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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Nerd Rage: Indie Trends

Having dipped into some indie titles as of late, and having played many from independent developers, I've come to notice a few things about that particular avenue of the industry. First off, it's a hard knock life for independent developers and they definitely deserve a lot of credit for publishing their games across multiple platforms and trying to make material that is accessible to a wide audience. Second, many developers like to use certain elements in their games that I'm not very fond of.

"But what could those be, Evan?"

I was just getting to that.

ODD CONTROL MAPPING:

I won't point fingers, but I've played a whole bunch of games lately that have pretty ridiculous control schemes, that either try to cram a number of commands into a few buttons, place them in awkward areas, or commit, in my opinion, one of the cardinal sins of 2D platforming: thinking it's a good idea to have the control stick as the primary movement option rather than the D-Pad.

This sometimes comes down to two fundamental design concepts- either having too many commands to map properly, where you can have twelve different equipment slots that are accessed via different button combinations... that are mapped to the face and trigger buttons. Or sometimes, it's just poor placement, like having a 2D platformer that utilizes stick clicks. But it is something that I have seen a lot, and it's made me realize how crucial a good control scheme is- and it's something that I sometimes take for granted that can become glaringly obvious upon picking up a title.

COLLECTABLE ENDINGS:

This is one that has been particularly irksome, though I can understand the reasoning behind it. I've seen a number of indie titles featuring collectables that exist for no other reason than to stop the player from getting a perfect ending. That's a negative way of putting it, and I suppose the real objective of this concept is to make the player "explore" more. Sometimes these collectables are well-hidden, sometimes they are not. But one thing is certain, the "proper" ending to the game cannot be obtained without getting this collectable.

I find this to be utter bullshit. Especially when there is a counter saying "maybe if you collected all of the collectables, you would know what would happen!" Yes, I understand you want me to explore your world, and I know you want me to find your trinkets, but when I get to the end of the game, I want to see the full ending. The worst thing though, is that some games give absolutely no justification for why you have to collect these items in order to get the "perfect" ending. I would rather you take the time to make the collectables worth something to me rather than lock out an ending.

(SELF-)REFERENTIAL BULLSHIT:

Something I enjoyed a great deal in the Paper Mario titles was how the dialogue was very tongue-and-cheek, making light of the franchise it was based on while also drawing on terms and ideas to feel more like a Mario title.

However, many indies believe if they're making a game similar to another title, they should include some sort of reference to it. Or, if they've already developed a game themselves, they'll reference their own work in future installments. OR, they'll put in dialogue or mechanics that scream "oh, those video games, huh? Making you do arbitrary things for the sake of being video games! Wink wink, nudge nudge."

At first, I enjoyed moments like these- until I started seeing them all over the place. The best moments are those that are subtle, but in many cases they're blatant, as if throwing these references around gives some sort of street cred. Sometimes the references don't even have to be towards games in a similar genre. However, at its worst, these moments nudge you in the ribs a little too hard and frequently.

OVERDRAMATIC, UNDERDEVELOPED STORIES:

Many independent developers try to tell sweeping, grandiose stories when their style of game doesn't call for such a thing. Or they try to tell a story as ambiguously as possible, making the events of the story of the game important but never filling in the details. This can harm the game in many ways- it transforms them from entertainment or even a challenge and instead goes for an "experience", and there are still only a handful of games that manage to nail this right on a large scale. A smaller, independent studio often comes off as pretentious or clueless when adding these elements. It doesn't matter how cute or  your storytelling experience is- it more than often detracts from the product rather than enhancing it.

PROCEDURAL SACRIFICE:

What's a sure-fire way to create content? Make an algorithm that allows your game to have limitless combination! What's a sure-fire way to destroy any semblance of story, progression, and more often than not, solid gameplay mechanics? Making your game procedurally generated. It's no doubt gamers want a bang for their buck these days, and since lots of procedurally generated titles are on the cheap side, developers use it as a crutch to say "our title has 300 hours of gameplay!"

But this usually means there's a number of issues, like... "well, let's make our game about building. And that's it. Should there be combat? Well yeah, but let's make sure it fits within the confines of our procedural generation and building mechanics." In the end, a procedural game usually has more work put into the variety of the environments, not really the meat of the game.

I'm also not a fan of procedurally generated games. So that factors into it.

CONCLUSION:

There's a number of other issues I have with a number of independent titles, but that would prove to be a very long and overblown article. Instead, I will just say this- too many independent titles focus on delivering some sort of experience rather than actual gameplay. Sometimes it's because they're mimicking a certain style of game and focus on emulating that rather than polishing the concept. Sometimes they put too much emphasis on the wrong areas. But the indie titles I enjoy most are those that take an idea and flesh it out to its fullest extent. Maybe that's why they're independent games, though, because ultimately, they are learning the craft rather than polishing it.

If that's the case, though, they should make sure what they have is fun in the first place.

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