Indie Implosion: Retro is so Last Year
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.
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.
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.
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.
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