Anyone who follows video games to any degree has probably noticed that independent games – titles developed without the aid or input of a publisher – have taken off like wildfire. It’s not hard to see why – there’s a heavy, crippling ennui settling over mainstream, AAA gaming; a heavy and oppressive wave of war shooters and manly men and brown hues and bloom. While the odd creative or narrative masterpiece still occasionally surfaces; many of the biggest franchises in gaming are all starting to look the same. Gaming has, in a sense, become a victim of its own success.

Call it what you will: a fear of change, a collective sluggishness, too much business in game development…whatever it is, it’s killing creativity. Essentially, the games industry has started down the same path as Hollywood before it: as big publishers and developers doggedly and ham-handedly vie for “mass appeal” in their titles; a pervasive creative drain has begun to surface, clawing its way into virtually every facet of the market. The end result, of course, is that all the AAA titles on the market are sort of…melding together. 

Everything’s starting to look the same. 

There is a wide array of factors at play here, but at the end of the day; each and every one is related to one key article: money. AAA development isn’t something that can be done in someone’s basement  any longer: to get the sort of production values expected in most mainstream titles these days necessitates a budget (and team) which rivals – perhaps exceeds – even that which you’d see in any blockbuster film. Perhaps as a side effect of this, many organizations have scampered away from anything that smells ‘new’ or ‘different.’ They cringe at the unique, and instead happily enmesh themselves in sequels and copycats, in old methods and tried-and-true tactics: essentially, in what they know will get them sales. 

Worse, many larger publishers even project this obsession with what they believe ‘the mainstream’ wants onto their acquired organizations. Otherwise unique developers are hence turned into just more cookie cutter organizations, as fans of what made them great in the first place lament their death. An obligatory nod here to Electronic Arts – one of the best-known perpetrators; a publisher known for “turning every organization it touches to shit.” 

It’s pretty clear how independent gaming has kicked off, in light of everything I’ve described here. Indie games are a callback to what game development – and the games industry – used to be. They are at once both a return to gaming’s roots and a step forward to something completely new and unique. The middleman – the publisher – is removed from the equation, and any restrictions on what these developers can do with their titles are removed with them. As a result, where AAA gaming is shifting towards a dull, bland, status-quo affair; the independent scene is vibrant, creative, and teeming with new and unique ideas. 

It also helps that independent games are all considerably cheaper than anything you’d find on the mainstream market, and just as entertaining, to boot. 

Only one question remains, then: where do we go from here? Myself, I’m of the mind that this epidemic of creative bankruptcy will sort itself out, given time. Eventually, we’re going to see more and more developers – more and more “giants;” as Insomniac Games’ Mike Acton puts it – willing to step back and challenge the norm. As more people start to go against the grain; more will see the merits of doing so. Certainly, we’re going to still have to sift through offal to find the true gems: but there will, at least, be more of them to find. 

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Gaming’s Creative Drain and the Rise of the Indie Developer