Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Op/Ed: Do We (Gamers, Media, Etc.) Really Love Indie Games?

Despite all of the effusive praise indie games get these days from platform holders, press, and gamers, I’m starting to think it is all just lip service.  If the media actually loved indie games, they would bother to review more than the tiny fraction of releases that they do.  If gamers really loved indie games, they would actually buy more than just the major hyped up ones.  If platform holders – Sony and Microsoft - really loved indie games, they would actually promote more of them instead of sending so many out to languish in obscurity with no fanfare each week.  This is a problem.

I have only really been involved in the indie games scene since June 2016, but even in the short time since then I have noticed several patterns.  Every single week multiple indie games come out on Xbox One and PS4 but most of them get almost no coverage from mainstream gaming websites.  The only games that get a lot of coverage are already popular ports from other platforms or games that Sony or Microsoft specifically chose to highlight and hype up in an “Indie Games Montage” during a press conference.  The rest of the indie games on consoles – probably 75% - get little to no coverage at all.

The reason?  Reviews and coverage of most indie games don’t generate enough traffic for mainstream sites to deem them worthwhile on top of an already full workload of covering “AAA” games.  And why don’t they generate traffic?  Because a huge percentage of gamers, despite a vocal minority claiming to want innovation and fresh ideas and new IP’s, don’t really want any of that (but that discussion is for another article on another day) and, thus, don’t seem to really care about indies. 

There is a certain subset of gamers that do actually seem to care, of course, but the problem there is, once again, the lack of coverage.  Recently there was a thread on NeoGAF about how everyone longed for the return of the Xbox Live Arcade format from the Xbox 360.  People liked the weekly releases of small competitively priced digital games and wished that would come back.  This discussion struck me as particularly stupid, even by GAF standards, because right now we’re seeing more digital XBLA-style games released every week on Xbox One than ever before thanks to indie self publishing, but people simply don’t know about them.  They don’t know about them because the media won’t cover them.  And the media won’t cover them because, apparently, no one reads those types of articles.  See the pattern forming here?  It is a real catch-22.

While the lack of mainstream coverage definitely hurts indies, some of the problems are also self-inflicted by indie devs and the platform holders themselves.  Indie games have developed a bit of a stigma of being unpolished and half-baked, and the oversaturation of certain genres and styles of games has made a lot of people numb to the whole concept of indie games.  Of course, we all know that there’s more to indie games than just 2D platformers or retro whatever games (but damn if there aren’t way too many of them …) and some of them can be incredibly polished, but the damage has already been done.  Those misconceptions of what indie games are has muddied the waters so much that people can’t, or aren’t willing to, find the great games among all of the muck.  They assume all indie games are the same so they don’t even read the coverage of the good games.  And now we’ve come full circle back to the issue of the media not covering indies properly because people don’t read it because they don’t really love indies as much as they claim. 

Another issue with console indie games is that they just suddenly get released with no fanfare or warning more often than not.  This is more Sony and Microsoft’s fault for having complicated certification procedures that cause delays more than anything, but it still needs to be improved.  Triple A games have a set release schedule so that you usually know weeks or months in advance when something is coming out so you can do some research on them if you need to.  If more indie games had set release dates in advance rather than just suddenly coming out it would be a lot easier for gamers to get excited about them.

And that really is the biggest problem that I’ve mentioned over and over again – gamers simply don’t know enough about the indie games coming out.  Pretty much every week when Major Nelson tweets out “Blah Blah Blah Indie Game is Now Available on Xbox One!” I have no clue the game even existed prior to that announcement.  If someone like me, a professional games journalist with 15-years of experience who is now actively looking for new indie games to cover, wasn’t even aware of your game before release, how do you expect normal gamers to be excited about it? 

Even the sites that do cover console indie games don’t do a particularly good job.  Most Xbox One and PS4 indie games on GameRankings only have a couple of reviews from the same handful of sites.  Not naming names, but these reviews are usually poorly written, poorly thought out, and are seemingly (occasionally obviously) produced ASAP after mere minutes of play time on the day of release just to be the first one posted.  Sites like that aren’t really helping!

That was a big reason why I decided to make PSXBoxIndies in the first place.  Console indie games are a huge blind spot in the industry right now and someone needs to cover them properly with the love and attention they deserve.  I have discovered in the last several months a real passion for indies and want to help elevate the good ones as best I can, but I can’t do it alone.  Microsoft and Sony need to do a better job of promoting them.  Indie devs need to do a better job of making the public aware.  And gamers need to start actually playing indies rather than just claiming to love them while spending their money on the same “AAA” games every year.

What can you do to help?  Go read my reviews of indie games and find something you like and actually buy it!  Even better, buy an Xbox Gift Card at Amazon with this link to help the site out a bit while you're buying you new indie game.  

As an aside, I also want to add that I really appreciate all of the indie devs who have been willing to help me along the way so far.  We’re all little indies helping each other out - devs giving me codes to review and me trying my hardest to get the word out about great games - and it is kind of magical.