This is a story that begins with a bit of disappointment, and ends with hope, mostly.

After somewhat of a drought in 2009, the anticipation was that 2010 would be a banner year for games, with many first-party, big-name titles being released.  As a result, I decided to make sure I had enough room in my budget to pick up a good number of them.  Fast-forward to August, and I’ve bought a grand total of 2 at day-one prices: Just Cause 2, and Mass Effect 2.  (Another anticipated title, Supreme Commander 2, somehow got stuck on the back burner, only to surface just a couple of months later at 1/5 the release cost).  And looking forward to the holiday season, there are maybe 1 or 2 more that I’m still anticipating, if that.

How did it happen?  Hard to say, but I probably should have considered how prescient a certain event in 2009 was in terms of my perception of first-party games: namely, the debacle surrounding the PC version of Modern Warfare 2 (y’know, I’m noticing an awful lot of 2s showing up in titles… original IP, anyone?  But I’ll get to that in a bit…).  After playing the first one and enjoying it immensely, it seemed like a no-brainer to pick it up, but in the intervening months, through a series of horrible decisions about the game, I actually went from having the perception that the game was a must-buy, to refusing to touch it at any price.  I certainly wasn’t the only PC gamer who was disappointed that the game ended up turning into a warmed-over console port with botched multiplayer and no customization or mod support whatsoever, but as a console game, it sold well…  only encouraging publishers to follow suit with other limitations on other games.  Perhaps I should have anticipated similar shenanigans in 2010, but, naive or not, I still held out hope.

But then 2010 did roll around, and the issues started rolling in.  Bioshock 2 drops to widely varying reviews, plagued with a DLC-on-the-disk scandal, and despite my love of the first game, I pull a MW2-style perception flip and decide to wait on it – and I’m still waiting.  Ubisoft rolls out their horrid online-only DRM system, causing me to write off their entire catalog of games indefinitely.  The mod support and other features in Starcraft 2 get scaled back, along with my enthusiasm, and on and on…  Game after game comes out, but broken or deficient in some way, and I have no desire to pay full retail price for it (especially with the ridiculous bump of a number of games to the $60 console price point, despite the lack of license fees on the PC platform that might lead to such an increase).  Even looking forward, towards upcoming games, Fallout: New Vegas is playing around with preorder DLC, and Test Drive Unlimited 2, aside from the preorder nonsense I mentioned earlier, was rolled back to at least January of next year (or possibly March, if Steam’s release date is to be believed).  If I didn’t know better, I’d almost swear that first-party developers were actively trying to discourage PC users from buying their games, at least on day one.

However, first-party game developers and publishers, while they may dominate most of the market, aren’t the only show in town – there are plenty of independent developers working on a wide variety of different types of games, many of them innovative new ideas, or at the very least, refreshing takes on played-out or underappreciated genres.  Of course, to be able to actually take on these sorts of projects, especially if they’re a bit more advanced than you’re average casual game, you need a way of funding the initial game, which you can then sell, and use the profits to produce more.  That, of course, is the sticking point, and one of the reasons for much of the first-party gaming shenanigans and lack of creativity that had so turned me off this year: big games need big investments, especially for AAA-quality titles with the latest graphics, and publishers don’t want to commit to investing in a game that they can’t guarantee sizable profits from.  Because of this, no one takes much in the way of risks, and the titles with 2 or 3 after their names greatly dwarf the amount of completely new ones.

Of course, there are some signs of hope.  A number of the major publishers have hosted indie game competitions, or started partnership programs with indie studios to help produce more games, but these agreements often come with their own drawbacks, such as the publisher taking all rights to the game in return for their investment.

I did read with more interest, though, about the creation of the indie fund, a coalition of already successful independent studios creating their own investment group to direct funds toward promising indie games, helping them get off the ground without demanding onerous profit arrangements or IP ownership.  Unfortunately, as far as I’m currently aware, there’s no way for individuals to become involved with that project, but I did discover that there are also a number of indie studios that let you do something similar.  Essentially, you preorder the game, which gives the company the working capital they need to continue development.  In return, in addition to getting a full copy of the game upon its release, you get to play around with the game as it’s being developed, trying out new features as they’re implemented, and often having an unprecedented amount of communication with the developers.  It’s really quite a different experience – instead of paying for a game from a big published who couldn’t care less what you think, you get to actively put your money towards getting the games you’re most interested in published, while at the same time getting an inside view of a game as it comes together.

So, long story short, I decided to take a different route with at least part of my gaming budget – given my disappointment with first-party games this year, I would instead take some of that money and put it towards some of these independent, self-funding games that I want to see built to completion.  I’ve found a few so far that are definitely worth mentioning, especially as they’re quite a bit more than investing in an unproven idea – all of the games that I’m going to talk about here have, at the very least, some sort of playable preview.


