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Independent games, or more colloquially "indie games," refer to games developed by a small number of people or simply a singular individual. This development paradigm may seem counter-intuitive, as one could argue that, surely, if gaming hardware is getting quicker, smaller, and more affordable, the market is going to favour the more bold, graphically superior games. Interestingly, this doesn't seem to be the case.
For example, in 2016, ConcernedApe's game Stardew Valley, a project made solely by one individual, made it to 19th on Steam's "Best Sellers of the Year" list, outselling games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops III that had been released just a few months before.
So, the question at hand is what is it that makes these games so attractive to gamers?
Individualism and Immersion in 'Minecraft'
Minecraft is a game that's almost universally known at this point; not surprisingly so, considering it has sold well over 100 million copies. But, despite the fact that it boasts such numbers, its beginnings were more humble, being developed initially by just one individual.
To understand what lead to Minecraft's astronomic rise to indie game stardom, we must first take a small step back to the year in which it garnered widespread popularity.
Games such as Halo: Reach, Fallout: New Vegas, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Red Dead Redemption, to name a few, were released in 2010. It seemed at the time that the recipe to create popular games was to include violence, usually involving firearms. Minecraft was in its alpha stage of development at the time and was gaining some attention through forums and "let's play" style videos on YouTube. It presented a stark contrast to what was regarded popular, including sandbox-style gameplay elements that hadn't been seen on such a magnitude before, which granted a powerful amount of freedom to the player. Minecraft acted like a breath of fresh air, offering an unconventional take on modern game development, not afraid to step outside of the box and experiment using different rules.
At the heart of it, Minecraft wasn't trying to be a triple-A title. It didn't strive for popularity or huge monetary gains. Instead, it simply stood alone being Minecraft, and that's what lead to its success: its individuality and unique game design philosophy.
Unique Puzzle Design and Stunning Visuals in 'FEZ'
FEZ is a 2D puzzle-platformer game with pseudo-3D puzzle solving elements. You play as Gomez, a character who possesses a mystical fez hat that allows him to bridge between dimensions. The player is allowed to rotate the camera to see different 2D images of a 3D scene, which acts as the game's main puzzle-solving feature.
The game was developed by two people, one of whom is the infamous game designer Phil Fish. Phil's visuals are incredibly stunning and really give the game a nice "green grass" feel to it, making the world feel so much more alive. It's not uncommon to find animals jumping around the scene or birds resting upon objects—a remarkable attention to detail. The gameplay itself is also incredibly satisfying, with the camera rotations feeling very seamless and the physics system feeling fluid and natural.
I believe this attention to detail is what, in part, contributes to the success of indie games like FEZ. The authors of these titles have a much more personal connection to their creations, hence they nurture them in an almost parental fashion; an attachment a major games studio lacks. You get more of those quaint little moments that simply wouldn't come from a commercialised product, which may be one of the defining reasons gamers grow so fond of indie games like these.
The Relaxation and Laid-Back Nature of 'Stardew Valley'
Similar to FEZ, Stardew Valley also has stunning pixel art inspired visuals; a trend quite common in the indie scene. The game was developed by Eric Barone, a solo games developer, initially as a Harvest Moon clone. It went on to achieve major commercial success in 2016 after its release, selling well over 10 million copies.
The game itself offers a very relaxed style of gameplay, not forcing the player to do anything they don't want to do. You're given a farm that you can customise and care for, townspeople that you can form friendships with, and an entire town filled with secrets to uncover.
I think one of the most defining characteristics of Stardew Valley is how easy it is to play. Although the game has a lot of content, at a base level the gameplay is pretty simple, and that's its greatest strength. It's the kind of game people like to kick back with after a hard day at work due to how stress relieving it is. It's relaxing to play and has a very happy feel about it, making the player feel at ease and satisfied.
Although every success is different, I feel that the current game climate is allowing indie games to flourish. I've discussed only three games in this article and briefly touched upon some of their major strengths, but I feel some of the most important reasons these games are dominating the market are as follows:
- Gamers feel a closer connection to the author.
When you're playing a AAA title you feel no real connection to the creator, as the creator is usually a games studio consisting of hundreds of employees. Indie games offer the complete opposite experience, where you're essentially playing the creation of a small group of people.
- Attention to detail
Because the creators feel more personally attached to these projects they're more likely to include personal touches. AAA games, being developed by several hundred people, aim to be big and bold, hence it's harder for them to maintain an intimate connection to the game.
- Pixel art popularity
Pixel art, for whatever reason, seems to have been rejuvenated by indie games in recent years, and it's becoming more and more popular. This stems from individuals/small studios simply not having the time to create hundreds of 3D models, and thus having to make ends meet with a more primitive art design. This has actually made gamers very fond of this retro-inspired art style and is a huge selling point.
- Not trying too hard
AAA titles generally have two goals: to please fans and to make money. These often go hand in hand. Indie titles, on the other hand, don't really aim to please anyone other than the creators.
They're not trying to be big, and I guess people kind of like that.