Okay, I confess. At 34 years old, I didn’t just buy a Nintendo Switch. I saved money, waited, played it a few times to entice myself, even took the odd dog-sitting job to grab some cash for an extra game or two. I didn’t just buy a Switch — I did chores for it.
What I’ve found after hours and hours of “Zelda” and “Mario Kart” is roughly the same impression that thousands have had so far. The Switch is a genius little system with a ton of potential, a bright future — and a limited set of recognizable game properties found when surfing around the e-shop. Among the small pile of familiar faces, a large chunk of currently available Switch games are from less well-known, independent studios.
The rise of the indie game developer has been steady over the last 5-7 years. With programs like Steam’s Greenlight making it possible for unlikely and underfunded ideas to get off the ground, smaller studios are able to release polished versions of their visions to large, eager audiences. “Minecraft,” now an international hit and multi-system staple, arguably began the “pre-alpha” buy-in craze in its first stages of development, during which you could purchase a barely functional version of the game. This has evolved into the “Early Access” standard — purchasing a game still in development in order to play (and bug test) during the process of game creation itself. These games include some of Steam’s largest money-makers, including “Player Unknown Battlegrounds (PUBG),” a multiplayer arena-style shooter currently listed under the “Early Access” category which boasts hundreds of thousands of global players daily.
Increased resources allow smaller studios to enhance gameplay and build on elements popular with fans, creating a richer gaming experience for which graphical gimmicks or cutting-edge hardware isn’t always necessary.
The transformation of the PC gaming industry into an indie-game smorgasbord happened partially out of necessity, but moreso for the developer community. Publishing and developing triple-A titles like the “Battlefield” or “Fallout” series is a multi-million dollar process, with development and creative teams possibly stretching into the dozens. Packaging and marketing a game, too, is another cost on top of an already-expensive development process. Without the resources of a company like Ubisoft or EA behind such projects, it can be difficult (or near impossible) to create a game at the cutting edge of today’s technology.
With the advent of crowdfunded early access, small studios began to find their feet earlier on in the development process. Increased resources allow smaller studios to enhance gameplay and build on elements popular with fans, creating a richer gaming experience for which graphical gimmicks or cutting-edge hardware isn’t always necessary. Free or low-cost game engine options like the Source Engine (created by Steam’s parent company, Valve), the Unity engine, and the now-free Unreal 4 engine even allow small game developers to pack those graphic enhancements into games with relative ease.
Nintendo, for its part in the indie sphere, builds off of the years of these efforts in order to bolster a smaller game selection. Popular games like “Overcooked,” a “Bomberman”-style game focused around cooking tasks, have become hits on a system that would otherwise expect large properties like “Mario” to have overtaken the spotlight. Nintendo even featured a “Nindie,” as it has been labeled (mostly by consensus), as its hundredth purchasable Switch game.
High-profile Nindies have been on the docket since the release of the Switch, including such gaming industry darlings as “Stardew Valley,” a farm-and-community-relationship building game with a 16-bit flair. With gameplay and design that purposefully homages several classic Nintendo properties, “Stardew Valley” was a natural pairing for the system. Testing continues on the final Switch version, which is expected for release soon.
Independent games becoming available on consoles is not a new concept — both Microsoft and Sony have extensive markets full of indie games for their powerhouse systems, balancing simpler gameplay with attractive lower price points. The ability to pick those simple games up from Game Room and take them with you, however, is the missing piece of the puzzle that the Switch provides. Your farm and village in “Stardew Valley,” once relegated to a laptop at smallest (or the occasional brave attempt to play on a Windows-based tablet), is soon to be available in a handheld, take-anywhere format. Because of that simple transformation, overjoyed fans who have already spent money on a PC version don’t seem to mind the potential double purchase.
With barriers to entry like expensive engine licensing and distribution becoming less costly, small game devs are finding a freedom to create games that are based on a consistent personal vision. While growth on previous platforms has been encouraging, the rise of the “Nindie” signifies even more life for the genre and an unexpected niche for the Switch — one in which games quietly developed by independent artists and developers become household names as well as on-the-go staples.
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