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Rise of the Indies

Rise of the Indies

When Sony took to the stage for this year’s E3 press conference it made sure that the assembled journalists were clear on a number of things. It made clear that it wasn’t about to drop the PlayStation 3 after its successor’s launch and that it plans to support the aging hardware for the foreseeable future. It made clear that the benefits of PlayStation Plus, including discounts, cloud saves and the Instant Games Collection would carry over to the new console. But more than anything else, it made clear that the company would continue to support indie game developers so that gems like Journey and The Unfinished Swan would continue to emerge and thrive on Sony hardware.

Transistor-1In the past, indie games have been seen as a sideshow to the triple-A titles that adorn the release schedule like an army of sequels. But when Sony allocated a considerable amount of stage time to the first wave of indie titles in development for the PlayStation 4, it was both a declaration of intent and an omission of past shortcomings. The PlayStation 3 wasn’t exactly an indie powerhouse when it surfaced back in 2006, but when the PlayStation 4 finally makes its debut in the coming months, compelling indie content is set to be one of its primary objectives.

“Speaking from experience, Sony has always been very progressive with indies,” remarks the president of Switchblade Monkeys and creative director on Secret Ponchos, Yousuf Mapara. “When we first approached Sony in 2010, we didn’t have a playable game. We didn’t even have a programming team and there was a huge list of hurdles in order to turn this pipe dream of making our own game into a reality. What we did have was a very cool concept, and so my friends and I animated a 60 second video of what the game would look like if it was made.”

After showing Sony the game’s concept through video and documentation, Switchblade Monkeys was approved as a developer, assigned an account manager and told by Nick Suttner and Brian Silva of SCEA that, “if you guys can make this game work, we will distribute it on PSN.” This last point is particularly important, as every successful game needs an equally successful distribution channel. “This was another hurdle that Sony helped us with,” Mapara explains. “A lot of publishers and distribution channels won’t even touch you at this point. It’s more likely to end up being a waste of their time.”

Secret-Ponchos-1It’s clear that Sony didn’t see Secret Ponchos as a waste of time, but is this pro-indie attitude a new revelation or a continuing ethos? “Even though indie support has become a hot topic recently, Sony has always been consistent with supporting indies,” Mapara offers. “The main difference now is it’s being more vocal about the process, and more proactive in scouting out and inviting indies, and even promoting indie development as a key part of its system’s culture and future. Sony’s indie support on the PlayStation 4 is raising the bar on the role indie development will play on the gaming landscape.”

So it’s clear that, as a company, Sony is keen to sign up the best in indie talent. But what is it about the new hardware that makes it such an attractive platform? “The extra performance helps a great deal,” states Jean-Francois Major, co-founder of Tribute Games. “It lets us concentrate less on performance and more on making a great gameplay experience. We love that this generation is focused more on added services like remote play, video sharing and social features. The push towards downloadable games will also help smaller indies that can’t afford the risk of printing retail copies. It somewhat levels the playing field against big publishers.”

The fact that Sony is allowing indie developers to self-publish on the PlayStation 4 is a huge boon for smaller studios and further evidence that the next generation will be more diverse in terms of creativity. You only need to look at the mobile market and services like Steam to see that lowering the point of entry is the best way to nurture new experiences, because, while we love the stepping stone-style refinement that the likes of Call Of Duty and Street Fighter offer in spades, we also crave games that deliver something genuinely original. Even so, indie development isn’t without its obstacles.

“Competition and visibility,” exclaims producer and programmer at Young Horses, Kevin Geisler, when asked about the most challenging hurdle that indie developers face. “It’s easier than ever to make a game and the barrier to entry is always getting lower. If an indie developer wants to make money, they have to work hard to provide something of value that stands out from the discounted classics, free games and triple-A titles. Indies can do very well with a niche audience if they can expand through releasing on multiple platforms, as well as supporting localisation.”

If you can count the members of your development team on two hands then it makes sense to focus your efforts on one platform before targeting a wider audience. But then again, some studios are more ambitious. “Simultaneously developing on four platforms almost killed us,” reflects CEO, creative director and art director at 17-BIT, Jake Kazdal, when asked about the pressure of developing Skulls Of The Shogun for multiple platforms. “We just weren’t big enough to keep up. We’re bigger now but would like to stay more focused during development, after which we can assess where else we belong. Being an independent developer means staying open and targeting as many platforms as we can realistically take on.”

