We've reached the season when, snuggled up in front of a crackling log fire (screensaver) and sipping a warm mug of Irn Bru, our thoughts turn to the year nearly passed. 2011 has been a fantastic twelve months of gaming, but interestingly, many of the biggest Triple-A titans and new consoles didn't quite capture our imagination as much as they ought to. Factor in a horrible winter release schedule that left the summer months dry as a bone, and you've got a strange recipe that really shouldn't have delighted as much as it did. However, in this pundit's opinion, 2011 has been completely defined by the underdog.
Indie games are - in fact, they've always been - the premier driving force behind gaming innovation... but they've effectively been segregated from the mainstream as an unsung second tier. Many gamers simply ignored them out of hand, or didn't treat them as anything more than a diversion or quirky parallel market; shafting them in favour of the garish triple-A monsters who can afford massive advert campaigns and hype offensives. In effect, hundreds of hardworking developers became second class gaming citizens as their wares were treated differently from all other titles by retailers, publishers and gamers alike. This year, however, has heralded an amazing shift in the dynamic, and one that I fully believe will shape our industry for the better.
The Indies have always been with us. But this year, we've given a damn. They've fully entered the mainstream gaming consciousness. And, in turn, indie development has indisputably proved itself as a force to be reckoned with - once and for all. What second tier?
Quality And Quantity
First things first: many of the best games of 2011 have been indie games, and they've been so prolific that it has been truly difficult to keep up. For each L.A. Noire or Skyrim, we've had shedloads of smaller titles who all boast outstanding mechanics, imaginative art design and a price tag so miniscule that you can pick them up by the handful without breaking the bank.
2011 started strong with Frozen Synapse, which redefined the Strategy genre so brilliantly that it's in the running for our Game Of The Year. Devolver Digital got in on the ground floor and supported Mommy's Best Games in the creation of the outrageous Serious Sam: Double D. We've destroyed and created entire universes. Rocketed through Steampunk Mars. We've carved our own dark demesnes and guided terrified young girls through hellish subterranean warzones. There are just too many to list, too many new and unique experiences to savour, and there's just no way I can do them all justice in these few hundred words. But what I can tell you is that they're every bit as brilliant as the most anticipated boxed titles. And just as important.
We've got to give Minecraft its dues as well. I won't patronise you by going into details, so suffice to say that Notch proved big ideas and dedication can turn even the smallest, humblest titles into mainstream monoliths that can permanently alter the gaming landscape.
But the PC crowd aren't the only lucky recipients of the indie loving. Just as importantly, if not more so, independent outfits have found new homes on consoles with publishers who are willing to take a risk and support a new project rather than just another shooter. Bastion happened. Then Rochard. Then Dungeon Defenders. Then Fusion Genesis. Even ex-triple A developers were willing to leave their cushy positions and embark on imaginative new ventures, free from the restrictions imposed by nightmarish hordes of grasping stockholders. It's these projects that are redefining what we know as "Indie" games, and a point we'll come back to later in the article.
And, as resident critic at Mobot.net, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that iOS and Android have treated us to countless outstanding titles from tiny studios. They're technically closed platforms, sure, but they're open to anyone and everyone who wants to make and sell a game. And sell they have... with games like Shadowgun and Extraction: Project Outbreak blowing away anything on current handheld systems for pocket money prices.
Welcome To The Mainstream
Indie gaming is finally resonating with the mainstream gamer, and if you needed any more proof than the fact that projects like Bastion and Dungeon Defenders have proved immensely profitable, you only need to look at the slew of Humble Bundle-esque deals that have been splashed about the marketplace. We want to play indie games, we want to explore new payment models, we want to indulge our passion without the hassle of restrictive DRM and third-party accounts. And Wolfire delivered... to be followed by countless others. These initiatives had the knock-on effect of introducing legions of new fans to the niche - and destroying the "niche" in its entirety! Indie gaming has become an indelible part of the mainstream market, not just a quirky alternative to "normal" games, but a relevant, full-fat part of our gaming diet.
Major publishers are getting behind the initiative and supporting smaller studios, hell, even EA's partner program is doing its damnedest to secure funding and favourable release windows for avant-garde projects. We've been covering Indie games since our site was born, but the fact remains that it's now getting incredibly difficult to tell the difference.
Is Bastion really an 'Indie' game? What about Rochard? Sideway: New York? Trine 2? Minecraft?! Hell if I know... and brilliantly, it doesn't matter at all. They're just great games and literally don't need a label.
So here's the thing. Indie games are becoming so indistinguishable from their bigger-budget rivals, so relevant to the 21st century gamer, that it won't be long until the word "indie" is a thing of the past. It won't be long before we all just play games regardless of how big the studio or publishers are; when the biggest magazines and sites trumpet news about the smallest projects alongside the latest headlines from EA or Activision - because it's just as important. 2011 has given us many things to be excited about, but in my humble opinion, its most important service has been to shatter the distinction between indie games and games in general and to make gamers aware that the scene even exists.
Able to innovate without compromise, willing to experiment without fear, it's the independent crowd who are carrying us all into a new gaming nirvana - and it all starts now. In 2011.