I’ve been playing games, or video games as we used to call them… or game programs if you really want to go way, way back. Anyway, I’ve been playing games for as long as I can remember. From when we as a family had an Atari 2600 in the late seventies, right up to today with modern gaming. It was a hobby that turned into a passion that turned into a semi-career with me not only writing this blog but also gaming books.
Over the years I have seen the best and worst of gaming. I have been right there and witnessed the evolution of gaming from those early days of Space Invaders to the likes of Red Dead Redemption II today. When I look back on just how far gaming has come over the last forty-odd years, I can’t help but be massively impressed. Single screen games turned into multi-flick-screen ones. Those gave way to full-on side and multi-scrolling games and eventually, 3D maps. Gameplay has evolved from shooting slowing descending aliens or running around mazes eating little dots to massive, gargantuan open-worlds that give us gamers huge amounts of freedom and Hollywood-like production values. In a great many ways, modern gaming has actually gotten too big.
I’m not a youngster anymore, I don’t have endless free time to play games like I used to. I can no longer sit in front of my TV, controller in hand, putting in fifty-plus hours into a game these days. I now have bigger and more important responsibilities that take precedence over gaming. My two kids for starters, this blog, my book writing and more. These massive games of today don’t hold my interest like they used to. As an example, as a fan of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, I bought both AC Origins and Odyssey as I got them in a great deal. I played Origins for around twenty hours or so, looked at the in-game map and realised just how big the map is and that I was not even halfway through the main story. Twenty hours and not even halfway through the game… twenty hours!
I think it’s great if you have the time to invest in a game like that, but I don’t. These games are still getting bigger and bigger too. I didn’t even bother with AC Odyssey, even though I paid for it. As for the new game, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla… I can’t even think about it.
Just looking at the new Saints Row coming early next year. One of the first things the devs are boasting about is that the map is bigger than any of the previous SR games. Not the gameplay or storytelling, the size of the game’s map. Where does this end? Games are just getting bigger and bigger and bigger year after year. Not necessarily better, just bigger. Why are AAA game developers so obsessed with making ‘the biggest game ever’ instead of the ‘best game ever’?
See this, all this ‘bigger is better’ (it’s not) mentality is exactly why I have been getting more and more into indie games over the last few years. I have always loved the indie game scene, but the last few years have just proven to me that smaller, low budget games are far superior to bigger AAA titles. But before I get into modern-day indies, I need to look at just how I got into smaller games ‘back in the day’.
Truth be told, we didn’t have much choice but to play smaller games back then, all games were small relatively speaking. Being from England, I was there at the heart of the British gaming revolution of the early-mid eighties. While the infamous video game crash of 1983 was doing its thing in North America, here in the UK, we just didn’t care. We didn’t care because we already had our own gaming industry slowly bubbling away. Most of those games came from the bedroom programmers of the day. The indie devs before the term ‘indie gaming’ existed. These bedroom programmers were often one-man (or woman) teams, if one person could be considered a ‘team’ that is.
The likes of Matt Smith, Jonathan ‘Joffa’ Smith (no relation) and Jeff Minter. Real pioneers of the early UK gaming boom creating games, quite literally, alone in their bedrooms. This, this was the era of gaming where I grew up. Not the massive, worldwide gaming corporations and studios of today, but with the indie game developers of the early eighties. I have always been into indie/smaller games, they were my lifeblood as a gamer back then.
Obviously, as the industry grew, so did the teams. The bedroom programmer was a very rare breed by the time the late eighties kicked in as the gaming studio began to rise. One developer/coder became two or six or several dozen. Games got bigger, more expansive and hugely popular. To meet demands, developer teams had to grow and grow. Sega and Nintendo began to rule the roost and the modern gaming industry was born. The bedroom programmer was long dead as no one wanted smaller games, they wanted huge worlds to explore and play around in. Bigger and more open games like The Legend of Zelda paved the way for a bigger and more immersive gameplay experience. That’s not to say we Brits still couldn’t amaze, it was a couple of Brits (David Braben and Ian Bell) who created the mighty Elite and pretty much birthed the entire open-world genre.
Still, those simpler, smaller indie games were long gone as eighties ingenuity gave way to nineties excess and decadence. The simple 2D gaming eventually made way for 3D worlds. Games just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Even though I very much enjoyed playing the likes of Grand Theft Auto III and so on… I still missed those early days of the bedroom programmer and smaller more creative titles. Still, those days were long gone by then and the industry was all about the ‘bigger is better’ mantra.
