In the heat of Ludum Dare, I’ve realized that we’ve come to a crossroads of the gaming industry, where anyone can potentially make and publish their game, and it can sell for more than some AAA games earn. The irony is that with more skilled indie development teams coming along, like Yacht Club Games, there comes a time when we have to ask: what’s the difference? Is it a question of integrity? What defines a “AAA” game anymore? These are things that I hope to shed a bit of light upon.
With something like this, there is a heavy need to analyze every detail, so I’ll try to cover every base possible. Let’s start with the questionable differences of polish. Nowadays, a game must have polish if it wants to be successful. However, when you compare, let’s say, Shovel Knight, to something like Uncharted, obviously you can’t compare the games themselves, but both probably had hundreds of hours poured into making the games as accessible and enjoyable as possible. Honestly, if nobody told you, you could say that a AAA developer made the average indie game and most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. However, there is one key difference with many games that Indie games seem to have, while it isn’t every game. When you play a game, you can usually tell, as soon as you start the game, if the developers wanted to make the game, and if they enjoyed making it, from beginning to end. Now this can sometimes sour an otherwise great game, but usually, this souring of the experience is more common in AAA games, where hundreds of people would have had to have been totally invested in the project for the majority of the way through development, and actively wanted to make the game which they worked on. Take, for instance, the average Call of Duty. They lack heart, they lack variety, and most were obviously and blatantly made to cash in on the franchise. You can tell that the developers don’t enjoy their experiences with those.
This is not to say that Indie games are immune to this souring, as I have encountered several games that had very small dev teams, which would normally warrant the title, and you can tell that they didn’t enjoy making a part of or the entirety of the game at hand. So in retrospect, while it varies between the two, both suffer from this same issue in varying degrees, and I could go on and on about gameplay differences, variation of genres, but at the end of the day, it all boils down to what drives the devs. The key difference that will always cause a distinction between Indie and AAA is the reason behind making the game. While both can be for a specific reason, the main drive behind AAA games is to make money, and that isn’t a bad thing. What makes this a negative is when a company lets their shareholders and higher-ups decide what games to make, instead of the designers and developers whom they’ve hired. People go indie for freedom from this, and this is why games like Shovel Knight, A Hat in Time, and Mighty No. 9 exist. Big companies would see investments like these too big of a risk, and unrealistically would shoot these ideas down for one reason or another, and now, in the free market that the industry is shaping itself around and adapting to, we see developers take advantage of their freedoms, and take those risks. This is why the Indie games are more immune to the souring effect: most of them aren’t doing it for the paycheck, or because they need to keep their numbers up. Most indie developers are doing it to express themselves, and to do what they love.
At the end of the day, while I don’t think Indie should be a genre of video game, I do think it should stay, for now, while companies like Activision and EA exist, until companies can learn to embrace the change of the market. Right now, Nintendo seems to be one of the only AAA publishers that seem to be doing just this, with their eShop market containing just as many Indie developed games as Virtual Console titles. The problem that Nintendo faced was that they started doing this before their consoles had a whole lot of footing, and now they’re finally recovering from it by making good decisions that help both developers and shareholders. While Nintendo is absolutely not perfect, it’s a step in the right direction that I think more companies should be taking. And thus, there you have it. Indie should describe the developers, not the games, because there is nothing that either Indie or AAA can uniquely include, gameplay-wise.