State of Play 2013: Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail on the indie scene, new consoles, diversity and more
For me personally, this was a year spent mostly on the indie scene itself, rather than Vlambeer. After focusing all of my emotional energy into Ridiculous Fishing for so long, I decided to channel the newfound freedom that release brought into helping emerging territories establish themselves. I traveled to universities around the world to speak about indie games, design, development, production and business. I spoke at dozens of events, visited twice that amount and finally updated presskit() to version 2.0 with help from amazing contributors on GitHub. Vlambeer won numerous prestigious awards, which is both wonderful and slightly overwhelming.
2013 does not feel like a watershed year. While a lot of things happened, not a lot of things changed. A lot of the seeds planted in twenty-twelve and before came to fruition, but the most notable events of the year – the new consoles, the increased call for diversity and the increased influence of non-traditional territories – do not challenge the status quo just yet.
It was a year with a lot of resolutions to long stories. For Vlambeer, the excruciating development process for Ridiculous Fishing culminated in a month of highly energetic development and an overwhelming release. For Austin-based developer Davey Wreden and his conspirator William Pugh a long-term project finally saw its commercial release in the shape of The Stanley Parable. Alexander Bruce released his first person exploration game, Antichamber, to both critical and financial success.
This year was the beginning of new stories, most notably the launch of a new console generation. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One sparred in dramatic fashion at the larger gaming events, finally releasing in full force in the last months of the year. Both platforms pushed their own indie strategies, and since we were already set up to develop for Sony platforms, we signed up as a licensed developer for Nintendo and Microsoft too. Steam announced its move into the console space with the Steambox, not only marking the first new entry since the original Xbox, but also establishing the trend that any company entering the console wars since the Dreamcast will name it something ending in -box.
Towerfall was Ouya’s flagship title, one of few notable successes on the microconsole.
It was a year of disappointments, with games like the wonderful Shelter grabbing headlines early in the year, to never really be heard of again. Ouya appeared with a bright flash in the shape of Towerfall, only to fizzle out with no notable successes and a questionable commercial and developer strategy. The microconsoles, as the Android consoles were promptly named, tended to be announced as fast as they failed.
It was the beginning of the end for a lot of things. Steam’s Greenlight seems like it will retire shortly, with over a hundred games being cleared per month at this point. The Flash games market really does seem to be collapsing at the moment, with sponsorship deals down by over 70 per cent. The triple-A industry, while asserting its dominance of the medium with flagship titles as Grand Theft Auto V and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, was not able to hide the fact that things are still dire in the multimillion dollar portion of the industry. Huge releases like Bioshock Infinite and Call of Duty: Ghosts, while selling well, were met with a level of criticism not seen often before. The traditional review system disappeared in favour of video content as YouTube exploded into a vibrant and extremely important part of the industry, with the awkwardly named Let’s Players suddenly the most potent method of reaching new audiences.
It was a year full of personality. Sony pushed their best people forward into the spotlights for a more humane brand, with tremendous people like Shahid Kamal beautifully rising to the challenge of being a real human being™. Microsoft is carefully motioning their indie champion Chris Charla into position in the hopes of giving their Xbox One program a person to attribute successes to and to hold responsible for mistakes. YouTube personalities like PewDiePie, NerdCubed and TotalBiscuit continued their growth from personalities to Personalities, finally ushering in the era of perceived peer-to-peer recommendations and continuing the indie strategy to a more personable approach on a new level.
It was a year of challenges new and old. Discoverability, growth beyond the capacity of the scenes’ traditional structures and diversity remain problematic, with the situation on some of them improving while others deteriorate. Diversity in the indie scene is not quite what many would like it to be just yet, although voices like Leigh Alexander, Anna Anthropy, Shawn Allen, Mattie Brice and many others continue to push for increased diversity in terms of sex, gender and race with more power and resonance than ever. Anita Sarkeesian launched her educational campaign, leading to the rise of something that I fail to describe in any more specific way than ‘mainstream videogame feminism’.
Samurai Gunn, Towerfall and Nidhogg helped spark a miniature revival in local multiplayer.
