28 January 2012

On reviewing indie games, and the "indie game bias"

As you may be aware, the issue has come up in gaming press before of what exactly constitutes an "indie" game. My understanding is that, it's not a trivial matter, and, well, nobody really knows.

You can say that it's indie if it's self-published, which is the traditional definition (eg. for music). But unlike the music industry, there are huge game devs which self-publish, too. Valve, for one (and now with Origin, arguably EA as well). And then with online distribution, it gets really messy.

You also leave out companies like Paradox, which act as publishers quite often, but seem closely associated with the "indie game" thing despite that.

You can think about the budget, or studio size, but there are plenty of small developers who make decidedly non-indie, very mainstream games.

You can try define it in terms of ethos, but that's a downright titanic job. So is there a simple way of resolving this? I think so.

What is an indie game?

To me, for present purposes, none of this really matters. The only reason that we, as game consumers, even have a use for the indie/not-indie distinction, is that there is a certain class of "indie" developers who try to innovate and be original, and there is a pole of "mainstream" devs who just play it safe and take as little risk as possible, producing more of whatever is popular at the time.

There's the things associated with these indie games, too: They tend to be quirky, weird, they don't fit nicely into the traditional genres of gaming, they're difficult to describe quickly in terms of existing genres and conventions (unless you do something like "Game A meets Game B meets Game C! With dinosaurs and a leveling system!"). And this is why we, actual gamers, care: Because it's so common to just not want to play more of the same old, and because there's this pleasure of being exposed to an unfamiliar combination of narrative style, visuals, sound, gameplay mechanics and game structure, in other words an unfamiliar game. Remember the first time you played Portal? Yeah, kinda like that. (Incidentally, by this logic you could also reasonably rate Half-Life as not really that indie, since all it did was take a formula and refine and improve it greatly, as opposed to breaking any molds. It was, after all, a textbook FPS.)

Big, mainstream developers with managerial departments and shareholders can almost never afford to gamble by making games like this (or at least they never try), and independent developers often do. But just because nobody will distribute discs of your game, and you sell it from your own store at your website, doesn't mean you can't just make a clone. But it so happens (and if you think about it there are good reasons for it) that most people don't, and indie devs are more likely to produce these "indie" games.

So, I think "originality" is a good definition of "indie-ness" as far as a game consumer is concerned. In simpler language, it's good enough for reviews! Except... Well, originality is hard to define, and harder to measure. It's not very practical. It's hard to give games a score on originality, and do it right.

Well, there, I think I have come up with a clever idea: One other thing that seems to happen is, "indie" games are scarcely marketed, while soon after (and often before) release, a big mainstream game will be everywhere. When you have non-gamers asking about that game they have plastered all over the billboards, you know it's not an indie game you're dealing with. And if you don't advertise a cookie cutter title, who will possibly play it? (By the way, marketing departments are arguably the worst thing to happen to games media- they're the ones who pay for the reviewer bribes.)

So, why not use this as a heuristic: A game is "indie" (in the sense of being original and innovative; at this point we have abandoned any relation to distribution methods at all) if its marketing budget is big (either in relative or absolute terms, or both). Certainly, there is nothing stopping oh, Notch, from buying ad space left and right. But he doesn't. Nobody who produces indie games seems to.

Perhaps it's because indie devs are small, and can't afford it. Or perhaps uncertainty that comes with taking risks complicates return-on-investment calculations for the advertisement budget. Maybe the guys who like making original games just aren't good at marketing. Who knows? But in the end, it doesn't matter: I can't think of a counter example- an innovative game with an oversized marketing budget. And until the developers realize marketing exists, it seems like a decent enough criterion to use.

Note that, for my own convenience, I do not consider even the most blatant viral/stealth marketing to be"advertisement", nor are these part of my "marketing budget" as I use the term here - even though I imagine in reality the viral marketers would be paid by the marketing department. My reason is that, mainstream developers and publishers rarely seem to bother with large-scale (small-scale wouldn't matter) viral campaigns (if you don't count bribing or otherwise coercing reviewers), and when indie developers do, they are never large budget ones, so this doesn't interfere with our classification according to marketing budget. The other reason that it's really tough to decide where word-of-mouth ends and actual advertisement starts. What if you happen to know the dev, and you write a slightly more positive review because of that? What about if you trust and like him based on personal experience, and then say his upcoming game will probably be good? Not an impossible distinction, probably, but also not a very productive one.

There's an obvious exception to this: No one in their right mind would call either the post-EA acquisition Bioware an indie developer or Dragon Age 2 an indie game. But there was that scandal with Metacritic... So here, I'll apologize and take yet another cop out. You see, seeing as how blatant and obvious this was, I'll simply say that stealth marketing doesn't count as stealth unless it's kept well-concealed. You may say that kind of appeal to the consequences is nonsense, but suppose ElectronicVision Marketing decides to spend a trillion dollars on building a laser and burning an enormous ad on the moon for their Call of Honor: Modernfield 5. Suppose they then make a press release saying, "gee, thanks fans! Guess you thought our game was so good, you built a moon-writer laser just for saying so!". Would you really consider this stealth marketing, when nobody is being fooled?

Lastly, this is, after all, a heuristic. It's a rule of thumb without guarantee of absolute accuracy. It's a simple and easy to use one, which why you would want to use it at all. But for instance, if a hypothetical game were to exist with a minimal marketing budget, which clearly does not innovate in any smallest way, there's nothing stopping you from overruling that rule of thumb.

Who gets special treatment? 

So now that we've properly identified our indie, and not-indie, games, we come to my original motivation for writing this: It's fairly common for game journalists, especially ones which are regarded as having more integrity (read: not known shill for games with gigantic marketing budgets), to be biased when reviewing indie games, and overlook flaws which they would not ignore in mainstream games. I won't dig for examples of this- it's an impression I am very confident about, and have had others similarly express confidence in. I will just hope you know what I'm talking about: the infamous indie game bias.

