Indie Darlings: Why they’re Important & How they’ve Changed

Image Credit: Emma Lambkin

Liam Ferguson discusses the ever-growing and changing landscape surrounding Independent Games.

Independent games are now a foundation within the industry and are often viewed as just as important to it as tentpole AAA releases by many gamers. These games, often created and funded by significantly smaller teams of developers, are frequently catapulted to massive heights of success, and branded as “indie darlings” when discussed alongside larger budget projects. Indie games used to be seen as a significantly more niche part of the industry than they are now and many factors come into play with how these smaller games have reached such huge heights. 

In an industry that is blighted by consolidation, any indie game can and will be used as a cute marketing tool by the biggest publishers on the planet.

If one were to go back even a decade, many indie games were funded by Kickstarter or various other crowdfunding services in order to get created. Games media websites would often cite how X release is “good for an indie game” when comparing it to larger titles, and every few months a release like Minecraft or The Binding of Isaac would come along to elevate the conversation into the mainstream. These days, however, in an industry that is blighted by consolidation, any indie game can and will be used as a cute marketing tool by the biggest publishers on the planet. PlayStation will commonly highlight upcoming indie releases on their blog and sprinkle them into their larger showcases whilst Microsoft will give independent developers lucrative deals in order to plaster their work on services such as Xbox Game Pass (if they don’t simply buy the team outright as seen with studios like Mojang and Double Fine.) EA have committed to creating a fun and easy-going branding label for their published indie games known as ‘EA Originals.’ Massive, billion-dollar corporations advertising quirky games often about animals or non-traditional protagonists help make them look more approachable to gamers. The hope is clearly to get as many people invested into a relevant ecosystem as possible, with indie games as the initial pull. Simply put, AAA studios started to see the potential of indies as a brand and have run with it in recent years, thus giving any game the ability to become a breakout success.

Services such as the aforementioned Xbox Game Pass allow a cheap gateway for players to try games that they previously would not have spent money on. Every user that subscribes to Game Pass for Halo Infinite may try out Haven or Hades or any other indie game that sticks out to them and therefore keep their subscription running for an extra month. On a larger scale, Game Pass is in many ways changing how video games are consumed from a modern standpoint. While of course plenty of premium gaming experiences from large publishers outside of Xbox will stick with expensive price tags for the foreseeable future, it is already becoming common to see large scale projects drop on Game Pass the day of their release. Microsoft have partnered with many independent studios in particular, in order to push their games to the forefront, therefore incentivising gamers to try them out for no extra cost to their subscription fee. It is abundantly clear that as Microsoft continue to purchase studios and lock in tantalising exclusives that they also want to be displayed as a home for indie titles to flourish inside of. 

Indie games are able to be played without the voice in the back of your head saying someone worked a 60+ hour week to render the hyper realistic stretch of grass in front of you.

Additionally, due to how many AAA developers operate from a business front, many gamers justifiably feel more comfortable playing indie games. While obviously not always the case, many independent studios are more transparent than their larger, corporate counterparts. Generally speaking, reports of mass crunch, assault, and abhorrent working conditions come out from the Ubisofts and Activision Blizzards of the games industry, and not the Intersloths and Supergiants. There are exceptions to this with studios such as Fullbright treating their female employees horribly but typically indie games are able to be played without the voice in the back of your head saying someone worked a 60+ hour week to render the hyper realistic stretch of grass in front of you. On top of  this, many indie games launch in early access states and are built alongside feedback from their communities, developing a sense of trust between the developer and their audience. 

Indie games also tend to take more creative risks than their AAA counterparts. Development teams within the space generally have significantly less resources to work with than larger companies and are untethered from shareholders and boards of executives looking to bestow lucrative bonuses to themselves. As a result, it is common to see indie games deal with more whimsical and creatively rich premises than what is typically expected from the AAA space. An indie game can focus on a niche idea and build the title around it as the team dabbles with whatever assets they have at their disposal. These premises can look significantly more attractive to many gamers who may feel jaded by cyclical carbon-copy release schedules from larger publishers with unlimited resources who still send out games in unfinished states to appease their stockholders.

On top of this, indie games may look more attractive to gamers as they are often cheaper. As gaming continues to be a more expensive hobby with new releases trending towards a €70 price tag, smaller titles that often contain just as much entertainment value for a much cheaper price are inherently great value-propositions. Sure, there are also plenty of cheap or free to play AAA titles such as Fortnite but they are often riddled with predatory microtransactions and the aforementioned corporate guilt. Indies, even without a launch on Game Pass, are generally significantly cheaper to purchase upfront and will not usually be filled with premium currencies for the consumer to buy using real money.

 Even when marketed in mass-scale E3 showcases next to the biggest releases of the year, independent games manage to consistently shine through as major and unique players for the industry going forward as their popularity only rises. Although, their future is set to change as the space becomes more filled with consolidation and an emphasis on subscription service models are pushed. Ultimately, gaming is the most lucrative entertainment space on the planet right now as the industry’s yearly profits hugely eclipse even that of cinema. The popularity of gaming as a whole is only continuing to rise and because of that every facet of the business is changing at a breakneck pace. The indie section of digital storefronts is continuing to become more and more bloated as larger studios are providing these teams with marketing deals as their branding potential continues to get larger. While it is hard to peg down what the future holds completely for independent games, it is safe to say that they are not going anywhere and will only keep attracting larger audiences, possibly until it is at a point where many big-scale indies will become indistinguishable from AAA releases.