I’ve already talked about my feelings on Greenlight itself elsewhere. But there’s another issue that’s been unfolding across the twitterverse and blogosophere and interwebs in the days since Greenlight’s go-live. It’s starting to feel as if there are two indie communities* out there that share the same name but fundamentally different values. There’s an indie scene of commercially viable and comparably expensive-to-develop titles, and there’s an indie scene of smaller and more intimate games made by developers without the resources, credit, or cash flow of the other.
Whenever things are done in the name of the “indie scene,” both groups believe themselves to be the target audience. And, naturally, this leads to conflict as both groups have radically different expectations of what a game platform is or what it means to create meaningful works. It’s the debate that seems to crop up every year during the IGF nominee announcements – does IGF exist to celebrate the “best of breed” games that are likely to get or already have publishing contracts, or does it have an obligation to highlight smaller titles that won’t otherwise get attention? Greenlight seems to have provoked a similar debate in the indie community, and all of the usual lines are being drawn – only this time it’s tinged with issues of classism and the worth of a work, both because of the whole “$100″ issue and because the conflict is over generating sales rather than being featured in a contest.
Small developers of personal titles argue that the $100 is classist and exclusionary to developers who simply do not have $100 to spend. And the response from the richer, more successful indie developers basically amounts to two recurring points:
The first point shows a complete lack of understanding of poverty or the nature of creating art when absolutely broke. It’s a point made by people who undergo self-induced suffering without understanding those who suffer without a choice. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes may have maxed out their credit cards and risked bankruptcy while working 100 hours weeks when making Super Meat Boy – and that’s not to be made a trifle of. But at the same time, a lot of people interested in the medium of games don’t even have that option. And this is where things get tricky, because you have to be delicate in describing how two white guys voluntarily suffering great pains for their art (and I’ve no doubt they did suffer for their art) is different from someone suffering poverty while making art. But there is a difference, especially when it comes to pulling $100 out of nowhere to place down on something as big of a gamble as the Greenlight service is.
The second point could spiral into its own discussion about the modern aesthetics of the games industry – absolutely obsessed with polish, lush graphics, and a “complete package” more than artful intent or doing a single thing exceptionally well. But more to the point, it assumes an objective measure of quality defined entirely by commercial success that’s being put forward by those who already have it. “Good games always sell” is an easy fallacy to make when your game has successfully sold. But there are plenty of great games that are not currently selling nearly the numbers they probably deserve, and not having access to Steam is certainly not helping.
And combined, I think, it shows that there really isn’t a single cohesive indie block anymore – if there ever was one. Here we have one half of the indie community – the visible half, the half that gets interviewed on Kotaku or Gamasutra, the half you can name-drop to gamers and expect them to follow you – telling the other half that they are functionally unequals. Yes, the particular context is the Steam storefront, but there’s a clear subtext of outright dismissal from commercially successful indie developers when talking to the arthouse developers.
My goal with this article isn’t to call anyone out but to highlight the sort of discourse that is actually taking place in the indie community. A lot of these people have made games that I absolutely adore, and I respect them as creators. But it’s also important to highlight what’s actually being said, and with that in mind here are some tweets from popular indie devs:
Now, these are far from the only indie developers making similar points, but I felt it necessary to include some of the actual language in the discussion, as it’s important in pointing out the condescension taking place. This isn’t a matter of polite disagreement. There’s a vehement insistence that this is a non-issue; that $100 is no big deal and that anyone who disagrees is acting like children. And if you can’t raise $100? Hey, you’re not a serious game developer, or your game isn’t good enough, or you were never going to be commercially viable and therefore your game doesn’t deserve to be sold on the same boutique storefront my game is. Saltsman’s insistence that people who can’t afford $100 are by necessity physically/mentally challenged or foreigners is pretty telling about the privilege that pervades the upper echelons of the indie scene and how little they think of games that don’t have the budgets their games do.
So what does this stratification mean for the indie community? Well, for one, it means that the indie scene is now divided along class lines – an inclusive and amorphous group of students, unpublished indies, hobbyists, and starving artists on the one end and a plethora of small businessmen on the other. And again, there’s nothing wrong with that – making money on your games is not a crime. But there’s a clear difference between someone making a Flash game and hoping the Kongregate ads will help pay rent this month and someone having the ability to scrape together $200k as an investment into their very first indie title. But we still refer to both people simply as “indie developers**,” and increasingly that’s been the source of tension, debate, and misunderstandings.
There has been at least some attempt to span this gap – Dejobaan and others, for example, have tried to raise Greenlight money to support those that don’t have it. But I think as budgets rise even among small titles, we’re going to see the gap widen between the two types of indie developers – those who can afford to treat their passion like a business and those who can’t, those who see money spent on their game as an act of investment and those who see it as an act of fiscal irresponsibility, those who see games as a career and those who see it as a calling. And while everyone wants to be in the former group, it’s important not to declare the latter group illegitimate or undeserving.
* I’m calling it “two communities” for argument’s sake, but in reality it’s more of a gradient. Which is part of the absurdity, really – today’s starving artist might be tomorrow’s superstar who tells the people coming up behind them they can’t sell their game unless it’s already successful, and there are plenty of people that straddle the commercial developer/starving artist line for their entire careers. For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume that most indie devs can be rounded to one side or other of this gradient, okay?
** This is not a “what is indie/this guy isn’t indie/this guy is so totally indie” statement. This is more of a “the word indie means such a wide swath of things now, we may need to reevaluate our ability to simply use that one word when developing indie platforms, indie tools, indie business guides, or indie conventions” statement.