While the major publishers and their buckets of cash have the potential to change the conversation in a way few games can, sometimes it’s the indies, the diamonds in the rough, that rise above it all. Over the last decade, indies have had a profound effect on the industry. Here’s some whose waves are still being felt today.
The early part of the decade was defined by the rise of streaming, but it would take years before the presence of Twitch and YouTubers more generally would factor more into the economics of video games. Early on, crowdfunding was all the rage. It allowed older franchises to connect directly with their audience, bypassing the gatekeepers at publishers who left classic IPs – and ideas – to die on the vine.
But you can’t mention crowdfunding without talking about the biggest project in history – Star Citizen.
$369 million ($US250 million) is the kind of figure that sounds fantastical for any video game that isn't named Call of Duty, Destiny in the early days, or maybe Candy Crush. And it's even more insane when you consider that $369 million is the amount that Star Citizen has raised from fans over the last seven years.Read more
Several years after its development, Star Citizen is still raising budgets that smaller publishers would kill for. The game has been in development for basically the entire decade, if you include the prototyping process, and its managed to (eventually) attract some major actors to appear in Squadron 42, its single-player spin-off that’s the closest to matching the original promises from the Kickstarter campaign in 2012.
The game’s ever-growing scope has been defined by Chris Roberts’ ambition as much as an inability to say no. But the game was also beset with chaotic organisation in years past, resulting in redundancies, restructuring, and production problems that took years to resolve. The game was originally slated for a release in late 2014: if it hits its current target, the game will ship six years behind schedule.
But more than anything, it’s impossible not to include Star Citizen on this list primarily because no other game – ever – would openly ask players to spend tens of thousands of dollars on virtual ships.
When Luke first reviewed Minecraft, he described it as being “more than the thing you click on and click on and click on again”. By then, the game had already become a movement. It already had its own convention. Hell, fans were angry enough that people were calling up writers at their own house because embedded YouTube videos didn’t show off the game in its best light.
For all that's been written about Minecraft over the past few years, you'd think it was one of the greatest video games ever created, a liberating experience that's showing big-budget game developers what the public really wants and helping revolutionise the way games are developed and sold.Read more
And from there, Minecraft became a machine large enough that Microsoft bought the lot for $US2.5 billion. It spawned entire careers, including the biggest influencer in the world who has a net worth and a social effect larger than some nations.
But it’s so much more than that. The game is a gateway for kids to learn basic concepts of engineering, teamwork, programming. It’s now part of the school curriculum in Australia. South Australia used Minecraft to get kids to redesign the state’s national parks. Victoria has used Minecraft as a way to get people engaged with the history of Melbourne. Schools are using it to show the impact of natural disasters, teach literacy and humanities, and as a way to engage with students with autism.
Here's a neat use of video games for educational purposes. Understanding that kids love Minecraft more than their families, the Victorian Government has re-created the city centre, including the Metro Tunnel, in Minecraft as a teaching tool.Read more
The effects of the global financial crisis on the video game industry were already starting to be felt in Australia, with the bulk of the major publishers set to pull out within a few years. But there was a rising tide for indie development in the world of mobile games – but nobody had cracked the formula yet.
Fruit Ninja was one of the first games that did. Not only did it become an international smash hit, with 20 million downloads within a year, but the shorter development time and the potential of iPhones effectively woke up Australian developers – and developers around the world – to the platform’s potential. As more and more local developers lost their jobs at the major publishing houses, a downturn that the country still hasn’t recovered from, that talent refocused their efforts on the world of mobile.
Fruit Ninja turned Halfbrick into an international star overnight, a staggering result given the studio nearly shut down after the release of Rocket Racing on the PSP Mini.
Halfbrick hasn’t tasted that kind of success ever since, but the Fruit Ninja franchise still lives on. Halfbrick just announced its new title after three years, a mobile RTS called Magic Brick Wars.
