The founders of the new indie studio Wickerman Games Chris Hardwick, Dan Cordell and The Wickerman talked about their views about indie game development and the future of game production.
About Wickerman Games
We’ve worked at Codemasters, The Chinese Room, Starbreeze Studios, CD Projekt Red, Electronic Arts, Lukewarm Media and Digital Arrow. Chris contributed towards Bodycount, FIFA Soccer, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Hs role has always been in the engine department. Dan has contributed towards Primal Carnage, inMomentum, Everybody’s Gone to The Rapture, and Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, along with the Hearts of Stone expansion, Dan’s role has been varied across art disciplines, from Visual Effects through to Environment Art.
We’re not ready to speak about our project quite yet, as we’re going to be building up to the reveal, but what we can say is that it is definitely a role-playing game, it’s set in our own sci-fi universe, and heavily inspired by pen and paper games. At the moment we’re aiming for desktop platforms.
We are going to show as much of the development off as we can. The content will be spoiler free, but it also means that the users will get to see things which they haven’t seen before. In a lot of ways this is an attempt to keep us as honest as possible. As professional developers we are also wary about selling something we feel is incomplete, even if we feel like we could make a quick buck. We just feel it’s dishonest at this stage where we are an unknown quantity. Sure we’ve worked on some big games but we don’t want people’s money until we actually have something we feel is good enough to sell.
The Indie Evolution
The actual term “indie developer”, which is an incredibly broad term, just means not being owned by a publisher. This definition matches an incredible number of studios especially with how the games market is structured nowadays. Certainly though, there are smaller indies and larger indies. On the smaller side you have micro studios usually containing one to four people creating smaller titles and on the other side, you have larger studios like Harebrained Schemes creating much larger games like the Shadowrun series. Both of these examples are indie, but undeniably the micro studio are creating different games to their larger counterparts.
If by indie you mean small compact games, made by a micro studio potentially working out of a garage, then you’re basically talking about a small niche corner of the market. Just one of many that exists within the larger games market. What you have now is a situation where small developers who have been successful are growing into larger entities. Rodeo Games is a good example. They started as a foursome, and they’ve now grown into a small studio with something in the region of 10 employees. These successful indies will continue to grow, and could essentially reach the potential of an extremely large independent developer like CD Projekt Red.
The Importance of Middleware
Affordable tools have made accessing games development a lot easier! Anyone can give it a try now. But that’s actually always been the case. Much like it was back in the 80’s, where you just needed something like a Commodore 64, or a Sinclair Spectrum. Whilst many more people are now able to give games development a shot, because the technology is easier to grasp, you only need to look at platforms like Steam, and the App store to quickly realize that a lot of games that are developed are effectively hobby projects. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, you will have your occasional Flappy Birds – an unexpected break-out success.
That said I don’t think it’s a revolution exactly, there has always been technology that has allowed people to develop games, the only real change has been that small amateur developers are now able to make a living wage from their endeavors; provided the product is good enough. Back in the early 90’s, you had a situation where indies would be developing using a shareware, or public domain format to release their titles.
Provided that someone wanted to try games development, they’ve always been able to make a game, there has always been tools and technology that was affordable, be it S.E.U.C.K, STOS/AMOS, Dark Basic/Blitz Basic, Klik ‘n Play etc… The tools have gotten better, for sure, UDK and Unity, for example, are very easy to get hold of, but with the advent of Steam Greenlight, and early access, it has become easier to sell the results. After all if you spend time working on a small weekend project and can sell it, why not?
Gaming is simply more popular now, so, as a result, more people are attempting the development side of things.
The smaller high quality indie titles are probably going to be the ones that suffer the hardest, as their market is being flooded with hundreds of lower quality titles making it much harder to find the good games amongst the bad. The upcoming indiapocalypse isn’t a new thing at all, the pattern is very simple, small outfits and micro studios either grow, or shrink into nothingness. It happened with the videogame market crash in the 80’s. This is what happens when a market adapts. It’s basically just the nature of capitalism in general: it’s rooted in the survival of the fittest.
Art as a Marketing Tool
In our opinion, the art style has to fit the kind of game you are making. For example, a gritty shooter sells its grittiness based on its realism. You could do this with a more stylized result however it’s probably going to be a bit harder to pull off successfully and it’s very easy to mix the message.
While the look of a game is certainly important at least to initially hook people in, really when it comes down to it, most people hardly notice it after the first few minutes, unless there is a vista set up specifically to wow the audience. This is only natural really if you immerse your players, they aren’t really going to notice, because they aren’t being jarred out of the experience.
Fundamentally, the art is there to draw you in, but the gameplay and narrative are there to keep you engaged. A great example of this would be Dwarf Fortress, the game is all coloured ASCII characters so it’s not exactly easy on the eyes, but the gameplay itself can be incredibly engaging. What they have works for the kind of game they are making.
Developers work with what they have available to them, an exceptionally pretty game may have terrible gameplay, and an ugly game may have exceptional gameplay. That said, it never hurts to make a game look as good as you can possibly make it look.
The Future of Indie Market
It’s kind of hard to say for sure, but what seems plausible to us is that the smaller indie title market is probably going to get squeezed by all of the lower quality titles flooding it. They’ll either have to find a new platform to be sold on, that has a curation process, or perish.
A curated platform would make it easier to get noticed, and there will probably be a lot of growth headed in that direction. As for the larger indies, we aren’t so sure things will change too much for them. Steam has become a behemoth and that looks unlikely to change in the near future. AAA studios and publishers may try and put out their own platforms eventually as it in some ways makes business sense, even if they aren’t as successful as Steam, there is still a fairly huge incentive to do so, despite poor reception, you only need to look at Uplay, Origin and even early Steam as examples of this.
There are some games that are certainly becoming more of a service, where games are being released and seeing long periods of post support, and additions. This is certainly happening at different times for different games, Minecraft is an early example, but also Steam Early Access is resulting in this kind of attitude. For good or ill.