I don't know about you, but I got pretty geeked out after GDC this year. Why? I'm excited about all the games coming to my Vita. Now, I've been happy with the system so far. I bought it only a few months ago, since it's my policy to wait a year or so before buying a system. It helps avoid the "1st year lull" that is all too common with many videogame systems. But after seeing the games Sony has been announcing, I'm definitely looking forward to dropping some cold, hard cash on some digital PSN downloads.
Courting the indies is nothing new. Sony always had a soft spot for quirky, indie-style games, even since the PS1 era. PaRappa the Rapper and UmJammer Lammy, anyone? With their latest push for indie support, though, things seem a bit different. Everyone seems a bit different, actually. Microsoft started their push for indies on XBLA a while ago, resulting in a ton of excellent titles like Castle Crashers, Minecraft, Fez, and Bastion hitting the system. Steam recently implemented their Greenlight project, a method of approving indie games for inclusion on the Steam digital service. Even smaller sites like Gog.com (a site traditionally focused on old-school PC games) have been searching out indie games and adding them to their library. Sony may be a bit late to the party, but better late then never, right?
I'm a PC gamer, so a lot of these games look familiar to me because...well, I've already played them. Spelunky is one game in particular that I'm very excited about, even though I've been playing it for years (the PC version, at least). Terraria is another indie title hitting Vita (and which has already hit PSN/XBLA) that I've already played on PC, but that I'll likely buy again for Sony's handheld. These games seem far better suited for a portable environment, but I am a sucker for handheld gaming. I can't speak for every gamer, of course. I can only speak for myself, but I'm glad console manufacturers are edging in on the PC indie scene. Some people might sneer and point out that PC has been doing "indie gaming" far longer than consoles. Personally, I don't care. Indie gaming is a better fit on consoles and handhelds, in my opinion, for a couple of reasons.
For starters, we're seeing a lot more support for indie developers on consoles. Both Microsoft and Sony have taken great strides to not only open up their consoles, but also to support and in some cases fund an indie project. This is something that just doesn't happen on PC, unless you're dead-set on running a Kickstarter project. On consoles, indie devs are getting more money and more exposure than they ever have in the past, which means more food on their table and higher-quality games for us to enjoy. Sony is not only bringing over upcoming indie games to their system. They're also porting older indie games formerly found only on PC or XBLA to their PSN service. This, in particular, is something that I'm very excited about. I cannot tell you how many times I've been playing an indie game on PC and wished "goodness, a controller would be nice" or "if only I could play this on a handheld". Well, Sony seems to be paying attention. Games like Spelunky HD, Guacamelee, Terraria, Hotline Miami, and Limbo are just a few of the games finding new homes this summer, even though they've been previously released on other platforms.
If I was a cynical man, and I'm not, it would be easy for me to say (for example) "the Vita needs REAL games! Indie games can only do so much". But honestly, indie games these days can offer as many, if not more, hours of gameplay than big AAA titles. Sure, a big library of indie titles doesn't make the Vita shelf at Gamestop look any bigger, but what matters is games, right? Who cares if they're purchased on a cartridge or bought online?
Sony's recent push for more indie gaming has another big advantage: it pads out their game library without too much extra effort. Sure, I like big-name AAA releases just like anyone else, but I tend to be on the picky side when it comes to my hard-earned $60. Typically, I only buy one or two games at full price on launch day. For the other games I want, I wait a few months. But, when it's an indie title, I have no problem spending $5 to $15, even if that does happen to be the launch-day price for the title. Heck, when I total up all my purchases, I may end up spending more than $60 on all those indie games, but then again, I'm getting half a dozen games. You'd be hard-pressed to find a $60 retail title that offers as many hours of play and as much gameplay variety as you'd find by spending that same money on six $10 indie titles.
We have to be realistic. It's a changing market. AAA games are no longer going to be the only driving force in the game industry, especially when top-rated, multi-million-selling games like the new Tomb Raider apparently don't sell enough, according to the publisher. We're moving in a direction that favors games like Minecraft, a tiny-budget game that has skyrocketed to 20 million sales in a few short years. Although I do not believe that smartphones are going to destroy traditional gaming consoles and handhelds, I do believe that the business model of inexpensive, small games is impossible to ignore in this economy. Indie games are a good business move, not just because they're cool or hip or offer unique gameplay. The reality is that they're cheap. As more and more gamers look to digital services for their gaming fix, it's important to have a big library of such games. For the indie developers, consoles offer a relatively uncrowded marketplace compared to what they've come to expect on PC and smartphones. The problem with those platforms, especially smartphones, is that it is increasingly difficult for smaller indie developers to get noticed with their games, especially when Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and the latest letter-jumble game are always topping the charts. It's a win-win situation for both parties: Sony gets a healthy library of small, quirky games, and the indies are given a marketplace where their games can flourish.
Ultimately, we won't know just how serious Sony is about indie developers until we see their commitment over the long haul. It's easy to do a conference and SAY you're getting developer support (wink wink, Nintendo WiiU). It's another thing entirely to actually get the support. However, I do think Sony is going to get plenty of indie action in the coming months and years, not because Sony is some super-special company, but because the move of indies from PC/smartphones to console is inevitable.