Blurred Lines: The Difference Between AAA and Indie

This generation has seen gamers split into two categories when it comes to games, “AAA” and Indie”. Last generation featured some amazing indie games but they were always presented in a manner that supplemented your regular gaming. They were a neat fun alternative to counter game fatigue or down times in the year. This generation we have seen a seismic shift in the importance of indie games. Most of that is due to the big two spending a significant amount of time and money gobbling up indie studios and spending precious stage time at press events showing off how many Indies they can have shown at the same time. It’s ironic the arms race for this new generation has been indies, since PS put all their weight behind indies and MS turned ship and put its full effort into ID@Xbox we’ve seen them become one of the most important aspects of this early generation. Gamers reaction to this has been varied some love the unique innovation indie games provide and some want the blockbusters and didn’t spend $400-$500 bucks for an “indie machine”. The perception has been if it isn’t in a box or on a shelf it somehow isn’t a “real game”.

The point I’m trying to make today is that if Gamescom has shown us anything this year it’s that the lines between the two are becoming very blurry and it’s becoming indistinguishable which is which. Whether it is because cost or pressure it has been amazing to see some of gaming’s biggest names from its biggest franchises leave their studios and properties to move to smaller studios and make the games they want with the freedom they want. People like Cliff Blizinski who at one time was the epitome of AAA dudebro has abandoned Epic games and Gears of War to retreat to the freedom and versatility of a new small studio. I’m reluctant to call these studios indie but they definitely are not on the scale of the places they left, in every other manner they match the description of an indie studio, hence the blurred lines. He can now make the games he wants how he wants and when he wants.

At Gamescom this year both shows from the big dogs featured games that I would fully expect to see on a game shelf. It all started at E3 when Sony showed off No Mans Sky and announced it was coning to PS4. This game captured my and many other imaginations when it was revealed at VGX last year but I was reluctant to get excited because I wasn’t sold that it would make it to consoles. After E3 I was on the jazz with No Man Sky I was telling anyone who would listen how it was my game of show in a show where we saw Uncharted 4, Halo, Destiny and Metal Gear Solid V. It represented a transition in which small studious could take their innovation and freedom and release games rivaling the biggest budgets and studios in the industry. It was a trend I hoped to see continue and it didn’t take long for my hope to be answered, this year games like Wild, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and The Tomorrow Children were unveiled and we saw more form previously announced game like Rime, Below, Inside and Ori and the Blind Forest. All present big vibrant worlds that push the boundaries of what we perceive to be an “indie” game. All of these titles innovate on new ideas but are presented in a format that seems normal to us for AAA games, things like open worlds, character models and level design are now on par with the best AAA has to offer.

Why is this exactly? Well I believe there are multiple reasons to explore; first the technology gap is shrinking. The tools to make these games have never been more accessible or friendlier to a modest budget. Imagine the recording industry 20 years ago it was almost impossible to get a half way decent album recorded without getting a label to back it or spend thousands to get in a high tech studio with 50 feet of mixers. Now off a laptop with the right software and digital distribution it has never been easier to get out there. We’re seeing game creation follow the same trend, never has it been easier to get the tools to make a game and get it out there for people to see. Another factor is support, Kickstarter revolutionized game creation where now a studio doesn’t need big time publishers they can present their ideas to fans directly and plead their case for support to get their games made. The list of games in the last year that started life on Kickstarter is exhausting. Digital distribution has also been a big factor, now studios don’t need to pay all the money to print and ship games and end up with thousands of copies sitting on store shelves. Even though digital used to be the hallmark of an indie title as we move ever closer to an all digital future those once clear distinctions will be gone and Call of Duty will sit in the Playstation Store right next to Wild and no one will think anything of it.

We’ve also seen the titans of the industry get behind Indies whether it is Steam Greenlight or ID@Xbox and their free dev kits or Sony and their indie dev friendly policies. The gap is closing and as budgets continue to bloat to astronomical heights for AAA more studios are opting for a cheaper, safer route. I will not be surprised if in a few years we see the mainstay AAA’s like COD, Assassins Creed and annual titles like them then a ton of these middle ground, gray area titles. If the budgets for AAA can’t get in check than Publishers will take less risk and you’ll see more studios opt for the gray area route.

So that leaves it to us gamers and how we perceive these titles. It is a time where we have literally an endless amount of things to play, everything form small platformers that fill it those precious moments you find in the day to squeeze in some gaming to the epic blockbusters that elicit late night gaming sessions basking the the cool glow of our TV screens and everything in between our options are limitless. Games like Journey and Thomas Was Alone have shown these games need to be taken seriously and can be Game of the Year winners. Regardless of our perception the games will be great it’s those “AAA or bus”t gamers who will need to adapt to this growing change, but if the blurring of lines continues as it has they may not even realize their adopting it.