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Rock and Roll

Independent games have never been so good - and that's good for everyone.

A couple of years ago, it all seemed over for small teams. As generation after relentless generation of hardware marched forward, game budgets climbed exponentially - and with them, the size of team required to build a modern videogame. Industry insiders speculated openly on whether independent developers would be able to survive in a market that demanded such large scale enterprise. The concept of trying to get an unusual or innovative idea through a system where GBP 10 million was rapidly starting to look like the entry point was utterly daunting.

Yet today, the independent game development scene is thriving, as stories from the Scotland Week has shown. If anything, it's more successful - commercially, creatively, artistically - than it's ever been. From tiny teams working within larger publishers and developers on nimble, rapidly prototyped and launched projects, through to independent developers crafting games in their bedrooms, small teams are quite definitely back in business.

The reason for this resurgence, of course, is the emergence of new distribution methods. Xbox Live Arcade has been accused of being stuffed with too many retro re-releases, but wins a lot of brownie points for games like the utterly fantastic Braid - which joins a line-up of original content that gets more impressive from month to month. Sony's PlayStation Network and Nintendo's WiiWare have done an excellent job of bringing some variety to the table, each offering slightly different business models, interfaces and, of course, hardware capabilities.

Traditionally, however, independent games have been most at home on the PC - and that's still the case to a very large degree. The PC remains the platform of choice for developers starting out on new projects, largely because of the lack of any licensing or publishing restrictions.

If you own a PC, you can develop games for it; if you develop a game, you can distribute it online without having to woo a publisher or platform holder. Extremely cheap web-hosting, accessible payment systems like PayPal and Google Checkout and the growing power of online word of mouth have even conspired to create an environment where teams with good games can set up their own distribution systems with relative ease.

Then there's Steam - Valve's digital distribution platform, which is so dedicated to the indie games scene that it's actually got "Indie" as one of its primary store categories. With the system becoming increasingly popular among game publishers and PC gamers alike (at this stage, it's an active source of frustration when a new game isn't on Steam - and for me, at least, it significantly reduces the chances that I'll buy the game if it isn't there), the presence of indie games provides a prominent store front for the whole sector.

Finally, and most recently, there's the mobile sector. Independent teams once saw mobile gaming as being their best option to break into the market - but the problems of platform fragmentation (which essentially means that you have to develop many different versions of each game) and the horrible process of actually convincing an operator to put your game onto their "platform" have made this market into a less appealing one than even traditional, boxed console games. However, the iPhone provides a ray of hope for indies in this market, thanks to the Steam-style App Store, which gives developers direct access to a fixed, powerful hardware platform.

So the future is bright for independent development - in fact, even the present is bright. The arrival of distribution platforms like Steam, XBLA, PSN, WiiWare, the App Store - and even BitTorrent, Google Checkout, and other such services - are analogous to the appearance of the home video market for movies. Games are still hard to make, just like movies were (it wasn't until the later appearance of cheap, powerful camcorders that the creative process was opened up to the masses - gaming is still waiting for its analogue to this development), but no longer do you have to sell a concept to a publisher, license it to a platform holder and spend millions on its development in order to get it in front of the public.

Anyone who knows a little about film history, or the history of any other major medium, knows why this is important. As gamers have frequently complained, it's tough for innovation to come from big companies - large budgets encourage risk-averse behaviour, and when you're putting 100 people to work for two years on a GBP 10-20 million project, the chances that you're willing to stomach any creative risks are low.

Yet without those creative risks, the industry cannot grow and develop to its full potential. No amount of expenditure on market research, product development or their ilk will create the sparks of genius that drive a creative medium forward - for that, you need the lateral-thinking creative genius that will, inevitably, be rejected outright by corporations until it carves out its own success. No focus groups would have told you that the world was ready for rock 'n' roll - it was something that had to happen, build its own path, and then be picked up commercially and turned into the huge genre it is today.

What a healthy, thriving independent games sector does for videogames is to create the potential for that kind of spark to surface. It creates the market conditions in which new voices can be heard, new talents can experiment and build, and fresh, risky ideas can be rewarded. 99 times out of 100, new ideas aren't actually good ideas - but every now and then, someone hits the drums in the right order, has a flash of genius on the guitar, and creates rock 'n' roll out of the ether. As independent games move to the forefront of our creativity, I wait with bated breath to see what this generation's rock and roll will be.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.