Overgrowth – by Wolfire Games

Wolfire Games first came to my attention with their sponsorship of the much-loved and often-imitated Humble Indie Bundle, a promotion featuring a half-dozen games by independent developers in a pay-what-you-want format, along with the ability to allocate some or all of the payment to charitable organizations.  One of the games included was their own production, Lugaru, which is a rather impressive third-person fighting game, a genre that seems very rarely implemented these days – in fact, before Lugaru, the only other PC game with that sort of beat-’em-up style of gameplay was Oni (which, as I’ve probably mentioned before, is one of my all-time favorite games).  Currently, they’re working on the sequel to the game, Overgrowth, as a self-funded venture, both from their own sales as well as preorders.  That preorder, though, gives you direct access to the game as it develops, including frequent developer builds that let you try out all of the new developments as they occur.  It’s still very much in alpha, but you can already explore a number of nice-looking maps in the game engine (or even create your own), as well as explore them using a test character.  It’s been an interesting experience so far, and if you like that style of game, I think it’s definitely worthy of support.


Minecraft – by Mojang Specifications

If you’ve been looking at gaming-related stuff on YouTube lately, you’ve probably heard about this one already.  It’s really quite a deceptively simple, yet amazingly complex, game concept: essentially, a character spawns in a dynamically-generated world constructed entirely of different types of blocks, which can be collected, placed, and crafted in near-infinite ways.  The only goal: do what you need to do to survive in the world, and beyond that, you’re pretty much only limited by your imagination.  It’s a sandbox game in the most literal sense, in that pretty much everything in the world can be changed, modified, or reconstructed to your liking.  I’m always hesitant to use the phrase “emergent gameplay,” but in a game like this, you really can make your own fun, and I’ll probably discussing that part of it in quite a bit more detail soon (I already have another post in the works detailing my first experiences with the game, and how it can quite easily veer off in interesting and unexpected directions).  The preorder is amazingly inexpensive (probably even more so if you’re in Europe), and in return, you get access to an alpha build of the game that is already quite stable and mostly feature-complete, at least for the singleplayer version (the multiplayer is apparently a bit less further along), and the game is receiving regular updates that add even more features as it proceeds towards its beta release.  Despite the seemingly retro-looking graphics, this is a game with incredible potential, and even in alpha, is already rivaling most AAA games in terms of value for money.  I like this game quite a lot, and I hope it succeeds – given how successful it’s been so far, I don’t think that’s much of a stretch.


Interstellar Marines – by Zero Point Software

This one is certainly an interesting project, despite the fact that it is taking on a somewhat tired genre and trying to do something a little different with it, or at the very least, a bit more polished, with an interesting environment and keen attention to the way it feels to actually play the game.  The developers claim that they’re trying to produce a “AAA Indie” game – basically, a game that can measure up to the major first-party titles in terms of graphics and scope, but more independently funded, with some funding coming from preorders of the game.  However, at the moment, this one’s a bit more faith-based than the others.  Trying to go AAA does require quite a bit more cash, with budgets ranging from one to many millions of dollars – based on their own released preorder figures, though, my back-of-the-envelope calculation makes it look like, with the most optimistic estimates, that funding from individual players probably comes in at a bit under $100,000.  Because of that, they appear to have slowed development as they look for other investment partners, and full development seems a bit less certain at this point.  However, they definitely have a viable product – they’ve already released a trio of previews for the game, with pretty professional-looking graphics and gameplay so far, and all of them are playable directly in your web browser.  Based on those previews, if they are able to figure out how to get a funding model that gets them the resources they need, they seem to have the underpinnings for a very solid shooter, with more web-playable previews coming out to allow players to see more and more of the game, until its final release.  As with any of these preorders, there’s some risk of never seeing a final product, and this one makes me a little more wary as you don’t seem to get to download the previews directly, so if the site goes under, you don’t even have the previews to play around with.  However, if you can tolerate that risk and want to support an ambitious indie project trying to play with first-party publishers on their own turf, a not-too-expensive preorder will net you the first game on release, as well as full access to all of the previews as they arrive, as well as various bits of insider access – pay a bit more, and get a preorder for their entire planned trilogy of games.  I haven’t actually bought into this one yet, but I’m definitely intrigued by it, especially after seeing just how solid they’ve got the mechanics of the game down in the previews they’ve released so far.


If you’ve read the comment threads on many of the PC gaming furores that have erupted this year, you’ll inevitably see someone making the comment to vote with your wallet: if you don’t like what the game has to offer, don’t buy it anyway, and don’t threaten to pirate it – just don’t buy it, and use your money to get the games that you like, and support the studios that you think are deserving of your business.  While I may not make a huge difference as a solitary consumer, this year, I think I’ve been doing just that – shying away from games and publishers that are doing things I don’t approve of, and steering my money towards the games I’m really interested in, and developers who I’m happy to support.  There are more options for PC gaming than ever before, and it’s truly heartening to see things like the indie fund and successful, self-funded studios being able to thrive alongside the more mainstream competition.