Game Changers: The Rise of Indie Games
2013 was a landmark year for games, especially coming off a fond farewell to the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii. We saw many long-running and established franchises make their mark on the current-gen before heading into uncharted territory with the PS4 and Xbox One. We saw the future of digital distribution, streaming, and downloadable marketplaces continue their dominance and changing the way we play (and buy) games. We saw the beginning of a new generation, and plenty of new possibilities.
But, most of all, 2013 possibly showed us more than ever an increasing force to be reckoned with heading into the next-gen: the rise of the indie games. It was a year that not only filled our Steam wishlists and backlogs with great games to play, but gave us indie titles that were daring, inventive, and anything from the norm. It showed in the industry, too, given how many of these titles showed up in “Best Of,” “Top Ten,” or “Game of the Year” talk and consideration across the board.
Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, Rogue Legacy, Papers, Please, and countless others showed us in 2013 that indies no longer need to be confined to their own sections of the gaming marketplace: in many cases, they are now on equal footing with any AAA studio-published title you can find. With 2013 driving the rise of indies across all platforms, whether it’s on their native PC or ported over to consoles, DualShockers is taking a look in the next installment of Game Changers to ask: where does that leave indie titles heading into 2014?
Fortunately for us, it looks like the answers will be easy, as 2014 has already brought some of its best games through indies, just a few weeks into the new year. Games like Nidhogg and The Banner Saga have already blazed up the Bestsellers charts on Steam, while Don’t Starve debuted on PS4 as a worthwhile pick-up for those on PlayStation Plus. Meanwhile, Broken Age not only demonstrated the power of Kickstarter as a platform for game launches (along with flaring a heated debate on user “exclusivity” for backing games), but showed that the model of distributing games in the rigid release structure we’ve known for the last several decades is slowly becoming a thing of the past.
Thanks to the beginnings of Steam Early Access and Kickstarter projects reaching into the gaming masses, indie games are thriving in an environment where they naturally fit best: an environment fueled by word-of-mouth and recommendations from friends, colleagues, and others, in lieu of big campaigns and marketing dollars. Where AAA studio-published titles have multi-million dollar ad campaigns and typically big-name franchises steering them to success, indie games manage to thrive within smaller communities where word-of-mouth and positive press can drive indie games to incredible success, by recommendation and being pushed through outlets like Steam’s Early Access or Greenlight programs.
With platforms like XBLA’s Summer of Arcade pushing indie games into the spotlight during the typically slow release months of the summer, or through explosive releases on Steam Early Access (look no further than current hot topics like DayZ or Rust), indie games are no longer confined to their own sector of the gaming space separate from studio-published titles: instead, indie games are shaking up the rules, and now more than ever heading into the next-gen, it seems like its going to be a time for the studio publishers to take notice.
Coming off a year that saw titles like Gone Home and The Stanley Parable rival The Last of Us or Grand Theft Auto V as Game of the Year contenders, the increasing disparity between what constitutes indie games from everything else is being blurred more and more each year. So far with only a few months into the year, 2014 looks to be no different with many “indie” titles becoming some the most-anticipated releases of the year. Titles like Transistor, coming from Bastion developer Supergiant Games, is already hotly-anticipated on the heels of its predecessor’s acclaimed success on consoles, PC, and iOS devices. Likewise, The Witness, Jonathan Blow’s follow-up to 2008’s mind-bending puzzler Braid, has plenty of gamers looking not only toward what Blow has in store next following his previous title’s incredible success, but also for the game’s timed-exclusivity for PS4, as the platform increasingly becomes a home for the next great indie titles and developers.
While games like Transistor and The Witness are as anticipated as the next AAA game, what will come next for indie games following the last generation’s banner years for the indie community? With indie games having an increasing presence in the industry more and more each year, how will indie games continue their rise? More importantly, will there even be a distinction between “indie” and “studio” games come the next few years?
Ultimately, indie games are still very much in transition among an art form that is heavily in transition already. The rise of digital distribution in the last five years has monumentally changed how games are played and provided to the gaming community, and with the increase in attention turning to Kickstarter, Steam Greenlight, and other outlets, it’s changing even more.
Sony has pushed indie game support heavily since the announcement of the PS4, with titles like Resogun and Don’t Starve quickly becoming some of the best titles of the platform so far. Microsoft, amid its initial controversies around self-publishing and turning a blind eye to the indie game community with the Xbox One’s announcement, eventually turned the other cheek and is now renovating its console to be a home for indie titles just as much as the PS4. This turn by Microsoft is especially prominent to keep in mind given that XBLA on its previous console, the Xbox 360, started out as such a driving force for indie games, and was the launching pad for many of the monumental indie titles previously mentioned like Braid, Super Meat Boy, ‘Splosion Man, and so many others.
So: what’s next for the landscape of indie gaming? Steam has already provided Early Access and Steam Greenlight for communities to vote, share, and pitch games to be developed and become retail releases. Even more so, Kickstarter has proven to be one of the next steps, even with some heated controversy earlier this year over the merits of crowd-funding games, as DualShockers’ Allisa James (Reviews Editor) examined in her recent editorial on Kickstarter and the case of Broken Age. Even though the current trend of crowd-funding projects and campaigns dedicated to the development and release of indie games is still very much in a stage of growing pains, it’s certainly a sign of things to come for the next steps of indie games becoming just as key as any retail title to a console’s success.
2013 left us with more than a fair share of indie titles that will surely be cherished, replayed, Steam Wishlist-ted, gifted, and talked about for years to come. Whether it was the heartbreaking story of Gone Home, the challenging addictiveness of Rogue Legacy, the confounding meta-narrative of The Stanley Parable, or the moral challenges of Papers, Please, indie games are only continuing to light up the gaming scene and show others the way to successful development, release, and success, often all by yourself. Indie games may still have the title of “indie,” but to many nowadays, there doesn’t need to be any distinction: they’re games in their very own right, “indie” or not.