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Making ‘indie’ video games gets trickier as industry evolves

Video game developer Ben Esposito’s first big break was a quirky game called Donut County starring a raccoon who dropped small objects and then entire neighborhoods into an ever-expanding hole in the ground.

His latest, Neon White, is a campy twist on the first-person shooter genre, where you must fly through the skies at breakneck speeds to stop a demon invasion. Drawn in an anime style and with a romantic subplot, it has been nominated for “Best Indie” and “Best Action” game at Thursday’s Game Awards, an Oscar-like event for the video game industry.

Each year, some small and independent video game developer studios, such as Esposito’s Angel Matrix, hold their own in the big leagues by creating hit games that achieve commercial success or at least critical acclaim. Even one of the world’s most popular games, Minecraftwas founded by an independent game developer in Sweden, who later sold his studio to Microsoft for $2.5 billion.

“I have really strange tastes,” says Esposito, 33. “When I pick things, it’s about trying to find that rare cross of something that’s unusual and interesting to me, but if it’s presented the right way , it can be financially successful.”

How long these ‘indie’ studios can thrive is up for debate as the games industry undergoes increasing consolidation – symbolized by Xbox maker Microsoft’s impending $69 billion acquisition from giant game publisher Activision Blizzard awaiting approval of US and European regulators.

Esposito, the game’s co-creator and director, and his wife, co-creator Geneva Hodgson, worked from their home near Los Angeles to spearhead the development of Neon White for the past three years. At the peak of production, about five people were working on the game full-time. Add in friends, contractors and freelancers and it was still less than 20 people who came into contact with the product, Esposito said.

And while there’s no one formula for turning an unusual idea into a blockbuster hit on a family’s computers, phones, or a family’s PlayStation, Xbox, or Nintendo Switch, there are plenty of indie studios that have succeeded in building an audience for their games on build.

Thursday’s Game Awards event in Los Angeles showcases several. Including the French-made summer hit Stray, about a cute cat navigating the back alleys of a post-apocalyptic city; another play about a cult led by a possessed lamb; and the retro-looking Vampire Survivors pitting his hero against a constant stream of monsters.

But as the industry continues to consolidate, some developers, including Esposito, worry that a golden age for high-quality indie games could be in jeopardy as a smaller group of distributors make choices about what gets funded.

“When it comes to bigger budgets, it’s challenging because the industry feels like it’s shrinking a little bit,” he said. “Studios are being bought up. Talent is concentrated in certain areas and then budgets change.”

Games that Esposito describes as having mid-range budgets in the $2 million range — not cheap to make, nor as expensive as the major studio franchises – could be offside.

“I think we’re starting to see that sort of mid-budget game disappear,” he said. “I think that’s really sad because that’s the kind of budget that I think can produce really interesting, weird, risky but well-executed projects and I think Neon White is one of them.”

Both Stray and Neon White benefited from the backing of arthouse publisher Annapurna Interactive, the game division of the movie studio behind movies like “Her” and “American Hustle.” In Neon White’s case, Esposito’s team was able to up the game by hiring professional voice actors.

“It’s always a very risky business making an independent video game,” said Stray producer Swann Martin-Raget. The tools to make games are becoming more and more accessible, and so many studios are making them that it “can be really hard to get people’s attention,” he said.

Stray attracted a lot of attention this summer with his cinematic images of a realistic-looking tabby cat running through a city threatened by robots and other dangers. Its creator was BlueTwelve Studio, a small team of developers based in the southern French city of Montpellier, some of whom previously worked at the nearby offices of major game maker Ubisoft.

As a sign of its fledgling success, Stray is competing against big-budget blockbusters such as Bandai Namco’s Elden Ring and Sony’s God of War Ragnarök for Thursday’s prestigious “Game of the Year” award.

Games analyst Steve Bailey of London-based market research firm Omdia said it’s hard to define what classifies a game as indie.

It used to mean “you have a small team, they do everything themselves and they release it without a publisher and they don’t care about success. That was part of the original kind of indie spirit. Now it sometimes describes anything that doesn’t come out of big studios that make the high-profile games.

“So it could even be someone who has a publisher, actually some pretty big studios, and budgets that can run into the tens of millions of dollars that are still classified as indie,” Bailey said.

Bailey said there’s no question that players today have a rich and diverse collection of games to choose from on consoles, and from popular web-based gaming platforms like Steam or Epic.

“There’s an interesting balancing act taking place where the opportunities are now greater than ever before,” Bailey said for independent developers. “But the competition itself is absolutely huge.”

In the short term, the consolidation could be good for independent developers as companies like Microsoft strive to offer the widest range of games possible to get people hooked on buying a monthly subscription service like Xbox Game Pass.

Longer term, there’s more uncertainty as the gaming market becomes more like streaming movie services like Netflix that can allocate budgets and contracts based on previous viewers, Bailey said.

“In the future, when Xbox focuses on profitability rather than expansion and acquisition, there could be a shift in power,” he said. “It may be more difficult for India to get to grips with subscription platforms. It’s great for the people who are there and are part of that wave, but for those who aren’t there, it might get harder.

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Merry

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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