Indie games have been a major focal point in the next console battle regarding to the ease of developers being able to self publish their games and what devs are on what console. Seven years ago, nobody would have cared as indie games hadn't hit their stride like they have the past few years. While the cost of the games themselves benefit the discovery of these new experiences, it's the worlds they create, the mechanics that are so well realized and the ambition that can be achieved from so little that create more buzz and leave gamers wanting more.
On the flip side, AAA games have felt more and more stagnant as they become more annual with little to no changes between titles. While this is made as a blanket statement, it shouldn't be treated as such. There are some AAA games that do try to shake things up, but the majority of titles seem to do a rinse-repeat of either an older iteration of that IP or bares a remarkably similar resemblance to a different game (ie Uncharted and Tomb Raider).
One may think that giving indie devs more money would allow them to make their unique games even better, but I don't believe that to be true. Indie games are great because they have limitations that are addressed and worked around. Throwing money at these devs may not make it better, it could make it worse.
For example, take Limbo. The game itself isn't noteworthy so much for it's gameplay as it's a pretty basic puzzle-platformer. None of the tasks it makes the player do is difficult and it's relatively simple all-in-all. But the charm in the game comes from the dark atmosphere it presents as this boy traverses the world with the risk of a gruesome death at every turn while searching for his sister. Now imagine the same game where everything is in crisp detailed three-dimensional models and in color. But they had a vision, and they stuck with it. They turned down publishers in fear of the idea being tarnished, and it worked in their favor.
The biggest obstacle for indie games, at least for gamers, is simply the look. It's outrageous to think that these games will be on par with higher budget games. It's not going to happen. So they have to think outside of the box and find different ways to make it aesthetically pleasing to the eyes. Limbo did it. Braid did it. And Fez did it. But, it also bleeds into another criticism I've seen more lately.
The explosion of 16-bit indie games. There has been more groaning and complaining over these 16-bit graphics and it's driving this writer bonkers. Yes, there's a ton out there, but there's far more current-gen looking games that are nowhere near as beautiful. Somehow, people have grown to hate this style of indie games while not batting an eye to yet another gritty shooter that looks on par with the same 50 games from 2 years ago.
The most frustrating part is that they overlooking what makes these games great. Yes, Fez has a 16-bit style. But there's more to it than that. It has (according to people who have played it) amazing music. The mechanic of world shifting by 90 degrees. The puzzles are actually thought provoking and had an entire community of gamers come together to piece the together the answers. So many positive things that Phil Fish pieced together despite all of the background trouble during the development of the game, and the most some people can get out of it is "Uck...another 16-bit artstyle".
While Mario may be the epitome of platforming to some people, my personal favorite would go to Super Meat Boy. The drawback for most gamers is the frustrating platforming elements one has to surpass, but at the same time, can be strung into a positive. The game is hard, but it's never cheap. Not many games can say that.
Team Meat crafted one of the best platformers in gaming. The controls are so spot on, you never feel there's any lag between a button press and the reaction on screen. If something goes wrong and you die, the game instant respawns the character instead of a small load time to start again. Being able to view a replay of all the failed attempts at passing the level is fantastic especially in the well crafted levels that never felt old. The two members of Team Meat know limitations. They went broke. They rarely slept or ate. They lived on different sides of the country and rarely met face to face. Yet they created the game with a brand new engine (instead of using an old one), received little faith from Microsoft and Sony, and are now two of the most well regarded indie devs in the business.
I've spent the blog so far explaining some indie games and the areas they succeed despite lack of funds or sheer manpower. So why can't AAA games provide the same experience just on a larger scale?
Well, part of it is, the focus doesn't go towards gameplay. Look at games like The Last of Us and Tomb Raider. Both games look astounding. On par with some of the best graphics to date. But the gameplay leaves much to be desired. It's solid. But doesn't do anything new. There's literally nothing about either game that makes me sit back and go "You know what, I can't say I've seen that ONLY in this game.".
Instead, the focus goes to improving the graphics and story. Mo-capping has become increasingly more popular, and bringing in big names to do that and/or voice work. The stories are more grandiose in scale pushing gameplay out of the spotlight and instead becomes moments of action that lead into the next big CGI moments. These gameplay elements don't receive as much focus as the detail of the world does, and while they are serviceable, it's clear they are a means to an end. Not as much thought goes into what can make the gameplay different from other games as it does to make the world different from other games.
I think the other major point why change doesn't occur is because they fall back on the same engines time and time again. I don't have to mention the two games that probably come to mind immediately, but I will anyway: Call of Duty and Madden. While Call of Duty goes a bit further than Madden to make changes, they still fall back on the exact same engine with every iteration. And it's telling. Instead, they make tweaks to the system instead of putting the time and money into creating something new that really sets it apart from past games. And why should they, it's a cash cow. Madden is the same way. The game feels identical year in and year out, and simply adding in extra animations for catching and tackling isn't doing it. It's essentially a roster change and that's the biggest update. Again, why fix what isn't broken?
Other games are becoming more guilty of this such as Assassins Creed where the largest addition was ship battling and that's making a resurgence with Assassins Creed 4: Black Flag. In fact, that's been one of the largest selling points of the game as every trailer features that and little of anything else. Perhaps it's because it was the best thing critics said about Assassins Creed 3?
Despite all of these complaints, the industry still needs these big budget AAA games the same way the movie industry needs those big popcorn flicks during the summer. People love them, myself included, and they sell well making money for the company to put towards more games.
But there's something to be said about the smaller games. The ones where people put their financial future on the line by pulling out loans that would take forever to be repaid. The ones that cause friction between friends or lovers because of the stress of putting these games together. The games where something has to be different to stand out and be noticed or be buried with the rest of the floundering titles that receive no recognition.
The end goal should be a fantastic game that pushes the boundaries to prevent stagnation of the industry. No gamer wants to feel like they receive a similar experience between games with the only difference being a fresh coat of paint. They want something new and invigorating to their senses. A game that leaves a mark because they haven't played anything like it before. And currently, very few of those are AAA games.
Indies are beloved for that very reason. They aren't doing this because of the paycheck they get every week. They do it because they love games and they put their entire future on one game. If it doesn't pan out, they may not have the opportunity to make another game. Publisher owned devs have similar worries of studios being shut down and having to look for work, but they still have it better. They have work to throw on resumes that people can recognize over some forgotten game in the bowels of XBLA. They still have money in the bank because none of it was coming out to fund the game they were working on. They didn't have to take the extra time to create a new engine because they were provided one from a previous game.
So again I ask, could AAA games benefit from indie limitations? In my mind, yes. And I believe it's time to test the waters with restricting resources from these devs to jump the creative juices again and see if something new can come out of it. Because as it is, it's looking awfully generic on the big game front. And that's why I appreciate diving into indie games.