Now, assuming we agree so far, we can discuss the reasons for this.

Firstly, if one likes original games, as you and me and the supposed audience of this blog and the journalists who cater to people who care about integrity (read: intelligent adults) are wont to, one may simply let fondness for a game that supplied that much-sought originality to get in the way of being objective. I mean, sometimes you just like a game so much that you stop noticing its most obvious flaws: just ask the Dwarf Fortress players (ask me).

Second, it may just be that different is confused with better. The concept of (objectively non-superior) novelty by itself producing, temporary positive reactions is a well-known psychological phenomenon. And really, psychology aside, we're all familiar with the expression "until the novelty wears off".

Probably you could come up with a number of other, similar reasons besides the above two. But I'd like to skip those, and go straight to the one I consider most crucial: There are some big players in today's industry, and historically there usually have been. They're businesses, and they try their best to keep the competition down. The indie games, with their non-existent marketing budget, are at a disadvantage against the latest big release. A reviewer who thinks that indie games do more good for the industry and the medium than big name releases (a common sentiment) would be tempted to "level the playing field" by giving indie games an easier time.

Now, here's why I call it crucial, and what this post (or essay, if you're feeling generous) is really about: Would that be so wrong?

Before I continue, I'd also like to mention that aside from the above, there's also another complication: It's easy to not be corporate shill. I mean, you know when a game sucks and you are only giving it a good score due to conflict of interest. You could hypothetically have a game reviewer who was taken in by the ads on TV and fooled into writing a great review for a crap game, but we're discussing here people who write for an audience of intelligent adults. Thus, the reviewers themselves are assumed to be intelligent adults. Seeing as how they set out with the explicit aim of writing an objective critique of the product, I think it's safe to also assume that they will be more or less immune to the effects of marketing.

On the other hand, especially with my first two stated reasons, you are giving a game a better score because of subconscious bias. By definition, you may be doing it without noticing it, no matter how much you want to avoid it. There's scientific methods of dealing with this, but video game reviews are not science, and they are not even necessarily objective. So the best that can be done is to try really hard not to be biased.

The issue of those whom I quite callously call "shills" is doubtless a much bigger, serious and damaging one in today's video game journalism. But on the other hand, the indie game bias is insipid and much harder to deal with, both for the reviewers themselves and for the audience trying to decide if the reviewer is biased or not.

Leveling the playing field

To get back to the main topic: All the rest of the above aside, in the event that a reviewer is faced with the choice of whether to speak more highly of a game simply because it's an "indie" game (according to my above, bizarro, marketing-related definition), what should he do?

Well, I'm sure this is ultimately another complicated issue, and it's certainly not a trivial one to me. But some things are clear: You cannot simply praise every old indie game to high heaven, because you'll end up saying to people that a game is great when in fact it's crap, with arguably the only redeeming feature being that it has a novel gameplay mechanic -and nothing else- and doesn't even do that mechanic well. That's not nice. Besides, if games have or are to have artistic (or even intellectual in general) value, and be anything beyond simple escapism (which I and others believe they can be), we (that is both the reviewers and the game's target audience, and really if a game is to serve intellectual function then the whole audience should be considered critics) as the audience have a duty and obligation to inform the game creators of their shortcomings, so that they are able to improve. So I think there is no doubt that whether indie game bias is fundamentally bad or not, too much of it is bad for sure.

But then, if you just acted completely impartial, (if that is even possible, and I already made the point that it probably isn't), the big-names might crush many indie attempts and the end result is innovation being stifled in the industry in lieu of compensating for unoriginality with enormous marketing budgets. We definitely don't want more of that! That's already what we complain about!

So, here's my compromise: Be as biased as you like. Give the game crazy breaks for being indie. Overlook glaring flaws. But at the end of it all, acknowledge your own bias, and specify exactly how much of your praise is due to the game's merits, and how much is simply coming from the "indie game brownie points pool".

Of course you can't ever know perfectly well when you are being biased- but it seems if you try, you can still catch a lot of it. And if before you are about to misrepresent a game, you come right out and say "I am now going to misrepresent the game according to my bias", there's not much risk of anyone being misled or deceived... Unless they want to be.

You see, there is one last thing I'd like to bring up, and that is the, in retrospect obvious, observation that indie game bias is not exclusive to reviewers. It happens with consumers, too. If you just think about it for a moment, the underlying causes of reviewer indie game bias that I've talked about earlier are perfectly applicable to consumers. I can easily recall times when based on reviews, trailers, screenshots and what not, an indie game seemed to be crap and not something I would waste time and money on, but I decided to give it a shot simply because it's indie and I thought it deserves a break. Then there's all those games which you buy, and they are unplayable crap, but you're fine with it because you believe it has potential, and you want to support the developer and make sure they have a chance at realizing that potential!

Thus, disclosure of bias in a biased review also serves the function of reminding the reader that, while the game may not necessarily measure up to the same standards as mainstream games would be held up to, he should remember that it is an indie game, and that if he has a habit of embracing his consumer indie bias, now is a great time to lend it an ear. It's also a handy way of maximizing the longevity of a review- because a game which is remarkable for being original today will no longer be original, and thus as good (because we already consider originality a merit in and of itself), to someone reading the review years after the release - you can just subtract the bias and use that score.

I'd like to add, too, that this isn't simply about saying a game is better than it really is, simply because you like it for some subjective, very personal reason. Indie game bias is very relevant precisely because it's not personal: It's prevalent with reviewers and consumers, and it has rational basis (as I have hopefully shown above), being a moral imperative consequent to the dynamics of the market that the video game industry is dependent on.

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