Since the 1980’s, the Video Game industry has grown exponentially with the boom of technology. We’ve gone from 8-bit Pong to virtual reality so intense that we can mistake it for the real world if we’re not careful. It has gone from a few guys coding in their garage to a multi-billion dollar industry with more and more people joining in every single day. I won’t lie to you, this industry is just as complex and confusing as one might expect, but it’s one that’s highly rewarding and can provide some amazing products.
This article isn’t really about the history or power of video games, there are plenty of other books, articles, and videos that cover this topic far better than I ever could. Today I want to talk about one thing in particular. What can writers learn from the video games industry? Particularly, I want to focus on the Independent Games scene and talk about the similarity and differences for Indie Writers and Publishers.
What is an Indie?
You may be familiar with this term from another industry: movies, games, books, music, etc. Basically it’s a creative form of medium that’s produced or published independently of a large organization or publisher, usually by a single person or a small team. These indies usually aren’t that popular with the masses, but they often have their own dedicated following to support and love them, and that’s how the creators like it.
In regards to what we’re talking about today, Indie Books are usually self-published or from very small boutique publishers, and Indie Games are almost always self-published on a known platforms such as Steam and Itch.io. Think of Steam like the Amazon Book Store, it has a huge library of games from tons of people, you couldn’t hope to get through them all in your lifetime. A person’s search history and preferences will help auto-curate the system so that it usually shows you games relevant to your past interests.
The Rise of Indie Games
Since about 2010, Steam has been welcoming Indie Games onto its platform through Steam Greenlight (which was removed in 2017 for a more open system). This allowed more small publishers and teams to put their games out to a very large audience, as opposed to previous methods which required costly fees and strangling contracts to get small games onto store platforms like Playstation and Nintendo (XBox had its own Indie program).
So when Steam opened its doors to Indie Developers, it was a blessing. It allowed these developers to make their games more accessible to Steam’s massive audience, which made their chances of success spike exponentially. This started to put pressure on the large game publishers, because now they had to compete with more people in their space. At first, this didn’t seem like anything to be concerned about. There were a handful of relatively popular Indie games that came out over the years, but nothing that really made the AAA Publishers stand up and take notice.
So what changed?
Why Indie Games Are Huge
With the growing number of available Indie titles available through Steam, consumers had more choice. Their options were no longer AA and AAA game publishers and studios pumping out over-inflated titles, but smaller games that filled niche roles. Retro, platformers, tactics, strategy, puzzle, casual, shooter games and more became available in more variety and styles than ever before. A lot of Steam users took notice, along with the industry surrounding them. Major influencers like podcasters, YouTubers, and games journalists started to cover Indie titles more, gave them more praise and attention, and helped to grow the otherwise small cult following into a much larger audience.
Then in September of 2015, developer Toby Fox released his one-man project that would rock the Indie Games scene for years to come. Undertale was an overnight smash hit, and something that many users called a ‘perfect story.’ On the outside, it was a game that didn’t look like anything to get excited over, with simple 8-bit graphics and a strange combat system, however people fell in love with this title so hard and so fast that it shook the foundation of the Indie Gaming world.
Undertale and Stardew Valley
Undertale’s success was based on a number of elements, and a little dash of luck. Success is never guaranteed, but a good product will almost always be successful if it’s put in the right environment. Undertale was a simple game, with no complex game mechanics, it could run on any machine, and it was affordable at a grand total of $10 USD. This made it accessible to the widest audience possible which was anyone with a computer and an imagination. It offered a cast of fun and colorful characters and turned the idea of monsters being the bad guys on its head. This game turned the monsters into the victims, scared of the humans who often took joy in killing them. Additionally, it offered the player the choice of fighting and killing the monsters, or being a pacifist and sparing the lives of the monsters the player encountered. This had a drastic effect on the game’s overall story by the end.
So the bottom line was that the game was unique, creative, offered a solid message, and was available to a huge audience. This game’s success suddenly put Indie Games on a lot of people’s radars, making them curious enough to try other Indie titles. This is just a brief overview of Undertale’s concept and story of success, and there’s a lot more information that can be found about this game elsewhere.
The other major Indie success that really grabbed people’s attentions came a few short months later in February of 2016. Another one-man creation, this one by developer Concerned Ape, Stardew Valley was a simple farming simulation game that dropped onto Steam with massive overnight success. Stardew Valley was a simulation style game, where the player inherits a farm and has to build it up into a successful part of the local community. It came with a large cast of unique characters, a decent sized playable world, and plenty of ways to spend time. This game was inspired by a previous AA game franchise called Harvest Moon, which previously had only been available on console systems like Gameboy, Nintendo DS, and Playstation, but never on the PC.
This game gave players a relaxing setting, with a strong emphasis on character-driven stories and choices. The characters that players interacted with also dealt with real-world problems, such as mental health, physical handicaps, love affairs, and more. They were interesting and more real than people were expecting, and it lent to a lot of replayability with a simple gameplay loop that didn’t get boring. Much like Undertale, this game also gained a fast and strong fanbase that kept it alive well past when most people were talking about the game, and later spawned more farm-game copies that are still in development.
Video Games offer a method of storytelling that’s very different to books and movies. They allow character driven stories through choices, making it so that someone can replay the same game multiple times and get a different experience each time through. Much like books and movies, this form of storytelling requires its own set of rules and guidelines to be successful, and this genre is still one that’s in its early stages of growth. However video games still have a lot to teach writers in all mediums, both about the law and nature of writing, and about the audience.
Gamers tend to be more impatient than readers or even movie goers. Players are often much more focused on quest driven content, skipping the quest text just so that they can get to the big bad boss at the end of the level. This means that game writers have to be more visual in their storytelling, not relying so much on big dumps of quest text or on-screen dialog, and leaning more on storytelling through the world.
One game in particular, Dark Souls, told an entire story without any in-game quest text or exposition dumps. Players are still scrambling to assess every single in-game element, flavor text, and world scene to interpret the story behind the game. There is a lot to be learned about storytelling through the reader’s (or player’s) imagination, leaving enough there that the audience wants to fill in those blanks. This is something that I see a lot of young authors afraid to embrace, wanting to make sure that their whole story gets told with minimal mystery when they’re done.
The Indie Boom
I talked a lot about the Indie Boom for video games through Undertale and Stardew Valley, both massive Indie success stories that put Indie games on the map for a lot of people. I think that the Indie Boom has yet to happen for books, particularly in fiction. The large book publishers still have a stranglehold on the book market, making it so that only they can put their books in brick and mortar stores, and at more easy access to readers. These big publishers have their rockstar writers who somehow put out 5-6 books a year, while most Indie writers struggle to find an agent.
This isn’t a segment to complain about how impossible it is to break out into the world of writing. Any industry has its difficulties, and part of the reason why success is so hard to achieve is because nothing good comes without a struggle. I want to point out that Amazon and several other smaller sites (like Smashwordsand Goodreads) have made huge strides for the Indie writer to help get their books out to the public at a reasonable cost. It’s possible to publish a book on $10 USD if someone really wanted. The means are all there.
The point of this article is to state that the Indie Boom could happen at any moment, any day. Now is not the time to get discouraged because the world of Indie writing isn’t as big as it could be. All it will take is that right book, that breakout novel that catches the right person’s attention, that’ll snowball into a whole new age of reading across the world!
So the big question you have to ask yourself is this: Will that book be yours?