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Invisible talent

In the scramble to create games for Facebook, iPhone, Android et al, publishers are looking to the usual places – internal studios, licensed content and outsourced churn. By doing so, they're overlooking a vast pool of talent, far more experienced in these matters than almost any existing studio.

For all their lo-fi flamboyance, the current and ever-growing crop of indie developers, found all over the likes of Kongregate and Newgrounds, are not sound and fury signifying nothing. Their hipster mentality and predilection for surreality may put them in a different class of professional to the mainstream, but they've been successfully and passionately creating big-idea games with minimal resources and for low-specification machines for half their lives. If you want someone to make a Facebook game, ask someone like Eyezmaze, Edmund McMillen or Cryptic Comet. They’re (sometimes) fast, they excel at novel, engaging ideas realised with simple controls and eye-catching imagery and they'll do it all off their own backs.

Currently, their ideas and creations exist and are often lost amongst a cacophony of submissions to Flash portals – intimidating to casual users. Bring indie to Facebook, to iPhone, to airplane entertainment systems, whatever – just because such users are not traditional gamers does not mean they're immune to cleverness and cuteness. They don't need to be spoon-fed endless Bejewelled clones and FarmVille rip-offs. Show them a neat idea within an environment they trust, and they'll thrill to it.

When I read a story saying someone's working on a 3D first-person shooter for Facebook, I can't help but roll my eyes. What a waste. All that time, money and bandwidth, for something masses of people wouldn't adore anywhere near as much as a hand-crafted 2D puzzle game or platformer. The trouble is getting such games to the mass audience, because despite a certain careful adoption of indie and pseudo-retro in the likes of Braid and Pixel Junk, publishers and platform-makers remain afraid even of very cheap risks.

Look at Canabalt, a break-out hit on iPhone last year, made by one guy and originally created for a gamejam. It's a game about trying to escape an unspecified apocalypse, but show that to anyone on iPhone or on Facebook and they'll be able to play it – because it only requires one button, to jump. It requires only timing, the concept and controls understood in a heartbeat. Suddenly, they're in a world, a new setting of collapsing buildings and enormous missiles, but they'll completely understand what's happening and what they have to do. It's much more clever than matching coloured orbs, but just as simple to play.

The best indie developers understand what makes people play games, but are simultaneously unafraid to experiment. It's a tragic miracle that most of these fine chaps haven't been offered huge cheques (but still far smaller than would go to a slower, less passionate internal or outsourced studio) to create micro-games that people talk about, share and gleefully plug achievements and scores from into their Facebook and Twitter profiles. Give these developers your licenses. Give them your faith.

Most of all, these guys silently cement the PC as the real future of games. Consoles will come and go, closed systems to the end, but it's the platform that allows anyone with any idea to create a game and share it with the world that will ultimately win out. Canabalt or Meat Boy or Armageddon Empires could be played on Facebook on any PC, if someone so wished. They could never be played via a Facebook page loaded on a 360 or PS3, because that would be bringing free games to platforms that will forever be terrified of that concept.

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Alec Meer avatar
Alec Meer: A 10-year veteran of scribbling about video games, Alec primarily writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but given any opportunity he will escape his keyboard and mouse ghetto to write about any and all formats.
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