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Small but Incomplete

Small-studio developers are changing the world - but without the expertise of publishing, is this sector sustainable?

When we get around to writing the histories of the games business, the half-decade that we're in right now will probably be defined by three key events. One of them is the slowing of the graphics arms-race, as diminishing returns start to seriously bite the console platform holders. Another is the end of physical media - likely to be with us for another console generation, but already in its death bed, ravaged by the rise of digital distribution and the promise, or threat, of streaming services.

The final event in this hypothetical history is the extraordinary exodus which is taking place, slowly but surely, of talented development staff - who are abandoning traditional large-scale development in surprisingly large numbers to try their luck at the lower-risk, smaller-scale possibilities offered by Facebook, iOS and their ilk.

Can this utopian vision of an entire swathe of the industry made up of small-studio or self-employed developers working on highly creative, low-budget projects actually work on a commercial level?

There has always been a lifecycle in the games business not dissimilar to that of stars, whereby new companies would be formed by an accumulation of talent, burn brightly for a period of time - a short time if they failed to get a major hit, a longer time if they managed to produce a string of blockbusters - and ultimately collapse, shedding their talented staff in the process. Those staff would then form the raw material for new studios that would spring up from the ashes of the old company.

This process still exists, and works perfectly well - but in recent years, something has changed. When old companies go bust, as they continue to do with about the same regularity they always have, the new companies that appear from the ashes are different.

Developers who have watched one firm go under thanks to the extraordinary risks involved in high-budget game development aren't opting to dance the same dance once more. Instead, they're creating smaller, more independent studios, focusing their efforts on social and mobile gaming - hoping to have a product out the door in months rather than years, funded perhaps by their own small business loans rather than the wallet of a publisher who'll want the blood of your firstborn in return.

That this process is taking place is undeniable. What it'll do to the shape of the industry in the long term, however, is a tougher question. As console gaming stagnates but development budgets keep rising, it's easy to see why creatives are keen to parachute themselves out of that environment - and the success of games like Minecraft and Angry Birds, whose creators were honoured at this week's Develop Industry Excellence Awards in Brighton, provides plenty of impetus to chase the small-studio dream.

Obviously, not all of these studios are sustainable - indie development is lower risk because it involves less capital, not because it has a higher chance of success than a console game. Plenty of indie games, probably a majority, will completely fail to make a living for their creators, and plenty of new indie game studios will go bust - although given the low running costs they'll be operating with, the implosions are likely to be unspectacular and not particularly destructive.

However, looking away from the individual studios, the question must be - is the trend itself sustainable? Can this utopian vision of an entire swathe of the industry made up of small-studio or self-employed developers working on highly creative, low-budget projects actually work on a commercial level?

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

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.