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Many fans and critics alike have commented on the relative monotony of the AAA games industry to no end – why is it that we get a new Call of Duty or Madden every year when each installment is essentially the same? Why is Skyrim being re-re-released for VR consoles when it seems like no one asked for it? Though there are exceptions (Overwatch was certainly a breath of fresh air for the FPS genre), the fact of the matter is that many, if not most, blockbuster titles are almost mechanically identical. What is it that discourages large game companies from branching out, and what does it say about where the industry is going?
While obvious repetition seems unintuitive at first glance, it makes sense from a business standpoint – if it sells to a large and dedicated audience, why change it? Even Infinite Warfare, a title that so many criticized for its repetitive gameplay and uninspired mechanics, was the best selling game of 2016. Still, repeatedly condemning what has been a financially sound business practice for years is akin to beating a dead horse with a dead horse. Instead, the focus ought to shift to the ones who are making new strides.
From the rising popularity of narrative-based gaming to the increased coverage of small-scale games, it would seem that the ones pushing the industry forward – the ones who branch out the most – are the games that are independently made. Playdead’s subtly terrifying Inside won Best Art Direction at last year’s Game Awards, plus nominations for Best Narrative and Best Sound Design. The Chinese Room’s apocalyptic Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture claimed ten BAFTA nominations in 2016, three more than The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and five more than Batman: Arkham Knight. Campo Santo’s picturesque Firewatch won a staggering number of accolades, including Game of the Year from Polygon and Best Narrative from the Game Developer’s Choice Awards. While awards alone can’t measure progress, they can certainly point to a trend. The games that seem to be the most unique – in terms of both aesthetic and mechanics – are indie.
Despite how quickly the term worked its way into almost every gamer’s vernacular, there’s still some dispute over the exact meaning of “indie.” It originally referred to a game that was created without the financial support of a publisher (independent funding), but has more or less expanded to mean games whose design was largely uninfluenced by managers or publishers (independent thought). Given how much development costs have risen in the past few years, using the latter definition is less stringent, yet captures the essence of what separates indie titles from more mainstream ones. But why exactly is there such a creative gap between big-budget games and small ones? The answer, of course, is money. Because development and marketing costs have risen so much in the past few years, AAA markets do not have much to gain from noticeably branching out. Even if the game is poorly received by the general public, a high number of units usually sell. Many notable flops in recent years have still sold in staggering numbers (see also: Assassin’s Creed: Unity). But independent creators can both target more niche audiences and experiment more than a AAA dev studio. With the proper creative direction, this can compensate for a relative lack of funding, especially given how much attention indie games are given from crowd-funding sites.
Take Kickstarter, for example: In 2012, Games jumped from being the eighth most funded category to the second most funded on the site. Since then, gamers have become Kickstarter’s most frequent backers (2.43 projects on average, versus 1.43 for backers of other categories).
Considering that crowd-funded games typically offer a variety of contribution levels, as opposed to the $60 price tag a larger game would come with, the stark rise in Kickstarter contributions seems intuitive. Though it might sound naive and opportunistic, from an artistic standpoint, indie devs have everything to gain and not much to lose. Especially now, with so many small scale titles becoming successful beyond belief: games like Minecraft and Stardew Valley were both new strides in their respective genres despite originally being small-scale projects developed by a single person. Of course, just because it’s underground doesn’t mean it’s good (ask any recovering hipster). Not every independently made game will be a Bastion, a Journey, or a Binding of Isaac. Some rely too much on one creative gimmicks and end up feeling incomplete (Perception, Deformers, Seasons After Fall) while others fall flat compared to their inspiration (Yooka-Laylee). Still, while there’s an abundance of mediocre indie games, there are also plenty of half-baked titles based on live-action movies or television (or worse, anime). Having so much artistic liberty while AAA companies remain ideologically gridlocked is certainly a blessing.
Ultimately, how one defines “pushing the industry forward” depends on the user’s interpretation. Does it matter how “innovative” a game is, so long as it makes the player happy? Gaming is unique in that it walks the line between being a form of entertainment and an artistic medium, not unlike film. But while the big-budget blockbusters dominate the former aspect, it’s nearly impossible to argue in favor of gaming being an art form without mentioning an indie – which is progressive enough in its own right.
Student, writer, and animation enthusiast based in Chicago, IL. I’ve been gaming since my parents made the mistake of buying me a Game Boy at age six.
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