As a gamer, I’ve spent the lions share of my game time over the years with the big-budget “AAA” games that both dominate the market and the conversations surrounding it. I enjoy these games (mostly), but have found myself finding fewer and fewer titles that actually get me excited. They’re still there, but are growing rarer nonetheless. At first, I thought it was just me growing out of gaming, but that theory doesn’t hold water while I’m still able to summon up enough enthusiasm to write about them. So it had to be something else.
It wasn’t until I started doing journalistic work that it really clicked for me: “AAA” games are often very similar to one another. This is something I’d been hearing for years from both YouTube and traditional sites, but it never really hit home until I started looking at games more closely myself. They are often very, very similar; especially these days. Big publishers and developers sink unreasonable amounts of money into making their titles look as good as they possibly can and making them play as well as they can (though that too seems to be changing if Anthem and Fallout 76 are any indication). However, with so much money going into their games, these businesses have become incredibly risk-averse. This in-turn has made them less willing to invest in new ideas and more willing to exploit the old, tired ideas as much as they possibly can (looking at you Black Ops 4). New ideas, and even just interesting single-player experiences are just plain rare these days thanks to the business-end of “AAA” gaming. There’s just very little to be had that’s new, exciting or just plain has some personality to it. I’m certain that the people actually making these games are putting plenty of passion and drive into them, but it’s not showing through very often because of the business. This is why I’ve come to develop a lot of respect for independent developers and small studios.
These people don’t have any of the luxuries of most larger studios, yet the work they produce often feels so much more inspired and lovingly-crafted. Just look at something like Hollow Knight or GRIS or Celeste and so on. All of these were made on minuscule budgets by only a handful of people, and yet each and every one of them is downright inspired! Hollow Knight takes Metroidvania and adds real depth to the combat while polishing its exploration and non-narrative story to a brilliant sheen! Celeste manages to be both a challenging platformer with unique mechanics and a heartfelt, story-driven experience! Meanwhile, GRIS manages to offer an emotionally-driven experience, something that hasn’t been done well since Journey (another brilliant indie game btw). And there are so many more examples out there that I can’t even name them all. Just last year alone we also had Donut County and DUSK just to name a couple more. It’s really a shame that most of the money is in the “AAA” gaming space, because this is where most of the creativity in gaming is right now.
Everyone making games is talented and there are certainly creative people in the “AAA” space, but I think a lot of that talent is going to waste with most “AAA” games. Imagine what the teams behind Hollow Knight or DUSK could have done if they’d had a larger budget. Imagine the things Activision and EA could produce if they weren’t so dead-set on only turning out the most basic and flashy minimum viable product. We could potentially be seeing the kind of creativity and excitement in the “AAA” space now that was seen in the PS2/N64/SNES days, and is seen in the independent market now. Gaming could be filled with potentially revolutionary games like Cyberpunk 2077 or Super Mario Odyssey. That’s not how the business works at the moment though. Unless you’re Ninendo, CD Projekt Red, Sony, or even Square-Enix to a degree the directive is: maximum profit for minimum effort and minimal risk. New ideas are inherently risky, take more effort and difficult to monetize, so here we are.
It’s too bad, but we at least have the incredible developers in the independent market to remind us that gaming doesn’t need to stagnate. There are still more brilliant ideas to be had and incredible games to play out there, and there are still people willing to have those ideas and make those games. All they need is our support. So, if you haven’t really ever given indie games a chance, please reconsider. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s in these games that the very best of the medium can be found. They aren’t as big and they aren’t as flashy, but they’ve got it where it counts: gameplay and personality! Support your indie devs, they cannot do what they do without it. And without them, all we’ll eventually get are money/time-vacuum live services.
Do you enjoy indie games? What are some of your favorites?
Lede image is from the Hollow Knight Steam page