Raiders of the Lost Art: A Look at Indie Developers

By Matt Bailey

This article was part of Darwinia Week, a week-long set of features in the run up to Darwinia's release on the 4th March 2005. For more information on Darwinia, visit the Darwinia Web site, or read our review.

In the era of the ever-increasing dominance of Electronic Arts and some of the other big publishers, it is sometimes worth reminding the gaming world of the other people who make titles; the independent developers who are self-funded and stand out amongst the share-driven giants. This is what this article intends to do.

Introversion Software
Given that it's Darwinia Week on this week, it seems appropriate to mention Introversion Software. In fact, their game is part of what brought about the existence of this article. That game is of course Darwinia, a truly stunning display of just what independent developers can achieve. It's not some $4.99 Flash-based game and it doesn't have a large development team with millions to spend. In fact, Darwinia doesn't even officially have a publisher; it's being created by IV, and then distributed through Pinnacle Software, both with sales in UK stores, and direct through IV's website.

So why are the 4-man team important to the games industry? By creating and releasing a title with the same production standards and, in most cases, gameplay superior to major releases they have shown that it doesn't take a multi-million pound licence and a 100-strong development team to create a classic. And with this being their second title after Uplink, it shows that the developer is sustainable, even if its royalties for Uplink's North American release are still unpaid.

Despite being a well-known name, featuring a much much larger team than Introversion, and having created two of the PC's most important games, Valve are still an independent developer. The projects were set up and funded by themselves, and the fact that they were independent and not owned by a publisher (although they did have publishing deals with Sierra - now owned by media giant Vivendi Universal) meant they weren't tied to any specific release date or game content, and were able to take six years to release the masterpiece that is Half-Life 2. Well worth the wait we say.

However, what makes Valve's contribution to the world of independent developers so important is the love-it-or-hate-it Steam distribution system. On the consumer end it allows you to purchase and download the latest releases instantly, have them automatically updated as soon as a patch is available, and enjoy added features like new levels and maps that the developer wishes to add after a game's release. On the developer's side, however, is the fact that Steam allows independent developers to distribute their content to a wide audience, without the need for a major publisher who will take away a big share of the profits. But it's not only developers who can't find a publisher or don't want to sign away everything for some advertising; online distribution systems like Steam have the potential to allow small 'bedroom' coders to get their games out to a mass audience, thus allowing the next generation of mainstream game developers to come through. We're just waiting for Valve to sign up its first participants. Microsoft have also played their part in this through the Xbox Live Arcade system in North America, which allows small games similar to those found on or it's own MSN Gaming Zone portal to be downloaded for a small fee.

Nicely Crafted Entertainment and Elixir Studios
Two recent important British independent developers are Nicely Crafted Entertainment and Elixir Studios. Nicely Crafted's project has been the still-going-strong MMPORTS (massively-multiplayer online real-time-strategy) title, Time of Defiance. Although it did get a retail release through Oxygen Interactive, the game is mostly sold through its online portal on Elixir on the other hand have received much mainstream attention due to Republic: The Revolution for Eidos and more recently Evil Genius for Sierra. Although the success of both indies is important, the main point here is their recent announcement to work together for their next title, Republic Dawn: Chronicles of Seven. Is this a sign of the future? Independent developers working side-by-side in order to challenge the big companies? Probably not, though for now we're just pleased to see the talent of both companies working together.

Digital Jesters
Although an independent developer needs to be independent of any other company in terms of creating their game, most will still need to get a publisher in order to get their product to the mass-market. Although Introversion have done very well entirely on their own, there is one publisher whose recent efforts in bringing out games by the independents should be commended; Digital Jesters.

The UK publisher, who have been around just over a year, have an entire catalogue of games from independent developers; in fact, every single game they publish is from an indie. Digital Jesters are just clever enough to sign up the small (Cyanide Studios, Nadeo, S2 Games) and not-so-small (Irrational Games) developers and give their games a mass audience. The company has done well for itself, and shown that you don't need to own loads of your own development studios in order to be a successful publisher. Let's just hope they keep up with the good work.

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