Indie Experience Points: Creative Freedom In Indie Dev
I’ve thought well and hard about how to tackle this topic and not come off as a ponce demeaning the credibility of AAA games as being artistically inferior to indie games. That’s not the point of what I’m doing here. In part, I’m going to try and point out that there is real ‘difference’ both in the structure and freedom of indie developers, and developers in AAA title teams. Profit is a driver in the latter, but it is also an unwillingness to change a winning formula that markedly divides indie and AAA titles from one another, the rehashing of a similar concept over and over again. Creative freedom in the videogame is a tricky topic, but I’ll try my best to illustrate what I mean.
The most glaringly obvious issue that developers face in the AAA scenario is that they are unwillingly (in the most extreme cases) at the mercy of the big publisher who distributes their product, and offers the start-up capital and other budget requirements necessary to put out a game. You have to meet hardcore deadlines, work under continuous stress and succumb to the constant debating amongst your own creative team and that of the publishers marketing gurus who have to at some point sell your game to a huge market.
That’s why once a winning formula is created, as is in the Modern Warfare franchise, departure from that formula is a hard sell to corporate busybodies whose concerns are thoroughly engorged by the prospect of huge profit margins. Any type of creative deviation by developers can be envisaged by the publisher as a threat to stable profits, the selling of shares in their company and a risk to consumers purchasing the product. If your product doesn’t sell the likelihood of people returning upon the next release, which is what happens with videogame franchise product cycles, is greatly diminished and the publisher doesn’t want that to happen. Creative freedom is greatly limited and developers don’t want to take the risk of venturing off into indie wilds because of job stability and the promises of a month-to-month salary check. Just watch this video to get the point:
In comparison, indie developers are guided by their own will and creative freedom which is the benefit of being in such a situation, but it is one which is not financially stable like that of the AAA developers. However, its benefits in terms of creative freedom are greater than in a AAA studio. Yet I must digress not all AAA studios are like this, an example of such is a studio is Valve who whilst being AAA produce some of the most creatively differentiated titles in the industry. Moreover, other studios like Bioware are feeling the pinch of publisher intervention in the creative process be it for better or worse.
Indie developers don’t have to worry about failing profit-wise because they are not at the mercy of big publishers and corporate bureaucracy. For them, the games they release are passion projects that have given birth to lucrative business deals and wider recognition in the industry. Funnily enough, the indie scene is comparatively like the early days of modern videogame development in the 1990s where games like Monkey Island were produced by small teams with small budgets, and fuelled by great passion because they were doing something ‘new’. It’s just as Ron Gilbert, the creative genius behind the Monkey Island series, says speaking on development in the 1990s:
The teams were small, the budgets were small, and it was all new. There were very few rules, and you made them up as you went along. We made games because we had a good idea, and inspiration was often our only approval process.
The way games are developed has ultimately changed and with mainstream AAA titles creative deviation is seen as a profit risk above everything else. To reiterate, this is not the same for all studios and publishers, but many of them live by this creed. Gamers have been experiencing the ills of the implications of the wrath of publisher domination in the game development process with the likes of day one DLC and the implementation of online passes. Creative freedom in the game development process is one which requires attention. But sadly the majority of gamers want the same game releases repeatedly each year. Is change that bad?