If 2012 saw one major change to the business world it was almost certainly the rise of the indie developers. In almost every industry it seems that the most exciting products and services are more and more being developed by individuals and start-ups with fewer resources and less experience than the big corporations they are going up against. They might not have the funds, but they have a whole lot of innovation, creativity and spirit to make up for it.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than the indie games scene, where the most exciting and popular games are once again those that have been created in the basements of programmers and artists who would never previously have had a shot at the big time (not since the BBC/ZXSpectrum era anyway…).
Partly this change is due to stagnation in the mainstream games industry – with long console life cycles leading to a lull in innovation and a large number of sequels; partly it is to do with better distribution channels such as the Xbox Live Arcade, PS Network and mobile stores; finally, it’s just another symptom of the general trend toward indie development and entrepreneurialism that has been encouraged by crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and 3D printing/injection molding services.
Either way, the last couple of years have seen the release of a number of highly successful indie games that have made their ambitious creators huge amounts of cash and made the larger developers sit up and take notice.
To illustrate, let’s look at a few of the most impressive examples…
The Best Recent Indie Games
Super Meat Boy: A personal favourite, Super Meat Boy is an insane 2D platformer in the same vein as Super Mario Brothers – only with a lot more blood, a much higher difficulty and lots of insane spinning buzz-saws. What made it such a win was the fast and precise gameplay, but also the amazing ‘action replay’ feature that shows all of your failed attempts play out at once when you finally beat one of the rock-hard levels.
Limbo: Limbo is a game that uses innovation and artistry to overcome any limitations in graphical prowess or budget. You play in black and white as the silhouette of a young boy against a backdrop of white noise. What makes it so gripping is the way you interact with the well animated creatures and people you encounter. A giant spider, a tribe of lost boys and numerous boats and bear traps all inhabit this world bring it to life making it fascinating to explore.
Bleed: Bleed is an amazing 2D shoot-em-up for XBLA that uses a dual-stick control scheme and bullet-time function to let you pull off some amazing John-Woo style bullet-foo.
Fez: Fez is a widely celebrated 2D/3D puzzle platformer that has you controlling a little avatar through apparently 2D worlds that can be ‘rotated’ to create new paths and solutions.
LaserCat: LaserCat is a game in the style of Metroid or Castelvania only with added cats, a host of riddles and brain teasers and a great sense of humor. It’s easy to pick up and play, and the relatively low difficulty setting makes it a bit more therapeutic than say Meat Boy…
What Can We Learn From All This?
The success of these indie games on its own is not what’s important here, but rather what it can tell us about the current state of the games industry and business in general. Really, the main lesson to take home is that creativity and innovation can trump a big budget and marketing campaign. Sure a game like Limbo doesn’t have the voice acting or cinematic scope that something like Call of Duty does, but it makes up for it with an eye-catching graphical style (the grainy black and white look is bleak, but certainly piques your interest) as well as gameplay and direction that draws you in by making you experience something that you wouldn’t get in a big budget title.
When I think about the games I really want to play next I think of Unfinished Swan (a game about the experience of gameplay, set inside a painting) and Journey (which has you wandering across a vast and beautiful desert), rather than Halo 24 or COD 67. Similarly, when I think about CES 2013, it’s the Pebble Watch and Occulus VR that I’m most interested in (both funded by Kickstarter).
In other words, if you have an indie project you want to get off the ground, realize your lone status is no longer a disadvantage, but rather a strength. You just need to know how to take advantage of your position.