In the last few years, the gaming industry has seen a sharp increase in the number of independently developed titles. Although the retail market was once impenetrable to smaller companies, digital distribution is making it possible for indie titles to be played by a larger audience. This growth in popularity has brought into question the size a development team must be in relation to its end product – why pay fifty people when the team could function as five?
One of the most prominent indie releases, Minecraft, was initially developed by one person, yet has recently sold its 15 millionth copy on PC and has ports coming to PS4, Xbox One and PS Vita in the coming months. Other well known indie games, like Thomas Was Alone, Gone Home and Bastion have been highly praised for their high production value, in spite of their small development teams.
Arguably, the appeal of indie games comes from their ability to redefine genres, and it is this sense of ingenuity that allows their small scale to compete against big budget games. The creativity indie games are often lauded for comes from the reduced cost (and therefore risk) that is associated with AAA games. Thomas Was Alone, for one, cost around £5000 to develop, in comparison to the millions spent on titles such as Titanfall or Watch Dogs. Due to the smaller potential loss, indie developers can afford to take risks, deviate from established genres and create fresh experiences for their players.
Veering away from the archetypal genres is becoming increasingly important. Big-budget games continue to delve deeper into the known due to their fear of alienating the AAA consumer. This fear of taking risks has aided the spark in interest of indie games, which are not trapped within these tired genres. The shrinking territory of AAA games has opened up niches for the indie world to explore, and further increased the creative freedom of smaller developing companies.
This loss of creativity can be attributed to more than the cost of the development. Games with large development teams see little influence from their individual developers, where members of smaller development teams will each have a strong influence on the end product.
These factors are pushing for companies to produce titles with smaller teams and to take more creative risks. This has already been seen with Ken Levine and Patrick Plourde, directors behind some of the largest AAA releases in the last two years (BioShock Infinite and Far Cry 3 respectively), who have both made steps in this direction. Irrational Games – the developers of BioShock – are beginning to wind down to only a handful of people and focus on smaller projects, and Ubisoft have recently released the smaller project Child of Light.
As we see more developers follow suit, it is possible that the current polarisation of indie and AAA games will begin to blur. Mid-sized developers are already fading into obscurity, with developers like Rare admitting they need to change their business plan after a series of unsuccessful releases. It could be that the splintering of mid-sized companies will become a more attractive business plan, where emulating AAA games on a low budget is unfeasible and taking a similar approach to Ubisoft may prove more successful.
Indie games with high production values are likely to become more prominent with increasing competition and the expectations of digital distributors. This smaller, AAA-like environment is already being defined by digital distributors like Steam and the Apple Store, which have been criticised for their strict, at times arbitrary reasons for choosing which games can be published. Developers are not only urged into creating games with the highest possible production value with the most efficient team size, but into creating games deemed suitable for their respective publisher.
Indie games will continue to grow in number as developers are tempted by the option of working on a project with their own creative stamp. But if a company is started from scratch, rather than formed from an existing developer, it can prove expensive. Finding time to work on indie projects often involves working two jobs at once or going long periods of time without pay.
Although a lucky few, like the developers of Bastion (Supergiant Games), met success on their first attempt, the development of indie games is rarely an easy route into the public eye. Even companies considered to be overnight successes, such as the developers of Angry Birds (Rovio Studios) made fifty-two games before their worldwide success.
This trend does not look to be temporary. The niches left open by the AAA games are numerous, and the indie environment will continue to flourish as developers situate themselves in this new territory. Genres will become redefined as what we have been playing for the last twenty and more years comes into question, and more fresh experiences, like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable and Ether One will make an appearance.
The demand for AAA games is unlikely to disappear, as there will always be an audience for games franchises with yearly releases and what could be considered minimal innovation, such as Call of Duty, but the gaming industry is entering uncharted territory, and I for one am excited to see where it lands.