E3 2015: Indie Scene's In Rude Health - But Risks Remain
This year's E3 proved that the indie scene continues to go from strength to strength - but behind the positive headlines, there are still very real risks associated with devs striking it out on their own.
The E3 2015 expo was an indisputable success with record-breaking attendance figures and the kind of spectacle that even the appearance of Kanye West couldn't spoil. We were treated to some truly exciting reveals from the expected including the epic Fallout 4 presentation (and the less-than-expected mobile spin-off Fallout Shelter) and the exhilarating Uncharted 4 demo to the twin surprises of The Last Guardian and Shenmue III that left even the most hardened of industry veterans cheering in unabated fanboy/girl joy (us included).
But for all the triple-A hype, the indie scene enjoyed increased time in the spotlight too as both Microsoft and Sony amped up their slate of indie offerings; the latter dedicated nearly 15 minutes of its presentation this year to indie games compared to under 10 minutes in 2013.
There were many tantalising prospects on offer that generated as much buzz as many of their big budget stablemates. The 1930s Disney cartoon-styled Cuphead was a masterclass in visual design; the space station mystery Tacoma from the makers of Gone Home offered a glimpse of another tantalising narrative to revel in and inevitably, more footage of No Man's Sky was revealed, again managing to create the kind of buzz that well-funded mainstream marketing departments can only dream of.
The indie darling of E3 though was Unravel starring a character made from yarn who must be navigated through an almost photo-realistic world. What Unravel represented behind the scenes though was just as intriguing as its physics-based gameplay. Yes, the game is being developed by Swedish indie dev Coldwood Interactive which boasts a small 12-person team - but Unravel is being published by EA. Is that really indie anymore? We suspect that's a subject for another blog...
But such a partnering reveals just how much publishers have woken up to the importance of the indie scene for boosting their own bottom lines and image. We shouldn't be surprised at their interest though as the number of big budget games being developed has shrunk dramatically over the past five years - and publishing the endeavours of an indie developer is a smart solution for the EA's of this world who want to find the next Minecraft while expanding their portfolio of future releases but without the serious financial risk.
Whether you're for or against such publishing arrangements, what they actually represent is clear - that the indie scene remains in rude health; a scene where with the right team and idea in place, a dev can make a huge splash whether they're Kickstarting their projects, creating them in downtime in between 9-to-5 jobs - or relying on a 'corporate sponsor' to fund them.
But against this backdrop of success, the very real risks of failure for indie devs bubbles close to the surface as the recent revelations about Tale of Tales' Sunset sadly proves. The game received critical acclaim upon its launch in May for its brilliant premise about a housekeeper in a 1970s Latin American country who uncovers a plot to overthrow a dictatorship via the personal effects of a wealthy businessman whose apartment she cleans every evening.
Despite receiving accolades, the game went to sell just 4,000 units, leading Tale of Tales to announce that it was leaving the commercial game development scene for good. In its online 'autopsy', the company cites that in spite of hiring a PR agency and paying for web site advertising, the game bombed: "We are happy and proud that we have tried to make a "game for gamers"," wrote Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey in their farewell blog (which is essential reading). "We really did our best with Sunset, our very best. And we failed."
The underlining takeaway of Tale of Tales' experience is stark; to ensure the very best chance of success, it is vital that indie devs embrace every opportunity to maximise their project's chances - from selecting the right people and skill sets when putting together a development team to how to best promote the finished title and who to partner with if and when necessary - but to also know that as with the film industry, nothing is guaranteed. Sometimes, failure just happens and sometimes only the gift of 20/20 hindsight could have prevented it.
But we also know that success stories are just as likely. It's what makes the indie scene so intoxicating - its ideas, its passion and that tightrope that many talented indie devs walk on day-to-day basis on a personal mission to create games that push boundaries and snare imaginations. And leave the 'Big Players' of gaming wondering what the hell hit them... before scrabbling for their cheque books, hoping to get a slice of the action.
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