Indie Implosion: Retro is so Last Year

John discusses the issues with Retro and nostalgia driven indie games and the Indie Implosion.

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The in­de­pen­dent games mar­ket is in a dif­fi­cult po­si­tion right now, and some peo­ple are talk­ing about the “in­diepoca­lypse;” blam­ing ex­ter­nal forces or even their au­di­ence for these prob­lems. My take on this is some­what dif­fer­ent. I think most of the prob­lems ef­fect­ing the mar­ket for in­die games are self-inflicted and in­ter­nal — an im­plo­sion. In my pre­vi­ous ar­ti­cle, I talked about the un­will­ing­ness to de­fine the term “Videogame” in a way that the au­di­ence can un­der­stand, and the how this can tar­nish the “in­die” brand. This time around I’m fo­cus­ing on the re­vival of retro style games, and how they make up a large pro­por­tion of games brought into the in­die mar­ket­place over the past few years.

At what point does “Retro” be­come some­thing that is con­tem­po­rary and com­mon­place again? That’s the ques­tion I’ve been ask­ing my­self when look­ing at the con­tin­u­ing stag­na­tion of the in­de­pen­dent games mar­ket. The same peo­ple who have been pro­duc­ing sim­i­lar look­ing pix­el art plat­form­ers or RPGs for the past sev­en years with lit­tle to no pro­gres­sion in me­chan­ics are the same peo­ple turn­ing their noes up at “stag­nant main­stream games.” There comes a point where what you’re do­ing stops be­ing the al­ter­na­tive and be­comes the main­stream op­tion ‑a choice that is safe.

Pretty Pixels, Mechanical Breakdown

The rea­son many games from the NES, or ear­ly home com­put­ers, are so well re­mem­bered is be­cause the lim­its of the hard­ware of­ten brought forth a great deal of cre­ativ­i­ty and unique in­no­va­tion. When you don’t have many gim­micks or spec­ta­cle to fall back on then the games that stand the test of time are those whose me­chan­ics shine. That was sup­posed to be the point of the retro re­vival, to strip back many of the crutch­es of mod­ern gam­ing, but what end­ed up hap­pen­ing is a whole tor­rent of mediocre games that sim­ply ape the aes­thet­ic of old­er ti­tles — usu­al­ly 8bit or 16bit ti­tles — in or­der to em­u­late them on a sur­face level.

If you’re go­ing to have a stripped down game then your me­chan­i­cal ba­sis had bet­ter be ab­solute­ly wa­ter­tight. This is how Shovel Knight en­joyed so much suc­cess; it’s a game that ab­solute­ly ex­cels at the ba­sics of plat­form­ing and 2D com­bat. If you’re go­ing to re­vive what has been done be­fore then you have to match and sur­pass the dizzy heights of gaming’s past glo­ries. If you’re just “de­cent,” or don’t have enough unique and dis­tin­guish­ing fea­tures, then you’re mere­ly a pale im­i­ta­tion of some­thing most of us al­ready own (oft times in mul­ti­ple iterations).

The frank truth is that many of these in­die devs are sim­ply not tal­ent­ed enough to make a game that shines me­chan­i­cal­ly. Excellent game me­chan­ics with a lim­it­ed toolset that don’t sim­ply rip-off an­oth­er ti­tle are very dif­fi­cult to do. Especially when you con­sid­er work­ing with a Retro aes­thet­ic that can cre­ate ar­ti­fi­cial prob­lems of its own. Outside of pre-made tools like RPG Maker, cre­at­ing de­tailed pix­el art can be much more time con­sum­ing than more mod­ern al­ter­na­tives. Pixel artist Blake Reynolds wrote an ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled A Pixel Artist Renounces Pixel Art in which they dis­cuss why they are not us­ing the style any more go­ing for­ward. They go on to say that many more mod­ern tech­niques take far less labour, and in the era of HD graph­ics can pro­vide a bet­ter result.

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The ques­tion de­vel­op­ers should ask them­selves is this: why would you in­ten­tion­al­ly ham­string your­self if the end re­sult is cre­at­ing a game that looks just like every­one else’s? People used pix­el art in the past be­cause it was the best avail­able tech at the time. Most de­vel­op­ers would have leapt at the chance to use the tools we have to­day that al­low you to trans­fer hand-drawn art into games, or cre­ate well an­i­mat­ed 3D mod­els. Developers need to be hon­est with them­selves, and their au­di­ence, in that be­ing “Retro” isn’t some wor­thy lev­el of purism; it is sim­ply a styl­is­tic choice, and may not al­ways be the right one.

