Looking at the sales of games like Firewatch and Telltale’s adventure games, it seems like gamers are becoming more and more attracted to unconventional titles outside your typical Street Fighter, Call of Duty or Madden-like releases. The appeal might have to do with declining game quality from mainstream developers, lack of communication with fans, and an increase of Indie game promotion.
Indie games are usually developed by individuals, small teams, or small independent companies. Sometimes the latter are formed solely for the development of one game. Indie game developers are not always financially backed by large video game publishers and usually have little to no budget available; the finances can often come out of pocket. Being independent, Indie developers do not have controlling interests, creative limitations, and do not require publisher approval as larger game developers usually do. Design decisions are thus also not limited by a conditional budget. Furthermore, smaller team sizes increase individual involvement and thus make indie games known for innovation, creativity, and artistic experimentation.
Gamers might be more attracted to indie games because mainstream developers are releasing low quality games. An example of this can be from annual games from developers like EA and Ubisoft. These games might be low quality because of the time restriction, creative limitations, and constricting design requirements. The Assassin’s Creed series is a great example of all of these constraints. Take Assassin’s Creed II – this is a game that not only improved on the innovations of the first game, but introduced new graphics and improved storytelling. Once the series became annualized, though, it usually failed to make similar leaps in quality, and titles like Revelation , Assassin’s Creed III , and Unity were lambasted for sub-par design decisions. There just wasn’t enough time for the games to properly breathe and grow.
Indie developers, however, have no such restrictions and are allowed the time and creativity to make an engaging game. The Telltale game The Wolf Among Us tells a story in comic book style, staying true to its source material, and uses a kind of real-time reaction system for its combat sequences. The story is extremely intriguing, despite the simple murder mystery plot line. The characters are extremely well-developed, likely due to the source material, and have large learning arcs as well. The character at the beginning is not the same at the end of the game. Games like Wolf Among Us stretch the boundaries of the medium, using art style, plot, and gameplay to immerse the player in the game experience.
Such things are where mainstream developers are lacking, as they rarely offer anything innovative in story-telling or gameplay. This is made especially impossible when the mainstream developers do not interact with their consumers. They may provide interviews on occasion, but it doesn’t seem like they ever listen to their fans. Picking on Assassin’s Creed again, the games are notoriously full of bugs at first launch and patched over time. It took years for Ubisoft to finally respond to its fans pleas to de-annualize the series.
Indie developers often have no choice but to listen to their fans – they don’t have financial luxury to coast on past successes that mainstream developers do. Steam Greenlight is one example of how indie developers can get fan input even before their games come out. Steam Greenlight is a forum that enlists the fan community’s help in picking some of the new games to be released on Steam. Developers post information, screenshots, and video for their game and seek a critical mass of community support in order to get selected for distribution. Steam Greenlight also helps developers get feedback from potential customers and start creating an active community around their game during the development process. With the rise of such programs, it’s easy to see how communication between developers and gamers becomes crucial to creating a decent, if not good, game. The resulting advertising on Steam doesn’t hurt either, where games certainly have the potential to rise in popularity enough to be sold at other mainstream stores.
Gamers are gravitating more and more towards indie games, searching for better games in contrast to annual games that suffer from the time constraints. Furthermore, they are frustrated with some mainstream developers’ inability to listen to their customers. Indie games have none of the limitations that AAA games do, and rely on fans’ input to push their game towards success. In addition, with the increase in advertising on platforms like Steam, Indie games are becoming easier to find and more popular for it.