Indie games and their developers can be a very interesting point of discussion. When considering how much games cost to make, how huge a task it can be, you'd think it near impossible for a couple blokes in a basement be able to make a whole game in a few years, comparing it to film making which is arguably easier, you wouldn't dream of making a whole 90 minute feature film all by yourself, yet somehow games developers make it work with blood sweat and tears. They garner pretty huge fanbases too, there are some people who will bend over backwards for new indie developers, but won't give the time of day to published titles. While somewhat more controversial for many reason's, We Happy Few, previously a little indie survival game is receiving criticism because they were just acquired by a big name publisher. (more details here, it's not just publishing issues.) In this article, I want to touch on some of the things that make indie games tick, and why they have earned this reputation.
One of the most instantly recognisable traits of indie games, is the lack of photo-realistic graphics. They don't have the time, money or manpower to create that kind of product, it's a simply problem though, you just have to look outside the box to make the game still look and play good, with as few resources as possible. We call these, stylised graphics. They will still have detail in them, but they will limit it and allow their scene's to be simpler and let the players imagination take over more. Games like Salt and Sanctuary get through with simple 2D animation, games like Gone Home have used a lack of bump mapping, simple models, and modest textures to create a flatter image from scene to scene, and tried to keep it clean so you didn't focus too hard on the lack of graphical fidelity the game settled with. The decision to use simpler techniques early on and work with them, is an intelligent decision because you don't need these extra techniques to make a game look good, a good artist can make amazing things with just a single permanent marker, if they know what their tool's are capable of. While they might get better results with more advanced techniques and equipment, they don't chase after that impossibility and focus on doing the best with what is in front of them.
Majority of these games also try to keep their games short, sweet and too the point. This is another one of the indie games limitations, they don't have the money or manpower to make a game on the scale of say Metal Gear Solid, or Elder Scroll's. The don't have the team to build that kind of game, so they have to settle for something smaller. This isn't always a bad thing though, because with smaller projects you can give more due care and attention to every individual part of the game, than you ever could making a Battlefield or Call of Duty sized game. You have the liberty of play-testing the entire game not just for bugs, but for quality. You get to ensure that every line of dialogue a character says fits them, you get to ensure that every side-quest is a value add to the game, or that every encounter, puzzle, or event is worthwhile.
A game I played recently is a very good case refering to this. Mages of Mystralia, a little adventure/puzzle game, is a game simply brimming with character and thought. Even nobody NPC's you talk to have some sort of personality, the world itself is packed with minute little details and information. Such example's I noticed were all of the headstones in a cemetary having unique writing on them. One of them was related to the story, "This one seem's to have been freshly dug." "..." which held a lot of story significance, It was refering to the protagonist's uncle dying to her actions at the beginning of the game. Others would be the little scars the protagonist's actions leave on the world. You burned down an evil tree spirit, you can see where they died scorched into the ground. These little details are something that's easy to miss in a game the scale of Elder Scroll's, though they try their best, you simply can't get to all of it with the same level of care, and they are essential for building a world, turning a level from a part of the game, to a real believable place.
There are hundreds of examples of this amongst indie games, Undertale springs instantly to mind as a game that just didn't stop at a one word answer. Every character in the game has a personality, even some of the near nameless enemies have personality and character. Salt and Sanctuary, they had the liberty of extensively play testing and improving the game systems, well past when the game was "finished". Because the game is somewhat smaller with simpler graphics and a simpler engine, it is a lot more manageable of a task to develop where the game was lacking. These are a little bit dated, but PopCap games' work in Peggle and Plants vs Zombies did this too. They started with really simple idea's, but instead of leaving it just black and white, they spent time fleshing out wacky and wonderful characters to inhabit it.
There is one game however, that I want to mention not because it possesses this trait and uses it well, but rather because they specifically decided against that. Hellblade, Senua's Sacrifice completely breaks this mold, they decided it was more important for the game to focus more on the technical side of things, making sure the gameplay is good, making the graphics are as high quality as possible and avoiding a stylised art style. You could tell that indie charm wasn't on their agenda, they wanted to provide a different kind've experience that that. Still an amazing game regardless from what I know, but for different reason's.
Indie games are an interesting subject, I think it's amazing that they knew they couldn't beat the big developers at their own game, so they found their own little niche's and slipped through the cracks to gamers publishers just can't reach. It's certainly important that both exist (even if publishers have been commiting suicide recently with these PR moves and "money is everything" attitude) because there are some games that little indie companies will certainly struggle creating. I mentioned Hellblade earlier, but I consider that an outlier from a seriously talented team, and not everyone can follow Ninja Theory's footsteps. Some of the problems development teams face, is just simply not being able to pay their workforce to finish the game by the deadline, something a multi million dollar company just so happens to be useful for.