The mar­ket is al­ready crowd­ed with re-releases of games from the 80s or 90s — the hey­day of pix­el art. You will be di­rect­ly com­pet­ing with some of the best ti­tles from gaming’s past. The re­vival of in­ter­est in old­er games did cre­ate a mar­ket for a Retro re­vival, but it also made mod­ern gamers in­creas­ing­ly aware of their past, and en­cour­aged them to look back through gaming’s vast li­brary of ti­tles. These games were the AAA ti­tles of their day, and had vast­ly more ex­pe­ri­enced peo­ple work­ing on them than a small in­die de­vel­op­er can nor­mal­ly muster. To even stand a chance you have to be ex­cep­tion­al, very lucky, or (more com­mon­ly) well con­nect­ed in the “scene.”

Molesting Your Inner Child

The main rea­son Retro re­vival games kicked off in the first place is that a gen­er­a­tion of 20 and 30 some­things want­i­ng to re­live past glo­ries, and wal­low in the games they loved as chil­dren. Nostalgia is okay; it’s healthy in small dos­es, but when you wor­ship your own child­hood then you are blind­ed by games in which the main fea­ture is that they re­mind you of some­thing you loved in hap­pi­er times.

The is­sue with nos­tal­gia is twofold: first­ly, it does not work well with peo­ple who lack mem­o­ries of the orig­i­nal ti­tles these “Retro” style games are throw­ing back to. When games trad­ing on nos­tal­gia are judged pure­ly on their own mer­its they of­ten fall flat, or don’t live up to the hype they have been giv­en. Secondly, nos­tal­gia has di­min­ish­ing re­turns. The “OMG I re­mem­ber that!” re­ac­tion can only hap­pen a few times be­fore the nov­el­ty wears off, and that itch to play games “like they used to be” is scratched and sa­ti­at­ed. Eventually, gamers want new ex­pe­ri­ences once they’ve re­liv­ed a high­light reel of their past favourites.

At its worst, nos­tal­gia is a lazy crutch used to en­gage play­ers, and I think many gam­ing crit­ics would do bet­ter to iden­ti­fy their own in­built bi­as­es, and avoid ad­vo­cat­ing for games that sim­ply go straight for their in­ner child with cheap al­lu­sions to gaming’s most rec­og­niz­able touchstones.

I grew up with a dif­fer­ent set of games than most peo­ple — most­ly pre-Windows UK com­put­ers, and that gives me a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on what is and isn’t “nos­tal­gic” than some oth­ers. Nostalgia is inward-facing, and has less chance of ap­peal­ing to a new au­di­ence. You are lim­it­ing your­self to those who are al­ready pre-disposed to en­joy ex­pe­ri­ences de­riv­a­tive of old ti­tles. These clas­sic games be­came “clas­sic” be­cause they were ground break­ers when they came out. If de­vel­op­ers what to cre­ate their own clas­sics then they need to break sim­i­lar new ground, and not sim­ply aim to for a half-decent fac­sim­i­le of your child­hood gam­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. (Editor Note: What hap­pens in the next few years? Will we see PS1 or N64 style “retro” games with hor­ren­dous tex­tures, low draw dis­tances, and and slow fram­er­ates? All to hide the fact the a dev can’t han­dle mak­ing an en­gag­ing “mod­ern” look­ing game?)

Your Retro Game Is Unique, Just Like Everyone Else’s.

The mar­ket is over-crowded for in­die games; any­one who’s opened the Steam store­front in the last three years could tell you that, and there have been a huge num­ber of at­tempts to re­vive cer­tain gen­res, or styles of game. From the more Commodore 64 or ZX Spectrum look­ing VVVVVV and Nidhog, to the 16bit era.

