On January 20, 2016, Jonathan Blow, the man responsible for indie hit Braid, took the final step in rolling out his next highly anticipated game, The Witness, by revealing the price tag to the public. The title, which has vastly grown in scope since its inception in 2009, contains a sprawling environment handcrafted entirely by Blow and has been the developer’s sole focus since the release of Braid in 2008. While many within the internet/video game community have welcomed the announcement with open arms, for some, the price tag has created contention.
As is expected, NeoGaf was one of the first places in which the conversation rooted itself. Following the announcement and the creation of the thread dedicated to its discussion, the responses were a mixed bag. While there is a fairly large portion of the internet community that seems to be in understanding that quality isn’t cheap and that we are in a new era of game development, there is still an unfortunately large portion of consumers who fall on the other side of the fence. Perhaps having never taken the time to assess just how much goes into the making of a video game, they scoff at a price tag that exceeds their low expectations.
It’s a dialogue all too familiar: sticker shock. But perhaps the eye roll at this discussion is one that needs some backing. There’s a business plan here that many are completely blind to, one that involves years of overhead cost that must be accounted for. Simply put, the developer is not only trying to get paid; they are trying to recover debts that allowed them the freedom to make their creations feasible in the first place. Hopefully, after all of that, there is enough profit to minimize further potential financial risks and secure a future in which they can continue to develop games comfortably. The business behind indie development is no rock star’s life; it’s one of huge risks and tiny profits. Unfortunately, the ever shifting landscape surrounding the indie development scene is vastly responsible for this.
Smaller indie titles received a huge boost in popularity over the last 10 year, much of that increasing exponentially in the past 3-5. With the rise of platforms such as Xbox Live Arcade, Steam, and various mobile market places, the playing field for indie development has evolved from hobby grade creation into a feasible career path
In 2005, Microsoft unveiled Xbox Live Arcade, a platform for smaller, arcade style games. Most anything hosted on the XBLA could be found for under $20. The program highlighted more affordable, compact titles that consumers may have overlooked assuming a larger price tag was associated. By 2008, the platform had gained popularity and Microsoft began to implement the XBLA Summer of Arcade, instigating sales by adding potential prizes. During the life of XBLA, ending in late 2013, games like Bastion, Fez, Spelunky, Geometry Wars, Braid, N+, and Super Meat Boy all saw considerable sales due to the popularity of the service.
While Microsoft was promoting indie development by supplying a central platform for distribution, Valve was busy making a push that would benefit indie developers in a different way. Steam Greenlight, a feature implemented in August 2012, was a means for Steam to determine the demand for future additions to the service.
Less than a year later, Steam Early Access launched with even more analytical tools for creatives. As these initiatives were rolled out, Steam continued to support development by supplying access to development software and mod tools for existing titles. Collectively, the features implemented by Steam allow developers advantages unlike any before: access to development software, the ability to obtain a clear view into the public’s reception to a product and weigh its chances of success, and feedback from consumers as they played early version of the product in the form of demos and betas. Steam was offering the push that indie development needed to become a more accessible and viable option for those who wished to create games outside of the confines of major development. It was giving the ‘little guys’ an actual chance to succeed.
The support being given to indie development during this transitions was a beautiful thing, but through all of this one major point was ignored, or rather, never addressed. As platforms such as Xbox Live Arcade and mobile markets supplied the store space for smaller titles and Steam gave the developers the push needed to expand the potential for higher quality development — the expanding process of developing a game independently was becoming much less affordable and much more time-consuming. It was slowly becoming possible for one man to make a video game of considerable size and depth of content while remaining “indie”, but with the previously established $5-$20 price tag, it became less and less profitable to invest such a large portion of time to such a task.
This issue couldn’t be more prevalent than in regards to Jonathan Blow’s announcement of the price for The Witness, a project in which he dedicated nearly 7 years of his life to seeing through to completion.
The Tweet that Silenced the Cynics
With Blow’s announcement for the pricing of The Witness there was one occurrence that seemed extremely telling, without the necessity of becoming preachy, resorting to numbers, or demonizing a specific way of thinking. One instance in which another developer, facing similar struggle, addressed the announcement in a way that seems to make everything clear. That moment of clarity took the form of a tweet from Mike Bithell, creator of Thomas Was Alone and Volume.
“Big Kudos to Jonathan Blow for the pricing news. Picking a fair price for the game you made is hard, and avoiding the urge to undercut is brave.” In this instance, the 140-character limit of Twitter proves that ‘short and sweet’ can pack a big punch.
Bithell was recently in a similar situation to Blow with the release of Volume, a game in which he was the sole creator, in August of 2015. He faced the same struggles that any indie developer faces, long nights full of soul-crushing solitude in the name of finishing the project. So much so was the case that Bithell even ended up hospitalized due to sleep deprivation and basically poisoning himself with energy drinks in early 2014.
Staying Afloat in a Sea of Sh*tty Opinions
Eventually, these guys reach a point in which they are forced to evaluate the worth of years of their time and resources. Regardless of the practical cost, it becomes a self-evaluation of worth often dictated by the voice of the public. Confidence becomes far too big a deciding factor. “Will my game sell for this price?” becomes a big, scary question, the answer to which is likely skewed by outside voices.
There is little consistency when it comes to the value and scope of any a product that comes to fruition through indie development. Indie generally refers to a DIY development attitude. With the variety of paths to completion and the heavy reliance on the quality of the creator’s initial concept, the final product of this structure of video game development is one with massive variance. This is to say that, assigning a price point to any title that falls into that classification is not only unfair, but it creates a divide in which any game that falls on the upper end is received as not worth the established price. In this world, no indie developer would ever dare to expand upon the scope of their next product, assuming that their previous game was priced on the higher end of the spectrum for indie development.
Mike Bithell knows that sticking with a price that implies the higher tier of development is a brave move for an indie developer. On the contrary, the easier route, the one that ensures that the masses will not scoff at the price and refuse to purchase, is the one of undercutting yourself with hopes of a decent reception. The evaluation of potentially years of a person’s time spent neglecting social relationships, sacrificing their literal well-being, and possibly missing new opportunities due to overzealous dedication to the task at hand is an introspective process in which very few human beings, short of those in other creative industries, ever have to face.
Mike Bithell ended up releasing Volume to the public for $19.99, a price often received as the highest conceivable for an indie title. Volume is not the expansive world that The Witness promises to be, but it is still the product of years of one man’s labor. His congratulatory message aimed at Jonathan Blow encapsulates the feeling held by indie developers trying to make a living today.
Jonathan Blow’s release of The Witness on January 26, 2015 to anticipating fans and cynical onlookers, alike, contains a price tag of $39.99. It’s telling that the general population is so mixed in response to the announcement. Has there not been enough of a slew of high concept, masterfully made “Indie” games in the past 2-3 years to begin to assimilate the higher quality, larger budget, titles into the same moniker, or is there a need to create a new categorization in which the gaming public can associate small development teams with high-end products?
While a considerable portion of consumers grow to understand what is to be expected, there are still stragglers who see the term “indie” and think “lacking in quality”. Production of video games in 2016 has changed. The shift happened several years ago as indie games makers emerged from the shadow of major development, and today we have indie titles with quality that matches that of mid-tier development.
Accessibility to the tools of development has created a generation of focused and capable indie creatives, releasing content that expands just what it means to be an “independent developer”. The support, or lack thereof, shown to them today will shape the landscape of video gaming in the future, for better or for worse.
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