Thursday, February 4, 2010

Steambirds: Why indie games are good for fans

Here's a rough sneak peak video of an indie gem called SteamBirds. As I was playing, I started thinking about questions of authorship and authenticity in the game industry.

The game
Steambirds is a rare treat. The magical design equation = Steampunk + Turn-based strategy + Air combat.

Despite my immense love of turn-based strategy games, I've found two problems with the genre over the years. First, very few people make them any longer. This is simple silliness and is easily rectified. Second, and perhaps more damning, most turn-based games that exist take forever to teach and play. The gaps and chinks that once appeared in my youthful schedule are now jam packed with accumulated tasks, looming responsibilities and the vast pressure of my imminent demise. I'm lucky to squeeze in even a few minutes of playtime at the end of a long day.

With Steambirds, the devs managed to make a deep strategy game where a single match is over in minutes. It fits into my life. The interface is super streamlined so even casual players can learn the basics in 30 seconds. My wife, not exactly a hardcore gamer, has been playing for days now. How cool is that?

I'm a fan. Here's a simple question that should be asked of all games: Who is responsible for making this wonderful experience?

The problem with game development heroes
Here is what I have observed: If a game is built by a large team and published by a mainstream publisher, you cannot know who is responsible for the game.

As an exercise, name a modern developer whose work has changed your life. If you are a mainstream gamer, you'll likely name the talking head behind the latest console smash. Chances are that the individual you think of as the key creative force is:
  • A cog in a much larger machine. Only rarely does an individual contribute more than 1% of the magic that makes a large title sparkle. There are just too many cooks in the large scale game development kitchen for individuals to shine.
  • Not directly responsible for the market success of the title at hand. Much of the success of AAA titles is based off brand and marketing budgets that weigh in at double the development cost. Without the expensive propaganda the drives a finely honed message into our consciousness, many of the 'most popular' titles would be little more than footnotes.
  • Made spokesperson by the direction of marketing. Talking heads, even ones with the title of 'designer' or 'producer' are often selected for their ability to A) deliver a message or B) coast by on their past history. Few tell an authentic story based on their personal contribution to the game. Real contributers are hidden behind the anonymous whitewash of the studio name.
The game media, trained to vacuum up press releases and pre-packaged interviews, never asks the probing question "What did you actually do?" or "Well, if you didn't, who did?" Marketing handlers merely selects a plausible face and media blindly crowns them as worthy creative visionaries.

Idols, even false ones, fill a uniquely human need for worship. Both gamers and journalists are desperate to adore, to celebrate, to follow the brilliant individuals that birthed our favorite games. When presented with the mechanistic, faceless truth of modern game development, we reject reality and seek something, anything that fits our preconceived notions of creative genius. A paper hero constructed of marketing materials fits the fan's need and is gladly assembled for each game launch.

But do we really need to settle? Are artificial heroes necessary? What if there were real gaming celebrities out there who are actually worthy of our veneration?

How a fan should select an authentic gaming hero
Here's an exercise for selecting someone in the game industry to admire.
  1. Is the game worthy?
  2. Are you being lied to?
  3. Are the authors identifiable as a real human being?
  4. Is their contribution meaningful and authentic?
  5. Does their contribution predict future enjoyment?
As we step through each of these, I've got a bold claim that I'll state up front: The only people that we, as fans, can claim with 100% certainty are worthy of our appreciation are small teams of independent developers.

Is the game worthy?
You can think about the worth of game in terms of Reach (the number of people it impacts), Depth (the depth of the experience) and Innovation (the degree to which the game moves the industry forward.)

Reach: An indie title like Steambirds will almost certainly will reach millions. It will be played by more gamers than 99% of all games on any game market. Take your pick...Xbox, Wii, PS3, DS, iPhone. In terms of broad popularity, Steambirds will have a bigger reach than the vast majority of games ever released during the history of gaming. Let that sink in for a moment.

Depth: For a percentage of players, a game made by one or two people can be just as compelling as any bloated AAA monstrosity. The elegant birds flying upward in Adam Saltsman's Canabalt spark deeper feelings within me than any of the overwrought hair porn smeared haphazardly across Bayonetta.

