Research Tropico feature image

Published on October 5th, 2013 | by Nidde


Tropico, blurring the lines for indie

The first time I got a glimpse of the game Tropico was when a friend of mine was trying this new game that was somewhat in the SimCity genre. Since then I hadn’t heard much about it, except that it had gotten sequels and was doing OK business for what it was. Then I stood at GAMEX 2011 in Stockholm, and next to the booth with the new Ninja Gaiden was a booth sporting the latest installment in the series, Tropico 4. I briefly tried to recall how long ago it had been since I saw ads for Tropico 3 and when that game came out and if it wasn’t a bit too soon for a fourth iteration, but I wasn’t very interested, so I moved on.

Then, a while back, the people over at IndieGala posted a new bundle, a bundle I was hoping would be more along the line of their own name than the Mass Effect-bundle that they had previously. It was, but was it true enough? Let’s start by clarifying that we’re not at all saying that it’s a bad thing that there are bundles being sold according to the pay-what-you-want model that benefits charities. Quite the opposite, bundles are great; they give gamers games at a bargain price while doing something good. But The IndieGala Tropico bundle makes me question if perhaps they should change their name, or perhaps the term indie has a bigger gray-area than anyone imagined.

Tropico coverart

Tropico cover

Tropico is a game where you take the role of a dictator in a banana republic. Without going too deep into the mechanics, it something along the middleground between SimCity and Civilization. While you never had to fear being fired as mayor in SimCity, in Tropico you have to manage politics while building to make sure you stay dictator.

The first game was developed by PopTop Software (no, not PopCap) and published by Gathering of Developers, also known as God Games. While the term “indie” hadn’t really been recognized the way it is today, they both were smaller studios and would perhaps wear the indie-brand today. That is had it not been for the fact that Take-Two Interactive bought both companies and eventually merged them into other subsidiaries or shut them down.
Either way, they managed to get the game out and start the franchise before any of that happened.

The sequel, Tropico 2: Pirate Cove, was developed by Frog City Software and again published by Gathering of Developers. Chronologically, this is still before T2 came in to kill Sarah Conner purchase both the developer and publisher, and eventually shut them down. Frog City Software was the fourth studio to be shut down by Take-Two in 2006 alone, but may still have been called indie had they pushed their parent company into the molten metal survived.

When we get into the third game things start to get complicated. Not only are we seeing that Tropico is a franchise, which sort of defeats the whole indie-vibe, but it’s developed and published by new studios. Haemimont Games is a studio in Bulgaria that has about 50 employees today. That may sound like a lot, but for a game studio it really isn’t. Indies can be as few as a single person, but it easily climbs up there once you start to make a profitable studio and not just work from home. So one could make the claim that it’s an indie game from an indie studio, but I doubt anyone would be too upset when the third installment in a franchise is rolled out by a studio of that size and someone feels they need to debunk the indie status of it.

Tropico 4 ingame

In-game screenshot from Tropico 4

So now we’ve made our way up to 2011 again and Tropico has gone from a isometric little game that could to a fully fledged franchise with full-scale 3D graphics. And it looks like it may have found a permanent home with Haemimont Games as a developer and Kalypso Media as a publisher, both with the same roles as they had for Tropico 3. The scope has really grown since those first days and we’ve seen several expansions for more than one of the iterations in the series. But the question we’re asking is if it really is an indie game, or if it EVER was? The history doesn’t do much to help us as both developers and publishers of the earlier versions are no longer active on the market, so we’ll have to turn to what we can find today.

Depending on who you ask it will be marching under the banner of indie, especially if that will make it fit into a packages with other indies. And the owners of the license seem very keen on giving their games away for cheap in offers, specials and bundles all over the place. To our delight, mind you; we condone this behavior in every way possible.

But then there are the listings. None of the big distributors lists any of the Tropico games in the indie category. This may very well be affected by what we said earlier about the earlier games pre-dating the indie terminology for videogames. We could also look at the publisher, Kalypso Media. They are no stranger to making games of different sizes and genres available to the public. But some of those games are defined as indie while others are not. Then again, what does that even mean? Microsoft has an even bigger library of titles that they are the publisher for which fly under the flag of indie.

In many cases we can usually do some research to find out if a game is indie or not. Sometimes we’ll have to make a determination that the publisher isn’t indie, but the title itself actually is an indie development that follows all the rules; both essence- and defintion-wise. But this series may very well be the hardest we’ve ever tried to figure it. Our next step should probably be to reach out to the developer and publisher and see what they have to say.

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About the Author

For 500 days, from January 1st, 2013, until May 16th, 2014, Nidde will set aside all AAA-titles and only play indie games to find out if the indie scene can replace the big budget landscape.

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