Galak-Z-4The studio’s next game, Galak-Z: The Dimensional, will debut on PlayStation 4, but it’s clear that Kazdal and his team will consider other platforms if the game takes off. “I think the era of huge exclusives on one system is fading,” Kazdal says. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense for smaller developers to target just one platform. It’s up to the big budget first-party stuff and the exclusives that the big publishers are willing to drop a ton of cash on to try to really convince people its hardware is the best. I always buy all the hardware so I’m a horrible test case!”

If the big publishers are starting to see the indie developers in a different light, especially thanks to unprecedented success stories like Minecraft, then it’s true that the audience’s perceptions are changing as well. Nowhere is this more apparent than with crowd-based funding. Two of the four games featured in this article were partly funded by Kickstarter, further evidence that gamers not only want to see new and quirky concepts brought to life, but that they’re willing to put their money where their mouth is. The very fact that you’re reading this article in Play also highlights that indie games are becoming ever more newsworthy within the gaming press.

The way we receive indie games on consoles also has the potential to change, especially if Sony can emulate the Steam Early Access system that lets developers release an unfinished game before the main release. “There are tremendous benefits in getting your game in people’s hands, seeing what works best and what needs work,” Major enthuses, when asked about the Early Access version of Mercenary Kings. “People seem to understand what playing an unfinished game entails. Should Sony offer something similar, I believe we would still pick one platform to limit our audience and do a full release on the other platforms once we have ironed out all the kinks and finished up the game.”

We’d be surprised if Sony offered an early access system for the PlayStation 4 right out of the box, but the fact that games can install while being played suggests that all sorts of features and services could find their way onto the system as the firmware evolves. There’s also the untapped potential of the PlayStation Vita. So far we’ve only seen a few indie titles like Hotline Miami, Guacamelee and Spelunky appearing on the PlayStation 3 and Vita, as porting between the systems is a costly process. But with the PlayStation 4 being more architecturally compatible with Sony’s under-appreciated handheld, we could see more games getting the Cross-Play – and hopefully Cross-Buy – treatment.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that the growing presence and increasing importance of indie gaming is something that the PlayStation 4 is ready to embrace with open arms. The hardware has been designed with the developers in mind, and the option to self-publish means that a studio can go it alone with Sony’s full support. It’s for these reasons and many more that the likes of 17-BIT, Switchblade Monkeys, Tribute Games and Young Horses, studios that range from a team of university graduates to a collective of industry veterans, have all chosen to develop for the PlayStation 4. If that’s not a clear recipe for success then we don’t know what is.


Mercenary Kings


Tribute Games is a fitting name for this band of former-Ubisoft employees as the only game to its name so far is Wizorb, a modern take on an Atari arcade classic called Breakout. Before this, co-founders Jean-Francois Major and Jonathan Lavigne worked on everything from Scott Pilgrim Vs The World: The Game and Deus Ex: Human Revolution to a lesser-known indie title called Ninja Senki. This ninja-themed platform game paid homage to 8-bit classics like Mega Man and is still free to download on PC. But now that the studio has cut its teeth with the difficult first game, it’s ready for something a little more ambitious.

“It’s been quite a rollercoaster ride,” exclaims Major when asked about Tribute Games’ evolution since the release of its critically acclaimed debut. “Wizorb did pretty well but not enough to fully finance our next project, Mercenary Kings. Thankfully, we were able to turn to Kickstarter to give us a helping hand. With the Kickstarter funds, we hired a few of our old colleagues so that we could create a game that matched our ambitions. With the Steam Early Access launch being successful, it has put our mind at ease on the future of the studio.”

As a studio that’s dedicated to retro-themed output, it’s no surprise that Mercenary Kings looks like a modern take on Metal Slug. It features an active-reload system, as well as missions that you can undertake from a central base camp. “The game stands out with its customisation,” Major explains. “Our guns are split-up between five parts, which you can mix and match together just about any way you can imagine. There are countless combinations of guns, knives, armours, tent decorations and so on. When you play with your friends online, everyone can have their own identity.” And in terms of etching out an identity for the game itself, the fact that Paul Robertson (of Fez fame) is handling the pixel art speaks volumes.


Galak-Z: The Dimensional

Having already developed the critically acclaimed Skulls Of The Shogun for Xbox 360 and Windows-based platforms, 17-BIT is now turning its attention to the PlayStation 4. “Shipping our first game and going from concept all the way through multiple platform launches has been a massive learning experience,” Kazdal reflects. “For Galak-Z, we’re using off-the-shelf parts and adding some custom work to the already fantastic Unity engine. We’re twice the size and moving twice as fast. We’ve come to understand that once you start the media coverage you need to ship much sooner than three years later to keep the hype going. Understanding relationships with big publishers, media and more has led us to being much more efficient and fast moving.”