Innovation: A game like Steambirds doesn't play much like the vast number of clones that continually flood the market. From one perspective, it is another turn-based strategy game that has clear roots in existing (albeit obscure) boardgames. Yet compared to the dozens of FPS, physics games, platformers, tower defense titles and match 3 games, a project like Steambirds is delightfully unique. It innovates in terms of UI. It innovates in terms of genre pacing and mechanics. It even takes place in an original setting. (One where the fusion reactor was invented in the 1800s!)

I use Steambirds as an example, but there are dozens of indie titles that fit any sane definition of worthy. When you objectively measure game on worth instead of paid hype, you realize that games built by independent developers are rapidly becoming the defining experiences of a whole new generation of players. Just the other day I was chatting with my doctor, a gray haired lady in her fifties. She started excitedly talking about the great new game she was playing, a title called Osmos. This isn't some mainstream or casual is pure indie gaming. It hit me: our stereotypes are broken. The fact that a game is 'indie' no longer limits it to being a niche product.

Greatness is now independent of development budget. It is no longer defined by team size or marketing campaigns. A great game is a great game, be it a AAA marquee title or a 2D project made by two guys with a dream.

Are you being lied to?
If there is a publisher, there is always spin. It is built into the incentive structure associated with funding and marketing a game portfolio.

With an indie game like Steambirds, there is no vast publisher machine with a financial need to twist and massage the truth. You are connected directly by blogs, forums and interviews with the developer. Many times they are the ones responding to your emails directly. There are no endless lists of people who may or may not have actually ever made something. Unlike most most pro developers, the human beings responsible for every lovingly crafted detail of indie games even have names. You can look them up. They have ugly, honest, human websites, not extravagant confections excreted by nameless outsourced minions.

Honesty and transparency should matter to true fans. It is worth dedicating your passion and energy to something real, not a lie.

Are the authors identifiable as real human beings?
For Steambirds, I helped a bit on the design and graphics, but real creator of the game is Andy Moore, who worked alongside Colin Northway on the phenomena called Fantastic Contraption. The musician is by DannyB, the sizzling dynamo behind games like Canabalt and Super Meat Boy. In some ways, it is a game made by indie superstars.

It matters that Andy Moore is a real person, not a cog playing a role. I've met him last year in Austin and together we drank some fine microbrews. Along with a crew of other indies, we partook in an ill fated 2am adventure through the back alleys of Austin in search of a magical rumored cupcake deli. As we were chatting, he told me how after Fantastic Contraption, he sold off everything that didn't fit in a suitcase. This practice is called 'rightsizing your life' and it shows a dedication to game development that I find both rare and admirable. The fact that his lovely girlfriend puts up with his artistic journey is even more admirable.

Now, he lives to make games. Just last weekend, he was tapped as a mentor for the Global Game Jam and stepped up at the last minute to bail out a failing team. By the end of 48 hours, they had created a giant grotesque caterpillar that barfed rainbows. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

You won't find such stories told at press junkets. In fact, you may not even be able to find out the names of the people who actually worked on the game. Merely having accurate credits is still somewhat of a controversial topic for many large developers.

Games made by real people...there is something inherently valuable about the human story behind a game's creation.

Is their contribution meaningful and authentic?
Andy programmed every line of code in Steambirds. He isn't a 1% contributer. He is a majority contributor. My rule of thumb is simple: If you remove a person from the project, does the project still get finished? Does it still reach it's potential? I challenge you to find such a person on most non-indie projects. You typically won't. The cogs are treated as replaceable components (even when they aren't.)

After the project started, I found out that Andy is an amateur pilot. Steambirds was not merely a job. It was an opportunity for him to express his love of airplanes as a game. This intrinsic motivation is the difference between Van Gogh placing his turbulent emotions on canvas and an assembly line mechanically painting signage.

Personal passion and the size an individual's impact matter.

Does their contribution predict future enjoyment?
You haven't played Steambirds. But you may have played Fantastic Contraption. And you may have heard the tunes in Canabalt. There is a direct mapping between the creative skills expressed in Steambirds and your impressions of the author's past efforts. Much like how you might check out the album of your favorite band, you should also be inclined to check out the newest game from your favorite indie developer. Their creative blood courses through their entire body of work.

