Philosophies of Progress in AAA vs Indie Gaming

With the continuously rising prominence of successful indie games and the dawn of perhaps the final console generation upon us, it seems inevitable that the evolution of videogames will no longer be conceived in terms of distinct technological leaps. While the current generation’s (PS4, Xbox One) processing power has allowed for much greater nuance in the realistic representations of characters and natural environments than was possible in the previous generation (one must only watch a cutscene from both the original Red Dead Redemption and its sequel to see the drastic improvement in realistic facial animations and environmental rendering) the potential this affords for new design innovations is minute in comparison to previous generational leaps. In terms of its gameplay systems and general structure, Red Dead Redemption 2 plays very similarly to its predecessor. Its most immediately prominent additions are the integration of survival mechanics and heavier physics, which both contribute to the realism of the simulation but don’t substantially alter the previous entry’s core design. Although Red Dead 2’s world is undeniably more visually enthralling than the prior game, nothing about the game design itself would prevent it from existing as a PS3 game. In comparison, the jump from Super Mario World to its next-gen successor, Super Mario 64, or Grand Theft Auto 2 to Grand Theft Auto III involved technological leaps that necessitated a revolution in game design.

Indeed, many of the most creative experiments with game design in the past decade have not come from AAA publishers such as Rockstar with their meticulously detailed realistic worlds. At the risk of sounding cynical (but with little doubt in my mind), this is because visually apparent technological leaps reap greater sales than visually imperceptible experimentation with creative game design. In the past decade, such creativity has instead existed primarily in the indie game scene. Games like Undertale and Celeste look like they could have been released on the NES and their core design borrows heavily from groundbreaking franchises like Dragon Quest and Super Mario Bros, respectively. Yet while these two indie darlings are rooted in their inspiration in these old classics, they build off their generic groundwork with subtle innovations in game design that adhere to modern quality of life standards. They’ve ironed out many of the frustrating elements that make those older titles feel dated in today’s age. Just as importantly, these titles place great care in tightly woven narrative design that infuse the experiences with an affecting and original personality.

Like the classics that inspired them, many indie games can be seen as natural products of their technical limitations. Indie games often wear their inspirations on their sleeve for two practical reasons: 1) the inspiration has provided them a framework for their limited visual aesthetic and/or game design possibilities, and 2) an indie game will often define itself by innovating on the design/aesthetic of its inspirations, which can lead to a unique reconceptualization of the core gameplay experience. Combined with a greater emphasis placed on narrative design, this formula, when executed by a creative and dedicated development team, has led to plenty of revered indie titles. The opportunities for these variations on classic design have become plentiful since the release of new console generations incite commercial studios to instead focus on producing technologically unprecedented experiences.

Action Button’s Tim Rogers, while contemplating the notion that the end of a console generation usually produces better games than the beginning, notes that “incremental refinements are true innovation.” With the stagnation of creative game design in many AAA products, and the triumph of indie hits that sport a decidedly retro aesthetic while refining and experimenting with the design of their influences, Tim’s statement demands further consideration. Because indie games exist in a temporal limbo, outside of the grinding progress of the industry’s technological advancements, they have opened up a space where such incremental refinements can be carefully worked towards – where developers can freely return to and refine experiences that have never become aesthetically or mechanically ‘outdated’ but that, in hindsight, could benefit from some modern conveniences: conveniences that were incidental, not essential, to the period at which they were realized in later generations.  

I want to discuss the Dragon Quest series in relation to this topic due to its seemingly paradoxical adherence to tradition and dedication to renewal. While the legendary series hardly falls into the ‘indie’ category, its unremitting success after over 30 years is a testament to the timelessness of its original design, which the games have been comfortable steadily refining without substantially reinventing. This success is antithetical to the progressive rhetoric of the game industry and it has made the series divisive in the modern day. Fans cherish the series’ tried-and-true marriage of its whimsical writing and worldbuilding to its accessible RPG systems and gameplay, and detractors note its stubborn resistance to change. While the latter camp certainly has some fair critiques, the series’ strict adherence to refining its core design philosophy – together with its subtle variations of this core with each new entry – is exactly what gives the series its lasting appeal.

Each new Dragon Quest game experiments with narrative design within its self-imposed and restricting game design framework. However, the core appeal of the series has always remained the same. Exploration of the overworld invites the player to engage with NPCs that either provide useful advice for progressing the game, build the player’s understanding of the world, or just contribute to the game’s whimsical tone with colorful personality. The dungeon crawling, battling, and leveling, on the other hand, provide an accessible means of accomplishment that make time investment a reflection of grandiose heroic questing. By simply iterating on these two gameplay fundamentals with each new entry, the series has progressed a design philosophy that prioritizes creative minutiae over technological advancements afforded by new hardware. It’s the same philosophy that drives the indie game scene, which has from its inception (due to the limited budgets of indie developers) been displaced from the commercial evolution of AAA gaming. While Dragon Quest XI certainly shows significant visual improvements over prior entries, the existence of its 2D ‘demake’ mode in certain editions of the game – which makes the graphics resemble one of the series’ SNES releases – proves that the game itself is largely unaffected by a reversion to an aesthetic style that dates back several generations.

Dragon Quest’s unorthodox disinterest in evolving in accordance with the standards of the game industry, despite being produced and developed by one of its key companies (Square Enix), make it a precursor to the indie scene’s dedication to incremental refinements and creativity with narrative design. The series’ spirit is philosophically indie. Before I am accused of creating more terminological jargon in an industry plagued with it, the concept serves in the interest of overcoming the divide between the ‘AAA’ and ‘indie’ categories by viewing the evolution of videogames outside of the progress of its technologies.

My use of the term ‘philosophically indie’ in application to the Dragon Quest series, then, I hope allows us to conceive of the indie revolution of the last decade as not premised primarily on a game’s use of retro aesthetics, or even that it was developed by a small, independently-funded team (which remains relevant in a more economically-oriented conversation), but, in the context of game design, signifies a movement away from a technologically progressive development and towards philosophically progressive design. Hopefully time will only further blur the need to distinguish categorically between AAA and indie games when we can no longer measure the evolutionary progress of videogames in technologically informed generational leaps. The decline of this unquestioned forward momentum may very well force developers to look back and see the opportunities for creative design innovations that it had been passing by in the excitement of the ‘generational gaming’ zeitgeist. That, or VR will evolve to a level of accessibility and design potential that it will become the new focus of AAA gaming.

The adamant backlash against the “crunch” culture of AAA studios and the gaming community’s lukewarm response to the next generation of gaming consoles compared to prior generations prove that the game industry’s focus on technological progression is not only unsustainable in today’s age but unnecessary. While the graphical triumph of games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us Part II cannot be denied, the manufacturing of their meticulous veneers has become a toxic end unto itself. Although their attention to detail is certainly praiseworthy, we should also consider the purpose and cost of its excess. From a technological standpoint these two games are unparalleled, but this merit is undermined by the amount of worker exploitation necessary to achieve it. The pressure on developers to make these sorts of technical advancements is inevitable in an industry fuelled by the constant advancement of increasingly demanding hardware. It seems unlikely that AAA studios will suddenly embrace a philosophically indie approach to game development, but in due time this adaptation may prove to be the only sustainable way forward.

Works Cited

Rogers, Tim. “1994: The Kotaku Review.” YouTube, uploaded by Kotaku, 27 Dec 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7HF7v9wUUA&t=31s

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