It’s easy to think of them as an overnight success: a studio that burst forth fully-formed with the single goal of dominating the iOS market with a series of fruit-slicing, jetpack joyriding, monster dashing games they’d prepared earlier. It’s also easy to be wrong. While many believe Halfbrick only came to exist after the release of the critical and commercial iOS hit Fruit Ninja, the Brisbane studio has been quietly working on games for almost ten years. This is a story about how everyone now knows who they are.Read more
From an Australian perspective, there are games with more downloads. But the real shining jewel over the last few years, the game that people still hold up today as an example of what creativity can produce without the need for massive publisher overhead, is Hollow Knight.
It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the best games in Australia’s history. But for many fans it was also the game of the year when it released in 2017, for those not completely enraptured by Breath of the Wild. Gamers didn’t see it as an indie project – it was just universally seen as a good game, and many Australians didn’t even know Team Cherry built the whole thing down in South Australia.
In a time where major publishers have all but abandoned Australia, save for a few holdouts, and most of Australia’s development talent is focused on the massive potential of mobile games, Hollow Knight is the crown jewel of indies. It’s emblematic of the best indies: confident in its identity, precise, achieves everything it sets out to, nails all the mechanics, and has a charm that completely cuts through the noise. It’s the kind of project that has become a standard bearer for Australian game development, a case study of what Australians can achieve, and it is without any shadow of a doubt the best title from our shores in the last 10 years.
In Hollow Knight, looks can be deceiving. A sad little lamplit town may hide the entrance to a beautiful buried kingdom. A towering knight might turn out to be a sad, small thing in oversized armour. An onrushing green beast may actually be a wee creature disguised by a pile of leaves. And a simple-looking 2D action game can slowly unfurl into one of gaming's great adventures.Read more
League of Legends
Most people will have forgotten that there was a time when League wasn’t the highest profile, or even second most appealing MOBA on the horizon. Heroes of Newerth, if you were Australian, was the upcoming MOBA that had the most appeal if you weren’t still hooked on the original Dota, which had a huge fanbase locally.
But games can always evolve into something so much more. Riot has faced its fair share of challenges – there’s the toxic culture that’s just cost the company $US10 million, a furious Tencent who eventually made their own successful mobile MOBA because Riot refused to, and challenges funding League in smaller regions like Australia – but the company is on the verge of evolving to a new form.
League is getting its own card game, which is already one of the best I’ve played in years. League is certain to get tens of millions of downloads when it finally hits mobile next year. They’re making an animated series. There’s an esports manager spin-off that’s launching in China. A first-person shooter that looks like a cross between Overwatch and CS:GO. There’s even a publishing house dedicated towards making more traditional single-player experiences.
And along the way, it’s worth remembering the impact that League has had. Its rise, along with Dota 2, has basically relegated the traditional RTS to a niche market, one that largely indies have only opted to service. The game has helped spawn a new wave of careers in video games, either as players or the many support roles involved in the production, execution and handling of events around tournament circuits. Fashion labels are even starting to get involved with video games through League, and the animated music shorts are some of the best work that year every time they’re released.
League isn’t solely to thank for the rise of esports, streaming, or the support industry around it, but it is one of the few esports to rise up that didn’t have the backing of the moneybags at Valve, the history and experience of publishers like Blizzard and Ubisoft, or the inbuilt fanbases of games like FIFA and Counter-Strike. The formula wasn’t entirely theirs: everyone has Icefrog to thank for that. But their rise up from relative obscurity to effectively find their place in an industry that operates adjacent to the traditional video game industry is an effort that demands, at a minimum, respect.
If you want a quick judge of who has a sense of esports and who doesn’t, see how much they mention Rocket League. The Psyonix indie is never the first or second game you’ll hear mentioned when general crowds think about esports, but its carved out an incredibly essential niche by being a sustainable esport without running into the brand safety issues that plagues other games, particularly shooters and fighting games.
