Articles like this annoy me. I think the comments by Cliff Harris about how indies are not trying to push the envelope from a technical stand point are misguided.
If you read this article and then read the comments below, you’ll notice that most people disagree with Mr. Harris, just like I do. They say that performance doesn’t matter. It’s the quality of the game itself, through narrative and good game play; not graphics or other technical aspects that make a game interesting. I wholly agree with these comments, but I would like to add an extra aspect to the discussion: history.
The good old performance days
When you look at the history of game development, technology has always been an integral part of gaming culture. Engineers (computer or otherwise) were the ones building the first games. And as technology evolved, game developers have always been on its bleeding edge, trying to squeeze out performance out of our gaming machines. I remember the race for the best 3D video card features of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I remember blast processing and other fantastical claims by first party console manufacturers. It truly was a grand age. So when some people miss the days where pursuing performance was a mission, I get it. And, it’s probably this relentless pursuit of hardware and software performance that led us to the production of high-quality graphics we have today.
The other side of that medal is that it’s this significant increase that has led us to the (relative) creative stalemate that is the AAA gaming industry. The reason for this is simple. With the improvement of technology came the obligation of creating lots of high-quality content to showcase this technology. And in order to create this content, companies needed to hire more people. And people cost lots of money.
So, as technology evolved, the number of people required to make a high quality AAA game increased tenfold, while the market for AAA games has not expanded as much throughout the years. Because of this reality, AAA companies slowly shifted towards making blockbuster titles that sell high numbers, which meant doing fewer projects but with lots more features (and people). And in order to compensate for the high risks that these mega-projects represent, large companies would take less creative risks. From a financial point of view, it makes total sense. If you invest a lot of money in a crowded market, you need to make sure that you are going to have the sales to compensate for your high costs. So, to do that, you need to reduce the risk on the creative side, which usually means reusing known intellectual property or doing the Nth sequel of a known game franchise.
The aforementioned situation we find ourselves in today is a direct consequence of this technological arms race for performance!
And let’s not forget the pressure that the first parties put on developers to deliver games that highlight their console’s performance. The oft acclaimed Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was almost refused by Sony on the first Playstation because it was a 2D game and Sony was pushing for 3D games at the time!
Now, I’ll agree there are good things that come with this increase in cost. The first obvious good point is more jobs. This is usually a good thing, though some may argue that those jobs become too highly specialized. The second is that the existence of the indie scene is partly due to the risk-reducing decisions of the AAA game industry. By making games that appeal to a larger number of people, the large companies have cast aside certain genres and styles, which left some holes in the market. Some of today’s indies survive thanks to these holes.
While both these points are generally positive, I still think that indie game developers should not care about performance. Sure, a few of them might get noticed in the market through performance prowess. However, I don’t believe this is a path we indies should take lest we end up taking the same path the AAA industry took a few years back.
It is through originality and non-technological innovation that we should make our mark.