Going off the beaten path – indie books, expectations and lessons from computer games

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a voracious reader, but like many people, I tend to stick to my favourite few authors and personal recommendations from friends. All from major publishers, of course!
That was until a few months ago, when as part of my membership of BooksGoSocial, I joined a review club and started reading indie books. I’ve not touched a traditionally published book since.

Although I don’t read as much as some other people, I do play a lot of computer games. As far as my CV on that is concerned, I started on 3D Monster Maze for the ZX81 and never looked back, and over the last 30+ years I’ve owned a ZX Spectrum, QL (okay, that was my dad’s but I used it occasionally), Amiga 500, numerous PCs and Sony PS2->4.
3D-monster-maze-T-rex-2-steps-away
3D Monster Maze. Terrifying at the time!

 

There are a lot of striking similarities between the computer games industry and the book industry; both have seen a huge increase in digital distribution vs physical copies in recent years, and with it the rise of the independent producer. Where there is still a certain number of concerns (and dare I say it, snobbery?) towards indie books, on the whole the response to indie games has been very different.

When people refer to ‘indie books’, they usually lump two main different sources into one.  There are the small publishers who still have the same production values and entry requirements as the larger ones (although they may send out more calls for entries rather than relying on agents), and the self-published authors who are ultimately responsible for every part of production themselves. That’s not to say that they do everything themselves; after all, there’s a huge number of companies out there willing to take your cash to help with everything from story development to line editing and proof reading. All of that costs money, of course (a line editing service can cost at least $10 per 1000 words), making ‘chasing the dream’ an expensive proposition for the part-timer or new author. Some may argue that it’s the entry fee for playing in the first place and that’s a valid point, but it does make it a very high risk investment with little hope of return for many people. It’s therefore no surprise that many decide to do it all themselves.

There’s also the argument that self-pub books are only there because they weren’t good enough to get agents and Harper Collins et al interested. Sometimes that’s true, and I’m sure some people turn to self-publishing out of frustration with the current system. Many people, however, just want to tell stories out of the mainstream which might not be attractive to the big publishers, or they don’t want to spend years fighting to get their voice heard.
Big publishers are interested in what will sell (no problem with that – they are businesses after all!), and they spend a lot of their money promoting a few select authors who are already famous. The books you see at the airports aren’t necessarily the best examples or defining stories of that genre, but ones that they think will sell the most.

Anyway, back to computer games…
Like books, the computer games industry is dominated by a few huge publishers (eg Sony, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft), some mid-size publishers (eg Take-Two Interactive, Konami) and many small developers. Some of the games they make are amazing and demand such a huge budget that they couldn’t be made any other way. The Last of Us, for example, was so good in the way it wove story and characters with gameplay that it went well beyond the gaming community press. Here’s a clip of one of my favourite cut scenes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LI12rkX57rs&ab_channel=Red%27s3rdDimensionGaming
But there are many examples (which seem to be getting worse, unfortunately) of buggy and rushed-deadline AAA titles, and terrible PC ports of console titles. Companies seemingly churning out the same iterative stuff year after year (eg Ubisoft and Assassin’s Creed, Activision and Call of Duty, Electronic Arts and almost anything), each time with less content and more micro-transactions / DLC. It’s no wonder that frustrated gamers are looking elsewhere for something new and innovative.

The meteoric rise of the digital platforms like Steam on the PC or the Sony Store on the PS4 (or the Xbox equivalent presumably – I don’t have one) has meant an explosion in independent developers and unprecedented exposure that they’d never get in bricks and mortar stores. And are these games hidden away in the back of a tier of menus under a rock where no one can find them? No! They’re on the front page, they’re at the top of search results and they are selling tens of thousands of copies. Gamers on the whole don’t care where the games came from; if it’s in their genre of interest, if it plays well and gets good reviews then it’s good to go. This extends to the press as well; not only web sites, YouTubers and blogs, but traditional press too. My favourite ‘read on the bog’ magazine, PC Gamer, will often have the latest FIFA game on one page and a small indie game on the next, giving equal space to both.

Gamers, on the whole, understand that a small developer usually won’t have the production values of their AAA counterparts. The developers just don’t have the same number of people, budget or marketing power to compete in certain types of games, so they diversify. They make games that no traditional publisher would touch, but can still find a market and a big following. The games are usually cheaper too ($20 instead of $60).
Three examples out of many are The Stanley Parable (http://www.stanleyparable.com), an exploration game with many different endings depending on if you ignore the narrator or not, FTL (http://www.ftlgame.com/), a game where you control a space ship and its crew on a desperate mission with encounters that change every time, and That Dragon Cancer (http://www.thatdragoncancer.com/) a heart-rendering tale about parents coming to terms with their dying child.

In fact, the small developers have spawned a whole new genre recently – the so-called ‘walking simulator’, more concerned with exploration and story than fast-paced gameplay. The ultimate example was a small group of people and their company Id Software, who in 1993, made a shareware game called Doom. Doom completely revolutionised the gaming industry in inventing the modern-day first-person shooter (yes, I know they did Wolfenstein first but it was Doom that made the real impact), made the creators famous and it’s so good I still play it occasionally today.

That’s not to say that everything is rosy in the indie-game garden. One of the main criticisms of self-published books is that they’re often badly written and the gaming equivalent certainly has many examples of equivalent ‘shovelware’. Have a watch of Jim Sterling’s Youtube channel (warning, seriously bad language) sometime for the stuff he plays as an example. To write them all off though and tar them with the same brush is doing both the writers and the readers/players a disservice.  As with anything, if you read reviews and get personal recommendations it’s easy to see what is worth looking at and what isn’t.

Just because it’s AAA (the game equivalent of a summer blockbuster from a big publisher) doesn’t mean it’s good, and doesn’t mean it’s bad either. Just because something is from a small team or individual doesn’t mean it’s terrible, and doesn’t mean it’s going to be awesome just because it’s different. Both book and games should be regarded for what they are, the story the tell, the characters they create or the way they play/read. Not for where they came from.

This does, however, rely on the player or reader to make a few concessions and go in with their eyes open. In games the graphics most likely won’t be as good, the menus not as polished and it might be a bit rough around the edges. The same with self-published books. There may be a few grammar and formatting issues hanging around here and there, but if the story is good and the characters compelling does it really matter that much?
If it does then that’s fine, everyone should spend their money on what they want, after all. But if you’re willing to take a chance, then you might just find something new, interesting and unexpected.

And remember, if you like an independently produced novel, tell as many people you can about it and leave a review!

Disclaimer: I’m an independent author, which will consciously or unconsciously affect my opinion on this subject.

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