But while that makes an exceptional difference in the behind the scenes discussions that keep esports going, Rocket League‘s true impact isn’t really what its done in esports: it’s what happened when the game launched.
Rocket League launched as a PlayStation Plus freebie, immediately changing perceptions of the quality of games players could expect from their subscriptions. The offerings hadn’t been bad before by any means, but Rocket League was a bonafide classic. It was one of those games that transcended generations, a game non-gamers could immediately understand, appreciate and, with some practice, enjoy. And Rocket League didn’t have to be an indie. Psyonix offered the game to EA, only for the publisher to shut them down in 2011.
But what the game’s success allowed it to do was get the ball rolling on cross-play, something Sony stubbornly resisted for the entirety of this generation.
Rocket League was one of the first games to make this possible because it was built on Unreal Engine 4, an engine that was still relatively new at the time. UE4 supported cross-play as part of its networking, and so when the game launched on PS4 and PC, players could enjoy cross-play between the two. When Rocket League went to launch on the Xbox in 2016, the developer mused that cross-play functionality with existing players wasn’t possible due to Microsoft’s policy. PC players could play with those on Xbox and PS4, but not all at once, and the console playerbase was disconnected from each other.
Sony became increasingly stubborn on the issue, finding multiple ways to shoot down the idea. The worst moment was Jim Ryan’s profoundly unhelpful suggestion about “exposing children to external influences”, a bizarre inference to make when even Nintendo was on board with the whole idea. (It did, however, result in one of Phil Spencer’s best moments as the head of Xbox.)
Gamers and developers have been privately and publicly screaming at Sony for years to open the cross-play floodgates to their platform. Finally, that battle might be over.Read more
Fortnite‘s mass popularity eventually broke through Sony’s barrier before Rocket League, but it was the little sports indie that got the conversation rolling. It was part a technical achievement made possible by a new engine, partly through Psyonix’s own skill, part luck with the timing of the game’s launch, part Sony’s fault for exposing it to a huge fanbase in the first place through PlayStation Plus, and partly the combined efforts of a community, developer base and media that refused to put the issue to bed. But all of it was triggered by RC cars chasing after a soccer ball, something fans are very happily continuing to enjoy to this day.
Binding of Isaac and Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth
Video games bleed into real life in strange and fascinating ways – Pokemon Go and the ravaging of Rhodes is a great local example – but it’s the ARGs, the real-life mysteries that live longest in the memory.
The most fascinating gaming riddle is undoubtedly Trials Evolution, but with Ubisoft as its publisher, Red Lynx has a level of backing that disqualifies it from an entry here. But Edmund McMillen is a perfect candidate, thanks to the diabolical puzzle that extended through Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, through to Afterbirth, and ultimately led to players digging holes in Santa Ana, California, for hidden statues.
Everything was sparked by some accidental updates to Binding of Isaac was mistakenly viewed as a precursor to a larger puzzle. It wasn’t, but a few days afterward McMillen revealed that something was afoot.
There are kinda clears reasons why this wasn't addressed as it was happening … I'm positive more than a few of you out there know why
— ???? Edmund McMillen ???? (@edmundmcmillen) November 4, 2015
Coupled with some in-game changes, a changed achievement, a coded blog post that contained the message “ur so close” and an ASCII code hiding within the achievement, the internet was off and running. It began an Easter egg hunt that would culminate in an ARG – helped along by McMillen’s open urging – that led to coded messages from movies, voicemail messages, a ripped up flyer in Santa Cruz with a Biblical reference, and hidden Greed figurines.
