Are Indie Games as Relevant as They Once Were?

Before we get into it, take a second to picture the best game you’ve played this year. Yeah; that one—right there. Okay. Now, stripping away any nuance, would you describe that game as a scrappy little indie title, or would you say it was more of a big-budget, AAA sort of experience? If you chose the former, you’re probably going to disagree with everything I’m about to say.

This is a good point to add in a big old disclaimer, I think. This topic is entirely subjective and anything you read here is merely one man’s opinion. Do with that what you will. Alright, that’s enough build-up; to the point:

Indie games simply don’t matter right now—at least, not as much as they did even six months ago. For me, and many of you, I suspect, indies are usually viewed as small distractions. They’re not the primary reason we’re into gaming.

Before I continue, I want to be clear; I don’t hate indie games. The industry isn’t finished with them either. Influencers continue to preach indie gospel, and with good reason. There’s still a lot there to fawn over. That said, there’s a reason indie games took a back seat at E3 this year.

I’m not the only one who has noticed that indies have begun to lose their luster. Industry executives are always paying attention to what we’re playing and what we’re looking forward to. Shortly after E3, gamesindustry.biz asked PlayStation’s Jim Ryan why indies were a no-show at Sony’s press conference.

His answer was nuanced. He went out of his way to point out that indies have been important to the games business. That said, his final comment is the one that rings most true. “It was just good to talk about in 2013/2014. It is less relevant now. We have VR to talk about now, for example.”

So, what’s changed since then? Well… quite a bit, really. For starters, a whole bunch of long-awaited big-budget projects finally started hitting this year. Games like Horizon Zero Dawn, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Resident Evil 7, Persona 5—the list goes on. These are all expansive, rich, highly polished experiences. Most of the games I just listed take dozens of hours to get through; much longer even, in some cases.

On the flip side, where indies are concerned, there have been a few misfires as of late. No Man’s Sky, for example, remains pretty fresh in people’s minds. It still stings to think about how sorely we all wanted that game to be something that it wasn’t. You could reasonably argue that the game never really had a chance, given the level of hype that surrounded it (a lot of which was due to some exquisite pillow talk from Hello Game’s quiet-natured Sean Murray).

Another factor is that some Indie projects take way too long to release—I’m looking at you, Cuphead—so long, that players can forget about them entirely. Pricing can be a sticking point too. Sometimes it’s the perception that a game which costs less than $60 is somehow less valuable. In other cases, developers ask too much for their tiny gem.

There’s also the new-old argument that people don’t shell out $400-$500 bucks for a new console just to show off the latest 2D side-scrolling platformer. They don’t call up their pals to come over and check out a retro style, isometric pixel-art game on their brand new 4K televisions. These are valid points.

Apart from money, it takes an investment of time to really sink your teeth into many AAA games. For some, that’s a non-starter, and indies are a perfect solution. The rest of us willingly seek out more robust games, I think, because, most of the time, we want something more than the few hours of fun indies typically offer. What we’re looking for is an experience. Although, to be fair, certain indie products offer just that. They’re more the exceptions, though; you know—the ones that prove the rule?

A handful of them have pierced through the veil to take the world by storm; even if just for a moment. Remember that scene from The Matrix—the one where the Nebuchadnezzar punches a hole through the clouds to see the sun before falling back into the darkness? Indies are like that. Most of them are swimming around the muck, but occasionally, one breaks through.

There are obviously some standout titles that contradict my stance too. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds springs to mind, for instance. We can sit here all evening and debate what qualifies a game as an indie title. Suffice to say, we all pretty much know one when we see one. PUBG is a rare example of an indie that offers countless hours of replayability, and the experience is different nearly every time.

Did you notice that I said “experience” again? That’s because it’s the crux of my argument. What separates the best games from everything else, be they indie or AAA, is the experience they offer. I think it’s safe to say that most of us want to be immersed in new worlds; stories steeped in lore and discovery. It just so happens that AAA games are usually where to find such an experience. For many, that’s worth the $60 ask.

We shouldn’t underestimate the allure of high-quality graphics either. What qualifies as jaw-dropping visuals can vary from person to person, but I challenge anyone to play around in Horizon Zero Dawn a bit and walk away thinking its world isn’t a work of art.

It took longer than we’re used to, but this generation has finally hit its full stride. Up until now, we’ve relied on indies to tide us over between major releases. That’s the key, right there, isn’t it? We’re always waiting for the next big game. For a while, indies were the snack between meals. They got us by until the dish we were really hungry for was served.

Now that we’re seeing a steady cadence of major releases, and with so many of them being so good, we don’t need indies right now—not really. I don’t mean to imply that they should go away. Although, a case could be made for fewer throw-away games cluttering up the marketplace.

What I’m ultimately driving at, is that the bar has been raised. Indie developers should never stop taking risks. I’m saying the opposite, in fact. You need to really bring it. Blow our minds. Prove me wrong.

I understand that a lot of people are going to disagree with me. It’s trite to say, but everyone has their preference. For a lot of people, indies already offer the superior experience. For me, I guess they just aren’t cutting it anymore.

Shawn Gallagher

Shawn Gallagher

Shawn Gallagher has been a gamer his entire life. Other features Shawn's possessed his entire life include being a: geek, nerd, fanboy, artist, writer, editor, and a glutton. Through these powers combined--well...he's no Captain Planet, but he can certainly share his knowledge with others using at least one of those traits.
Shawn Gallagher
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