No such link with the past exists on games made by larger teams. 8 times out of 10, the name of both the publisher and the development company on the box have no coherent connection with the people who made the game. The team logos are, in effect, meaningless badges that exist purely for the sake of marketing. If someone says that they like or dislike an EA game, they obviously have no idea what they are talking about.
  • A publisher's brand is a business shell, not a developer that creates authored experiences.
  • Publishers often switch up teams on a title by title basis. The group that made the game that you enjoyed is unlikely to be the same team that was contracted to make the sequel.
  • Large teams experience massive churn. Some groups lose upwards of 50% of their developers from game to game. The original people who made your beloved game may not even make games any longer.
  • Power shifts within a large developer often alter creative direction in unpredictable ways.
A clear, strong connection between the author and his works helps you, the player make meaningful judgement about whether or not you want to try future games. Without this simple, obvious connection, you are just a sucker caught up in a cynical branding shell game.

True fans know who makes their games
In summary, when you really love a game, be it a small title or a large title, do the following:
  • Find out who actually made the game you love.
  • Look for games where vision and ownership are clearly visible.
  • Reject the marketing machine.
As I look at this list, I am delighted by the indie game movement because for the first time in many years, players can once again associate the efforts of a human being with their great game experience. I want to be celebrate the individuals who makes the games that change my life. I don't want to be a suckered by some expensive snow job. Indie games let me be a fan who is cheering on someone authentic and deserving. That is pretty darned cool.

take care

PS: Steambirds is currently in bidding over on Wish Andy luck!

PPS: mind is blown! Some eagle eyed commenters pointed out a great little space strategy game called Critical Mass by Sean O'Connor that has a very similar control system...and was created in 1995. I love it! It is awesome when two smart team independently stumble on the same solution decades apart. Convergent evolution in action. This also points out the importance of seeking out old masters for great ideas. If we had known about Critical Mass, perhaps we'd have a few dozen less UI prototypes. :-) Credit to an original innovator where credit is due: Go check out Critical Mass.


  1. Another great article DanC. Few names now mean something—author's are probably the best example, and film directors are another. I think that as frowned upon as dictatorship is, every project needs a guiding head to make executive decisions, for better or worse.
    Design by committee will never produce breath-taking results, and I think you explained this sentiment incredibly well. Looking forward to seeing Moore's Steambirds in action!

  2. Beautiful Article Dan! Steambirds is going to Rock, and I wish you and and Andy the best of luck.

    Loved this line: "Honesty and transparency should matter to true fans. It is worth dedicating your passion and energy to something real, not a lie."

  3. This is interesting, because as a musician, I've had my share of heroes and such, but I never even thought of gaming heroes! If fact, your article inspired me to take a slightly closer look at several of my preconceived notions. I have have big games and indie games that I just think are awesome, but I have no idea who is really responsible for the big ones!! I realized that I *DO* have at least one indie gaming hero, though! It's Jeff Vogel from, just don't tell him! :D His games are quite retro, but he's virtually a one-man shop, both details of which inspire me greatly!

    The subject of heroes and inspiration is a complicated one, because there's so much marketing and illusion that goes into all forms of entertainment, among other industries. I've always been reluctant to look up to big 'entities', but if you don't dig a little bit, that may be all you'll see. The web has become the great equalizer for all forms of entertainment, however. It has it's share of problems (eh-hem, piracy), but no one can really control the gates anymore. There are those that spend every waking moment trying to figure out how to, but if you take the initiative and look, you can find what you're looking for. Those that can push through and find success in that model are truly heroic to me.

  4. Great post. A few months ago someone (sorry, can't remember the exact article) said that game companies need to look more like rock bands and less like orchestras. That's it. And I really would like to see more and more indie developers, because, as for now, small teams are giving me the biggest fun.

  5. "...a project like Steambirds is delightfully unique. It innovates in terms of UI. It innovates in terms of genre pacing and mechanics."

    It does look fun, but I'm not entirely sold on the innovation side. From the trailer, the UI/pacing/mechanics look very much like incremental tweaks of Sean O'Connor's superb 'Critical Mass' (, which was first released in 1995.

    Sean would be my personal pick for indie gaming hero, by the way.

