Stacking the Odds

Stacking the Odds
Charlie Blackmore may be a wee chimney sweep, but just because he's undersized doesn't mean he should be underestimated. As the star of Stacking, the latest tiny title from Tim Schafer's indie studio Double Fine Productions, Blackmore is the smallest character in an old-timey Dickensian world populated by matryoshkas, or Russian nesting dolls.

In a wonderfully unique game mechanic, Blackmore can jump into larger dolls to solve puzzles using their various skills, from opening locks to giving wedgies to distracting guards with one's wooden feminine wiles. The visual aesthetic is all-new, too, with gorgeous vintage graphics inspired by early silent movies, complete with dialogue cards and a jaunty piano score. And when the first mission involves a labour strike and the Big Bad is an evil industrialist who has turned your family into indentured servants, you realize this whimsical adventure game couldn't have come from anywhere but Double Fine, the self-declared "world's most talented and bearded video game development team."

It also couldn't have come out as anything but an indie download. Schafer, who last fall received an Honorary Trailblazer Lifetime Achievement Award from the independent games festival Indiecade, is the auteur behind such cult classics as Psychonauts. But he's been feeling the pressure of commercial success lagging behind critical acclaim.

After spending four years on the big budget Brutal Legend, his heavy metal album art-inspired opus that aimed for crossover appeal despite its subject matter's inherent niche audience, Schafer broke his 60-strong staff into four teams to create downloadable games that could be made quickly and cheaply, while still maintaining the company's adorably artsy style.

Their first effort was the Halloween-themed RPG Costume Quest, which was named 2010's best downloadable game at recent Spike TV Videogame Awards, and their next will be a motion-sensing Sesame Street game for Xbox Kinect called Once Upon a Monster.

Consider Double Fine the Matador Records of indie game studios compared to, say, Team Meat, the duo behind 8-bit indie hit Super Meat Boy, Playdead Studio, the eight-developer squad who breathed life into platformer-noir Limbo or the seven-Swede studio Monjang behind the beloved world-building game Minecraft, which won Gamasutra's best indie game of 2010 and had sold 1.2 million copies by early February, despite being still in beta mode. Minecraft has also been nominated for numerous prizes at this month's Independent Games Festival, which has helped grow the indie gaming community for 13 years now. IGF follows February's Indie Game Challenge, which awarded $300,000 in prizes to indie developers with the big awards going to Limbo as well as the physics-based Inertia.

These money-doling events, along with organizations like Indie Fund, co-founded by Jonathan Blow (best known for breakthrough Xbox Arcade indie Braid) are helping small developers realize their vision without corporate compromises. Not that corporation cooperation is necessarily a bad thing, Sony signed up thatgamecompany for three PlayStation downloadables ― the single-celled flOw, first-person wind game Flower and the upcoming, typically non-traditional multiplayer epic Journey ― which have all maintained creator Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago's emotion-based perspective on game design.

Oh, and then there's Angry Birds, the simple catapult puzzle game which recently migrated to consoles from the iPhone/iPad App Store, where it has sold a jaw-dropping 10 million-plus copies and even inspired God of War creator David Jaffe to proclaim "Angry Birds is such a great expression of the power of the medium because it can basically stand above all of these other super-expensive, super-technological, super-graphical games and still be as, if not more engaging, than the others." It's the brainchild of Rovio Mobile, an indie studio founded by a trio of Helsinki students which has since grown to only about 30 people.

The rise of the App store, and popularity of PC-distribution platform Steam, have given these indies more outlets beyond the three consoles' online stores. World of Goo, already a WiiWare smash, moved an impressive 125,000 copies in its initial iPad launch and Gaijin Games is slowly bringing their popular retro-hipster Bit.Trip series from Nintendo to Apple.

It's become a golden age of indie gaming, not unlike the indie music revolution of the 2000s, and both happened for the same reason ― digital distribution. Indies simply can't compete against Call of Duty for brick'n'mortar shelf space, nor can they afford the costs of manufacturing and shipping. But the lower financial risk of downloadable games enables higher creative risks, allowing indie developers to craft the sort of personal games that are simply not possible when there are too many geeks in the kitchen.

Gaming's early days also had small groups of developers working on passion projects, but that largely disappeared during the rise of triple-A titles that cost millions and employed hundreds. So if you get too bogged down by blockbusters, remember indie innovators are here to save you from same-same games.