With releases like the new Dying Light, Horizon, and Elden Ring hitting shelves in early 2022, the year for blockbuster titles is off to a strong start. Requiring powerful rigs, big budgets, and years of development, these are games that push the limits of technology, but they also illustrate a growing divide. As each year passes, the gap between AAA and indie gaming continues to widen, with many developers internalizing the idea that bigger necessarily equals better. The market illustrates differently, however, creating a disparity that gaming is finally starting to acknowledge.
The Current Market
In the contemporary gaming space, indie and AAA gaming mark opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to cost. AAA titles can cost over a hundred million dollars, with teams of hundreds working under poor conditions to ship the product on time. Indie titles, with small teams or even one or two developers, are often developed for a fraction of the budget, yet can sell similar numbers.
The reasons for this are seen in how we got here, as a natural reflection of gaming’s gradual growth. The hope is, like other forms of interactive entertainment, evolution could represent a resting point where smaller titles remain among the most popular. A strong demonstration of this point can be found in the landscape of online videoslots. These titles like Starburst and Gates of Olympus are relatively small, but they also perfectly understand their genres, and leverage that to great effect. Indie games, by being more focussed, could prove similarly helpful in video games.
In the Beginning
When home gaming first started taking off in the late 80s and early 90s, even the most popular games were only worked on by small teams. Tetris was developed by one man, while the original Super Mario Bros had a development team of around seven or eight people. While some of this was due to the early age of the video game development artform, small teams were also the result of limited technology. There was only so much to exploit, so larger teams weren’t necessary.
“Tetris” (CC BY 2.0) by @cdharrison
An Impossible Chase
As the speed and power of devices grew, so did the potential for video game worlds. With the entrance of the PS1 and N64, we became enraptured with 3D, which kept pushing the envelope to greater heights. Breakout hits like Final Fantasy 7 had up to 100 staff working on the project, achieving feats that could never be replicated by older smaller teams.
Over the years and then decades, the biggest teams would grow alongside development times, leading to bloated releases which, while fun, were often more detailed than they needed to be. Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, was a lot of fun, but high-fidelity systems like gathering herbs and skinning animals were unnecessary and played a part in harmful crunch culture. In simple terms, to justify development costs, AAA games had teetered towards a near-unsustainable level.
“《星露谷物語》多人模式將在�” (Public Domain) by steamXO
Room Enough for Everyone
With recent success stories like Hades and Stardew Valley, indie gaming has proven it has what it takes to fight among the big names. As AAA games continue to expand, the natural conclusion of indie success is that it will likely continue to win over hearts and wallets. While AAA is guided by focus testing and market research, indie is driven by a clarity of purpose and pure vision, and this gives us a lot of hope for the future. Sure, we’re still looking at Elden Ring, but as titles like the latest Battlefield have shown us, it’s past time for an industry shake-up.