  6. I will second that it looks a more polished critical mass, which is not a bad idea at all.

    Sean also has rats that was quite funny when I first played it and Slay that is a great simple and fun strategy for when you only have 10 minutes to play something.

    The rest of the post is just great, although I still have fun with the never ending sequels that seems designed by a committee like MW2, they do feel a bit faceless. Maybe exactly like some hollywood movies?

  7. Just checking out Critical Mass now. That is don't know how long we iterated on UI prototypes to get the feel of Steambirds right. Ah, the myth of originality in 'innovation' ignores the fact that multiple people independently exploring the same landscape of fun will often find their way to the same hilltop.

    I've updated the essay to give a much deserved call out to Sean.

    take care

  8. Well, I think Valve has shown that it is also possible to design great games by committee.

    Having said that, I think for small teams on low budgets having a single person in charge of the creative direction is the way to go. Valve succeeds because they have the resources to keep having focus groups and iterating the design based on their feedback.

  9. Having just shipped a big game, this really struck a chord. While I think it's essential on big teams to have someone with final say on creative matters to avoid spineless design by committee - someone to hold accountable if some part of the game sucks, basically - this turns into a monster when it crosses into the PR world, which it invariably does. The opposite becomes true - if a game is great, it's entirely thanks to them.

    I suspect one reason many big studios do experience massive turnover between projects is because the people in the trenches feel they're cogs in the machine, and will only ever be recognized as such.

    Valve's approach has always intrigued me. Their image as a studio has something of a band-like quality to it, even though their numbers are probably in the hundreds now. It seems to (?) avoid creating rockstars who get disproportional credit, but it also cloaks the individual achievements of team members in the umbrella studio identity. Key people might have left, but their talent is still propping up a brand... much as with music groups, although those are usually small enough that fans know when someone key has left. This kind of issue is much more philosophically clear-cut with tiny indie teams.

    Consequently, for the last few years since the flowering of the indie scene the developers I've come to respect and admire most have frequently been the indie heroes. They managed to make something great without dozens of people around to filter out their bad ideas or lack of talent. That probably sounds more cynical than I mean it - really I just consider it the high bar for individual talent.

  10. I usually really enjoy your articles, but something seems a bit off on this one. It sounds extremely elitist. Sure, indie developers might take some risks that show how devoted they are to making games, but that doesn't mean people that work for big-name developers are soulless automatons. Many of them are just as passionate about making games -- willing to work for long hours, little recognition, and (at least for programmers, not sure about other disciplines) less pay.

  11. What a load of absolute bollocks. OotTheMonk said basically exactly what I wanted to say but with less profanity, so I'll try to keep this short. I know what you're trying to say (and I agree with that), but what it sounds like you're saying is that games produced by big studios are awful, people within them are talentless, and that all indie games are brilliant.

    In my experience as one of the worthless minions of a big soulless corporation, the people here are hugely talented (generally more so than 'the indies'), and equally worthy of your praise - they're just not given the chance. You make it sound like "being indie" automatically makes you some kind of superstar. I think that's somewhat ironic given statements like "If someone says that they like or dislike an EA game, they obviously have no idea what they are talking about".

    Like OotTheMonk said, I usually quite enjoy your posts, it's just that this article contained an unusually high level of pretentious elitist crap. It's not often something riles me enough to write an Angry Internet Comment (tm). Please just think a bit more carefully before writing this kind of thing in future, there are a lot of people that absorb the opinions of people like yourself, and I don't want people getting the wrong message.

  12. And both "Steambirds" and "Critical Mass" strike me as being evolved versions of SSI's "The Cosmic Balance", released in 1982. The turn mechanic is also reminiscent of the "Combat Mission" series, the first of which debuted in 2000.

    The "Wego" style of play is one I very much adore, so I'm looking forward to "Steambirds"!

    (Also, a big thumbs-up to Osmos. What a fantastic game.)

  13. Before this thread proliferates with angry comments...

    A) Yes, there are talented passionate people in the traditional game industry.
    B) However, there are substantial barriers that limit the player's knowledge of these individuals.
    C) Indie games offer players a unique opportunity to connect with real developers. It would be nice if this existed in traditional games, but in general it does not.

