Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Streak of Independence

By: Michael Akerman

As I mentioned on CoK, there is a growing trend in gaming consoles toward encouraging outside, small-time developers to make games that are then delivered digitally. Examples include the venerable XBox Live Arcade and the newly-announced initiative from Nintendo to sell indie games in the Wii Shop as Wii Ware. We witness now the birth of a new creative flowering of video games, where a zeitgeist is formed by the masses of computer programmers of moderate to high skill, their ideas revealed to the world for others to imitate.

I should note, certainly, that this is not entirely new. The PC game development scene has been riddled with independent development studios since the time of Zork. One would be hard pressed, however, to point to an efficient delivery and popularization mechanism common to most, or even a large percentage, of PC gamers.

Let us take XBox Live Arcade as an example. In that system we have an interface common to all XBox 360s that provides a platform to announce and deliver games to all XBox users with an internet connection. There is no searching through websites for an executable that will download quickly, nor are there options to fiddle with when installing. There is no need to worry about malware or viruses because all of the games are approved my Microsoft before they are sent out to the masses. Most importantly, there is only one source of digital delivery on the console: all new downloadable games are given roughly equal footing on the platform, and users can easily locate new games.

On PC, the content delivery systems are more similar to warring factions. Steam offers an extremely effective interface with a good number of games to choose from, but all games do not go through Steam. GameTap can also be an effective indie game platform, but the main service requires a monthly fee and GameTap still has fairly low market penetration. The recently-added free versions offer a very limited selection of games, though GameTap could (and should) change this to be a small number of commercial games and a laundry list of free indie games. FilePlanet is available to any PC user, since it requires only a web browser for basic access, and there is a tremendous selection of games, but the site is coated with advertisements for non-subscribers and relegates non-subscribers to long queues in order to download games. As a large-scale content delivery system, FilePlanet is only viable with a paid subscription, since that allows quick downloads and is the only current method set up to pay for games, though that could change to allow non-subscribers to pay per-game.

The console markets are different. Since they are controlled by the manufacturing company, a single delivery system can be accessed by everyone who owns the console. Small games can garner high profiles and, since the delivery systems are designed to allow the manufacturer to charge for certain applications while allowing others to be downloaded for free, indie developers can choose whether to earn profits on the game and how much to make. This encourages small-scale development, causing more creative people to get in the game.

This is all well and good, so far, but what really makes this important is that this is happening on consoles. Mechanisms of keyboard-mouse control have been largely explored, but gamepads have only really been touched by large developers. The Wii especially will benefit from seeing more ideas tested and exposed. The small-scale games provide a safe, stable proving ground for new game and control ideas: failed games are minor setbacks for investors or just a fun hobby for the programmers. The risk of losing millions on a big-name game is evaporated, allowing companies large and small to invest in what is essentially video game research and development. These delivery systems are to video gaming what the space race was to science in the 1960s: a powerful motivating and insuring force to spur the development of better games.

By my hand,

~Michael Akerman