Favourite Games of 2014 (Part 2)

For the gaming world at large, 2014 was the year the indies fully entered the public consciousness. “Indie,” more often than not, has come to be shorthand for small, single-game project studios that emerge first onto the PC platform and, maybe later, if it’s successful and if the interface and control scheme can be adapted, it’ll come to the consoles, or to mobile, or the Mac, or some combination thereof. The term “indie” has also come to refer to a particular set of development, revenue generation, and product release feedback loops, with more and more games seeming to exist perpetually as early alphas or playable betas that allow rapid bug fixes and adjustment of game mechanics in response to early adopter feedback. Despite the obvious efficiency here, I’d characterize the indie space as exuding a sense of continual “not-doneness.”

But why is being “not done” such a bad thing? Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed: Unity had been in development since 2009 and 2010 respectively, both cost incredible sums of money, and were either tepidly received (in the case of the former) or famously bug-ridden (in the case of the latter). It’s obviously a fantasy that dollars spent equals code cleanliness, or a QA team that isn’t pushed to the limit to meet an aggressive marketing date. I don’t think bugs ruin games either, for the record, and what I’m trying to get at is how old-fashioned the AAA game development cycle can appear when placed next to the hipster titles appearing daily on Steam.

What I want to to argue is that both of these models are getting things wrong.

For the AAA producers, it’s obvious that sinking increasingly vast sums of time and money into big dumb “stealth-action with FPS-open-world and RPG elements” games is pushing these companies closer and closer to the edge of practical, if not yet financial, irrelevance.

But for the indies, I want to argue something unfashionable: it might be bad to treat a game as if it’s a startup. Perhaps placing so much emphasis on the feedback of early adopters may detrimentally favour certain types of players over others, certain gameplay mechanics over others, and certain narrative devices over others. I have no data to back this up, and I’ll try and surface some more concrete impressions as I’m able to, but for now I just want to linger on the idea that as soon as you treat a game like a startup, the game itself only needs to be good enough for someone to pay any sum of money for it. If someone joins your early access program, well, you got their money. That is certainly the logic of the startup at work, but I’m not sure it will ultimately result in deep, difficult, and utterly singular works of game design.

The reason I am arguing all of this is that I believe there is a balanced ecosystem out there, and one that really shone above all others in 2014.

It’s an ecosystem where game designers are able to get their heads down and work for months on end without nervously refreshing a subreddit dedicated to the public beta, one where the cost of developing a title is not nearly as stratospherically high as a Ubisoft blockbuster, and where platform technology constraint completely obviates the idea of selling shallow gameplay embellished with jaw-dropping graphics.

In this strange alternate universe, fans are well-served by a library of available titles, a stable pricing structure, a clearly-communicated roadmap stretching almost a year into the future, and gameplay experiences as niche and frankly bizarre as anything delivered by the most artificially enhanced imaginations an indie developer could gather in the same basement.

That ecosystem, dear friends, is the Nintendo 3DS.