    So please do not take this article as putting down the talented folks in the trenches. I have great respect for almost anyone who pours their blood and sweat into making a game. The article is much more about celebrating an alternative with great promise. This is not a Philosophy A wins, Philosophy B loses situation.

    Now on the other hand, if the indie alternative seems threatening, that's a good emotion to examine deeply. Ask *why* the rise of the indie author gives you funny feelings. I'd love to hear what you come up with.

    take care

  14. I know what you meant to say, I just take issue with the way you said it, that's all. I agree with your overall point totally (and have agreed with everything you've posted up until this too). Apologies for sounding hostile, but hopefully you'll see what I mean if you read your article back.

    In general I love indie development, developers and games. I play more indie games than I do AAA games, by far. But sometimes they stray from "good ideas implemented with passion by small teams with few resources" to "simple ideas done for the sake of being different or provocative without actually being any good". It reminds me of when a urinal or half a cow are put on display and called "art", when most of the time the I suspect the artists are mocking art critics for their desire to lap up anything not mainstream.

  15. While it is true that I am amazing and should be worshipped, I'm much too modest to say so. Instead I'll blush at this article!

    DanC has a knack for making his point with such a subversive gusto, it's hard not to have a nerve touched when he writes these things -- particularly if you are subject to his arguments, even if only peripherally. I love him for it; his words are never empty and cannot be ignored (even if you don't agree).

    I don't think anyone was saying "Indies are better at making games than those that work at studios." I have nothing but respect for those [you] guys.

    DanC was just making an interesting point; I'll bet you know who Trent Reznor, Paul MacCartney, Bono, and Gene Simmons are. Heck, I'll bet you even know them so well (despite not primarily acting under their individual names) you probably spotted the typo in "McCartney" I just made. And that list can go on and on and on.

    Even I fall into the trap; I am a huge fan of the Canadian band "I Mother Earth," but I always qualify it: "... Back when Edwin was still with them."

    I can probably list hundreds of artists that never performed under their names. How many game developers do you know?

    You can probably name a few drummers. Quick, who did lead programming on Call of Duty? Who did music for NHL 2004? Who was the graphic designer for Mirror's Edge?

    I'm not saying these people don't deserve recognition. I'm not saying I'm a rockstar because I do get recognition. I'm saying (and I think DanC would agree) that it's a crazy, sad state of affairs when a relatively untalented programming newb like me could be celebrated like a successful rockstar, when a 40 year industry vet that designs his own hyper-specialized 3d world engines and wrote himself an OS back when he was in college ... goes completely unrecognized.

    I think everyone who puts in a good effort -- into anything in life -- deserves recognition. I think anyone who is left out from being celebrated is getting a raw deal. But the realities of economics and marketing tell us that Indies are the only ones in the gaming industry that will ever get a widespread personal collection.

    This is our superhero ability: we "seem" more human. And if we are smart, we will flex our muscle and leverage this. Because when we go toe to toe with the giants, we need all the help we can get.

  16. "As an exercise, name a modern developer whose work has changed your life."

    I'd have to go with "the guy who made Katamari Damacy," Keita Takahashi. As far as I know, he did have a large part in making the game.

    Still, I did have to look up his name (I knew it at some point but forgot it). And the later sequels like Katamari Forever were still awesome despite his lack of involvement, so you may have a point!

  17. my name is daniel, i'm an indie developer from germany.

    as i a'm an oldtime reader of the lost garedn, i recall all moments when you (danc) praised the idea of a turnbased strategy game, online gameplay, not taking up years of life and/or playtime.

    now i made a game that might suit the idea very well, because it has somekind of special non-player-interactive strategical gameplay that alows players to spend as much or little time as they want - and clearly when they want.

    i would like to use this post to advertise for the game - it is completely free and i will not gain any money from it (likes ads or anything).

    please feel free to have a look at the describtive tour-page, view the how-to video and probably sign up to play the game and or discuss it in its forum.

    thanks for your potential interest into monster guard (mogu):

    thanks a lot,
    daniel / sirleto

    ps: i used your free textures as backgrounds for it - i posted this for the record on the propriate thread (but i belive you moderate all posts, so you should know, anyway).

  18. I think a fallacy of the notion of heroism in indie games vs. corporate games is that in indie games, the teams are small enough that the roles and the projects are a lot clearer (despite the notion that on a small team people wear multiple hats).