It was a year of growth, with local multiplayer games reappearing from the void. Samurai Gunn, Towerfall and Nidhogg brought about many indies favourite moments of the year. The Indie Megabooth rose from a small initiative to its current size, a feat I’m extremely proud to have marketed with fellow PR organiser and Young Horses CEO Phil Tibitoski. Smaller events grew larger, and larger events grew slightly more mature. Penny Arcade Expo got itself in trouble for remarks by Mike Krahulik, yet redeemed itself in a minor way with a misguided attempt – but an attempt regardless – to increase diversity through the ridiculous concept of ‘diversity lounges’. Control Conference in the Netherlands was a surprisingly needed event in what is otherwise a quickly rising development culture.
A MAZE surprised me in the quality and diversity of their events, organising game events in Berlin, Johannesburg and Rijeka. The increasing influence of non-Western and non-Japanese developer cultures is undeniable, and personal visits to South American, South African, Arab, Middle Eastern and Asian locations consolidated my belief that in the short term, we’ll see an amazing torrent of new perspectives and influences in our medium. Titles like Desktop Dungeons, Broforce and Farsh are but the vanguard of a new voice in games, a movement that’s increasingly comfortable making their own games for a global audience.
It was also the year in which development and sales became increasingly open, from the brilliant satire of Stanley Parable Helpful Development Blog to increasing openness about the process. Vlambeer decided to try something new and broadcast the development of our upcoming title, Nuclear Throne, live on Twitch.tv. Leaf Corconan started on Itch.io, a surprisingly robust alternative sales platform to Steam and Humble considering it was made by a single person. Somewhere, two Australians started work on an educational documentary aiming to capture a snapshot of the 2013-2014 indie scene through GameLoading: Rise of the Indies.
It is also a year of hope, with large successes in non-traditional games. Papers, Please, a brilliantly crafted player corrupter game about checking passports, was poignant enough to be mentioned on mainstream television. Gone Home – a game about exploring an abandoned house to understand its earlier inhabitants – was an enormous success, almost directly followed by the hauntingly beautiful The Novelist. Zoë Quinn’s Twine game Depression Quest was better received by the non-gaming community than it was by traditional gamers, while browser-game Candy Box finally challenged Ian Bogost’s claim on the title for most compulsive clicking game. Little jam games like Titan Soul and Superhot went from tiny prototype to promising projects in days.
The Novelist casts you as a nosy poltergeist, reading the minds and private correspondences of the unhappy Kaplan family. We awarded the game an 8 in our review.
It seems that many of the most notable moments of this year are actually about the near future, making 2013 a transitional year between the ‘closing year’ of 2012 and 2014, the year in which a lot of things will change. For all the talk about bubbles bursting and scenes crashing, my honest opinion is that nothing really changed all that much. Things just went as expected, trends continued to develop and anything ‘new’ was mostly an improvement on what already existed. 2013 wasn’t a watershed year, it was a year of refinement. A year of buildup.
2014 is shaping up to deliver all the promises 2013 built up to. With titles like The Witness, Galak-Z, Octodad: Dadliest Catch, Below and No Man’s Sky, the large indie games are approaching mainstream viability like never before. At the other end, the ever improving toolset available to create games has allowed more and more diverse people to join the medium, which will hopefully evolve into new and wonderful experimental things in the future. The indie programs at Sony and Microsoft will see their first major releases, including Vlambeer’s own Luftrausers and Nuclear Throne.
I predict a year of changes to a lot of things we take for granted. The mobile space is more active than ever, but exploitative F2P implementations and paymium style games are under fire not just from the industry, but potentially from legal perspectives as well. Many systems put into place to democratise curation are being replaced with either more open or closed models. Indie games are increasingly diverse – to the point that the word ‘indie’ loses a proper categorising notion – as triple-A continues to struggle with both heightened expectations and lower revenues.
If someone asks me what I was most excited about in 2013, it would be that I am excited that our medium is about people again. For a medium that has been about more polygons, crispier pixels and restrictive contracts for way too long, 2013 was about real humans and connections. It’s about being personable and honest. It’s about faces, voices and people – both in the industry and in games themselves. It is a direction that makes me hopeful for what happens next. 2013 might not have been a watershed year, but it sure was a good year for gaming. Most of all, everything seems set up for an amazing 2014.