Billions of dollars make their way through today’s gaming markets. From the standard $60 MSRP on AAA titles to special prices for lesser acclaimed games, it undoubtedly feels that, as a whole, games are becoming vehicles for making profits instead of works of art intended to enrich and challenge the mind. Especially in this economy, a rising concern revolves around where gamers can get the most bang for their buck. With AAA titles you can usually expect an enjoyable adventure, but you might not be left with a lasting impression. On the other hand, the influx of Indie games is showing us once again that high budgets and overpriced DLC options don’t have to be the norm.
AAA titles have earned their status for a reason – in at least one point in time that specific franchise made its mark on gaming history. The original Call of Duty submerged players into a realistic war-like experience that delivered an unparalleled level of intensity. In another vein, sports games are achieving almost lifelike standards of realism that let you control virtually every aspect and challenge that your favorite team has to face (assuming there isn’t a lockout, of course). Because of their ability to deliver a gaming experience unlike anything seen before, these games evolved into series that turned into household names. For most demographics, it’s impossible that a person hasn’t at least heard of Call of Duty, Gears of War, or any EA Sports title, and the developers and publishers certainly earned this right.
As heartwarming as it is to know that a great idea combined with flawless execution can lead to success, one can’t help but think that many of these AAA franchises are still regarding in such a high esteem for the wrong reasons. For Madden NFL 2012, a majority of the new features simply involve rule changes, a few player trait adjustments, and some new animations. Similarly, a majority of the updates in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 involve adjustments to the perk systems and weapon loadouts, which are merely modifications of features in its predecessor. The inclusion of a few new game modes is a nice touch, but just when you think they’re taking a step in the right direction, Beachhead Studios comes out with the Call of Duty: Elite subscription service for $50 USD per year to include downloadable content, competitions with prizes, and a few other features.
While it definitely makes sense that a $60 price tag is warranted for the first iterations of these seemingly never-ending series, it doesn’t seem fair to gamers to keep charging this same fee when it feels like a lot less work is being put into the development. Changes like gun modifications and roster updates seem like features a college intern should be able to roll out with relative ease, and yet we’re still expected to pay full price.
As if this wasn’t brutal enough, downloadable content (DLC) is getting more out of hand by the day. After purchasing Gears of War 3 at a retail gaming outlet, the employee tried to sell me a map-pack bundle that cost about 75% of the game itself! Having to pay nearly double the amount for a sequel that probably didn’t take as much effort to develop as the original is an insult to gamers everywhere. If just one of your friends buys the map pack though, you’ll have problems playing together because you won’t have the same set of maps available. This is unfair to gamers because we’re essentially being forced to drain our pockets further, and the developers and publishers can get away with this because of the namesake of their franchise.
On the other hand, Indie developers have an entirely different approach to game development that puts less of an emphasis on profit and more of a focus on creating a memorable experience for the player. In the past, it has been difficult for “the little guy” to gain the necessary resources and funding in order to turn a dream into reality. Luckily, with the proliferation of SDKs (software development kits) and mediums to transport finished products such as Steam, small time developers are at a greater opportunity to have their games played by a much wider audience than before.
Perhaps the most prominent example of Indie developer success follows the story of Markus “Notch” Peterson, who is famous for his popular sandbox building title Minecraft. Originally written in Java, Notch’s dream was able to come to fruition. Notch had previously been a game developer for King.com for several years, but due to artistic differences he left his post there in order to pursue his independent creation. Instead of cloning an already successful franchise, Notch used his imagination (along with inspiration from several other titles) to create an open experience with seemingly limitless possibilities. Since then, Minecraft has sold over one million purchases with no publisher whatsoever – all of the advertising had been through word of mouth. Unlike your run-of-the-mill profit maximizing AAA game, Minecraft was able to make it into the Smithsmonia American Art Museum’s “The Art of Video Games” exhibit based solely on its merit.
This isn’t the only success for Indie developers either. Limbo, which was created by the independent developer Playdead, had such incredible success on the Xbox Live Arcade that it was re-released for both the PSN and Stea. This 2D sidescroller can run on incredibly low system requirements and doesn’t rely on breathtaking visuals, but the haunting atmosphere and spine-tingling environments make it a perfect example of how video games can be viewed as art.
Similarly, the indie developers at Supergiant Games threw a unique twist on action RPGs with the release of Bastion. Its contemporary visual style, interactive voice-over narrative, and inventive combat mechanics truly make it stand out from the rest of hack-and-slash titles that have inundated the market. With a price of just 1200 Microsoft Points or $15 USD, you’ll get more of a value than most $60 USD games have to offer. Still, hundreds of thousands of gamers will spend four times as much money for worse experiences due to brand loyality and marketing.
The solution here isn’t to stop buying AAA tiles and only stick with indie games; AAA titles got to where they are for a reason. Every year when we see a new Call of Duty, a Battlefield release, or a slew of EA Sports game, we can generally count on them to be fun for a while. But as gamers, we shouldn’t get in the habit of just sticking to the games that we feel have a small chance of letting us down. Sure, there are a handful of Indie games that may be downright terrible, but that’s no reason to disregard that entire market either.
To wrap things up, gamers everywhere need to identify what exactly you’re looking for the next time you purchase a game. If you think combat in the Middle East is much more fulfilling than ruining Hitler’s Final Solution, then by all means stick with your Call of Duty remakes year after year. However, you don’t want to deprive yourself the experience that the best indie games out there have to offer because they possess elements of story telling, inventive gameplay, and creative solutions that you will rarely see in mainstream titles. So the next time you go shopping, think hard about where you want to spend your cash. The positive impact a great game can have on you isn’t directly proportional to the amount of money that it took to develop it, so don’t be too quick to brush indie games aside.
So we here at GoGamingGiant would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you love the generally reliability that AAA titles have to offer, or do you enjoy taking the road less traveled by and exploring the experiences that indie games have to offer? Both options clearly have their pros and cons but one thing is for sure – the future of gaming could very well depend on how these two style of games fare in the near future.