High-Definition graphics, overwhelming amounts of content, huge worlds, voice acting, maintenance of powerful servers to support online gameplay, and increasingly complex structures. All those factors, which are demanded by a large part of the audience, have contributed to make the development of a game a process that is financially draining for any company regardless of its size or the weight of its name.
Not too long ago, on the Nintendo 64 days, a developer like Rare was able to release a whopping 11 games during the course of 6 years. And they were not straightforward titles that required little effort. Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie, and Donkey Kong 64 were absolutely enormous and technologically impressive, and the same goes for Perfect Dark, Goldeneye, Jet Force Gemini, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day.
Nowadays, such a streak of productivity – especially one boosted by so many original franchises and innovative gameplay elements – seems, to put it kindly, unlikely. Placing a lot of money on a project implies a high degree of risk, which causes companies to play it safe. Sequels to successful franchises, or spin-offs that carry a recognized brand, have become commonplace given that they are a sure bet for companies to get their investment back.
While those sorts of games can be highly entertaining, bring creative new concepts, and provide refreshing gameplay tweaks – something that resounds, for example, in many of Nintendo’s long-running franchises – those cash-consuming projects have made most of the mainstream industry become less adventurous. And as much as gamers love to play a new Mario adventure, or an exciting new Zelda, that artistic and explorative vein is undoubtedly missed, for it often produces some spectacular and unexpected gems.
With the advent of digital distribution, and the lower costs brought by the possibility of selling small-scope games without dealing with the bureaucracy of the old publishing system, that intrepid role was filled by indie developers. Games like Braid, Limbo, Super Meat Boy, To the Moon, Journey, Cave Story, LostWinds, World of Goo, La Mulana, Shovel Knight, and countless others have proved that indies are more than capable of producing titles that are up-to-par with what the industry’s giants manufacture while creating new franchises that are built upon new smart ideas.
Still, one has to wonder what Nintendo, Capcom, Ubisoft, Sony, Bungie, Blizzard, Retro Studios, EA, and other massive corporations would craft if they did not have to cope with the extreme profit expectations of their shareholders. After all, that’s what triggers the enormous expenses on equally large games that are bound to bring home beautiful sales numbers.
They, after all, house incredibly talented developers that could birth countless new franchises if they were given enough freedom; something that is repressed by the need to constantly work on the same old, yet fantastic, industry staples.
But, perhaps, we have to wonder no more, because there already is one game that gives us a glimpse of what a major developer is capable of doing when given the liberty that indies have with the added ingredient of a considerably larger budget. That game is, of course, Child of Light; Ubisoft’s gorgeous and simple look at the RPG world with a dash of fairy tale romance.
The game’s critical and commercial success is proof that there is a wish among gamers for software of that kind. At heart, Child of Light is an indie game, the only difference is that it is backed up by Ubisoft’s hype and marketing machine, something that no independent developer has access to.
The reception it received, and the money that it undoubtedly generated to Ubisoft, may – down the line – prove to be an odd point in gaming history. However, if other companies are watching and taking note, Child of Light could be an opportunity for a fresh start. It is not that companies need to drop their biggest series in exchange for smaller, adventurous, and artistic games – we all need our Mario fix, after all. It is just that the model of a large company producing a relatively small downloadable game has shown to be very rewarding.
It is true that if the world’s most famous developers decide to tip their toes on those waters, it might create a tsunami of releases that could drown many indies and their great projects. However, that move could cause the opposite effect if the avalanche is not so heavy: many reluctant gamers could have their eyes opened to the wonderful gems hiding in the digital distribution world, and games like Child of Light could be their entry point into that realm.
Many pessimist analysts claim that the rising game-development costs could eventually lead to an industry that would not be able to support its own weight. If that is so, then Child of Light could be the beginning of a new development model. Yet, if such catastrophe does not occur – which might be the most realistic scenario – it could be a seed that, when sown, will foster brand new ideas.
Maybe other companies will simply not follow in Ubisoft’s footsteps. Maybe they will choose to only occasionally gift their fans with such surprising treasures. But the best outcome for gamers, by far, would be if such a model of business became so successful that Nintendo and its peers would opt to form internal studios focused on the development of indie-like games.
It could be a platform to test new professionals, harvest new talent, infuse motivation into experienced developers, and develop concepts that could mature and eventually be used on the companies’ main franchises. But, most importantly, it could be the trampoline with which charming epic little games like Child of Light would be launched into the world. And, as far as I am concerned, that could only be a good thing.