Indies Pave the Way
Indie developers are quietly creating the next-generation of games already
Now that we’re already some way into 2020, everyone in the industry is anticipating the transition from current-gen to next-gen consoles. And already, there’s a great deal of speculation building around the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. There are still many questions to be answered, too: when will we see more detail about the hardware? How much will they cost? When, exactly, will they launch?
Although much of the focus right now is on next-gen hardware, it’s worth bearing in mind an important lesson: a great piece of hardware won’t go very far with audiences unless it is backed by compelling software. Games are what sell consoles, even if a given machine isn’t as powerful as its competitors —a point that the Nintendo Switch has taken to the bank on many occasions.
When it comes to games, we already know that the current era is coming to an end in spectacular fashion thanks to many anticipated titles confirmed for release within this year. It stands to reason, too, that the ground has been laid for the next-gen as well. It’s likely we’ll see an increasing focus on next-gen titles at E3 and other gaming expos throughout the year. I wonder though, if these games will be enough to really build interest in the next-gen platforms. Yes, we have our Last of Us and our Final Fantasies, and our Assassin’s Creeds. But where are the games that do entirely new, bold things — games that really arouse curiosity and generate excitement for what’s to come.
Last year, there were two outstanding titles that received praise at almost every gaming award ceremony in the world. I’m referring to Disco Elysium and Concrete Genie. Both of these games genuinely broke new ground; they smashed the stereotypical framework of levelling up your characters or unlocking their abilities through battle after battle (in other words, the traditional grind that can often seem like more of a chore than a fun activity nowadays). These games were both rewarded for their brave attempts to create something truly innovative. It’s notable, too, that both titles were developed by small studios (Concrete Genie was made by Pixelopus, an in-house Sony developer, while Disco Elysium was made by indie developers ZA/UM) and featured stories that tackled heavy issues such as bullying, crime, and corruption. Death Stranding was yet another title that attempted to break the mould thanks to creator Hideo Kojima implementing his new “Strand” system — a clever new feature that allowed players from all corners of the world to work together in order to achieve a common goal.
There really aren’t many examples of games that successfully break free from the typical pathways that most mainstream titles follow (you know, the path where you start the game, level up your character over time, and then reach some conclusion at the peak of your power). No matter how great the game is, the course a player takes through it too often feels safe — perhaps stagnant — this well-worn path isn’t just safe for the player, either. It’s also a safe route for developers. I believe that gamers want to be challenged (not just in terms of difficulty, either — they want their expectations and assumptions challenged); they crave a new adventure that will allow them to not only experience a fantastic story, but that will also test their skills and allow them to come out on top (perhaps in ways they didn’t expect). Some modern games so closely adhere to the “safe” path that I wonder if it’s actually easier (and more effective) to just watch a “Let’s Play” and save yourself the money.
It’s not that I mean to complain about the state of all modern games. It’s that we’ve seen some incredible examples — like those two mentioned above — of games that aren’t necessarily breaking technological barriers, but rather, they are boldly inventing new kinds of play experiences through real innovation in design. So, when I think about the “next-generation”, I’m hoping that we’ll see a series of innovations in game development, not just hardware capabilities. Of course, the improvement in hardware does also bring with it a broader canvas for developers to utilise. Previous generational leaps (like the one from the seventh to eighth) opened up new possibilities; for example, developers could create much larger worlds in the eighth generation, which enabled new kinds of games to be made. Hopefully this next generational leap will be defined by the changes to game design that it can usher in. In other words, simply facilitating “shorter load times” isn’t sufficient. Thankfully, there are studios like Pixelopus and ZA/UM to provide great sources of inspiration.