The video games industry has seen a new, profound support of independent developers with Microsoft’s ID@XBOX program and Sony’s commitment to bringing indie games to the PS4. These new games are often viewed as a breath of fresh air, employing new gameplay ideas amongst a sea of growing AAA sequels and projects. However, the risk adverse publishers of today are rooted in business practices laid out in the early 1990s. In that time, game engines were created in hopes to mitigate the collapse of the gaming industry. While successful in allowing the games industry to grow to the heights it sees now, game engines are also a major source of creative limitation.
In hopes to avoid another industry collapse brought by an influx of quality-baren games in the early 1980s, console manufacturers created their own software development kits(SDKs). Coming about in the early 1990s, these SDKs– synonymous with game engines– made game programming more efficient and intuitive by offering workers a standardized system to make games with. By creating and distributing game engines, console manufacturers like Nintendo and Sony could control who had the ability to program software for their machines, while also guaranteeing that games made on their SDK would run smoothly on existing hardware. Furthermore, by owning a license to a game engine developers gained more autonomy from the hardware producers while also reducing development costs, improving quality testing, and bolstering cross-platform development. Unfortunately, the use of SDKs also introduced new costs, both creative and monetary.
Game engines augmented the quality and efficiency of game development, but it also made the games industry more capital intensive. The cost to own a license to an SDK is great, making the barrier to entry for independent studios greater when trying to break into the industry. Their easiest option is to enter into a contract with a publisher that allows them a license to an engine in return for the opportunity to make a profitable game. This forces developers to pitch only sellable game ideas so that publishers feel they are not taking on too much risk. The result is a standardization of game products, where new ideas are viewed with caution. In an industry where on average 500K units must be sold to turn a profit, and only 3% of games reach that goal, publishers are rightfully wary. 14% of games account for 70% of the industry’s total sales, meaning publishers put their efforts behind proven sellers.
While business realities create uniform game software, the game engines themselves constrain new ideas as well. By using a single application for game design, developers effectively limit their design options as they are restricted to the programming capabilities of the engine in use. Furthermore, game engines allow developers to compartmentalize the development process. Tasks are divided among workers who are often unaware of the games final vision, and are combined later in order to create a cohesive product. The process allows labour to become more specialized and less skill intensive, and does not allow for creative input from the entirety of the development team.
Beholden to no publishers and not limited by a game engine, the independent development studios are free to create novel ideas for their games. Though the teams tend to be small and self-funded, they are free to experiment with new gameplay ideas that push the industry forward.
The attempts to create a higher standard of quality and combat the over production of games in the early 1990s gave way to the creation and licensing of game engines. Though they made development more efficient and games more reliable, they also stifle creativity by limiting the tools available to programmers while also forcing them to pitch only sellable games to publishers. For this reason, it is important to support the growing influx of independent games being made when they create new ideas so that they may then proliferate across the industry and further the progress of inventive gameplay.
This article draws upon professor Graeme Kirkpatrick of the University of Manchester laid out in his book Computer Games and the Social Imaginary, more specifically chapter 4.