We’re lucky to not get a game that isn’t “8bit” in style, and we’re lucky to get sound­tracks from these games that aren’t chip-tunes copy­ing a hand­ful of well-known sound­tracks. When we get a “16bit” style game, or games look­ing more to the Neo Geo and PC Engine ar­cade era, they in­stant­ly stand out be­cause the genre is so nar­row. Stop mak­ing “8bit” games with chip­tune sound­tracks and nods to Mario, Earthbound, and Final Fantasy peo­ple. Your game with stock as­sets from RPG Maker isn’t prophet­ic or pro­found just be­cause you in­clud­ed some “pro­gres­sive” themes, or con­tent that is more po­lit­i­cal. You’re pour­ing more weak games into an ocean of medi­oc­rity that even the most pro­lif­ic gam­ing crit­ics, and broad­cast­ers can’t wade through.

There is a huge range of games to draw in­spi­ra­tion from, but many ground-breaking games are com­plete­ly ig­nored, and a hand­ful of the home con­sole hits from the 80s and ear­ly 90s are end­less­ly it­er­at­ed on.

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I don’t think the prob­lem is that we have “too many games.” I think the amount of games has re­mained con­sis­tent; the prob­lem is that a ti­tle that would pre­vi­ous­ly be a free flash game on Newgrounds has adopt­ed NES style graph­ics and is on sale on Steam for $10-$15. The prob­lem is that too many peo­ple are ex­pect­ing to be able to earn a liv­ing from mak­ing in­die games, and in that process they try to copy what they think is go­ing to be pop­u­lar. Sometimes there is only a mar­ket for a hand­ful of games in a spe­cif­ic style or genre; we’ve seen this in the fail­ure of many Rouge-like or Rouge-lite style games that came in the wake of suc­cess­es like The Binding of Isaac, FTL, and Rogue Legacy.

So we have more peo­ple ex­pect­ing to be prof­itable in a mar­ket with nar­row­ing con­tent. The in­die im­plo­sion shouldn’t sur­prise any­one who has been fol­low­ing the mar­ket, and is see­ing the in­creased and sus­tained homogenization.

Everything Old is New Again

Creating some­thing orig­i­nal has be­come rare for games brand­ed in­die. There is some­thing cyn­i­cal­ly com­mer­cial about be­ing “retro” these days. It hap­pened in UK Pop mu­sic; with mas­sive amounts of 80s and 90s re­vival turn­ing into near law­suit lev­els of copy and paste pro­duc­tion — even­tu­al­ly de­volv­ing into self-parody. It hap­pens in mu­sic, fash­ion, film — in al­most all prod­ucts and me­dia. It’s just been very pro­nounced in in­die games for the last few years.

You are not brave, or in­no­v­a­tive when do­ing some­thing that is an ode to for­mer com­mer­cial suc­cess­es. Producing prod­ucts that ap­peal to people’s ex­ist­ing nos­tal­gia is far from in­no­v­a­tive.  If you want to do so you re­al­ly have to nail it. The orig­i­nals still exists.

There are too many elec­tro bands that are “Like Depeche Mode but…” Depeche Mode‘s mu­sic still ex­ists you cretins. You have to sur­pass, or add to it, for your work to be any­thing but a bor­der­line cov­er act. There are too many in­die games that are “Like Mario But…“ That was kind of cute when Braid came out in 2007. Eight years lat­er we still see a del­uge of “Mario style plat­former but with ‘emo­tions’” or “retro aes­thet­ic with a po­lit­i­cal twist” games be­ing wel­comed with floods of nos­tal­gic tears and thun­der­ous ap­plause from the gam­ing press and awards bodies.

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Widen your hori­zons, find your own voice, and don’t sim­ply be­come a trib­ute act. There are a lot of great ideas be­ing ig­nored in favour of look­ing back­wards. Indie games were sup­posed to be the fu­ture; a realm for new ideas to flour­ish, and for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion to take place. Why is so much of the mar­ket­place, and even what is pushed as cut­ting edge and artis­tic, firm­ly stuck thir­ty years in the past? Once again, a crowd­ed mar­ket favours crony­ism. It’s sim­ply eas­i­er to cov­er a game your friend Bob made than wade through the un­chart­ed swamps of Steam Greenlight. Human na­ture makes us no­tice the dif­fer­ent and new. Sometimes that can make us afraid of it, but if you just play it safe and look like every­one else in­stead of tak­ing a “risk” then you’ll nev­er know if there is an un­tapped au­di­ence for that idea of yours.

One thing is cer­tain; the in­de­pen­dent games mar­ket can’t ex­pand if it does not gen­er­ate new ideas. Wallowing in nos­tal­gia is stagnation.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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