by Brian Vicari (republished with permission from here)
Indie games have grown massively in popularity in the past few years. Advances in distribution have played a large role in this trend – services like XBox Live, Steam, and the Playstation Network have given Indie developers the kind of audience they need to showcase their work broadly.
But I propose something else is responsible, as well – something that isn’t such a positive development. Indie games are growing in popularity because the video game industry is rapidly adopting and institutionalizing design conventions. That is to say, Indie games are getting more popular because mainstream games are becoming less varied.
The mainstream video game industry, for many years, was marked by a unique freedom of creative expression. Where other media, such as film, had embedded conventions to which large producers remained faithful, video games were too young to have settled on any such conventions. We saw a rare phenomenon – large corporations approving projects that were insanely risky, completely unprecedented, or outright weird.
Fast forward a couple of decades and we have a series of preconceived notions about well-defined genres – and we get upset when those notions are violated. As an example, think of the standardization of FPS controls – we seem to be approaching an era where every shooter “feels” the same. Killzone 2 felt heavy, gritty, maybe natural – and was promptly given its penance of lackluster sales.
Furthermore, games that blur the lines of their genre or refuse to adopt its conventions generally are not well received. I know what you’re thinking – what about Mass Effect?! Fallout 3?! Borderlands?! These hybrids have been critical and financial successes, but only because they reflect perhaps the most ominous trend of conventionalization in the industry: the trend toward FPS/Action game mechanics.
Meanwhile, Little Big Planet, although a critical success and a moderate financial success, has been criticized by users and reviewers alike for its platform mechanics. Gamers anticipating a customizable Mario game got something very different – with an advanced and deep physics system – and they complained about it.
There are plenty of examples of this sort of consolidation amongst the major players in the industry, but the bottom line is this – it’s driving “niche” players looking for an innovative experience toward smaller developers. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s worked in other industries. But I miss seeing major game concepts that are just batshit crazy – something that was unique to our community for years.