May 4th, 2011 | By Chris Priestman
Independent game developers by and large have a united goal: to create the games they want to create. Unfortunately, there is more to simply creating games if you want to take the dangerous path towards becoming a full time indie game developer. There is a ton of marketing to do and at the end of the day; you have to be making money to survive. That is a cold, hard fact that has led to the demise of many an indie warrior that has faced the gauntlet. Those who have managed to successfully create a good game and market it effectively have come out on top. These are independent studios like Chillingo, Wonderland Software and now Firemint who have now been acquired by bigger companies and consequently lost their rights to the indie label.
So, yesterday it was announced that Firemint has been acquired by gaming giant EA as part of their EAi program. The deal is being seen as a benefit for both parties of course. EA are happy to let Firemint carry out business as usual, while EA help distribute their already successful games for a share in the profits. Barry Cottle, the vice president of EA had a few interesting things to say on the matter:
“As the handset market has got more fragmented, so has the developer space. There’s a plethora of really talented small shops out there able to get a breakthrough hit that people believe is repeatable. So this notion of small developers being acquired by larger players is probably more the type of acquisition that you’re going to see going forward.”
In other words, EA have noticed a growing market that they are not tapping into enough, so they plan on acquiring those indie developers that are seeing success on mobile platforms – it’s an easy purchase. Admittedly, Firemint have worked with EA before creating mobile games, so the purchase is not too surprising or risky for either party. EA Mobile games like Madden and Need for Speed are on Firemint’s portfolio – you know, real indie games… Their most successful game as an independent is Flight Control – you may have heard of it.
Now a deal like this seems absolutely brilliant for an indie developer. They have proven their worth and ability enough to have the biggest publishers chasing them down, begging to offer their distribution services. They have won the system and remain as one of the most successful indie game developers to exist and millions of people will now know of their games.
Why is it then that I have an immediate urge to reject the company for working with a big name publisher?
Not all cases of indie-publisher crossovers are a violation to the indie scene. In some cases a relationship with a global distribution company can help out smaller projects that may be struggling, and are consequently able to exist and even thrive. Using EA as an example, their aid with Klei Entertainment and Hothead Studios ensured that Shank and Deathspank made it to the end of production and in the form that the developers had wished for. Like I said earlier, a huge problem for the majority of indie developers is marketing and distribution so it is great that these publishers are helping to get these games out into the wild. The developers can finally concentrate all of their efforts into creating a brilliant game without having to worry so much about the business side of things. Isn’t that what indie development is all about? It also represents the importance of indie developers to the gaming industry if these companies are noticing them for their efforts. Or is that their profits?
The issue is that being an indie is considered a cool label to wear. It holds sentiments not too dissimilar to anarchism; you are refusing the ways of ‘The Man’ and are doing things your own way. A good majority of indie developers that I have spoken to despise the lack of freedom that these bigger companies enforce when working for them. Going indie was the best option for them – maybe not financially, but certainly in terms of creative freedom. Although, those indies being absorbed by the big name publishers seem to have many advantages in doing so, it is hard to forget that they represent everything that the indie scene is against. Furthermore, it is even harder to forget that these and similar publishers/distributors have caused indie companies under their wing to fold in the past because they were not making enough money. It is creative freedom as long as the money is coming in. They do not support indie development, they only support the money being made from it. They see indie development as ‘ripe’ for picking because there are significant profits attached to it. It is because of this that I see these companies as weaker than other indie developers who actually remain independent despite the issues they may face. Let’s not also forget stories such as Minecraft’s that proves that indies can be hugely successful without the need for these super companies getting involved at all.
Keep The Impostors Out!
I am not trying to encourage despise for the indie companies that work with publishers like EA. After all, they are simply trying to get their game out there, and it is great that more people get to bathe in the glory of indie games. It seems to the developers that they are entering into a win-win situation. They keep their creative freedom as well as gain some security in the other parts of their company that they may be struggling with. This, I have not so many quarrels with. It is the already successful companies like Firemint that merely wear the indie label rather than uphold its values. They may be indie by name, but this does not mean they are indie by nature. They had no need for EA to intervene in distribution of their games – Flight Control has sold over 4 million copies!
The examples of a publisher helping an indie out in the development process such as with Klei and Hothead are fairly respectable – although I do question the possible repercussions of this. But the news that EA is ready to acquire more ‘indie’ studios to stay ahead of their competition to basically make more profits for themselves sickens me. It is a good reminder that we have to be careful with the indie label as it seems to be more of a marketing ploy for companies trying to look edgy – most of us should spot the misplacement. Is this the direction we want so-called ‘indie’ production to go – a competition to see who can make the most money? Indie success should not be measured by your finances; but by your community, quality of games and determination. I just hope that we can hold on to these sentiments without ‘selling out’ to the big time publishers when they come wearing a new, more attractive façade.
Readers, keep your eyes open and recognise a true indie when you see it. Do all you can to support them if you feel they deserve it and and we should not need to hear of any other giants invading our villages. Pitchforks at the ready!