Press Pass: Going Indie
Imagine that you've got the best game idea in the history of game ideas. You don't work at a major videogame publisher, but you do have a modicum of programming and artistic skill, so you set yourself to many long nights of work in order to get your vision out of your head and into an executable file. Finally, after months of toil, you're ready to share your wholly original, accessible and eminently playable creation with the world. You upload your creation to some free Web space and ... despair as a grand total of 10 people download it in your first month. Hey, at least your mom said she liked it.
Independent games -- generally, games released without the support of a major publisher -- can't rely on major marketing campaigns or months of hype to generate interest. For these games, the challenge of convincing people to download a demo or buy a copy only comes after the challenge of simply making people aware of your game's existence. This is where the videogame press can help, turning readers on to the best under-hyped indie gems. So, how well is the press performing this vital function? Well, it depends on whom you ask.
Introversion's hacking game Uplink was rescued from obscurity by almost evangelical press coverage.
"A passionate games journalist who loves your work will get you more coverage than an entire PR department," said Kieron Gillen, one of four people behind indie-friendly PC gaming site Rock Paper Shotgun, in a 2005 essay on the vagaries of marketing indie games. And Gillen should know -- as the essay details, his review of Uplink for the UK's PC Gamer helped pull the game out of obscurity and push it towards a modicum of success. Seven years after Uplink's release, though, the indie game coverage is in a very different place. "I wonder if it's in a transitional phase," Gillen says in an interview with Press Pass. "We're still trying to work out what we want indie games to be -- [and by "we" I mean] everyone: readers, journalists and developers."
Gillen is particularly concerned that some outlets are reluctant to cover indie games because the readers themselves haven't shown much interest. "It seems that all the major Web sites are going through a belt-tightening phase ... I'm worried that people running Web sites want to maximize their money into page impressions. And if spending the money on an indie review will get less page impressions than spending it on a feature comparing the frame rate of an Xbox 360 and a PlayStation 3 game, they're going to spend it on the latter."
GameTunnel's Russell Carroll says The Spirit Engine 2 is one of the best indie games you've probably never heard of.
Indeed, the difficulty in getting readers to care about under-hyped indie games is enough to make even committed indie boosters despair. "To be honest, I've come to the conclusion that the lack of [indie game] coverage is due to a lack of interest," says Russell Carroll, editor-in-chief of major indie games portal Game Tunnel. "If you watch posts on popular game sites like Joystiq and Kotaku, there are a lot fewer comments on the posts about indie games than on the ones about just about anything else. That's really disappointing to me, and shows just how big of a marketing problem indies have."
Carroll sees a distressing level of groupthink around which games get coverage and attention. "There is definitely a lot of peer pressure, for lack of a better phrase, to like the same types of games that everyone else likes in order to be a 'gamer,'" he says. "I like to think that the press is nobly above that, but that's really not the case. ... At best, when indie games are talked about on game news sites, there is a cautious tone, as if the writer isn't quite sure how the audience is going to react. Typically the writer approaches the task as though they are trying to convince you of something."
Indie games like Braid have gotten glowing blanket coverage, but what other indie gems are being ignored?
Of course, there are exceptions. Indie games like Braid, Everyday Shooter and World of Goo, to name but a few, have broken out of obscurity thanks largely to glowing coverage from the press. These success stories, though, can help obscure how shallow the indie coverage is on most sites. "In the last half year I've seen people give a lot of attention to a few [indie] games, but less so to the second tier," Gillen says. Game Tunnel's Carroll agrees, calling out most sites' coverage for inconsistency. "Some games, like Audiosurf, get noticed; others, like The Spirit Engine 2, don't. ... Lots of sites will cover indie games with a few great articles in a month and then not mention anything for months."
Then again, it's somewhat understandable that many larger sites aren't putting indie games at the top of their coverage plans. "Indie games are sometimes indie because they are actually not that ... mainstream," says Simon Carless, publisher of Gamasutra and Game Developer Magazine, and chairman of the Independent Games Festival. "So it's natural that some big sites, especially sites that review games, might not be covering them as a first choice."
But this sort of reluctance to cover indie games has a huge effect on the publishers themselves. "The only way for most gamers to hear about Introversion games and to understand the premise of our games is to read reviews of them..." wrote Introversion's Chris Delay in a recent forum post. "We've heard disturbing rumours from more than one source that major games websites are now cutting back on the number of games they review -- and it's [indie] games like Multiwinia that are getting dropped because there will always be hundreds of bigger games. If this is true and is widespread (as we are starting to believe), it has grave repercussions for all indie developers who rely on press reviews as their primary form of publicity."
Publisher Introversion is worried that a dearth of reviews is hurting its latest release, Multiwinia.
The good news for these publishers is that many journalists seem to have a vested interest in really pulling for the little guy. "I think independent games are 'in vogue' right now, which can be great for indies, and that does mean that in some cases, they get covered a lot more," says Carless "When I think about the indie game coverage which is most important ... to a certain extent, they are creating a community and evangelizing to it, rather than, say, telling someone what score out of 10 that they gave a game."
Or, as Gillen put it in his 2005 message to indie developers, "We?re on your side. Generally speaking. ... Everyone likes an underdog, and games journalists more than most. ... You?re an indie developer. Don?t be afraid to play it up or underestimate how, as the rest of the industry marches toward kerzillion dollar budgets, that makes you attractive to the press. You represent the ideal of why we want to write about games in the first place."