Why indie games cannot always "make it big"

With Frictional Games' recent release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent I have been caught up thinking about these grungy, crawl through mud, end of the world kind of games lately. These games require complete player investment if they are to be enjoyed, and when a player is able to immerse himself in these games it can result in some of the most memorable personal experiences in gaming. As great as that is, if players are unable to fully invest themselves in the game, which I would assume is the most common experience as the more investment required the smaller your potential audience will be, the result is a gameplay experience almost completely opposite to the experience I appreciate these games for.

Where in my last blog post about Penumbra I posited that the game was, in part, good because of the poor combat mechanics, which I attributed to the frailty of the main character rather than simply poor game design on Frictional Games' part, I understand that most people who play or even simply see Penumbra played will be immediately turned off from ever wanting to play the game again. In modern mainstream game design, the objective of designers is almost always to make the player feel empowered in fun and interesting ways. For any game to do the opposite by making the player feel weak is in and of itself an admission by the game designers that they cannot expect sales on the level of any mainstream game. If this design decision were to backfire by ultimately preventing the game from finding a large enough audience to pay for development costs, in many cases, these indie developers run the risk of endangering their jobs and ways of living.

For example, the aforementioned Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the successor to the three Penumbra games, was released earlier this month on September 8th. Frictional Games has sought to gradually improve upon their core horror/adventure game formula across these four games. One could assume they have seen moderate success if they have just released their fourth game, but, as recently implied in an admirably candid blog post about the release and sales of Amnesia, Frictional Games will continue to develop games within a very strict budget and possibly rethink their targeted release platforms.

"The most distressing thing is the sales though. Even though we are far from complaining, it feels like we do not have the financial security we would like to have, to truly be able to focus on making the best game possible. So what should we do? The things we have discussed include: Increase the cost of the game, doing a console port instead of Linux/Mac, do a less niche title and more. Now is too soon to make a decision though and we have to see how the coming weeks and months go."

While most of the blog post is not as depressing as that excerpt, it is clear that Amnesia has not yet propelled Frictional Games into indie game developer stardom.

Now that I have filled you with a burning desire to support independent game developers like Frictional Games, allow me to shamelessly ask you to give their game a try. Any fairly modern desktop computer should be able to run it since I can run it on a three year old Mac laptop. It is also compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems. It will be an horrifying yet unforgettable experience.

Click for more information on Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

Click to get the demo. 

Original blog post located at:

http://elohelzilla.wordpress.com/

Any and all feedback is welcome.

6 Comments
6 Comments
Posted by agemyth

With Frictional Games' recent release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent I have been caught up thinking about these grungy, crawl through mud, end of the world kind of games lately. These games require complete player investment if they are to be enjoyed, and when a player is able to immerse himself in these games it can result in some of the most memorable personal experiences in gaming. As great as that is, if players are unable to fully invest themselves in the game, which I would assume is the most common experience as the more investment required the smaller your potential audience will be, the result is a gameplay experience almost completely opposite to the experience I appreciate these games for.

Where in my last blog post about Penumbra I posited that the game was, in part, good because of the poor combat mechanics, which I attributed to the frailty of the main character rather than simply poor game design on Frictional Games' part, I understand that most people who play or even simply see Penumbra played will be immediately turned off from ever wanting to play the game again. In modern mainstream game design, the objective of designers is almost always to make the player feel empowered in fun and interesting ways. For any game to do the opposite by making the player feel weak is in and of itself an admission by the game designers that they cannot expect sales on the level of any mainstream game. If this design decision were to backfire by ultimately preventing the game from finding a large enough audience to pay for development costs, in many cases, these indie developers run the risk of endangering their jobs and ways of living.

For example, the aforementioned Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the successor to the three Penumbra games, was released earlier this month on September 8th. Frictional Games has sought to gradually improve upon their core horror/adventure game formula across these four games. One could assume they have seen moderate success if they have just released their fourth game, but, as recently implied in an admirably candid blog post about the release and sales of Amnesia, Frictional Games will continue to develop games within a very strict budget and possibly rethink their targeted release platforms.

"The most distressing thing is the sales though. Even though we are far from complaining, it feels like we do not have the financial security we would like to have, to truly be able to focus on making the best game possible. So what should we do? The things we have discussed include: Increase the cost of the game, doing a console port instead of Linux/Mac, do a less niche title and more. Now is too soon to make a decision though and we have to see how the coming weeks and months go."

While most of the blog post is not as depressing as that excerpt, it is clear that Amnesia has not yet propelled Frictional Games into indie game developer stardom.

Now that I have filled you with a burning desire to support independent game developers like Frictional Games, allow me to shamelessly ask you to give their game a try. Any fairly modern desktop computer should be able to run it since I can run it on a three year old Mac laptop. It is also compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems. It will be an horrifying yet unforgettable experience.

Click for more information on Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

Click to get the demo. 

Original blog post located at:

http://elohelzilla.wordpress.com/

Any and all feedback is welcome.

Posted by FancySoapsMan

If they made it big they wouldn't be obscure.

Posted by deusdigit

I think i understand your talking point here. I personally want obscure video games to stay in that category or a select audience if you will. I'm tired of video games going "social" or trying to have that "mainstream appeal" or "casual" or whatever it is. anytime that happens. almost immediately something special feels left out. That's my personal opinion tho.

Posted by MatPaget
@deusdigit: 
Agreed! And I especially hate it when a game gets popular out of nowhere and then the sequel tries way too hard to impress everyone
And it just fails
Like the developers got really excited that they were going to release a game the mass majority of people care about
Posted by ch3burashka
@FancySoapsMan said:
" If they made it big they wouldn't be obscure. "
This, dude.
Edited by agemyth

Alright lol, I agree. I probably should have put more thought into that title. When I wrote it I had the "not clearly expressed or understood" definition of obscure in mind, but I left that up to the reader to interpret. Perhaps the title should have just been "Why indie games don't always 'make it big'".
  
After the first paragraph I planned to delve into the recent success of the Swedish indie game phenomenon, Minecraft, but I found myself more interested in writing about what prevents these games from having any kind of mass market appeal.
 
Thanks for being the internet and calling me out on that. :)
 
edit: Hmm. By "make it big" I don't really mean being a multi million seller or anything, but looking at Minecraft again which has sold 250,000 "units", that would be a failure by the standard of most mainstream games, but that is an absolutely phenomenal success story for an indie developer. If Amnesia were selling anywhere near as well as Minecraft is right now, I'm sure Frictional games would be absolutely thrilled.