The end of indie development as we know it

Total Rendition concept art by Julien Hauville: Vignettes of Holland's Finest Beach

UPDATE 10th of September 2021: Since publication, apart from minor edits I have made to remove some grammos and typos, hacking attempts made on have soared. Are people really pissed off that much? Of course, these attempts have only served to encouraged me even further. Needless to say, great job discouraging me!

Despite the admittedly clickbaity title, I want to start out with a honest question: What’s the difference which sets Indie developers apart from AAA developers? Note that I wrote honest question and not rhetorical question.

First, before we move to answer this question directly, I’m dropping you a hint: Outsiders have been wondering why I am so insistent to obtain investment for Schizotypy Games in order to build Total Rendition. And indeed, I am insistent on obtaining investment into Schizotypy Games, in order to have the financial means to attract and properly compensate collaborators and myself for making Total Rendition.

Total Rendition has been criticised from a commercial angle as being “niche”, by CD Projekt’s GOG no less, before that Cyberpunk 2077 launch fiasco. “Market penetration” being “a problem” was another thing I’ve heard, in this case, from some cynical VC who presumably didn’t bother to play Total Rendition’s prototypes (and therefore couldn’t have made an educated guess about Total Rendition’s “market reach”). Or useless, unsolicited advice such as “make a small game”.

One Rockstar North developer I met, supposed to be a specialist in network programming, instead perfectly epitomised the “throwing bodies onto the problem” anti-pattern. Thus, their actual work consists of making coffee for their supervisors, rather than actually doing work their job title suggests; they are, as the late David Graeber had identified, retainers. And retainers do some kind of bullshit job, as opposed to actual work which makes them essential.

What AAA development is NOT

While it is true that AAA developers often have much larger teams, this is more of a matter of “being able to”, as opposed to necessity. In fact, this paradigm may be hugely inefficient and riddled with bullshit jobs. Project managers at firms such as Activision-Blizzard, CD Projekt RED, Ubisoft and Rockstar North tend to think that – in a manner of speaking – 9 pregnant women results in a birth in one month.

It’s very rare to see AAA developers show off how AAA they are and they never use it as a marketing phrase. If anything, AAA has a bit of an undeservedly bad reputation, one associated with institutional discrimination, bureaucracy, crunch culture and most of all, overpromising while underdelivering. However, while all of these are serious problems which run rampant among AAA studios, we are fortunate that none of these things are essential to AAA game development.

Now, to return to our intro question, what sets Indie apart from AAA is not down to the quality of craftsmanship nor their amount of manpower (and no less important, girlpower). AAA game developers get millions of funding – even to make crappy movie-based games – due to their legal and financial expertise. It’s therefore not the money that makes AAA developers as such, it’s the administrative capacity that is prerequisite to be entrusted to manage that money.

Most players are well aware that a lot of MBA-types in the games industry, being Yes-people to… say… certain investors, who like to trashtalk. These are the cowards. Noted the Activision-Blizzard sexual abuse scandals recently? Apart from the sexism, it actually revealed another major problem with the functioning of certain AAA studios in general: Being overstaffed, not taking note of Brooks’ Law.

“Indie” in ‘Indie Development’ does not mean Independent

The bloat of the established companies like Activision, CD Projekt, T2 Games and Ubisoft is exactly why the development budgets of say, GTA V are unnecessary in general. This is even true when attempting to make titles with the same degree of artistic and technical ambition as GTA V. As such, we won’t be needing that much amount of funds from investors: Total Rendition is not going to be video games’ equivalent of Cleopatra.

Indie developers do show off their “Indie-ness” by calling their game “Indie”. However, Indie development doesn’t mean “Independent” in the way Indie music or Indie cinema is. Unlike in music or film, when you hear the phrase “Indie” in gaming, it never describes the content of a game: AAA studios can make highly eccentric games whereas Indie studios can build on the classics in a hackneyed, almost carbon-copy fashion.

Indie is in this sense a misnomer, because if we use ‘Indie’ in the same sense as ‘indie rock’ or ‘indie cinema’ to describe video games, AAA games are often more Indie than those ‘Indiedevs’. In fact, ‘Indie Development’ is primarily defined by what it has not: You lack legal and accounting knowledge? Then, congratulations, you are the ‘indie’ developer! You can imagine that ‘indie’ developers, do not really challenge the gaming eco-system’s status quo in any meaningful way.

The likes of CD Projekt RED and Rockstar Games already have enough intellectual property to toy with and enough money to co-opt intellectual properties from Third Parties, so why would they co-opt your ideas, however good your ideas are? In other words, if you wish to have shot at executing your ideas to your liking, you will have to do things on your own, whilst copying the legal and accounting expertise of AAA studios the best you can.

Pros study logistics

These observations aren’t delusions of grandeur: A publisher isn’t going to care about your idea nor even your execution thereof, yet to build a game costs money and a lot of it. And that money needs to come from somewhere: Newbies study (marketing) tactics, pros study logistics (of raising investment). From a game development perspective, raising investment for your studio is a logistical endeavour which Indie developers by their very definition neglect.

You don’t need MBA-types to attract investment, although you do need a certain measure of accounting and legal expertise. If you can’t afford to bring this on the table yourself, then you must learn these parts yourself, as I have: I have familiarised myself with corporate law and corporate finance, a drastic world of difference compared to my game design ambitions. Then again, no game is going to build itself.

We should note that art craftspeople in the games industry are already referring to indie developers in a negative fashion, associating it with lack of reward, with exploitation. To see examples of that sentiment, just stroll at the forums of IndieDB. Most of all, 3D- and concept artists tend to associate indie development with crowdfunding campaigns which inevitably fail, because these studios didn’t raise a marketing budget from professional investors first.

So-called ‘indie’ developers necessarily fail in that regard, because they equate crowdfunding success with commercial feasibility. This distorted and misguided view overlooks the fact that game developers can only raise significant amounts of money through crowdfunding with a war chest (i.e. marketing budget) provided for by private investors. Therefore, any game project succeeding with crowdfunding must by implication be AAA.

As a “small game”, Total Rendition is already finished!

Indie studios must necessarily fail with crowdfunding, whereas AAA studios can use it to siphon off well-meaning players’ money as a risk-cushion for investors. This is why you should NEVER participate in crowdfunding games: If devs actually are needy indie developers, the crowdfunding campaign will fail to reach its goal, yet if the crowdfunding campaign does succeed, you’re simply cushioning risks investors should be taking. Needless to say, the latter is incredibly unethical.

This dynamic of course produces the likes of Star Citizen. Indeed, do not be fooled: Crowdfunding as it exists today is the pretty sister of Microtransactions though still as bad, though much better at covering its own malfeasance. The problem is that as Microtransactions enrich large publishers, crowdfunding enriches crowdfunding platforms and unethical investors. In all cases, these come at the expense of the players.

This wouldn’t be a so much of a problem if it weren’t for Indie Devs’ sense of artistic resignation to the self-imposed financial constraints and lack of daring or insight to tackle these financial constraints head-on. If you have a high-concept in your mind, then you should try to get logistics of it up and running. Of course, taking care of that causes you to stop being indie: This is the main reason why I do wish to identify myself not as an indie developer.

Instead of saying “here is a five-minute long mini-RPG which is totally indie”, by which yardstick, Total Rendition would already be finished as a “small game”, Total Rendition going for gold status, that is, a properly finished game, featuring 30 hours of gameplay or more. Apart from obligatory design and technical aspects, I also delve in the legal and financial aspects to make these plans come true. That makes Total Rendition AAA, in spite of its humble origins.

-Mordechai Gabai

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