Last time we checked on The Binding of Isaac community, a glitch caused people to believe the game's missing content was part of a giant conspiracy. Instead, it was just a glitch. But in the last few days, culminating in a real-life search of Santa Cruz, California, fans did band together to solve a grand mystery.Read more
The success of Binding of Isaac also highlighted a new way for games to get found and be successful: Let’s Plays. Isaac was one of the first games to really find a massive wave of success through the rise of YouTube – streaming and streamers didn’t have quite the same reach then. That shift would eventually change how developers and publishers marketed and targeted their games, a changed relationship that massively broadened the net for those conventionally considered ‘gaming media’, and the opportunities available for content creators all around the world.
Some companies and developers are ardent that video games do not, and should not, have a political message. Games are light forms of entertainment in their eyes, ones best developed and consumed without a strong embrace of the issues they propose or the themes they raise.
And that’s fine. But games can also be a profoundly powerful tool for getting a message across, and the dystopian world of Arstotzka was a perfect place to tell those tales. Much has been written about the game’s oppressive environment – Patricia’s story is still a great read – but its legacy is much grander. Papers, Please remains one of the best examples of games as an art form, one whose messages are ringing stronger than ever. It was a natural beneficiary of the rise of streaming and Let’s Plays, to be fair, but the game did all the legwork in opening minds to different kinds of games: games that had things to say, games less obsessed with their mechanics and more focused on the setting, the experience, and the effect left behind.
Untitled Goose Game
This one is really just for Australians, primarily for a simple reason. Goose Game‘s legacy is still being written, having only launched recently, but the game was able to strike a chord in the mainstream world in a way few games have ever accomplished, in this generation or any generation prior.
The Australian landscape has a particular stubbornness when it comes to video games: they’re harmful wastes of time, they’re dumbed down blockbuster experiences, they’re a dangerous form of art. Any game that gets increasingly popular is always discussed in these terms, as Fortnite has seen over the last couple of years.
And yet, even the mainstream Australian media couldn’t help but gush about The Goose. News bulletins talked about the game for its success and the joy it brought. The game found itself in the feeds of every “culture” and “serious” reporter, and consequently found itself in places most games dream of. The Washington Post took the time to explain The Goose “meme”. Others likened the Goose to rebel superheroes. The adorable Goose even got political.
Locally, Goose Game found itself in conversations and discussions that you’d never expect. It ended up in the media feeds and clippings of government departments and ministers that, ordinarily, don’t give two shits about video games. In all the discussions about funding of the arts and federal funding of video games, Australia has had plenty of case studies worth talking about. But Goose Game has found a way to cut through that sales figures and millions of downloads simply can’t achieve. Which is no surprise, after all: if you put up a wall, The Goose will always find a way around. The rebel bird, as it should be, is the hero we all deserve.
No Man’s Sky
As soon as it debuted, No Man’s Sky became the indie to watch out for. All people could think of was exploring the stars. They dreamt about the wonder of finding a planet to call their own, the thrill of sharing that with others, diving from galaxy to galaxy, space battle to space battle.
And then everything went wrong.
The gulf between expectation and reality was so immense; the backlash consumed the developers, Hello Games, Sony as the publisher, and briefly, the platform holders. Retailers started putting the boot in, and Sony Worldwide Studios president Suhhei Yoshida even threw the studio under the bus.
“It wasn’t a great PR strategy, because he didn’t have a PR person helping him, and in the end he is an indie developer,” Yoshida said in 2016.
But rather than follow conventional trends, Murray shielded his staff from the criticism by having all emails and complaints directed to him. The studio stopped all public communication and embarked on a new strategy: if they were going to talk to fans, they had to do it through patch notes. It was an all-or-nothing strategy that resulted in total silence for months, until Hello Games announced they would be shipping The Foundation Update.
“The discussion around No Man’s Sky since release has been intense and dramatic,” the studio said. “We have been quiet, but we are listening and focusing on improving the game that our team loves and feels so passionately about. Positive or negative feedback, you have been heard and that will truly help to make this a better game for everyone.”
And, lo and behold, everything started to turn around.
