Give the Games a Chance

Thanks to online marketplaces such as Steam, XBLA, PSN, and the iTunes App Store, it has never been easier for small teams to get their hands on dev kits and start making their own games to sell as downloadable titles. And, like many retail games, while some may fall into the category of mediocre to straight-up awful, a great majority of them are excellent, and sometimes deliver just as much punch as their retail counterparts.

But what makes downloadable games different? Why do they work, and what place do they take in this industry?

The Innovation Factor

The hard reality of retail games it this: a great majority of them are installments or reboots of successful franchises. New IPs are few in number, and always run the risk of not selling well, especially if there are any sequels or prequels in major franchises being released around the same time each year.

Of course, there’s a reason for this; for these big games, you need a big development team, a big publisher, and a big budget. Triple As are not cheap to produce, and publishers will be reluctant to give a game a green light if it doesn’t have the promise to sell well.

Now, is this a bad thing? Of course not! Personally, some of my favorite games are installments in major franchises, simply because they’re familiar, everything I like about it is intact, and they work. The problem is, innovation in the major leagues of gaming is generally a hit or miss, and developers are often cautious as to how far they want to push the boundaries of change in games that have a major fan base. Typically, things like improved game mechanics and visuals are the biggest change implemented in series installments. One has to be careful, because fans of franchises usually already have set expectations for games, and major changes in gameplay or design could spell disaster for the game’s sales.

Take Resident Evil 5, for example. The reviews for the game were not great (partially for justifiable AI and mechanics reasons), and the biggest complaint from fans was that it was too action-oriented, departing from the horror conventions that have made the Resident Evil series so great. Gamers expected one thing from the game and got another, and, despite selling big numbers, it still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many.

So, if major developers stick to things that work, where do we get the more innovative and fresh ideas from?

Enter the downloadable market.

The smaller developers of downloadable games don’t have big budgets. They don’t have mega offices filled with rows of computers occupied by coders and animators. There’s no big team of writers debating plot lines and dialogue. Some of them don’t even have publishers backing them.

But a lack of big staff and money does not mean a lack of big ideas. The XBLA and Steam downloadable title Bastion is an isometric RPG with beautiful art styling, fun mechanics, and an interesting premise. Development on this game was started by a team of eight operating out of a living room.

Because they don’t have major publishers breathing down their necks, small developers have a little more freedom to experiment with game design and create something new. The beauty of this is that they can challenge what we expect from a game without risking a major loss of money.

Thatgamecompany’s Journey managed to question our ideas of multiplayer gaming. Developer Jenovah Chen once commented in an interview that in a multiplayer world flooded with violent shoot-em-up multiplayer modes, he wanted to create something that would make players work alongside each other to achieve a common goal. The result was a gorgeous game that wowed players and reviewers alike.


The Aesthetic Angle

Alongside questioning our expectations of gameplay, small developers often go out on a limb to introduce a new art style directly contering the typical photorealism found in retail game visuals It makes us ask the question of whether or not a game needs hyper realistic graphics to be considered “good”. In fact, do visuals even affect gameplay at all?

The breakout App Store hit Sword and Sorcery EP is a point-and-click adventure style RPG with a heavy emphasis on presentation through music and its 8-bit, pixilated graphical style. Despite the simplicity of the retro-style visuals, the graphics of Sword and Sorcery are uniquely beautiful, giving the game a new life and feel that conventional 3D rendering might not have.

The recent hit Fez is also a 2D-style game with multiple visual dimensions. Minecraft has always reminded me of a game from Windows 98. Limbo is nothing more that fuzzy shades of black, white, and gray.

But the fact of the matter is this; in downloadable games, the graphical presentation is so much more than just how the game “looks”. The art design of these titles conveys the very personality of the game itself, giving it a whole new sense of depth.

The Throwback Effect

Probably one of the greatest attributes of downloadable games is its departure from typical game mechanics. While a majority of retail games are presented in a third or first-person view, downloadable games steal a page from the book of retro gaming, often being presented in side-scrolling, isometric, and top-down views, among many. Think of Shadow Complex, a 3D action sidescroller, or Warp, a top-down stealth action game presented in the Unreal Engine 3. While a majority of action games feature a health bar, the 2012 release Sine Mora instead had a time limit, rewarding players with extra time for kills or docking time off the clock for taking damage.

Super Meat Boy even combined retro-style art design and challenging platforming to create a game that feels like an updated version of an NES classic.

It’s the unique combination of these different mechanics and forms of presentation that not only make these games special, but take us back to our roots, serving as a preservation of the past and reminding us of how far games have come.

Now, again, allow me to clarify: I am in no way putting down retail games. With big budgets often come great titles, and there’s a reason why they sell as well as they do.

My point is this; where retail games consider what they can and must do, downloadable developers look at something and ask, “Why can’t we do this?”. They essentially challenge our modern perceptions of gaming, offering us an alternative and inviting us to open our minds. Not only do they act as innovators, they also preserve our past and give us a glimpse into the future, showing us exactly what a game is capable of doing. Even at a fraction of the cost, these little games are big powerhouses that often deliver just as much as Triple A titles.

Give them a chance. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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