Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz' widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.
A couple of years ago, it all seemed over for small teams. As generation after relentless generation of hardware marched forward, game budgets climbed exponentially - and with them, the size of team required to build a modern videogame. Industry insiders speculated openly on whether independent developers would be able to survive in a market that demanded such large scale enterprise. The concept of trying to get an unusual or innovative idea through a system where GBP 10 million was rapidly starting to look like the entry point was utterly daunting.
Yet today, the independent game development scene is thriving, as stories from the GamesIndustry.biz Scotland Week has shown. If anything, it's more successful - commercially, creatively, artistically - than it's ever been. From tiny teams working within larger publishers and developers on nimble, rapidly prototyped and launched projects, through to independent developers crafting games in their bedrooms, small teams are quite definitely back in business.
The reason for this resurgence, of course, is the emergence of new distribution methods. Xbox Live Arcade has been accused of being stuffed with too many retro re-releases, but wins a lot of brownie points for games like the utterly fantastic Braid - which joins a line-up of original content that gets more impressive from month to month. Sony's PlayStation Network and Nintendo's WiiWare have done an excellent job of bringing some variety to the table, each offering slightly different business models, interfaces and, of course, hardware capabilities.
Traditionally, however, independent games have been most at home on the PC - and that's still the case to a very large degree. The PC remains the platform of choice for developers starting out on new projects, largely because of the lack of any licensing or publishing restrictions.
If you own a PC, you can develop games for it; if you develop a game, you can distribute it online without having to woo a publisher or platform holder. Extremely cheap web-hosting, accessible payment systems like PayPal and Google Checkout and the growing power of online word of mouth have even conspired to create an environment where teams with good games can set up their own distribution systems with relative ease.
Then there's Steam - Valve's digital distribution platform, which is so dedicated to the indie games scene that it's actually got "Indie" as one of its primary store categories. With the system becoming increasingly popular among game publishers and PC gamers alike (at this stage, it's an active source of frustration when a new game isn't on Steam - and for me, at least, it significantly reduces the chances that I'll buy the game if it isn't there), the presence of indie games provides a prominent store front for the whole sector.