No Man's Sky is getting better. The game that left so many people feeling burned back in August may still not live up to the prior months of hype, but yesterday's patch makes big changes that anchor the game by finally allowing players to build a home among the cosmos.Read more
To say that No Man's Sky had a troubled launch would be a massive understatement. Even as someone who generally had a good time with the game then, I had to admit that it was missing promised features and lacked polish. Over a year later, a lot of things have changed for the game, and all for the better. Even though I've always liked it, this is the first time I'd say that No Man's Sky is an actual good game.Read more
Hello Games’ continued work, most of it in silence, has now become a case study for how developers handle a poor launch. In his GDC talk this year, one of the first times Sean Murray has given a major speech after No Man’s Sky first launched, Murray said the developers had the benefit of seeing the disparity between the public response and what players were doing in-game. They had the stats to be sure that people were enjoying the game. They could see where players were falling off, but they also knew they had a strong audience, and they made the choice to focus on what they had instead of what they heard.
“If you talked about No Man’s Sky, then I probably read it,” Murray said. “Again – I wouldn’t really recommend it – it helped me gain a new perspective, and that perspective is that everything is just data.”
Murray’s largest piece of advice to other developers was also about the media. The team found that positive press would get immediately buried by the discussion around the negatives, things that were fairly common amongst other video games. “So we just shut down all communication with the press, and it was fun,” he said, although Murray did thank Kotaku’s Gita Jackson for her work highlighting stories within the No Man’s Sky community. “I think what gets lost—and that Gita does a really good job of highlighting—is the nice things people do in games … No Man’s Sky has been amazing for that: weird things that people do that you can’t predict.”
But how many developers will follow Hello Games’ process? It’s tempting for many indies with few employees, ones that don’t have the resources to manage large communities or deal with a huge influx of criticism or angry fans for whatever reason. And while the game isn’t the only high profile recovery over the years – Rainbow Six: Siege and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive both rebounded spectacularly, and For Honor enjoyed a resurgence too – whenever gamers and the industry thinks of projects that fly too close to the sun, only to fall and rise up again, No Man’s Sky will be the first that comes to mind.
The Walking Dead
I mentioned at the start that some indies were powerful enough to spawn a genre all of their own. And despite the miserable circumstances behind its closure, it would be remiss not to mention the remarkable impact The Walking Dead has had.
The series has enjoyed immense success as a TV series, but the series didn’t spawn a whole new genre of video games. Clementine’s adventures did. The holder of the IP rights, Skybound Stories, went as far to say that the video game is responsible for broadening the franchise’s audience.
“What happened was we found an entirely new audience that had never seen the TV show, had never read the comics, they just found Telltale’s Walking Dead,” Dan Murray, CEO of Skybound Stories, said at a Reboot Develop panel this year.
It wasn’t just the episodic nature of the game that opened new doors for developers and different kinds of stories: it also reminded the gaming industry how much success story and characterisation could still have. The gaming world experienced The Walking Dead in a completely different way to games before it, but here we were, talking about an indie adventure half a year, a year, two years after the game was released. It was utterly wild.
It opened the door to new audiences who weren’t interested in games. And it’s not like Telltale hadn’t dabbled with the business model before, because it had with Sam & Max and Back to the Future. But The Walking Dead struck a chord that opened the door to games like Life is Strange, it revitalised the TV series at a time when it needed it, and it also opened up a new way to play games. The Walking Dead wasn’t designed to be a multiplayer experience, and yet people would naturally share the gameplay with their friends, partners, family, debating over dialogue choices and last-second decisions.
Telltale achieved so much, and yet it still hurts thinking about what the studio could have done. The prospect of an episodic Stranger Things game was something Telltale’s management stubbornly fought for reasons unknown. Bigby Wolf’s story will remain unfinished. And while the studio is back in name, its spirit is all but gone. Their legacy remains though in a release model they pioneered, and a way of playing games that has now become an accepted fabric in many homes and partnerships around the world.
This article has been retimed since its original publication.