The past half-decade has seen the lines increasingly blur between the ‘indie’ and mainstream game, with games such as The Witcher series, No Man’s Sky and We Happy Few rivaling AAA games in many ways, including graphical fidelity, previously seen as the dominion of the big names. And while several AAA games have fallen into a rut, and lost a lot of their creativity along the way, indie developers and their games have continuously pushed the envelope.
There is no doubt that the sheer amount of resources thrown at AAA games can often make them graphical and technical wonders. However, with the emergence of franchise behemoths such as Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, subsequent installments have declined in quality. However, these series enjoy massive sales (unfortunately, one might say), spurring other developers, and major publishers to churn out a sea of generic games, with little to differentiate each from the other.
This is where the indie game came in. Often built by a small team on a shoestring budget, these games started with niche audiences – gamers who wanted an alternative to the disappointing mainstream games, or simply ones who wanted a more cerebral experience in between their blow-em-up sessions. In time, these niches grew larger, becoming some of the largest games on the planet (Minecraft, anyone?). With this influx of recognition, came talent and resources that recognized the significance of the indie platform. While the majority of these developers continue to work with a decidedly ‘indie’ mindset in terms of fidelity and scope, a few have decided to take on the big leagues – with some startling results.
The Witcher series is probably the best indicator of this trend. While the first game was published worldwide by Atari, subsequent installments saw the developers, CD Projekt Red take over development and publishing wholly, with distribution rights handed out to bigger names. With this shift, CDPR truly flexed their creative muscle and made arguably some of the best RPGs ever in The Witcher 2 & 3. TW2 expanded on the much-acclaimed themes of TW1 and brought in complex gameplay, that eclipsed most of its peers. Where AAA games ‘dumbed down’ their elements in favour of mainstream reach, TW2 rewarded those players who invested themselves in the experience. This is a gamble that paid off heftily, reigning in large sections of gamers who were sorely missing a hardcore RPG. The closest competitor at the time, the AAA Skyrim, which happens to be one of my favourite games, didn’t deliver nearly the same satisfaction in combat nor depth in theme that TW2 did.
The one thing the game arguably lacked was scope, but it lay the (incredibly strong) groundwork for the behemoth that was The Witcher 3. Magnifying the game with an open world, supported by detailed lore and interweaving stories and choices, The Witcher 3 was unlike any other game that came out in 2015, and built significantly on the sales of its predecessor. Again, it stuck to its mature RPG roots, but also opened up gameplay to a new audience; this was an indie game that could cater to the mainstream without alienating its core audience. It also enjoyed massive critical acclaim and beat out several industry heavyweights to win 250 well-deserved GOTYs. The game destroyed the notion that the indie AAA was an oxymoron.
With the accolades doled out to indie games, devs were now pushing themselves, and securing funding for ambitious projects. Some chose to breath life into existing genres, as the brilliant SOMA did with survival horror. While classic horror series such as Resident Evil have taken the AAA route of amping up the action, SOMA chose to stick to the roots of the genre while adding elements that keep the game from seeming outdated – such as some terrifying enemy forms, and a form of psychological horror rarely found in games – thereby achieving a level of fidelity that rivaled most AAA games in the genre, along with some decent sales figures.
The confluence of indie and mainstream gaming has now come to a head with the release of No Man’s Sky. Procedurally generated levels aren’t exactly new in games, but for a small indie studio to try to accomplish this technical feat of such magnitude has broken several expectations of what an indie game must play like. The game has been accompanied by massive hype, with excitement for the sheer scale of what it’s trying to accomplish reaching unprecedented levels. Despite expectations that dwarf that of several indie games, however, Sean Murray of Hello Games has stuck to indie sensibilities: instead of going overboard with massive multiplayer or explosive space combat, No Man’s Sky sticks to the brief of being a resource gathering space exploration sim. It’s a grind, but so are most RPGs. It remains to be seen how much of this hype will translate into critical acclaim and/or sales, but in terms of a vision for the future of gaming, it aims higher than most AAA games.
The rise of this ‘indie AAA’ is beneficial to gaming as a whole. Indie games are beginning to gain more visibility, and adopting some of the technical scope of AAA games. AAA games, meanwhile, have realized the importance of incorporating indie sensibilities into several of their own games, and push innovation. This symbiotic relationship has just begun, and seems to be on track to push gaming as a whole into another realm altogether.