It was when I got myself an Xbox 360 and Microsoft began the whole Xbox Live Arcade thing when the indie game began to rise once more. Okay yes, XBLA launched before the 360 on the original Xbox, but it was the service’s relaunch on the 360 when it really took off big time. Before the 360 days, XBLA was really a service where gamers could play old arcade games. On the 360 though, Microsoft began to push for smaller/indie developers to make games for the service. It was the summer of 2008 when XBLA Summer of Arcade launched and a little platform game called Braid caught my eye. Just watching the trailer for Braid, I was taken back to those early days of the bedroom programmer.
It was such a massive change from the endless open-world games that were everywhere back then. Braid was small, simple but very unique too. On the surface, it was a simple puzzle-platformer but it threw in time manipulation and gameplay mechanics that nobody else was doing at the time. While the big studios were trying to one-up each other, trying to make ‘bigger’ games with even bigger teams, here was a small team (one man actually) making a highly original game that harked back to the good old days of gaming. I bought Braid, played it, loved it and I was suddenly into indie gaming once more, just like back in the early eighties.
It was buying and playing Braid, thanks to Microsoft’s XBLA service, that really got me back into smaller games once more. I still enjoyed the bigger AAA games sure. But every now and then, I would dip into XBLA and download a cheeky little game. My game’s library began to fill up with smaller/indie games. ‘Splosion Man, Shadow Complex, Limbo, Trials HD, Fez and more. Smaller games with some very interesting and unique gameplay features began to take over my gaming. My love for Indie gaming was reborn. Microsoft discontinued their XBLA service, but the indie game scene had already exploded by then and instead of having indie games be in their own, separate service, they just became games.
If you look at my reviews from this year, pretty much all of them have been indie games… I think all of them have, in fact. I do get AAA titles up for review now and then, but more often than not, I’m just not interested in them. I really don’t think I could ever review the latest Call of Duty title or the next GTA (not that there will ever be one) because they are all too ‘samey’ now. Yet, with indie games, you often find something rather unique about them, even if they are using some old school gameplay, they give it a new twist. The likes of the absolutely awesome HyperParasite (my favourite game of 2020 buy it!) is a very simple top-down, twin-stick shooter. At first, it all looks very ‘meh’, but it is the use of the brilliant rogue-lite gameplay mechanic that comes from 1980’s Rogue that really makes the game pop and stand out.
I’m currently reviewing an indie game called Lake (coming soon) where you deliver post… and that’s about it. It’s devilishly simple and very twee… but it also feels very different and refreshing compared to other big AAA games on the market right now. I firmly believe that indie gaming is the future of gaming. Indie games have the freedom to push new and exciting ideas, they don’t have the pressure of publishers forcing ideas onto the developers. Indie games can be far more creative than the next Assassin’s Creed will ever be.
It is almost as if there is a big video gaming reset on the horizon, a video game crash on 1983 part II if you will. The ever-increasing cost of AAA games can not be sustained in the industry without pushing that cost onto the consumer. When a game is costing over $200 million to make and increasing… how much further can developers go, how much would you be willing to pay for a game that’s nothing more than a slight update from the previous title?
The big-name studios are becoming stagnant and oversaturating the market with the same old content over and over. Never really improving the game itself outside of the visuals, never experimenting with new and exciting gameplay features because they can’t risk messing it up when the budget is so high. So we get ‘safe’ games with the same old mechanics and gameplay. The bubble has to burst sometime, just as it did back in 1983. But the indie game scene is where the fresh and unique ideas are coming from.
Indie games are cheaper to make and cheaper to buy in comparison to AAA titles. Yes, there is an awful lot of crap out there in terms of indie games… but let’s not be coy here… there’s an awful lot of crap AAA titles too. Indie games can be played through in a few hours and be massively entertaining (some even offer months of inventive gameplay), instead of boring the player with fifty+ hour campaigns and endless grinding. You can buy and play several good quality indie games for the price of one AAA title these days. Even more so, indie devs are FAR more grateful for your support over AAA studios that only care about money.
Let me put it this way, I’d rather spend £10-£20 on a 7 hour indie game that I’ve really enjoyed, than £60 on a AAA game that bored me long before I saw the end credits.
Indie games are a serious business right now and for me, a far superior alternative to the bigger AAA games released today. I’ll continue to champion the indie game scene and review indie games on my blog because they actually deserve the support and give me so much entertainment. Keep them indie games coming guys and gals, cos I’m lapping them up.