Indy Games, Free Games, & Commercial Games

I’ve been “researching” various independent/freeware games lately.

Back in the day, fifteen to twenty years ago, dozens of shareware/freeware titles would come out each month for the IBM Compatible* PC. They would be distributed by BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems: Essentially text-based online forums that you connected to directly via modem***.) and through shareware vendors who sold floppy disks*** at a small markup through mail order and conventions. The mail order shareware vendors were particularly neat because they usually published catalogs in print so you could leaf through shareware titles like looking through a Sears catalog.

This was the atmosphere that Apogee and Id Software and dozens of young game companies thrived in. Apogee was known in our house as Nintendo’s biggest rival because of all the platform games they released (we would later learn that about half of them were actually developed by Id because of a secret partnership, but that’s a story for another time). We also played Hexxagon (that’s a link to a decent Flash remake, not the original) to death and actually paid for the registered version called Hexxagon II. Hundreds of these old, mostly forgotten DOS*** games still survive on the Internet if you know where to look. The internet is fantastic when it comes to resurrected games. But the difficulty is knowing where to look for new games of this kind.

Thanks to the Internet, in a sense it is actually more difficult to find good freeware/shareware games from independent developers because there’s no standard distribution system. If you know the name of a game, you can Google it. But if you don’t know it’s name, and it’s not being advertised via web banners(and if it is, it’s probably not the kind of game I’m describing here), it’s pretty much invisible.

Gamespy has a decent column which deals with the topic, but it’s not quite enough for me. That’s why I was ecstatic when I found PlayThisThing.com . Thanks to them, I actually got around to playing Cave Story, which I had heard about from the GameSpy column but hadn’t tried yet because at the time I was in the middle of Half Life 2. Knytt Stories is also neat, though not as polished. I also ran across the wonderful Tribute To Text-Mode Games following a link from a link from PTT.

Since Indie games development and attention for Indie games development is on the rise, it gives me hope that we’ll see some more original commercial games being developed for the PC. Original games used to be the norm. Magic Carpet wasn’t considered bizarre when it came out, even though there was nothing quite like it, but a third Magic Carpet game today would seem weird sitting next to all of the games that follow standardized formulas. But maybe that would help.

Generally speaking, big publishers don’t want to “risk” a lot of money on an untested idea. But sticking to the same old formulas leads to players not wanting to buy games that they essentially already have. Of course, some genres simply rely on the utter stupidity/ignorance of the audience to sell exactly the same game every year, and if it works they’re not entirely wrong. After all, if that really is what the audience wants, then fine. But complete stagnation on the upper end is slow death for an industry. How many Gamestops still devote an entire wall to PC games, if they stock them at all?

The truth is that big developers and publishers are perfectly capable of making crazy off-the-wall original games successfully. Valve proved this by sneaking Portal into The Orange Box as if it was a side-show instead of the main attraction, and then Portal steals all the glory and attention away from everything else published that year. I hope publishers are going to take the hint and give more crazy stuff a chance. Otherwise, they’ll just have to put up with the fact that I and others like me are not going to shell out fifty bucks for games virtually identical to other games we already own.

(But actually, the truth is that a game doesn’t have to be “crazy” for me to buy it. It can be developed according to established genre precedents and I’ll like it as long as it’s clever and entertaining. But more on this in the Orange Box Manifesto.)

*Because PC stands for Personal Computer, and obviously Apple IIs, Commodore Amigas, Acorns**, and the like are also PCs, so back then you had to be specific about what kind of PC you meant. This is just one reason why there are a lot of Microsoft haters.

**If you’ve never heard of Acorn PCs, you’ve probably never lived in Britain.

***I’m not going to explain everything. Ask a nerd who’s over twenty.

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