How indie games conquered the world

You can keep your Call Of Duty: Return Of The Modern Future War Guy 8. Today’s biggest games are being made in bedrooms all over the world
How indie games conquered the world

When Activision’s highly anticipated space opera Destiny launched last September it did so under the banner of ‘most expensive game ever made’, with a reported budget of US$500m.

To put that in context, 2014’s most expensive film was Transformers: Age Of Extinction, with an estimated budget of US$210m – casting the frontman of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch as your lead clearly doesn’t come cheap.

The numbers speak for themselves: you can make two Michael Bay movies for the price of one video game. But Destiny’s finances pale in comparison to the US$2.5bn Microsoft has just spent on indie sensation Minecraft and its maker Mojang (Swedish for ‘gadget’).

All of a sudden US$500m doesn’t seem so bad…

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Lego levelled up

Created by Swedish developer Markus ‘Notch’ Persson in 2009, Minecraft is a kind of Lego simulator set in a randomly generated world made up almost entirely of cubes. It does exactly what it says on the tin: you have to mine in order to craft. When night falls, skeletons, spiders, zombies and other nasties emerge, and without building suitable shelter you won’t make it to morning. And that’s it.

In its pure form, there are no missions to complete, coins to collect or princesses to save from tie-wearing apes. It’s a blank canvas made up of dirt, stone, water, sand and trees. Mining them allows you to craft various tools to make mining easier, with those raw materials used to build structures, or forged in a furnace to create more advanced materials.

You can do almost anything you want – and people have. Google ‘best Minecraft structures’ and you’ll see everything from a faithful recreation of King’s Landing from Game Of Thrones to a working computer powered by the game’s redstone fuel.

According to the Minecraft website nearly 17 million people have bought the PC/Mac version of the game, but with other ports also available for PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, iOS and Android (plus Persson’s famously relaxed view on piracy), user numbers are way over the 100 million mark.

Minecraft sold four million before it even came out of beta. If it were a country it’d be in the top 15 most populated places in the world. But how did it get so big?

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Dirt-cheap distribution

How indie games conquered the world

Ask anyone in indie gaming and they’ll tell you the internet has played a huge part in its recent growth. We didn’t ask just anyone, though. We asked Mike Bithell, creator of one of the most acclaimed games (indie or otherwise) in recent years, Thomas Was Alone.

“I can make a game and for the same cost of production I can sell it to one person online – that’s changed everything,” Bithell says. “If 100 million people wanted to buy Thomas Was Alone – they didn’t, but if they had wanted to – the server would have allowed it. There’s no warehouse full of boxes; I’m not even running the servers that people buy it from. They’re using Steam.” 

Money from mobile

Much of Minecraft’s success has come from its mobile version, Minecraft: Pocket Edition, available for iOS and Android since 2011. In April it sold its 21-millionth copy. Thomas Was Alone also made its way to the iPad, while other highly praised indies such as Limbo, The Walking Dead and The Banner Saga have iOS and Android versions.

Si Read spent 10 years making Flash versions of New Star Soccer before the mobile versions started making him money. At its peak, it was raking in up to £7000 a day. For US$100 a year, practically anyone can become an iOS developer and publish games on Apple’s App Store.

“Apple’s decision to more or less lower the gates to all developers was a massive and hugely positive shift from the processes that ruled mobile gaming before it,” says Brandon Boyer, chairman of the Independent Games Festival, which runs as part of the annual Game Developer Conference in San Francisco.

“The outcome was a flood of new talent – many of whom had never considered it possible to sustainably, independently create games – creating beautiful new experiences, and a broad new audience excited to play along.”

You only have to play Device 6, Monument Valley or FTL: Faster Than Light for proof of that in action. But just putting your game out there isn’t enough. Without a Destiny-sized budget for marketing, how do you get people to discover it and Microsoft to part with billions of dollars for it? 

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Horde games

Since its earliest beginnings, people have talked about Minecraft. At the start people were just trying to work out how to play it, but as its popularity grew and players started to build bigger and better structures, communities formed.

When you’ve created something – be it a picture, a song or an inch-perfect replica of your own bedroom – within a computer game world, you want to share it, and groups soon emerged on YouTube and Reddit for players to show off their handiwork.

Bithell explains how Thomas Was Alone getting picked up by a couple of prominent YouTube reviewers set it on its way: “It’s massive because it can mobilise a huge audience. It’s a cumulative thing. In the same way as someone gets into a genre of music, once someone is ‘into’ indie games that’s an audience we can tap into.”

That sense of community has infiltrated mainstream gaming, too, and as the influence of social media has grown it’s started to work its way into the mechanics of gaming. Now every game wants your Facebook details, from Candy Crush to the The Last Of Us: Left Behind, while Driveclub and Forza Horizon 2 both push their social sides as key components of the game.

Surely that’s what attracted Microsoft to Minecraft in the first place. It hasn’t just bought a game, but a whole community. Bithell takes it a step further: “Microsoft has bought an entire generation of kids. Someone equated it to buying ’90s Disney and I think that’s the perfect analogy.

“I don’t even think we’ll see the full effect of it for 30 years. They’ll sell a lot of stuff now, and when the kids today start to have families you’ll see it bounce back again. It’s the cyclical children’s entertainment thing that we saw with things like Transformers. That came around again as a new generation found it.” 

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Console coders

Don’t expect Microsoft to stop there. While it’s yet to see the light of day, the plan has always been to allow standard Xbox One consoles to switch into developer mode, allowing gamers to build and test games right in their living rooms using just a PC and a consumer console.

Sony is equally keen to foster indie talent: it has taken procedurally generated space explorer No Man’s Sky under its wing, and the PS4 will be the first console to get Bithell’s next game, a stealth puzzler called Volume.

“Both PlayStation and Microsoft are doing fantastic work in that area,” says Bithell. “I think they like our games but also fewer AAA games are coming out. It has opened doors and made processes much smoother. You still have the big Christmas games hitting the consoles, and I don’t think anyone’s going to buy a PS4 just for Volume, but come March they might buy one for Volume, No Man’s Sky and five other games.”

And Lucas Pope agrees that Microsoft’s intentions can only be good: “I’m not sure it’ll make a huge difference to current developers but it’s a great way to get more people creating games.” 

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