With a gaming résumé that includes Space Channel 5 and Rez for the Dreamcast, it stands to reason that Kazdal’s latest project would be a little unorthodox. Galak-Z: The Dimensional (pronounced with an American ‘zee’ rather than a British ‘zed’) is a side-scrolling shooter that takes inspiration from classic sci-fi anime as well as more contemporary games. Kazdal describes how everything from the recharging shields and advanced enemy AI to the wide open worlds and ship customisation were inspired by the likes of Halo, Super Metroid, Red Dead Redemption and Fallout 3. As far as influences go, that’s a hard list to beat.

“Although our team is small, we’re a great mix of optimistic and passionate young guys and some very experienced and passionate old guys,” Kazdal explains. “Galak-Z is a dream project for most of us, and it’s completely fuelled by a love of gaming. It’s a vision of how to bridge the best of classic gameplay with the best of modern tech. We’ve partnered up with Cyntient and its incredible AI is making our combat truly dynamic, organic and endlessly playable. We’re trying to take the absolute best of 2D classic gameplay and merge it with cutting edge AI and tons of raw horsepower to drive an incredible amount of screen filling effects that are just stunning. It’s a funny mix, but I think that’s enough to help it stand on its own and we can’t wait for people to get their hands on it!”


Secret Ponchos

“My friends and I were all working at various positions in different studios like Blizzard, Rockstar and Radical,” Mapara reminisces. “You make some great games that are huge in scope at the big studios, but after a while you may start to feel that you’re making the same games over and over again. You start to feel like a small cog in a machine even when your position is at a director level. At a certain point, this creative hunger starts building and building inside, and you have to decide what you want more – a steady pay cheque or to go out and make your own thing.”

For Mapara and his colleagues, the ultimate decision turned out to be the latter. “We realized if we could somehow collaborate together, invest our own time and coordinate between ourselves, we might be able to make our own game without money from a publisher or larger parent studio,” Mapara recalls. “We could make a game that we would feel proud of, and most importantly, that we would want to play. That’s how Switchblade Monkeys started on Secret Ponchos. It was like a group of kids getting together in a garage to form a band and play the music they like.”

It turns out that the type of game that Switchblade wants to compose is more pedal guitar than drum and bass. “It’s an online Spaghetti Western combat game which plays like no other game I’ve seen,” Mapara elaborates. “Through our use of the overhead camera, fighting mechanics and line of site system, it’s its own breed of combat game. We hope people like it as much as we do, as a lot of combat games have been getting repetitive lately and we wanted to introduce something drastically different into the genre. The art style and music direction are pushed and create a bold attitude, and we hope people get to experience a new twist on Spaghetti Western attitude from it.”


Octodad-4Octodad: Dadliest Catch

While studying for a qualification in videogames development, it must seem like presenting your work on the main stage at E3 is a million miles away, and yet, it didn’t take the members of Young Horses too long to achieve it. “We originally made Octodad as a group of 18 students for entry into the Independent Games Festival Student Showcase in 2010,” Geisler reflects. “We were quite surprised by the amount of coverage and praise it received and decided that we really wanted to do the idea right. We later launched a Kickstarter to kick off Octodad: Dadliest Catch and have since been working hard to build a community and finish the game.”

The original project, which is still available to download for Mac and PC, starred an undercover octopus that was trying to make it in the real world. “The original game focused on awkward controls,” Geisler explains, “but we’ve made a lot of improvements with Dadliest Catch by reducing frustrating glitches and bugs and adding more polish. Octodad as a character controls much more fluidly, and players can become quite accurate and mobile as they get used to the controls. As the player progresses, they are confronted with a lot of new challenges unseen in the original so that the gameplay doesn’t become stale.”

The applause that Young Horses received during their E3 presentation reinforces the sense that gamers want more than just a conveyor belt of identikit sequels. They want new ideas that take the established rules and turn them on their head, and sometimes it takes fresh talent to do just that. “Outside of technical improvements, the game has a much more in-depth story,” Geisler concludes. “Octodad finally leaves his house and has to confront his fears while keeping his family both happy and in the dark about him being an octopus. True to the original, simple tasks still involve a lot of flopping and flailing before getting done, and usually leave quite the mess.” Colour us intrigued.

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