Major publishers like Activision, PlayStation, Ubisoft, EA, and Konami have been responsible for creating some of the biggest and most influential games of all time, and gamers owe some of the greatest games to them. With that being said, due to the rising cost of video game development, many studios and publishers have begun sticking to what they know will sell: doubling down on pre-established franchises and popular gameplay types and taking fewer risks.
More often than not, the companies that we see take the biggest risks are small independent studios. Some of the best games created in the past fifteen years were from small studios, and they’ve been showered with praise. Today, we’ll be discussing a few indie game developers that won awards, and what made their games so successful.
Gears for Breakfast revitalized 3D platformers
The Nintendo 64 era popularized the 3D platformer, with titles such as Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie. Over the course of the next decade, few other great 3D platformers would be released until an independent gaming studio known as Gears for Breakfast took to Kickstarter in 2013. The indie team raised funds for A Hat in Time, which was pitched as a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie and similar games. The Kickstarter was wildly successful, raising nearly ten times its $30,000 goal. With the enormous amount of hype, it wasn’t clear if the team could actually deliver on their promise – and yet, they somehow did.
A Hat in Time was a roaring success when it was finally released four years later in 2017. Starring Hat Kid, the game featured large colorful worlds, lush 3D environments, charismatic and fun characters, and fluid platforming gameplay. The title very much felt like an iteration of what Super Mario 64 first established but with many modern gaming conventions.
Interestingly many major AAA gaming studios and publishers have followed in the footsteps of Gears for Breakfast, with tons of major 3D platformers of the past such as Spyro the Dragon, Crash Bandicoot, and even Bubsy making their returns. There have even been a good number of brand-new 3D platformers released after A Hat in Time, including Demon Turf and Super Lucky’s Tale.
It’s not every day that you see a brand new indie developer revive an entire major video game genre from the dead, but Gears for Breakfast clearly isn’t your average indie studio. A Hat in Time was nominated for many game awards, including NAVGTR’s Outstanding Original Family Game.
Concerned Ape launched farming sims back into the mainstream
If you’re a fan of indie games, then chances are, you are well aware of Stardew Valley. One of the most successful indie games of all time, Stardew Valley was developed by one man – Eric Barone – over the course of nearly five years. Barone developed his game both as a love letter to the Story of Seasons/Harvest Moon games and also to iterate upon the farming sim with various quality-of-life fixes and tweaks to improve on the pre-established formula.
Prior to its release, the farming sim genre was pretty much dead. Now, the sub-genre has absolutely exploded in popularity. This is simply because Stardew Valley injected so much extra life into the game genre, introducing heaps more gameplay variety, depth, and quality-of-life features.
The game featured four distinct seasons with tons of different crops to grow, livestock to raise, fish to catch, recipes to cook, caves to explore, and so much more. The world also had a whole cast of townspeople that all had distinct personalities, with the ability to marry and have children. Players could create a farm together online, with up to four players together at once. While many of these features were present in Harvest Moon, none of them were fleshed out as much or had quite as much variety. The sheer amount of content and replay value that Stardew Valley provided was unmatched.
Stardew Valley is a shining example of a game that is born from sheer love and passion; a gamer at his core, Eric Barone managed to craft a genuinely amazing game all by himself. The story of Stardew Valley’s creation should be inspirational for all prospective game developers, as it shows that anything is achievable with enough hard work, determination, and passion.
Playdead Studios mastered environmental storytelling
As discussed previously in the post on horror games, Limbo was one of the most influential and successful early indie games, with its 2010 release. The game defied traditional notions of what was possible for a 2D platformer and horror title and mastered the art of storytelling in games. Playdead Studios continued its success with the release of a second game, Inside.
While Inside was less visually unique – opting for full color over the similar black-and-white aesthetics seen in Limbo – the game managed to surpass it in many areas. While many narratively-driven games push their story forward through character dialogue or in-game text, Inside tells its story entirely through its environment.
Playing as a young boy, you must run, jump, and climb your way through the various areas, escaping from your unknown assailants and venturing toward an unknown destination. Inside’s brilliance lies in how the game’s story slowly reveals itself through various context clues from the environment, with the player connecting the dots until the story eventually reaches its climax.
In 2016, NAVGTR honored Inside with several nominations, including Art, Animation, Camera Direction, Design, and Game of the Year.
Team Cherry refined Metroidvania gameplay
While many indie titles find success by completely reinventing the wheel, other games do so by simply sticking to known formulas and iterating upon them. Team Cherry does the latter by delivering an excellent Metroidvania with their debut title, Hollow Knight. Set within a dark insect world with a massive map that the player must traverse, Hollow Knight is structured like a fairly standard Metroidvania. The player slowly unlocks more and more of the singular map as they gain new abilities and moves, fighting various enemies and bosses along the way.
Simply from a gameplay perspective, Hollow Knight is unmatched by its peers. The game has some of the smoothest, quickest, responsive controls ever in a 2D side-scroller, with several different attacks and moves that feel satisfying to pull off. Speaking of which, the game features a breathtaking hand-drawn art style with fast and fluid animations that offer great responsiveness to the player’s input. Everything from jumping to dodging feels great, largely thanks to the fluidity of the animation.
Hollow Knight features grueling difficulty. Thanks to the great controls, the challenge always feels fair and justified. When you die for the hundredth time, you understand that you are the one to blame, not the game itself.
While Hollow Knight doesn’t necessarily do anything too new as a Metroidvania, it succeeds with charm in every single department. The game was nominated for and won countless game awards including Game Developers Choice Awards’ Best Debut Game, BAFTA’s Best Debut Game, and Golden Joystick Awards’ Nintendo Game of the Year.
Nominate Your Game Today
Even the smallest gaming studio is capable of greatness. If your indie team has recently developed a game that is award-worthy, then consider submitting to NAVGTR. Nominate your game today.