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July 13, 2011

Reasons to Support Indie RPGs Cont’d.

2K Marin, the developer working on the X-Com series reboot, has become the latest big studio to take a turn at trashing classic turn-based games:

“Every studio we had wanted to do it and each one had its own spin on it,” Hartmann says of the revival of the XCOM brand. “But the problem was that turn-based strategy games were no longer the hottest thing on planet Earth. But this is not just a commercial thing – strategy games are just not contemporary.” So, it became a first-person affair, even if 2K seems somewhat hesitant to label it a first-person shooter.

Hartmann says the team at 2K Marin are trying to “renew Xcom but in line with what this generation of gamers want.”

My first thought upon reading this was simply “Again?” This is twice now in the span of a month. It seems the mainstream studios just cannot help themselves: they just have to justify their wholesale abandonment of slow-paced cerebral gameplay. And it seems that they all have the same justification: that modern gamers are all Ritalin-popping adrenaline junkies with the collective attention span of a piece of dryer lint.

It’s particularly odd that 2K Marin chose this moment to say that strategy games are not what people want. First of all, this. Second of all, they are (ostensibly) developing a successor to one of the best-loved strategy games of all time. The existing X-Com fanbase likes slow-paced cerebral gameplay–all X-Com games to date have featured precisely that sort of gameplay. If the fans didn’t like it, they wouldn’t be X-Com fans to begin with.

As irritating as I find 2K Marin’s dunderheaded remarks, I really can’t get too upset about them. They just prove a point I made last February about indies developers’ growing role in the gaming ecosystem:

Most indie RPGs aren’t like the games you can buy from major publishers these days. Square-Enix is never going to release a new game like Telepath RPG: Servants of God. Square-Enix made Final Fantasy Tactics many years ago, and they haven’t made a proper sequel since. Neither will Bioware. Bioware hasn’t ever released a turn-based strategy RPG. And you can just forget Bethesda.

The big developers have their own signature style of games they like to make. They’ve got their active-time battle systems, quicktime events and CGI teams to make use of. If you want an older style of game, a style that the big publishers don’t produce anymore, your only real option is to seek out a game of that style elsewhere. Usually, this means shopping for an indie title.

And true enough, this is now the case with X-Com. If you want a new X-Com game that is actually an X-Com game, you have to go indie.

Looking back on the developments of the past year and a half, I think I might have actually undersold this point. Most developers don’t even seem to be going for active-time or hybrid battle systems anymore: it seems they’re just going for straight FPS systems or God of War-style button mashing. Kotaku even has a tag it’s now using to keep track of this trend: One Genre Future. It’s like the big studios are all huddled together, shivering, jockeying for a spot over a single small campfire in the midst of a global economic winter.

It’s a little sad. At the same time, though, this idiocy has done wonders for indies. By abandoning the rich diversity of game genres they once called home, the big studios have all but handed them to us.

  • Duck

    I would rather liken the situation with the major game developers to a basic example of driving market forces involving ice cream trucks.nnPeople are evenly spaced between two fishing piers on the beach. Whenever they want to go to get some ice cream, they go to whoever is closest.u00a0However, customers are more satisfied if they are closer to the ice cream truck. Total customer satisfaction is good for business, and customer volume is also good for business. If there are two ice cream trucks, they’ll slowly force each other into the centre of the beach, where customers are evenly split, but satisfaction is extremely low; the market shares would still be evenly distributed if the two put themselves at the 1/4 and 3/4 intervals, and the average customer would travel 1/8 of the length between the piers. Instead, the market forces have made the situation such that neither part has any more of a market share than they would have had, but now the average consumer must travel 1/4 of the length between piers. This, I believe, is the Nash equilibrium.nnThe even spacing of the customers is the even spacing of gamers that want to play a particular niche type of game. On one end, you may have purely puzzle games, and on the other end, you may have rough ‘n’ tough, button-mashing, no-skill-involved action games. The distance walked by each beachgoer is the distance between a genre they would like and the nearest available games.u00a0Market forces are driving these major developers towards games that are, overall, more undesirable to the average gamer, despite the fact that the result is less satisfactory for all parties involved. More specialization in these major developers would be better for the game market, but the indie developers are left with the large, 1/2 pier-distance gaps to fill, and they can successfully fill these; they refuse to be subject to these market forces, when individual style is more prevalent. This is very common in developers that consist of… an indiviual.nnIt would appear inevitable that these larger, less personalized (and thus less attached to a genre) developers will shift their genres towards the money, where the Craig Sterns of the world are attached to a certain niche themselves (and, correspondingly, resist the shift); they can provide variety in games.

  • Anonymous

    Well put. I would only add that going for a niche market is more than a matter of personal style: it’s also a legitimate business strategy. Going with your ice cream truck analogy: suppose that there are not just two ice cream trucks in the center of the beach, but six. Now suppose that someone else shows up peddling a little ice cream cart. Where is he going to capture the most customers: in the center of the beach, or on the periphery?

  • Duck

    Precisely. I was thinking along the same lines. As the larger ice cream trucks force each other to the centre of the beach with their large-scale operations, a smaller ice cream cart is small enough so as not to disturb the forces at play, while, with good positioning, still managing to run their business successfully andu00a0attracting a specific group of beachgoers.nnI meant not to imply that the indie developers targeted niche audiences only for personal reasons, but that they do so for the viability of the strategy in addition to personal tastes. Surely, even if it were an unexplored section of gaming (to continue the analogy — if the ice cream trucks didn’t exist) that held plenty of revenue potential, you’d not make a game that held no appeal to you (perhaps requiring no actual thought, and lots of button-mashing).nnI think that whether the larger developers were present or not, indie developers would still provide variety in gaming, even if they’d be a bit richer for it in the absence of large-scale competition.

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  • Polterghost

    You have to understand that the game industry was largely built upon “indie”.u00a0 It was a guy, and MAYBE a friend who sat in their basement compiling code and making a working game.u00a0 When there were actual development teams, they didn’t often have more than a dozen people.u00a0 There was a guy for art direction, a couple lead programmers, some concept developers, someone to write up music (in the later years), and testers.u00a0 There was no such thing as a million-dollar project lead by a team of 112 people with top-notch cinematics, additional hired voice actors, and four different subdivided development teams working on separate parts of a project.nnnOf course, what ended up happening is that everyone and their mother decided to make clones of games, and then clones of clones, and then clones of those clones, and then the gaming industry died.u00a0 Sound familiar to today?u00a0 Now you’ve got clones of Halo, clones of Final Fantasy, clones of God of War.u00a0 It isn’t Final Fantasy like the old days where Sakaguchi ran the show and every game had entirely different mechanics from the last.u00a0 FPSes have gone from tactical on-the-fly planning and reactions to camping and regenerating health and limited weapon selection where headshots will always win the day in almost every single game out there.u00a0 Capcom will constantly rehash their fighting games 20 times in a row and cash cow any property they get their hands on.u00a0 The number of QTEs and combo hits will increase over the course of the year exponentially.nnOf course, the reason why there wasn’t much indie to begin with was the same reason the gaming industry sparked back to life.u00a0 Nintendo and Sega put regulations on every game they made, and they required their seal of approval before copies could be distributed.u00a0 It destroyed indie in return for having quality 1st and 3rd party games.u00a0 As for today, the roles have completely reversed in the industry: Now, instead of indie developers rehashing everything, it’s the big name companies that are doing so.