It’s no secret, nor is it controversial to say, that the AAA video game market is a cynical and greedy one. It wasn’t always, but it is now. Influenced by the free-to-play economy of mobile games that has proven so frighteningly lucrative over the past decade and change, and with the normalization of loot boxes in video games, it’s becoming more and more challenging and stressful for customers to simply find a game that they can buy for a reasonable price, play, complete, and have experienced a full package. For this reason, we must put a lot of our faith in the indie games space and the potential of places like the Switch eShop.
Now, to be clear, indie games are not an absolute good in and of themselves. Steam is inundated with dreadful, half-finished, unplayable trash that some indie developers try to peddle out to players for a full price. However, it’s very easy to not be fooled by false promises when it comes to indie games, and that’s also what critics and reviewers are here for. The point is that, across an entire console generation, indie games have come to fill the space that AAA games once occupied.
If you strap on your nostalgia goggles for a moment, you should be able to see a time when video games were developed and sent out to players, much in the same way that books are bound, and movies are edited together. Once in the audience’s hands, that media could be enjoyed however the customer pleased. Then came patches. Next came day-one patches. Now we have live service games with road maps: games that are sold for a $60 price tag (plus optional special editions and DLC packs) but are hollow husks of what players hope for, expect, and deserve for the money they’ve put down. Destiny, released back in early 2019, is a splendid example of this practice.
Behavior like this, plus the aforementioned loot boxes, season passes, subscriptions, and more besides, has turned the video game industry into a cynical and untrustworthy system. For the most part. The one exception, in almost every case, is the indie game. Indie games come in many shapes and sizes, from the polished and graphically stunning Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Though Ninja Theory have now been bought by Microsoft Studios, but they hadn’t been at the time Hellblade launched) to pixel art darlings like Shovel Knight, Celeste, and The Messenger. Let’s look at how games like those mentioned here are saving the video game experience and holding back that fog of cynicism from engulfing the industry completely.
How Indie Games Stand Apart
It seems fitting that a lot of video games, like the aforementioned Shovel Knight, rely on nostalgia through their visuals to draw in their players to a certain extent. These indie games represent more than just visual, auditory, and interactive nostalgia, but also nostalgia for the way games used to be priced, advertised, and packaged.
Since we keep mentioning Shovel Knight, let’s take it as our shining example. Shovel Knight did, after all, represent a turning point in indie games, bursting into the mainstream and permeating our collective consciousness in a massive way (Fancy a game of Smash, anyone?). Despite its insane popularity, Shovel Knight has remained an indie game by an indie studio (Yacht Club Games), sold at a very affordable price, and with an incredible amount of value for money. In fact, Shovel Knight Treasure Trove is an edition of the game that sells for less than half the price of your average AAA game and does the exact opposite of what most AAA games practice today.
Take a game like Marvel’s Spider-Man for the PS4. That game was a complete package. A single player experience full of collectables and hidden content. Great value for money. Then came its DLC packs, which cost additional money but gave players all-new story content. A reasonable business deal. Now, take Fallout 76, a game that was sold for a premium price, void of content, and is was packaged with a yearly subscription for players to actually get the content they hoped would be in the base game they already paid for, a full year after release.
From Spider-Man to Fallout 76, two games released within months of one another, you can see the decline from reasonable practice to cynical practice. Now, back to Shovel Knight. Since its release, Yacht Club Games have released three DLC packs that could be labelled entirely new experiences; sequels, even. These sequel DLCs came at an affordable price that is weighed well against the content they provide. And, if you bought Shovel Knight Treasure Trove as I did, those subsequent DLC sequels were included in the price of the game. I personally purchased Treasure Trove on Switch in mid-2018 and, a year after I last played the game, Shovel Knight: King of Cards arrived on my Switch for free. This offer is the direct opposite to even the more ethical DLC practices done by games like Spider-Man.
Before we go any further, I do of course recognize that there are exceptions to everything we’ve talked about here. 2018’s God of War on PS4 was a complete single-player experience with no DLC and an incredible amount of value for money. And there are indie games out there that are broken, unplayable messes which players can easily be fooled into purchasing for a premium price, but these exceptions do not scruple the point I am making here, which is that indie games are still, overall, providing players with an honest, simple way to purchase and enjoy games like they once did, and like they should still be able to do.
Even beyond money matters, the loot-box and free-to-play economies of video games are stress-inducing and joy-sucking. When you pick up a game like Return of the Obra Dinn, Dead Cells, or The Binding of Isaac from the Switch eShop, you will receive a full video game experience with no hidden or sneaky monetization. You will own the game, and you can play the game as you see fit. These games offer enormous amounts of content for a solid price. They are polished, tested, and ready to complete.
We can thank indie publisher Devolver Digital for a lot of this. This publisher has such an impeccable track record, such a keen eye for good quality indie games, and such a reliable relationship with Nintendo and the Switch eShop that you could put a tenner down on a new Devolver Digital game on a whim and be rewarded with a beautiful, polished, complete video game experience with no bugs, no loot boxes, no subscription fees. What you’ll get will be one video game; nothing more and nothing less.
One Complete Video Game, Please
The Switch eShop is far from perfect. In fact, it has become a minefield of shovelware not unlike Steam, since Nintendo wasn’t careful and vigilant about what they have been permitting to be sold there. But, for now, the eShop is still a beacon of hope for players looking to purchase and play a game without worrying that they will need to pay a subscription or will be bombarded with gambling options.
If the Nintendo Switch suddenly lost all of its AAA games, including Nintendo’s own properties, what we’d be left with would still be a marketplace and a library worth the price of a Switch, thanks to the quality of its indie games and the transparent business practices of those games’ developers.
All of this is to say that indie games offer so much more than AAA games beyond a lower price tag. More often than not, quality indie games offer as many potential gaming hours, and as much beauty and innovation, as your average AAA game, all while removing the cynical business practices that have become uncomfortably commonplace is most AAA spaces.
Even Nintendo themselves, darlings of the video game world, have fallen into some bad practices lately. It’s common for fans, myself included, to use Nintendo as a shimmering example of how to make a polished single-player AAA experience for players of all ages. And that is still true, but the way that Nintendo is behaving in the mobile space with games like Mario Kart Tour has somewhat shaken my resolve.
And so, we turn to the eShop and the ocean of incredible indie content that it has to offer. Games being sold at under $25 that offer us no subscriptions or loot boxes, and yet hours and hours of quality game time. I’ve sunk more time into The Binding of Isaac than I’m comfortable sharing; a game with mechanics that provide that same dopamine rush as paying for a loot box, without the evil intent behind it. I’ve spent hours engaging with the optional collectibles and challenges of Celeste, which are completely optional but are nonetheless woven into the fabric of the game by its developers.
It’s these indie games that should give us hope for the future of video games. As long as indie developers, and publishers like Devolver Digital, keep providing us with reasonably-priced games without any hidden caveats and shady business practices, then we the players can go on buying and enjoying our video games.
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Will Heath is a freelance writer and digital nomad from the UK who mostly splits his time between London and Tokyo. He runs the website Books & Bao – a site dedicated to international literature and world travel – and writes about video games for Nintendo Link and Tokyo Weekender.