Where are the Sub Pops, Kill Rock Stars, Saddle Creeks of video games?

Luke O’Brien has a good column up at Slate about the lack of an indie presence in video games and why that’s a bad thing. It’s pretty much a recasting of the innovation vs. franchise argument, and for the most part I think O’Brien is right.

But I think he misses a larger point. In music and movies, “indie” generally means “outside the reach of the big six entertainment conglomerates.” In that sense, most video games not made by Sony or Vivendi are indie games. EA and Take-Two might be the behemoth’s of video games, but they aren’t controlled by Viacom or Time Warner.

That independence makes those game companies as potentially valuable culturally as Wenner Media (which puts out Rolling Stone), Conde Nast (which publishes The New Yorker and Wired, among others), or Lucasfilm. Because of that, I don’t think the answer to Madden overload is to hope for more indie companies to spring up and save us (though I certailny wouldn’t pout if that happened). It’s to convince the big game companies that they should adopt an indie mindset not only out of necessity — they won’t find the next Sims or Grand Theft Auto if they don’t gamble on some new games — but because it’s good business sense.

For the past year, for example, Nintendo has pretty much acted like an “indie” company. Games like Nintendogs, Brain Age, Animal Crossing and Electroplankton are not mainstream offerings, but combine those unique games with Resident Evil 4, Mario Kart DS, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and you have a company that can increase its profits by 12.5 percent even as two dying systems drag its sales down. With the quirky Wii likely to do very well at $200 or $250, Nintendo is proving that a big company can act like an indie and still be mainstream — and, more importanly, can still be successful.

I see video game companies’ independence as a major opportunity. Out of the reach of Disney, MTV, and Warner Bros., EA and the rest have a rare chance to contribute to and shape American culture on their own terms. I pick on EA for talking about innovation while doing little more than giving Will Wright free reign, but hey — that’s a start. And once they see other companies taking risks and finding the next monster franchises, EA will be more likely to do the same.

So by all means, let’s see some more indie companies. But let’s not give up on the big guys yet.

— May 26, 2006

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