It seems fitting that I should write this in the wake of Pokemon GO's uncanny success. I was expecting to be crafting it around the launch of Star Citizen, but this is easily as significant a turning point -- If not more.
However, instead of riding along the red, blue and yellow hype train, I'm going to pull into station to talk about something I've been thinking for a while:
This is the Golden Age for indie developers.
The number of games on my Steam list crafted by a single person has grown by so many in the past year, and has drawn me in more than any so-called "AAA" developer has been capable of regurgitating. The fact that just one man produced the entirety of Stardew Valley from the soundtrack right down to the last pixel infuriates me for being so talentless. The venerable Pokemon GO itself was developed by a small Google startup that splintered when the parent didn't see much of a future for its quirky geocaching game which, at the time, was little more than a proof of concept. While perhaps not truly an "indie" game, due to its use of a licensed IP, its underlying mechanic and developer would not exist without its more obscure and certainly very indie predecessor. The fact is, Nintendo took a chance on an indie developer and it paid off big.
I could go on... And I will.
What makes this era so important is two fold:
First, this is the absolute worst console generation we've ever had. With replacement models looming in mere months, it's safe to say the companies who made them know it, too. They're woefully under-powered next to their modern PC counterparts, and there is a concerningly low number of exclusive titles. Why would I buy a so-called "next-gen" console, when my PC can run Shadow of Mordor at 4 times the resolution? Never mind the fact that Steam has been filling up with console ports and classics, lately. It's hard to name a better era to be a PC gamer, that's for sure.
Second, many of the largest publishers have been absolutely shitting the bed with weak titles. E3 has become a showcase of reboots or sequels with either tired, over-used formulas with no content, placated with false nostalgia and shallow eye-candy (re: Star Wars: Battlefront), or grand departures so far from the original IP that you wonder why they even keep using the same name (re: Assassin's Creed: Annual Period Game). Not to mention the near criminal lack of quality control in an age when customers are willing to pay to beta test (re: Arkham Knight). Hell, Shadow of Mordor was one of the few solid "AAA" games to come out in recent years, and yet we've also discovered that WB went beyond legal extremes just to promote it.
This has become the perfect storm for indie developers to shine through.
Not only do we have a void of good content coming from the industry leaders, but there is a seemingly ideal community of fresh talent to fill it. Which, at the end of the day, is what the indie gaming community is best at.
If we look back a few years, we can start with the rise of Minecraft: A game which filled a hole no one really knew existed. It started as a tiny Java applet with little more to do than move one block to another space while not dying to skeletons. After about 8 years, the premise hasn't changed much, but the imagination of the player base has grown exponentially, as have the tools available to them. It is a sandbox in its purest form. It has become a sort of meta-verse for the gaming industry. Just how meta? Well, someone did manage to run and play Pokemon on a Gameboy Advance built inside of Minecraft. Other special mentions include Denmark recreating its entire nation, and of course, the US subsequently invading it. While it has since been purchased by Microsoft, there's no denying its success began at its indie roots.
Move forward another couple of years, we see an older hole filling up: space sims. Star Citizen, while yet to release, became the most crowd-funded thing of all time. Not just game... thing. Since then, another Kickstarted project, Elite: Dangerous has also gained a significant following in their attempt to fill the void. Not to be outdone in terms of expansive exploration, the enigmatic No Man's Sky is set to release in just a few weeks.
So indie projects are good at filling holes.
Stardew Valley, that adorable homage to yester-year's farm sim, was a near, overnight success. Wasteland 2 brought back the old-school, turn-based, isometric, RNG death simulator. Not to mention Rocket League's undeniable surprise smash-hit of 2015, instantly becoming an eSports phenomenon. While Mighty No. 9 crashed and burned, it's still an important title in the spirit of just how far it went -- and perhaps a cautionary tale to developers so as not to bite off more than they can chew.
But what about the titles you've probably never heard of? Axiom Verge is another one-person developed title, oozing with retro, Metroid style, yet doesn't slave itself to the mechanics. It's rated, "Overwhelmingly Positive" on Steam (95%). Rising Storm/Red Orchestra 2 is probably the best multiplayer FPS out there. Originally released in 2011, it still receives content updates for free; no paid maps or weapons. Space Engineers, a clever Minecraft-esque game with physics and set in space, while still in "Early Access" (i.e. Beta), is updated so regularly you could set your watch to it. Grim Dawn is easily the best ARPG I've ever played, and I am not alone in calling it a truer successor to Diablo 2.
By now, I'm probably starting to sound like a shill for my favourite titles, but the thing I'm trying to draw attention to is that most of my current favourite games are indie games. They're hitting all the right notes these days because the reality is that there are a lot of holes to fill in the gaming market as "AAA" publishers struggle to come up with ideas that the players actually like. Hey, maybe if you talked to your customers instead of creating complicated "ticket" systems which attempt to narrow and quantify information instead of disseminate it, you'd understand what they actually want... but hey, I'm just a guy who plays games and talks shit.
Or... maybe I also read forums and store pages from time to time.
One of the hallmarks of a good developer is constant, direct communication with the players. One of the reasons why Star Citizen has been allowed to drag out so long is because they keep reassuring us and showing us their work. Some may not agree with me, but I still have hope in its release. Regardless, there are many other great examples out there. Some companies have such favoured reputations that it's the first thing to comes up in a game review before the actual game review. Companies like Little Green Men Games, Tripwire, Crate Entertainment... there is a theme on their forums and store pages and it resonates through in the quality of their titles. It's that time old adage of actually caring about your customers.
For that, indie developers have been rewarded. So too have we, the gamers, been rewarded with a generation of titles that continue to impress with such dedicated teams of talented individuals. Long live this golden age, and never stop propping up the little guys with the big ideas.