On the recent rise of indie and small developers
By Ryver H.
It seems strange that as triple A or big budget video games keep pushing for better and more realistic gameplay and trying to oneup each other graphically. We are also seeing a bigger outpouring of support and a rise in popularity of low budget, low res projects. Minecraft is probably the best known example of this phenomenon, with it’s simple, blocky textures reminiscent of games much older than itself, coupled with deceptively complex gameplay and near complete freedom for the player, seem to have made a highly sought after combination that many have tried to copy since its release. Why is it that with all the advances in graphics technology and this sort of push toward realism in gaming, are we seeing such a push back against it? The answer to this seems to be multifaceted, with nostalgia, innovation, and escapism all playing factors in this recent boom in popularity of these smaller scale games.
When I say innovation I don’t mean newer graphics or hardware, but rather new or interesting ways of implementing existing techniques or engine mechanics to create a new experience, to experiment with how the game works, or to challenge the player’s expectations of how the game will play out. While we do see this occasionally in larger company releases (Valve’s Portal series), mostly we see increasingly similar gameplay within big budget series, especially as yearly iterative series seem to be becoming more and more commonplace in the Triple A market. That isn’t to say there isn’t innovation in big budget games, but the changes companies make are often minor, opting instead to go with a known quantity that has shown good sales in the past rather than taking a risk at radical change to gameplay. While from a business standpoint it seems like the right move to make, go with a product that’s known to sell, many view it as stagnation and stifling of creativity, seeing it as more of a bane to video games than a boon. FEZ stands out to me as a great example of innovation in an indie game. It’s a puzzle platformer that blends 2D gameplay with 3 dimensional space in a way that forces the player to think and experiment with the mechanics to come up with a solution to the various levels of the game. The concepts themselves aren’t new, but the developer managed to implement them in a new way.
Nostalgia seems to be another big reason behind the indie gaming boom. Many older gamers these days grew up in the 8- and 16-bit eras of video gaming, where graphics where blocky and low res, so many developers had to rely on either fun and interesting gameplay or story, or more simplistic gameplay but at a much higher difficulty that challenged players, daring them to keep playing until they beat it. Many modern indie games take a lot of cues from games in this era, especially releases for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Shovel Knight, Super Meat Boy, and FEZ all take aesthetic inspiration from the system, with a somewhat cartoony simplified feel to them, as well as gameplay, being colloquially termed “Nintendo hard” in reference to the difficulty many of the more well known games. Shovel knight in particular stands out in this respect, with the developers having stated their intention to make the game as close to the classic NES experience as they can while still trying to create a complete and entertaining product. Many other indie games seem to pander to players’ sense of nostalgia to great effect, conjuring memories of simpler times where the only thing they had to worry about was how to beat the boss after level three.
This brings me to the final factor, escapism. These days, many popular large budget games advertise more realism, a push toward reality, in both graphics and gameplay. This is to make the game feel more visceral, to draw the player further into the story, and make them feel like they’re actually in the game. While this seems to work for some, others feel that games shouldn’t be about realism. They would rather play games to escape reality, to visit fantastical places and themes, leaving the real world behind. Again, we see indie and smaller developer games seem to strive for this. They don’t generally have the budget or workforce to render their games in ultra high definition, so they often have to rely on other methods to capture and keep the players attention. This is done with colourful art, immersive story, divergent gameplay, or any combination of these things and more. They tend to build a world that draws its audience in far more than “shoot some people in a dirt coloured arena”. They make us invested in the world and the characters, be it through storytelling (Shovel Knight, FEZ), a difficulty that almost taunts you into playing more (Super Meat boy, The Binding of Isaac), or the freedom of action that can lose you hours of time (Minecraft, Starbound).
There is, as always, a downside to this recent boom, especially in concern to the trend of crowdfunding many of these games. Indie developers can and have overextended themselves, making too many goals or offering too many feature and not giving themselves enough of a timeframe to complete what they set out to do. Under budgeting is also a major concern, a dev running out of money before they complete the project, threatening to turn a good concept into not much more than vapourware. There is also the risk of a developer burning out, getting too overloaded or overwhelmed by the project, leaving them wanting to walk away. One solution to this recently seems to be the advent of the small dev, where a larger company buys or absorbs a smaller company, leaving them to do the innovative and more bold development of their indie peers, but at less risk of floundering or drying up. Some see this as a type of ‘selling out’, giving up the radical freedom of being an independent dev for the job security that comes with a larger, more controlled pocketbook. I personally believe this trend is the best move for both sides of the arrangement. It breaths new life into some of the more stagnant large developers, while at the same time giving the more innovative developers a steady budget and enough wiggle room to be creative without the concern of over extending and eventually burning out. It often also allows for a larger platform for the small dev’s project, allowing them to get their name and projects out to a larger audience. Only time will tell how these sort of situations will pan out, but I am optimistic, especially with the rise of mid level developers and publishers, that seem to fit perfectly into this niche, pulling smaller developers into a larger public eye and bolstering the market with newer, more original content.
Some have said that the indie dev boom is coming to an end, to which I agree, sort of. I feel the reasons I’ve given above along with the fact that we are still seen original gaming content still consistently getting crowdfunded is reason enough to conclude that the indie game market is still going fairly strong. Its certainly not going anywhere anytime soon. That being said, it’s stabilized, we are no longer are hearing about the hot new indie title everybody’s backing every other day, but rather something new and innovative every so often. More large devs and publishers are recognizing the value of the smaller, more creative devs. The boom may be over, but it left it’s mark on the face of gaming. One that looks like it won’t be going away anytime soon.