Low-Budget Games Steal Spotlight After Covid Delays Big Names

The annual video game convention E3 is normally full of teasers for splashy, graphic-rich games from big-name studios and surprise announcements about new titles. But this year’s online-only event was much quieter, with many hot releases delayed as a result of the pandemic. That gave games from independent studios a chance to steal the show.

Some of the most impressive reveals this year were small-scale, indie games that may not have the wow factor of something like Ubisoft Entertainment SA’s Assassin’s Creed but appealed to fans with interesting story lines, quirky graphics or unusual gameplay. Highlights included Replaced, a gorgeous cyberpunk-themed action game and debut title from Sad Cat Studios, and Twelve Minutes, in which players must break a time loop full of betrayal and murder. The game, from a division of film company Annapurna Pictures, stars Daisy Ridley and Willem Dafoe. Entries like these delighted fans and showcased the breadth of possibilities of video games.

Most years, E3 takes place in Los Angeles, where fans and industry professionals convene at the convention center to play demos and watch trailers for the hottest new games. Commercials and giant posters from expensive series like Call of Duty compete for attendees’ eyeballs, and fans come away excited about what’s coming in the fall.

This year, while there will be Microsoft Corp.’s Halo Infinite, promised in time for the holidays after a year’s delay, Nintendo Co.’s highly anticipated next game in the Zelda series won’t come until next year. Same with Elden Ring, a much-hyped dark fantasy based on the book that inspired Game of Thrones. Fans didn’t seem to mind, and left the show raving instead about Tunic, a Zelda-inspired action-adventure game starring a small fox developed by Canadian creator Andrew Shouldice, and Neko Ghost, Jump, a platforming game from Burgos Games, in which you can shift between 2D and 3D perspectives.

This explosion of independent games, which are usually made by small teams that aren’t funded by multi-billion-dollar corporations like Electronic Arts Inc., or Activision Blizzard Inc., is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the late 2000s, developers mostly had to partner with big publishers to get their games to audiences. The rise of digital distribution on PCs and consoles combined with the increased accessibility of game-making tools such as the Unity Engine have made it easy for solo developers, or two or three people working in a garage, to release successful games on their own. Some companies, such as Annapurna Interactive and Devolver Digital, have thrived as independent publishers, partnering with developers to release exclusively small, creative games.

Since the launch of the Sony Corp.’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One consoles in 2013, the tech giants have relied on indie publishers to help drive game sales between tent pole releases. Microsoft’s primary focus in recent years has been its Netflix-like subscription service, Xbox Game Pass, which offers access to a few hundred games for a monthly fee. Indie offerings can flesh out this service and allow fans to try out games that they might not have otherwise purchased for $20 or more on their own.

In fact, Microsoft released several dozen demos of indie games for Xbox players. Its showcase prominently featured indie titles including the role-playing game Eiyuden Chronicles, a spiritual successor to the beloved Suikoden series that raised more than $4.3 million on Kickstarter last year. The Redmond, Washington, software giant also announced an Xbox version of Hades, the indie sensation that won several prominent “game of the year” awards last year.

Big video games can tend to look and feel similar in order to reach the widest possible audiences so they can make back their monumental budgets. But indie games have the flexibility to explore new ideas and as a result, they can be some of the most exciting announcements. Fans know what to expect from EA’s Battlefield 2042 or Ubisoft’s Far Cry 6, but they were surprised by reveals such as Loot River, an indie from Slovakia’s straka.studio, that crosses the action combat of Diablo with the puzzles of Tetris.

Independent titles may lack the graphic fidelity present in those big games, but they can be just as striking, as evidenced by the animated game Sable, from Shedworks, which resembles a film from the popular Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli. And independent studios tend to release more non-violent games than the big companies. This year, 33% of the titles announced at the recent game showcases were non-violent, with the vast majority of them from indie studios, according to GamesIndustry.biz.

A list of “most anticipated” games selected by industry media at the end of the event this week included Twelve Minutes and Songs of Conquest, a newly announced strategy game from Swedish developer Lavapotion.

“I’ll mostly remember E3 2021 as a blur of indie games,” wrote Jordan Devore, editor for the video game blog Destructoid.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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