Anyone who knows me knows I love the movies. I've seen 120 movies that came out in 2016 alone. Of course, though, I also love video games – that much should be obvious from my writings here. But one thing I will always love more about movies than games is the incredible independent scene that routinely produces, profitable, decorated and high-quality films.
But, in the wake of the Game Developers Choice Awards, I've come to a sobering realization that video gaming will never have the same independent scene that movies do, and it's pretty clear why.
Games Are More Expensive Than Movie Tickets
This is obvious. For one good video game, you can expect to pay anywhere between $20 and $60, where as you can see two to six movies for that same price, or more movies, depending on where you live. Hell, you can subscribe to a service that costs $45 per month that lets you see as many movies as you'd like.
This only harms indie games. For an indie game with any polish to make its budget back and hopefully turn a profit, it'll have to list for at least $20 on launch – and it's often times more than that. For a video game that doesn't have a big studio behind it, the consumer is more hesitant to shell out that kind of money for an unknown commodity.
Now, this may not have a huge effect on the indie scene's success, looked at in a vacuum, but the way the way this works in the movies is incredibly better. All tickets cost the same price, and they are comparatively cheap. The national average for ticket prices is south of $10, and you can go to your local art house cinema to see the latest independent films for even less than that. Because of this, indie films are seen a lot more than indie games are played.
There Is No Prestige In Indie Games
Thinking back to The Game Awards, or the end-of-year lists or even, in large part, the Game Developers Choice Awards, you can see that the games with the highest budgets completely dominate all three. The two battling for the top spot of the year-end aggregate? Overwatch and Uncharted 4. Game of the Year at The Game Awards? Overwatch, with Inside being the only independent nominee out of the five that also included DOOM, Uncharted 4 and Titanfall 2.
These are the blockbusters, guys. These are the games that had the highest budgets and made the most revenue. This is like if the 88th Academy Awards Nominated Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Furious 7, Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron and "I guess maybe Spotlight, I dunno." Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw recently quipped that Inside wasn't on his end of the year list because, unlike The Game Awards, he's heard of other Indie games, and, while I generally shy away from relying too much on others' material, that really hit the nail on the head.
Game awards shows in general treat prominent indie games like a crutch on which they can lean when anyone dares question their emphasis on bug budget titles. I can hear you saying "But The Game Awards has the 'Best Indie Game Category.'" Wow! One whole category where indie games can be represented. Gee thanks, Geoff Keighley. Do you see The Academy Awards having a "Best Independent Film" category, with the "Best Picture" category being reserved mostly for the blockbusters? Nope.
And I'm not saying the Oscars do it perfectly, either. Does the Academy often times inappropriately ignore blockbusters (The Dark Knight) and genre films (It Follows) on no other basis? You betcha, and that needs to be fixed as well, but at least the Academy tries to, and often does, recognize great films regardless of budget.
The Game Developer's Choice Awards are largely better at addressing talent and production in non-AAA titles (as they should be, given that the awards are voted on by industry people rather than a round-table of games press tightly locked in an echo chamber of maybe 20 games they played throughout the year), but they still turned out similarly disappointing results, with three out of the five Game of the Year contenders being AAA games.
Why is this important? The lack of indie games represented in year-end consideration furthers the cycle. If I hear about this great new indie game that everyone considers one of the best of the year, I'll want to go buy that game. If I don't hear about it, I won't buy it, and the indie scene will continue to dwindle.
But isn't it possible that the AAA Games get more prestige because they're simply better? Definitely. In fact, that's exactly the problem. Let me explain:
The Tools To Make Impressive Games Are More Expensive
With film, anyone can make a great movie with the same tools as the big guys for the same amount of money. While indie films may miss out on technology like 3D or IMAX, those really only lend themselves to action cinema, which is not a genre independent films often explore. With the rise of digital and the availability of actual film, anyone can walk off the street and make a great movie for a few million dollars – heck, Moonlight, a potential Best Picture winner this year, was made for $5 million, a far cry from, say, Rogue One's $200 million budget.
We can go even further. One of the most popular independent films in 2015 was Tangerine, which was shot entirely on a freaking iPhone. You can go back even further yet to Paranormal Activity, made for around $25,000 and we all know what came of that franchise.
How does this relate to video games? Well, think of the indie games that do get end-of-the-year attention. Let's say, Inside, Firewatch and The Witness. What do they have in common? Two of them have full 3D environments, Inside has 2.5D, and they all have a level of polish that our eyes positively identify. So, only if an indie game can appear like a AAA game do we give it the recognition it deserves, whereas 2D games, the kind of game that is cheap and available to developers, obviously won't win any points for visuals.
Here's the thing: the technology to create this kind of game isn't cheap, the way a traditional camera is cheap. It's not available to everyone. We judge games, at least in part, on how they look – a perfectly legitimate criteria – but many game developers don't have the financial resources to make games that look good. There's always a back-handed compliment of "interesting art style" or something of the like, but that's hardly a satisfying form of recognition.
I whole-heartedly believe that a great film can come from anywhere and anyone, but I can't say the same thing about video games. Because the only games that get prestige are the games we've heard of, and we only hear of games we buy, and we only buy games that have a level of polish not available to most game developers, Indie Games will never have the same place in video gaming as independent movies do in cinema.
And that bothers me. It should bother everyone that we're locking great games behind a paywall, so to speak, and not giving awards praise to games that can't break through that pay wall. If you don't want to be as pessimistic as me, then you can do three things: encourage big awards shows to recognize deserving independent games on equal footing with AAA titles, support indie developers who are trying to make great games but don't have the means and, finally, take a chance on Indie Games you may not be sure about by actually buying the game.