameters. It was suggested a game like Thekla Inc.'s The Witness proved that the market could now support indie projects with bigger budgets and higher sales targets, but otherwise this new space has relatively few proponents.
A good handful of those that two exists are already working with Private Division, a new label from Take-Two Interactive that was established to define the triple-I market with releases like Panache Digital's Ancestors - a game that uses the history of the human species as a backdrop, is being led by Assassin's Creed creator Patrice Desilets, but has a much smaller budget than any Ubisoft blockbuster.
"Publishers working with developers should be a great thing, but sometimes it turns out that it's not, and they feel restricted"
Markus Wilding, the senior director of international marketing for Private Division and one of four Quo Vadis panelists, described triple-I developers as smaller teams with, "history and experience with AAA games production, and are fed up with not being able to fulfill their creative vision - because of too many cooks in the kitchen.
"Publishers working with them should be a great thing, but sometimes it turns out that it's not, and they feel restricted... [They] develop games that are maybe smaller in scale, but certainly have that quality that makes it a great game."
Based on that description, one game from the last 12 months stands out as an early paragon of what a triple-I game can be: Ninja Theory's Hellblade, and it was no coincidence that the studio's chief of design, Tameem Antoniades, was also part of the panel. Hellblade was made by a team of 20 for "well under" $10 million, and it was conceived as an attempt to prove the triple-I market existed from the very beginning - unlike a project like The Witness, for example, which grew in scale over a period of years.
"We had to fight and scrape for the funding," Antoniades said, describing the mix of personal savings, a Wellcome Trust grant, a $2 million bank loan, and work-for-hire projects necessary to raise the money Ninja Theory knew it needed to realise the vision for Hellblade. "It was very tough, even for us. There was a lot of risk in that project.
"It's tough. Do you have take investment and lose a chunk of your company? Do you take a publishing deal and lose, perhaps, your IP? Do you fund it yourself? There's no easy path?"
In time, other publisher labels like Private Division - which does not ask for IP rights in exchange for its support - may emerge, and offer triple-I developers a more dependable way to secure the financing they need. Right now, though, with Take-Two still the only major publisher seeking to address and enable this nascent market, the studios attempting to change the perception of what an indie game can be will need to carefully consider their approach.
For Ninja Theory, that meant setting a high bar and pursuing that standard. For Frostkeep Studios, that meant approaching its debut project Rend from the opposite direction. According to Jeremy Woods, who co-founded the studio with a small team of veterans from Blizzard Entertainment, Frostkeep worked for 18 months with a team of "four or five" to create what they collectively believed to be "a marketable product", using mostly savings from careers spent working on some very successful games.
"If you're going to do triple-I, it has to be different to triple-A... You have to be bold, and tackle subjects that everyone else is ignoring"
"At some point you hit a choice," Woods said. "Can we take this product to market? Yes. Should we take this product to market, or should we look at ways to go a little bit further? And I think that's the line between more indie and more 'triple-I'. We took the second route. We'd done enough to be able to start talking to potential partners, and see what we can do with just a little more to finish."
A "little more" ultimately meant the ability to expand to 17 people for the last nine months, with Rend's release expected to arrive in just a few month's time. Even with that extra investment, Woods said, the game's budget is "not high" and "very attainable" for a multiplayer survival game.
"But it was attained through doing the work ourselves first. We didn't walk around with our hands out saying 'We have an idea'," he continued. "Funding was never our goal going in. The goal was, 'Let's do this thing ourselves'.
"That means keeping a tight rein on the scope of the project, making sure that the return is going to be there. We're not making a game for a market that may or may not exist. There's a proven market that's hungry games like this. We know we can make one that can stand out in this space, and so, to us, the risk was not high."
This was the point on which the panel's view of what constitutes triple-I diverged the most. Woods largely discussed "internal" factors, like the mixing the skills of Frostkeep's core team - honed at huge companies like Blizzard - with more fluid and collaborative working practices of the indie scene. Rend itself, though, may not give the player anything radically different from products that already exist.
For Antoniades and Ninja Theory, however, Hellblade was a more conscious attempt to do something that a triple-A company would not - specifically in its protagonist, a woman suffering from mental health problems. "Is AAA too risk averse for this? Yes," he said. "It's backed itself into a corner in terms of business model and creative potential. They have to sell too many units. It's as simple as that.
"If you're going to do triple-I, it has to be different to triple-A. You can't just do a small version of triple-A. You have to be bold, and tackle subjects that everyone else is ignoring, and aim for a niche. And you can aim for a niche because your team size is smaller, and your budget is smaller, and because digital is a thing.
"Hellblade? We couldn't have done that as a AAA game. No way. It had to be independent. And if you're doing an independent game - whether it's an 'indie' game or a triple-I game - it has to be different to everything else out there."
"Knowing that you're not just slaving away, working for a faceless corporation... That's all the mental health I need"
Where both Antoniades and Woods were exactly aligned was in the satisfaction of the work itself. Each had worked on projects where milestones and launch dates were set by a publisher, and while neither said that the actual process of making a game was any less difficult, both were clear on which was kinder to the "mental health" of game developers.
"When you're working on a triple-A project and it gets cancelled, outside of your control, it makes you anxious," Antoniades said. "It makes you anxious on your next project, and the one after that. You feel really stressed all the time. At least with triple-I all the stress is self-inflicted, so it can be reframed as excitement... You can make it work."
Woods added: "In the beginning for us, the mental health part was, 'I don't have a salary, I don't have an income, I'm betting on myself to an extreme degree'. Overall, the mental health of that beginning part may be a little more stressful.
"But when it comes to the pride that you take in your work, and that ownership that you have, nothing can compare to that. The feeling that you get when you're making a game in a completely free environment, that does more for mental health than anything else. Knowing that you're not just slaving away, working for a faceless corporation, but working for yourself? That's all the mental health I need."
Right now, Frostkeep and Ninja Theory encapsulate two subtly different sides of triple-I. The former creating its own take on a proven genre, but with the kind of working environment and structural freedom that is all but inside a major publisher. The latter acknowledging the restrictions that triple-A placed not just on working practices, but also content, and embracing the freedom to explore new subjects and themes.
"The key is creative ownership," Antoniades said, referring to one of the factors that unites them both. "How do you create something that you own? The only route was to be independent. Sometimes I come across as anti-publisher, in my evangelising of this triple-I approach, but that's not the case. If there was a publisher, at the time we started Hellblade, who was willing to help fund our vision, we would have bit your hand off.
"But there wasn't. And it's crazy that there isn't in games, because in film you have it everywhere. The idea of independent films; Black Swan sat alongside Clash of the Titans in the cinema, and made as much money.
"So why aren't we doing that in games? And the answer is, we're starting to, which is great."