Indie gaming scene in Germany Revolt of the Dwarves

Perfect Woman
Perfect Woman | Photo (detail): © Lea Schönfelder, Peter Lu

Without a budget of millions and the backing of a major publisher, no video game can be a success. Those days are over. Today independent developers are stirring up the market with small, fine games.

When World of Goo and Braid saw the light of day in late 2008, independent games first came to the notice of a wider audience. With the open-world game Minecraft at the latest, which appeared in 2011, the indie movement in the games industry really arrived. In the German games market, as already in music, film, literature and fashion, these efforts at independence towards the established industry have brought with them a breathe of fresh air: a new, diverse offering, oriented not only to mass taste but also serving niches, has entered into competition with the mainstream.

Without money and without market pressures

The indie revolution has created a completely new game world. Without financial support and free from all dependency on a big video game publisher, indie developers give their creativity free rein. In small studios and often single-handedly, they develop the games on their own. Working free of market pressures, indie developers realize fresh and previously unproven game concepts, experiment with narrative methods and therefore often produce more innovations than the large publishers with their budgets of millions ever risk with their so-called AAA games. While indie games cannot compete with the glossy graphics of the big names, they are significantly cheaper, or even free.

German developers are rather demure

Of these unrestricted freedoms and opportunities for experimentation, the German scene makes comparatively little use. All in all, “many German developers are demure and not radical enough”, thinks Jana Reinhardt, who already examined independent games in her diploma thesis and published the game TRI with her studio Rat King in October 2014. She wants “more craziness in the gameplay, narratives and graphics”. Even in training, the orientation to the market rather than to creative independence is often already to the fore. To further the German indie scene, Reinhardt, together with game designer Martin Nerurkar, has launched Indie Arena, a forum for regular exchange among the now over 300 members. Because subsidies for video games are rather scarce in Germany, game jams and festivals also play an important part in the promotion of talent. Though video games are an officially recognized cultural asset, this is not reflected in funding: less than one-hundredth of the sum that goes to film funding goes to video games.

Thorsten S. Wiedemann would also like to see more eagerness to experiment in the German indie scene. Founder of the independent video game festival A MAZE., he is mainly interested in combining games, technology, culture and art. “A MAZE. is about quality of content, artistic exploration and realization in the form of a game, experiment and the development of the medium in all conceivable directions”, says Wiedemann. A MAZE. makes a considerable contribution to the visibility and orientation of the German indie scene.

Germany catching up

Tiny Wings by Andreas Illiger (Youtube.com)

Yet up to now hardly a really big international success has been hatched in German indie developer studios. Minecraft, however, which was developed independently by the Swedish programmer Markus Persson, proves that indie games can become quite a financial hit: the game has sold over 50 million copies, can boast of 100 million registered users and now belongs to Microsoft. A number of other prominent games, such as the Finnish-developed Angry Birds, nourish the dream of fast success. But because the mass of indie developers lack such a lucky knack and often pursue the development of their game ideas only as a sideline, more and more of them are collecting money at crowd funding platforms. Kickstarter, however, the best known of these platforms, was launched in Germany only in the autumn of 2014. Moreover, crowd funding often turns out to be a vicious circle for German indies, because only a big name as a rule first paves the way to pre-financing. But a further reason for the breakthrough of indie games also lies in the Web: the way to customers today is no longer necessarily through the shelves of dealers. Digital distribution channels via game platforms such as Steam or app shops are cheaper and easier to use. In addition, the hurdles to bringing your own game on the market have also fallen thanks to a number of developer tools that decouple game development from comprehensive programming skills. Thus, for example, the moving story of To the Moon was created with the programmes of RPG Maker, and the game Hotline Miami, made with Game Maker, comes up trumps with its addictive gameplay. Both games have won several awards.

Promising prospects

Perfect Woman by Lea Schönfelder and Peter Lu (Youtube.com)

All these developments make it easier than ever before to create a game and put it on the Net. Although the German indie scene has so far benefited little from this new ease, it is catching up: in Germany there are now quite a few developers whose games stand out from the crowd and have made names for themselves on the international market. Thus Studio Fizbin’s adventure game The Inner World, winner of the German Computer Game Award in 2014, abducts the player to a lovingly drawn fantasy world and entertains him with plenty of challenging riddles. In 2014 Lea Schönfelder and Peter Lu also outstripped the international competition and fetched the A MAZE. Grand Prize to Germany with their game Perfect Woman. Andreas Illiger even made it to the top of the app shop charts with his cult game Tiny Wings. And Black Pants Studio’s Tiny & Big, which won the German Computer Game Award in the category of “Best Game for Young People”, succeeded in “realizing the idiosyncratic charm of their quirky comic-book art works with the professional touch of an established developer studio”, according to the jury of experts.

Jana Reinhardt sees the prospects of the German indie scene as promising, for “there are now more teams that have established their studios, have produced more than one (good) game and have the contacts necessary to gain the attention of the international press”.