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Creative Downturn

The recession could hurt creativity - but if publishers won't take risks, others certainly will.

Even these bright spots in the gloom, however, don't change the fact that many publishers are going to become more risk-averse and less friendly to innovative ideas in the coming years. However, there's a further variable to be reckoned with in this equation - the slow but increasingly assured rise of independent games as a commercial force in the market.

We've all been talking about independent games for years, of course. Created outside the studio system by passionate, talented enthusiasts, independent games have been celebrated by the media and even recognised by the industry (thanks to the fantastic Independent Games Festival which runs alongside GDC each year). Rarely, however, have they made any significant impact on the commerce of the industry.

This is changing. It is changing because millions of new consumers who have never played games before are now active in the market, and looking for new experiences which traditional firms simply don't know how to provide. It is changing because the tools which allow the creation of superb games are no longer out of the reach of small teams and even individuals. It is changing because word of mouth has become more powerful than any marketing campaign could ever be. More than anything, it is changing because every major console on the planet now has a digital distribution system allowing consumers to download games at a wide range of price points.

No longer are independent games confined to the PC platform. No longer do they have to be given away for free, as they have been in many cases. No longer are they kept away from the marketplace simply by the high walls which surround retail, isolated from consumers by an industry which has traditionally only understood the concept of selling monolithic units of entertainment at a fixed £30 price point.

The explosion of creativity which will be created by this change is only beginning. Certainly, barriers to entry still exist, but they are slowly coming down - and I anticipate that it won't be long before services like PlayStation Store and Xbox Live Arcade start to offer developers the same level of easy access to market that something like Apple's iPhone App Store does.

This revolution will give us a new wave of developers who see games through very different eyes to those of their studio-bound compatriots. Forced to consider the financial bottom line, the technological bleeding edge and the whims of Metacritic at each turn, big studio development is by no means uncreative, but certainly has to follow certain set patterns. With few such concerns, independent game developers can follow their hearts and their instincts to a far greater extent.

The studio system couldn't have created a game like Flower, the utterly beautiful PSN title which came out earlier this month; but more than that, it couldn't have created a persona like Jenova Chen, the mind behind Flower, who happily talks in interviews about evoking emotions, moving past primal feelings and "maturing" the industry in ways that don't involve sex, blood and swearing. He talks about making games that don't empower gamers, but instead make them experience other things, other emotions. It's spine-tingling stuff. It's also commercial suicide - or would be, to a studio working in the traditional development context.

Others like him are emerging, or have emerged, from this scene. Let's not beat around the bush - many of them will build games which will be terrible. Many will try so hard to depart from the way games are traditionally made that they'll fail to notice that some of those things stem from hard-learned lessons, not constrictive rules. Others will make games which are fascinating, or extraordinary, or immensely entertaining, but which simply fail to find a market.

But from among them, there will come a select few who will make games that tick all of the boxes. They will be new, and fresh, and daring - and hugely, vastly commercially successful. Developed for a handful of notes, they will make millions, and they will fuel the careers of new auteurs and the passion of new generations of creators.

The studio blockbuster system won't go away any time soon - and nobody should want it to, any more than any serious movie fan should genuinely wish for the demise of Hollywood. However, the studio system is no longer alone, and its role in creating commercial success will soon no longer be a monopoly. Creativity will face tough times in recession - but no financial downturn will stop it from blooming, even if it's not in the places we might expect.

For more views on the industry and to keep up to date with news relevant to the games business, read GamesIndustry.biz. You can sign up to the newsletter and receive the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial directly each Thursday afternoon.

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About the Author

Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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