The Soapbox: Give indie a chance

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The Soapbox: Give indie a chance
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Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

It's a pretty cool thing to introduce readers to new games. It's especially cool when the new game I am showing them would otherwise have completely passed under their radar, mainly because they receive most of their gaming news from other sites or from the blueshirts at Best Buy. I find no greater satisfaction than when someone tells me, "I didn't think I would like a game like that." When a player who normally feels comfortable engaging only with standard mechanics like linear questing, class-based gameplay, or raiding finds himself obsessed with some odd browser-based strategy game, everyone wins.

Once that player gets hooked on one of my favorite indie titles, most of the hard work is over. The real challenge comes a few steps before that: getting the player to actually try the game in the first place. I've tried a lot of different tactics over the years, from using guilt or shame to acting as though only cool people play the game in question. Unfortunately, it feels as though the audiences have become increasingly resistant. I have to think that the recent crop of easily digestible AAA titles has not helped the situation at all.

Ryzom screenshot
So how do I get you, fair reader, to try out a new title? How do I convince you to search out and download something you have never tried before? Every week I talk about some new, odd game in my Rise and Shiny column. During that same week, I might stream at least a couple of unusual or indie titles that I would love to see on your hard drive or in your browser window. I might mention new titles in one of the other columns I write. I've found that a good deal of information, specific information about stats or class balance, seems to entice more players than anything. The problem there is that reciting combat logs or class guides is boring. The best thing about indie gaming is that it can often utilize very unusual designs, designs that have nothing in common with games like RIFT or Star Wars: The Old Republic. So how do I explain a game with no raiding to a raider without listing a series of stats?

The best method I have discovered is to show a very specific, and very cool, mechanic from a game. I will show off the interesting crafting or exploration in a title and will try to explain how it makes me feel. I tend to explain the emotion the system pulls out of me in lieu of explaining the system's math. Even with all of that on display, I find a good deal of resistance to gaming that is not advertised across major websites.

"Why do I care what they do with their time? It's simple, really: Without indie gaming, we would still have AAA, blockbuster titles, but that's all we would have."

Why is it even important to me that players try out indie MMOs? Why do I care what they do with their time? It's simple, really: Without indie gaming, we would still have AAA, blockbuster titles, but that's all we would have. If the last three years of major development have been any indication, that would mean that we would continue to have the same designs offered with a very few exceptions. The variety of design in AAA development tends to be sluggish at best because the funding required for such large projects cannot be secured for a project that takes chances with that money. Wacky concepts that do not repeat the standards of AAA design are seen as chancy. When tens of millions of dollars are needed for a typical AAA MMO, the developers must guarantee a certain degree of success. That success is dependent on the previous successes, so what is left is a vicious cycle of repeated concepts and designs. If it worked for World of Warcraft, it must work for every new game.

If you ignore any game that isn't released from a major studio, you aren't getting the whole picture. Don't get me wrong; the same applies to those of us who ignore AAA gaming with snobbish satisfaction. If you want to catch the good stuff, you have to pay attention to all of it. If we all become better at picking out the good bits no matter the size of the studio, the entire genre improves. The problem is that the bulk of the MMO audience ignores the indie side of things, a source for many of the best ideas.

Just imagine the world of music with no independent artists, a world ruled by Lady Gaga and The Black Eyed Peas. I know... pretty scary. Keep in mind, though, that as with art, music, or movies, we often do not know how much we would like something until we experience it. We have to continually look for new, exciting things to watch, hear, and read, or else we are stuck with the same thing. It is in our nature to pursue new and exciting things. Humans are notoriously curious. So why do many gamers fight the urge when it comes to trying new titles?

Glitch screenshot
One argument against indie development is the claim that a lower budget always equals lower quality. Sure, I could argue about how quality is subjective and how different players like different things, but I know exactly what "quality" means in this case. When someone says she likes "quality" MMOs and that the level of quality she expects is only found in AAA gaming, she is generally talking about graphics. How a game looks and sounds is probably more important than gameplay, at least to those who need to feel all right about their $60 purchase. I can't think of anything else that explains the continued success of AAA games that differ from one another primarily only graphically.

I believe that many of such players also feel as though big budget equals higher quality. In other words, if a game is heavily advertised and is going to cost 100 million dollars, then it simply must be good. If we apply the same idea to movies, we can see how a horrible movie like Avatar sold so many tickets. It was released in a lot of theaters, it was pushed out from a massive studio, and it was made by the guy who previously held the record for the largest movie in history. We all go see it out of curiosity, and the damage is done. Once our money changes hands at the box office, the studio doesn't care whether we thought the movie was horrible or not.

"Gamers have to give a little allowance to the indie developers by seeking out those titles and getting over the fear of anything new."

Luckily, we can counter the damage by supporting smaller titles. We can undo the process of the regurgitated AAA release by supporting smaller games. But it takes work. Gamers have to give a little allowance to the indie developers by seeking out those titles and getting over the fear of anything new. I am often met with gamers who find even the thought of dedicating time to a new title as some sort of frightening endeavor. The problem is that without people who will take a chance on a game, the game won't be around to take chances on.

Indie developers are not off the hook, though. The fact is that much of indie MMO development is as bland and ripped off as any AAA game. This can often make indie games nothing but cheaper versions of their bigger-budget cousins. Indie developers need to be very aware of their weaknesses and limits. They need to work wisely within those limits, set realistic goals, and take their games to the public. They need to pursue the opinions of others and adjust accordingly. It might be easier said than done, but indie developers often need to be bolder than AAA developers.

I hope that everyone reading this takes a weekend and tries a new game. Where can you find them? I'm proud to say that here at Massively we cover quite a few indie titles and will cover more in the future. You can also Google "indie MMO" or just "MMORPG" and follow the trail. Go to forums, ask through social media... do basic research. Yes, it would be nice if indie games were delivered to your digital front door as easily as the latest AAA title, but give them a break. They have nowhere near 100 million dollars.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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