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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. SweeneyOpinionIndie Implosion,OpinionThe 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…
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John Sweeney
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.