The Power of Indie

Posted on January 5, 2011 by

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What do MinecraftMoon and My Morning Jacket have in common? They’re all turning heads and winning awards without the help of traditional media powerhouses.

Oh come on, like this isn’t what you think of every time someone uses the word “indie.”

By Brian Dau

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from hipsters, it’s good to be indie. That applies to video games as well, where one of the biggest gaming sensations of 2010 was a blocky-looking, still incomplete game about punching trees and digging holes called Minecraft.

The game was, until recently, developed solely by Swedish programmer Markus Persson, who for reasons unknown prefers to go by the handle “Notch.” Minecraft has to date sold nearly a million copies on a pay scale that increases as the game draws closer to completion, netting Persson more than $13 million. The game’s popularity comes despite any sort of formal advertising campaign, instead relying largely on Internet word-of-mouth spurred by community sites like Reddit.

When he’s not making games, Markus Persson enjoys making coy looks into cameras.

$13 million is a sum I would colloquially refer to as “a fucking patrician amount of money,” and Minecraft’s success is all the more remarkable considering what we’re talking about here is a game that hasn’t even been finished yet. The UK version of PC Gamer (one of the old standards of gaming magazines that’s been around since 1993) even named Minecraft its Game of the Year, which is sort of like awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to somebody who hasn’t yet delivered on his promises.

There is, I’ll admit, something pleasingly circular about Minecraft. It offers no story; you simply open the game and start digging into the ground, collecting resources that provide improved tools for digging. Then you just keep digging, stopping only to build something brick-by-brick LEGO-style or to fend off a few blocky looking monsters that come out at night. And that’s it, really.

The world of Minecraft, in all its blocky glory. (Via vutran.me)

It’s simple, straightforward, and relies as much or more on the player’s imagination as on the game’s graphics or narrative. But then, that describes a wealth of indie games being released in greater numbers every year. For example, the annual Independent Games Festival, now in its 13th year, cites almost 400 entries to its main competition, which is “almost 30 percent more games than last year’s record 306 titles, itself a 35 percent rise over the previous year.”

Wait, so you play a soldier who shoots a lot of people? My god, this will CHANGE THE VERY FACE OF GAMING AS WE KNOW IT.

The rising popularity of indie games seems to be part of a larger movement that rejects (or more likely, pirates) media from big corporations while rallying behind the little guys like Persson. And why not? Minecraft currently sells for less than a third of what games from major developers cost, and it’s something different. That’s more than can be said for some of the biggest gaming franchises today, which rehash the same content year after year to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

In comparison to faceless conglomerates like EA Games, it’s hard not to pull for indie developers like those behind the Humble Indie Bundle, a “pay what you want” package of indie games that donated a portion of sales to charity. (And since the purchaser is given the freedom to select where the money should be allocated, if you really hate children, there’s always the option to donate everything to a more technical organization.) These indie developers are on to something, as a little less than a quarter of a million people purchased the package for a total of almost $2 million (Persson himself contributed $2,000 to the project).

No indie game is likely to ever achieve anything remotely approaching the success of the largest time-wasters, and yet it’s refreshing to know that there are individuals and small companies out there working to keep the heavyweights on their toes.

If indie gaming has taught us anything, it’s that no matter what a game looks like, or how complete it is, or how much it even resembles a game at all, people will play anything – as long as it’s fun.

Brian Dau

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