    Who is the hero behind World of Warcraft? That was a massive project over many years with a very large team and quite a lot of turnover among the creative leadership, and there's no doubt that a lot of people made incredibly important contributions that resulted in the game we know. Even with complete, marketing-free transparency into the staffing, disentangling individual contributions to such a project is impossible. WoW is not the product of a singular vision.

    The need for individually personified heroes therefore drives you to indie games, where the teams and the games they make are small enough that you can get your head around who is awesome.

    In other words, if your goal is to "find a hero", then you have defined a problem that can only practically be resolved by an indie game. Yet I think you are implying that indie games are made by heroes, a reverse corollary and not necessarily a causal truth.

  19. I think its a bit silly to not take those who have found a way to make great games, while leading over a hundred people, deal with the business end of things, and produce a mass market title, as heroes.

    While I play as many indie games as full titles, and admire many. I dont think their accomplishments are greater - and infact often much less so - than those who are working on much larger scales.

    I know the crux of your argument, and I agree with much of it. But the article does come off as A vs B.

    Primary example. While you think of Bayonetta as Hair Porn. I see more creativity, sweat and blood, fine tuning, and brilliance between 10 frames of that game than the entirety of the clever and evocative Canabalt. And I have been playing that thing since it showed up on the expiremental games forum.

    Impressive as it is. It is a quick burst of whimsy. A game like Bayonetta (or No More Heroes, Little Kings Story, Heavy Rain, etc etc) are those most worthy of praise. Like great movies, seeing dozens of people gel in complete creative harmony is unlike anything else.

    A one man show is one thing. A small team is one thing. But maybe its why I like films as well. Its that collaberative authorship that is most striking to me. And those who "give 1%" by somehow managing and bringing all those cooks to prepare a singular taste. That is something truly worthy of hero praise. Its not small feat.

  20. I would have to name my mainstream developer as John Carmack. Playing the games that he helped innovate has inspired me throughout my life. For an indie developer I would have to say Cliff Harris of Positech Games. I really enjoy his work and his openness about being a sole developer (you should check out his blog if you haven't). He is an inspiration for me to really keep with my own game development, as yes it is hard, but it can be done.

  21. Simultaneous turn-based is indeed a kind of "blind spot" in game design, although many board games exist(just check
    Around 2002-2003, Globz fellows made an analysis similar to yours and investigated simultaneous-based gameplays, amongst which was which became quite popular.

  22. I must say a very good read here Danc. The game looks very nice, I'm looking forward to seeing it in action.

    Good luck to andy on FGL.

  23. One person that I believe really fits your profile for "game hero" is Tim Schafer. Let's go over the checklist:

    1. His games are definitely worthy, unique and visionary. No doubt about it.

    2. Are we being lied to? I doubt it. A game like BrĂ¼tal Legend or Psychonauts comes from the heart and mind of one guy. Tim Schafer's humour is so unique that I bet that if he made a game anonymously, people would still identify him as being the guy behind the writing.

    3. Is he a real human being? Of course we're still talking mainstream, but Tim Schafer does have a blog on his site which gives some inside info, as well as a direct contact line with fans. ( Also, it helps to ensure that we are not being lied to; the blog is full of the same humour and writing as the games.

    4. Is their contribution meaningful and authentic? Double fine's games are completely made around the unique writing and humoristic skills of Tim Schafer. They really are personal artistic expressions, and Tim's personal preferences clearly shine through in the games he makes (for example: his love for metal).

    5. And last but not least: yes, Tim Schafer's contribution definitely predicts future enjoyment. I can't get enough of this guy's humour.

    I don't know about you guys, but as far as I'm concerned, Tim Schafer is one of the most authentic, reliable, personal and identifiable game heroes in the world today.

  24. Gah. I've always felt I've done a great disservice to the world by not playing Psychonauts. I plan to rectify this RIGHT NOW.

    *purchases, installs on steam*

    While that progress bar fills up, I'll have to agree with you pre-emptively. I wasn't familiar with the *name*, but I was sure that the Psychonauts guy did Brutal Legend and there is a definite lack of whimsy in the gaming industry.

