Indie Developers are the True Next-Gen Heroes

Independent Studios are the Real Innovators. Let's Treat Them As Such.

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This generation of consoles has been nothing short of strange. Mid-gen upgrades of our beloved PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are here. Nintendo is late to the game with a system we are all a bit unsure on, and virtual reality is finally making a solid attempt at becoming a viable technology. It seems that AAA studios are starting to focus too much on the hardware rather than the games we buy it for.

Gamers are currently complaining about the Switch launch having very few games. However, looking back, both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 had very few launch titles as well, and the ones it did have were average tech-demos or more of the same but bigger and prettier. Ryse was beautiful but ultimately shallow. Knack was a failed attempt at a throwback to the PS2 era of platformers. We had Battlefield 4, but that hardly worked at the time and wasn’t really a “new” experience. The same ideas apply to the other launch titles.

As time went on, we got great continuations of franchises like Bloodborne, Gears of War 4, and Rise of The Tomb Raider. Happy to have them, but they are really just adjustments on a tried and true formula. There is always room for these types of games, but with new consoles, we expect new experiences.

New Ideas Lead To Innovation

Titanfall was a good attempt at innovation in FPS, but it had a major lack of content. Alien: Isolation was a fantastic horror game unlike most we have seen before, but it dragged on far too long. Final Fantasy XV actually did a pretty great job of standing out and is a promising example of what is possible in terms of gameplay. While none of these were “perfect” games, they were all damn good ones and ones that took risks. That needs to be respected and even celebrated in order to encourage more developers to attempt those risks in their own titles.

At the E3 reveal in 2013, it was said that Sony would be supporting indie developers a lot more. Microsoft, though a bit more strict about their rules, premiered their ID@Xbox service that same time. Through the Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network last-gen, these companies realized games like Minecraft and Super Meat Boy could make their consoles more attractive to consumers.

Perhaps more importantly, those titles would also fill in the blanks between AAA releases and make sure gamers always had a game to play, even if they didn’t come directly from a first or third-party studio. Indie titles had the potential to become an entirely third side to that revenue stream. It was smart of Sony and Microsoft to make it clear from the start of this generation that they are going to support these studios.

A still from Sony’s Gamescom 2013 conference.

Indie Games are a Win-Win for Publisher and Developer, Right?

For the most part! By supporting these studios, it seems that everybody wins. The publisher / hardware manufacturer gets a game on their platform as well as a percentage of the income, the developer gets a platform to market and share their game on, and the consumer gets a new game to play.

Sounds great! Indie developers are flourishing this generation. Publishers treat them the same as proven third-party studios. We have more games than ever available to us. This couldn’t be bad at all! Well, it turns out that not every indie game is very good. Giving everyone a chance is a solid idea on paper, but that doesn’t mean we should reward the result. Our time and money is important, as is the success of good indie developers for our industry as a whole.

Quality control is the biggest issue here. Yes, publishers will want as many games as possible available to their customers. Yes, there is certification and player reviews, but a huge number of games are submitted every day. There are bound to be some stinkers that sneak past. In fact, thirty-eight percent of all games on Steam were released in 2016. A majority of them had to be indies. No way is each one is worth our time. It doesn’t help that the influx of Minecraft clones and other smut results in gamers disregarding services like Steam Greenlight that were designed to help out actual developers!

As you can see, 2016 beat out 2015 by a whopping 12%. (Thanks SteamSpy for the chart.)

But Who Am I to Say What is Quality and What isn’t?

To be fair, I have no right to say so. I hate a game. She thinks that game is a gem. Are either of us right? Gabe Newell actually gave a great answer to this question in his recent AMA:

There’s really not a singular definition of quality, and what we’ve seen is that many different games appeal to different people. So we’re trying to support the variety of games that people are interested in playing. We know we still have more work to do in filtering those games so the right games show up to the right customers.

This is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t a solution to the problem. A better filter is essential to a better browsing experience, but so is forcing those games to meet a certain threshold. A quality title like Stardew Valley? Made by one person. The mess that was Recore? A triple-A team. That should be proof enough.

It’s not even enough to say “make a good game, it will speak for itself” anymore. While that is a big advantage, there are great AAA titles with reputable names and marketing behind them that don’t do well. Dishonored 2 and Titanfall 2 come to mind. Indie games are generally cheaper and would make their meager budget back quicker, but those developers need exposure. They don’t have the means to get their name out there.

This name means so much to so many. Let’s hope they don’t let indie developers down with Greenlight.

Indie Developers Are The Future Of Gaming

You will never see a game like The Binding of Isaac from a AAA studio. It’s not safe enough. A game like Fez? Forget about it. The small guys have the innovative ideas needed to keep gaming moving forward. I don’t want to say that publishers are out of touch with what makes a game innovative nowadays, but I fear that might be the case.

We can’t entirely blame them either. Companies like EA and Ubisoft are massive and they need to keep making money, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take risks every once and a while – even small ones! Mirror’s Edge was a great one-off that had the potential to be a massive franchise. The sequel then removed a lot of what we praised about the series in order to follow the open-world trend.

You know why Valve’s games are always so good? They allow for risks and creative ideas. Granted, the way the company runs affords them that opportunity, but that’s what we need more of. Indie developers run the same way just without the name or the financial backing of Steam. Valve is literally a big indie studio.

The Top 10 Games Played on Steam. All except two of them are an Indie or Valve title. (Thanks to SteamCharts.com)

Ensuring Their Continued Success Is Important

It’s wonderful that Microsoft and Sony have tried to embrace the indie scene. Ori and the Blind Forest brilliantly showcases what publisher backing does for an indie developer. Why aren’t we seeing more of that?

One of Sony’s biggest pushes was launching Rocket League as a PS+ title. Every single person who had a PS+ subscription had access to the game, and through the power of word of mouth it took off. They also allow tons of unknown games to come to their system. Furi and Journey launched on their system. No Man’s Sky – though it didn’t pay off – was a risk that they didn’t need to take.

Indie developers are the driving force behind this generation of consoles, and a huge part of the future. You know what you’re going to be playing on your new Switch once you beat Zelda? Indie games. Aside from Resident Evil VII, who has been pushing VR? Indie developers. AAA studios are still pushing us the same game but prettier. Independent studios are the ones creating unique experiences. Isn’t that what we play games for anyways?

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Max Moeller Editor
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