Coming back from EGX and experiencing the indie offers at the show, I could not shake a creeping suspicion I’ve had about the indie space for a long time. For all your The Wall Shall Stands and your Giant Cops, there were 2 zombie survival shooters with crafting and roguelike elements. The more experimental games in the Leftfield Collection were shoved up the corner near the screams and wails of the Xbox stand, while the bigger indies like Devolver Digital and Team 17 took up great amounts of room on the Rezzed floor plan. While the indie space is growing larger and more prosperous, I have a sinking feeling that indies may soon go the way that the AAA market has gone, with larger publishers dominating output while smaller, AA studios are either absorbed into larger companies or cease to exist.
Before you shouts ‘this is all doom and gloom’, I’m not saying this will happen overnight, I’m talking in the next 5-6 years, as even indie budgets rise, the expectation of quality for smaller games seems to get higher and higher and the ability to show mature content is limited on streaming platforms. You’ll still have your experimental or ‘out there’ games like Her Story, Undertale or Rinse and Repeat, but they’ll be much harder to find or will have almost be obscured from view, as ‘super indie studios’ will more than likely rise to prominence, and start to dominate the market. You see this already with the aforementioned Team 17 and Devolver Digital. This is not devaluing the games published by these two companies, most of what they produce is great but there is already a certain pedigree and privilege given to indies who have that label. People are more likely to buy a game from these two publishers, rather than taking a punt on some unknown studio who are putting out a new game which isn’t an 8-bit roguelike with procedural generated dungeons.
An ‘indie checklist’ has seemed to have formed over the past couple of years, due to the mega success of certain titles like Minecraft, Binding of Isaac, FTL and so on, which have set up a now parodied list of mechanics and tropes that many indie developers simply pull from and slap together to make their first game. If you go onto the Steam frontpage and look at the new releases which aren’t AAA, I bet for every 1 game that doesn’t judiciously raid from the indie bag of tricks, there are 5 who do and are selling pretty well compared. For as much as I enjoy another 4 player sofa brawler or another exploration game driven by a crafting system, there is a fear that these genres will become so entrenched within the indie system, that like the safe options of an FPS or a sandbox game, indie developers will stick to these models in order to get a return on the huge amounts of money and time that is put in to make your first game.
What doesn’t help is (and I’m to blame as much as the next writer here) is the disinterest in anything which isn’t either amazingly crafted within that genre, or something new. There aren’t many indies scoring 6/10 or below who are still selling copies on Steam. Since there is such an expectation set by mega successful indies, they almost stand as monolithic measuring sticks that all new indies are compared to. If it isn’t as well made or addicting as Minecraft, it’s not getting playtime. In a market which is so broad and where a new set of games can come out every day, there is simply no room for a middle of the road indie now. You’re either doing something brand new and are revolutionising the genre, or you have to be the next ‘x’ or ‘y’ in this indie genre.