    I think Ron Gilbert, and also Those Two Guys From Andromeda are also up there.

  25. "As an exercise, name a modern developer whose work has changed your life."

    Lucas Paakh.

  26. I think what all these comments are proving is that there ARE rock stars, and it basically works the same way as it does with movies. There's one name (director) that's associated with a project, even if thousands of people worked on it. As evidenced by the Oscars last night, there are dozens of amazingly talented people who work to make a movie what it is, but people don't really care. The nice thing about the director is that they touch every part of the creative process, even if it's only in a minor way. The appeal of indie games is that everyone's a director.

  27. Hi there. Thanks for the article. It's great! I loved SteamBirds and I found the art as well as the music to be really appealing. Something about the look of the game just attracted me to it and I've been enjoying the game very much. Do you by any chance know whether I can download the art and music for my own perusal? Thanks!

  28. I think it's a bit of a dick-move to name and shame Bayonetta. That game is hardly the product of an anonymous corporate marketing machine.

  29. I want to develop Adam's comparison between games and movies a little more, because the two industries have developed along very similar lines.

    There are a couple of major points to consider with large game developers, as with big budget Hollywood movies: one, that we can reasonably assume that games like Mass Effect (or movies like Lord of the Rings) would not and could not be made by indie developers, not because they lack the talent or the skill, but rather because a game of that scope and complexity requires enormous resources and huge man-hours to be made manifest for the consuming public; two, that working on a large developer's game--like being an uncredited extra or a set assistant or any number of other such positions in the film industry--is a way of paying one's dues and putting in the hard work to get the reward, a concept which we so readily forget in this era of Youtube fame.

    Indie developers can imbue their games with the artistry and quirkiness of their creators, and indie titles are more inherently innovative and adventurous, capturing an inherently innovation-seeking and adventurous fanbase, subsequently driving indie titles to be more responsive to their fans and more personal as creations. A game like Audiosurf (which is a fabulous title, by the way, and a worthy addition to rhythm gaming) is so responsive that I have played it with songs I have written and recorded, an experience not to be replicated by literally any other human being on the planet. This accomplishment is truly breathtaking, and it is a hallmark of what makes indie titles great.

    That said, it's patently false that grandiose franchises are unresponsive or valueless because they are big--cf Bioshock 2, a game which responded perhaps too directly to the desire for fans of the original to be the Big Daddy. Long term brands like Final Fantasy may not hear the cries of every member of their audience, but is that really a trait to be valued in a big developer? Anyone who's played a Final Fantasy (or Squaresoft/Square Enix) game in the last two decades knows what to expect--that is the virtue of a big developer, that their stamp of authenticity becomes larger than the individuals who work on any given project, and that such a stamp can stand alone as an industry benchmark. Though EA is a much reviled developer, no reasonable gamer would presume to doubt the strength of their influence on the gaming industry.

    Is one better than the other? That question is woefully irrelevant. The reality is that the gaming industry (as the film industry) needs both corporate and independent developers to thrive. Mainstream gamers may line up at midnight for Call of Duty ad infinitum, or purchase Madden every single year, while indie gamers may not buy any of those titles, or indeed any mainstream title. You say that "honesty and transparency should matter to true fans"; but I think a quality gaming experience should matter to the true fan. While it would be great to put names to faces--and indie games provide ample opportunity and quality to do so--the character a big ticket endeavor makes names and faces unhelpful and really, ultimatly, petty: is the director the most important part of a smash hit blockbuster? is the lead actor? what about the soundtrack composer (or would it be the musicians?)? the set designer? the cast and crew? does it even matter? is not every great blockbuster more than the sum of its parts anyway? The point of such a project is to lose oneself in the making of it, and it is a virtue so easily forgotten nowadays that we overlook it instanteously.

  30. This game is actually a interactive version of a boardgame called "Wings of War",

    It's nothing bad of course, I'm sure the boardgame itself was already similar to many others before. Just a note from my side.

  31. @q: Good eye. There are examples of this mechanic going back to around 1991. Originally it was used in turn-based space combat games and then later adapted to air combat and racing.

    Over the past 19 years, there have been 4 or 5 games released in the genre and I know of a few more currently in development.

    @Jules: The music to Steambirds is available on DannyB's site here:

    take care