It's time to get tough on indie games

The small games market is getting a far too easy ride with reviewers, writes Emer Sugrue, and if we don’t toughen up the whole sector will suffer


The games world has become a two-tiered system – on one side the high budget, heavily marketed blockbuster games, and on the other tiny indie games, produced by a small team and relying on word-of-mouth for publicity.

Indie games are games without a publisher, and while there are many success stories of small games crossing the divide and becoming mainstream such as Minecraft and Braid, for the most part it’s a struggle to get any attention. There are some truly great indie games out there, but it’s hard for the average player to find out about them. This is partly due to marketing or lack thereof. But it’s also partly due to the way indie games are reviewed compared to big budget games.

It’s not something the internet is often accused of, but it seems to have a habit of being too nice when it comes to indie games. Big games come with big expectations and people are more than happy to tear a game to shreds if it doesn’t live up to the hype. A multi-million dollar project built by hundreds of people around the world and fronted by a faceless corporation isn’t going to have its feelings hurt if you say their game is bad. A few guys who spent two years making a game in their spare time are a different matter. Faced with a bad indie game people tend to focus on the positive aspects, or if it’s really terrible, not review it at all.

In the worst cases, the few people who do review an indie game are friends with the developers and give it a glowing review no matter what the truth. The smaller a game is the more likely it is that the people talking about it are not objective.

This leaves players in a tough position. They may want to help independent developers, but ultimately they don’t want to waste their money and time on games that aren’t fun and it’s impossible to know if a highly-rated indie game is actually good, or just “good for an indie game”. People feel small games can’t be compared to AAA’s due to the huge gap in investment, but if games are to be treated as art as so many players argue, then we need to consider them the same way we would with any form of art or entertainment. If a film reviewer can hold Sandra Bullock’s Gravity and a low-budget rom-com to the same standard, a games reviewer should be able to hold Assassins Creed and Papers Please to the same standard. Two games don’t need to be the same; they just need to be good.

An area in which indie games can’t compete with the big budget games is graphics. The beauty and realism seen in the current generation of games is incredible, but extremely expensive. If you judge a game purely on its graphics then of course an indie game is going to lose out every time. But graphics are rarely the defining feature of a game, and it’s more important that the developer achieves the look and feel of the game that they set out for.

Take Papers Please, a game created by Lucas Pope, a developer who formerly worked for Naughty Dog on the Uncharted series. It’s a strategy sim which places you as an immigration officer in a fictional soviet county in the 1980s, and the look and feel of the game mimics one from that decade, with blocky graphics and only a few colours. The visuals are basic but it sets the atmosphere perfectly, and you can’t imagine it being any different. The latest Assassins Creed game on the other hand had top-of-the-line graphics – except that they didn’t work. The game was broken on release, with characters appearing without faces and falling through floors. In an equal comparison, Papers Please should score better on graphics in terms of player experience.

Indie games also lose out on their playing-time and scope. Minecraft aside, indie games don’t have the capacity to be open-world epics. When big games compete with each other to be ever vaster, it makes indie games seem like a poor investment in comparison. If you want to buy a game, will you go for one that promises at least 40 hours of gameplay or one that has, at best, five?

The amount of content a game has is always secondary to whether the game is a good playing experience. It won’t matter if a game is 100 hours long if you give up after 30 minutes. With the price differences, a good but short low-budget game is a better buy than a mediocre blockbuster.

Where indie games get the upper hand is creativity. An indie game has to sell itself in a single sentence, and to grab attention the concepts are often pretty bizarre. You can’t imagine Warner Bros abandoning Batman to make a game where you are a piece of bread trying to get toasted, as in I Am Bread. Big companies have the luxury of being lazy and they take advantage. How many FIFA games have there been now? There will never be an I Am Bread 2018, and the games industry desperately needs that kind of variety.

In a recent list of the most anticipated games of 2015, there was only one game that was not a sequel or a reboot. The big developers might be able to dazzle with their graphics but all that money on the line means they feel they can’t take risks. They know people will buy the next instalment of a tired old series, so that’s what we get. But if we start holding all games to the same standards, that means the blockbusters can’t keep getting a free pass on their lack of imagination. A big sequel can be great, but it needs to have something new. Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag was similar to previous games, but the pirating and sea battles introduced a new element which made the entire experience feel fresh. Not every game needs to be an unheard of concept, but imagination should be a standard we hold all games to, big and small.

They may have different budgets, but ultimately all games are entertainment. All games are vying for our time and money. Details such as graphics, gameplay and innovation all add to what makes a game interesting but the big picture should always be this: is the game good?

Follow Emer Sugrue on Twitter: @emersugrue

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