Sequels vs. New Ideas: Why 2014 Was the Year of the Smaller Titles

Last year, in my opinion, was a low-key year for gaming. There were very few blockbuster games, and nothing really changed the industry or blew everyone out of the water like The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite did in 2013. However, a general trend showed its face in 2014, and it might be growing. Any trend like this should be noted and analyzed if we are to understand the future of this industry, and this could mean a dramatic change in gaming as a whole. The year of 2014 saw a shift from the reigning champions of the big-budget titles to the underdogs of the indies and smaller titles. Let’s dig in.

Last year was embarrassing for many publishers. Companies have started to realize the obvious trend of pre-orders and day one purchases, and so they are releasing unfinished products. Glitchy, buggy, broken games are let out into the public, with no care for the buyers besides their wallets. Games are left unfinished, put onto disks, and sold to the masses to be fixed later. Ubisoft was the chief of this in 2014. High-profile games such as Watch_Dogs and Assassin’s Creed: Unity were released completely broken, with issues plaguing the launches of both from performance issues to the infamous missing face textures. The company has tried to atone to their mistakes by giving away free games or DLC, but they have shown no real remorse in what they’ve started doing.

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Ubisoft was the new EA this year, grabbing for money and releasing multiple broken games.

Even big names like Sony and Microsoft have given in to such bad habits to get the game out in time. LittleBigPlanet 3 was released with crashing and saving issues on both platforms, and Driveclub had severe issues with its internet connectivity, a crucial part of the game. Halo: The Master Chief Collection is quite possibly the most disappointing due to its status as Microsoft’s major franchise, as the four beloved games came bundled into one disgrace of a package. There were bugs that came directly from the PC ports of the original two games, as well as a slew of others for the entire collection. Xbox Live was possibly the biggest issue, as many issues stemmed from internet play. The dedicated servers that were promised before launch were nonexistent, so peer-to-peer play was necessary which opened up the possibility of cheating. Connecting to friends and parties, if even possible, was a nightmare. Even with patches post-launch, matchmaking was horrid, with unbalanced teams and players being mixed up. It took 343 Industries 12 days to even apologize.

This kind of behavior is unacceptable for such major publishers to get away with. It’s probably the worst thing since an overabundance of paid DLC and on-disk and day 1 DLC. No one should have to worry about if a game they’re excited for will be broken when they try to play it as soon as they can. However, as people continue to buy games through pre-orders and day 1 purchases, companies won’t get the message. They will continue to push broken games out, and money will continue to be wasted. That’s why it is always important to watch and read reviews before purchasing a game. Usually reviews will come out from a week before launch to the actual launch day. Wait until multiple reviews are put out before judging whether a game is worth your money.

The one exception to this behavior is Nintendo. Nintendo is constantly overlooked in the “hardcore” scene of gaming due to what seems like a failure for the Wii U, and the mostly casual-looking games they release. When your name is synonymous with Mario’s and the Wii’s, it’s hard to get back to the good side of the core gamers. However, they do know how to respect their customers. Games are only released by them when they’re ready to be. Nintendo is rarely scared to push a release off, and I admire that. It could be in part that they have enough money saved up to work at a loss for another decade or two, but I still believe that they care about their fans enough to give them the games they’ve been waiting for.

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Nintendo is the only exception, releasing full, polished games to their loyal customers.

The major companies out there made 2014 hell for AAA releases, but that brought about a shift in power, in my opinion. As we saw popular franchises take hits after being broken and lackluster, we saw smaller titles receiving the spotlight for their merit. Indie companies shone through and began to display just how games should be made. They should be made out of love and passion, not greed for money. The best games are the ones that the developers are passionate about; the ones that are made because the developer wants it to be made. These games are finished when the creators decide that their love project, their child, is ready for the world. They don’t have due dates or any mess that corporate companies do. However, a few smaller titles by big companies also saw the move back to the trend of lovingly created works.

As big titles fell flat, it was up to the smaller titles to make up for lost ground. Indie developers, usually in the shadows of Nintendo and Microsoft, came forward with games that became contenders for Game of the Year awards, and received immense critical praise for their ingenuity, new ideas, and love for what they’re doing. No one genre was taken by the indies; they swept the entire floor. People who like to explore a world at their own pace got The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Platforming was refined and built upon in games like Shovel Knight. Action-strategy games took a twist with Transistor and The Banner Saga. Survival games reached a popularity with the brutal Rust by Garry’s Mod developer’s Facepunch Studios and a look at the struggling survivors of war in This War of Mine. Cultural phenomena like Five Nights at Freddy’s 1 and 2 and Goat Simulator took the horror genre to a level of anxiety and the simulator genre to a comedic and hilarious level, respectively, that YouTube had never seen. Even a simple competitive game like Nidhogg turned out to be an absolute blast to play. No specific interest of gameplay was left untouched.

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The Banner Saga was just one of many games from indies in 2014 that came out finished and innovative.

The bar for presentation also was raised quite high. Storytelling in games evolved to new heights, with so many different ideas and mechanics introduced. The Lovecraftian murder mystery of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter let players explore and piece together a family’s descent into death and madness. Real-life folklore and mysticism were presented to the public in Never Alone‘s Iñupiaq snowy adventure. Telltale Games took player choice to a new level in all four of their releases last year, making every decision count and emotionally drawing people into their borrowed worlds. The Banner Saga did a similar thing, but created a whole new adventure and world on its own. Transistor infused its enigmatic story into its gameplay, relying on players to diversify their way of tackling battles in exchange for more knowledge. The soundtracks of most games listed here and many more were mind-blowingly gorgeous, bridging genres of not games but music to craft incredible scores. The graphics also vary greatly and reach to the depths of art to pull out unique styles that impress the senses, from ultra-realism to a cartoonish look to straight pixel art. All of it came together to create wonderful examples of why the medium should be seen as more than violent punching bags.

Indies weren’t the only ones making waves, though. Companies releasing small titles also prospered, specifically Ubisoft in this case. The masters of broken games last year possibly redeemed themselves with two smaller titles that they released. The first of which is one of my favorite games to come out of the year, being Child of Light. The storybook tale of Aurora had a huge impact on me, not only for its bedtime-like story and absolutely breathtaking watercolor art style, but its gorgeous piano-laden soundtrack that is one of my favorites of all time. The game is beautifully made and evokes a feeling of true childhood infused with a truly deep and strategic active turn-based RPG. The second saving grace from Ubisoft came in Valiant Hearts: The Great War. And adventure game of sorts, Valiant Hearts takes on the often-ignored-in-video-games World War I. Playing as five seemingly connected characters during an all-out war in Europe, the player finds out about family, friends, love, and loss in this informative experience. A large focus of the game is facts and stories of the war, with real items and information peppered throughout the adventure for those to look at if they’re interested. Another great point is the cartoonish art style, which works surprisingly well with the source material. Ubisoft’s smaller teams really put their hearts and souls into these games, and it shows in the product.

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Valiant Hearts mixed a touching and real-feeling story with actual facts and a beautiful art style to be Ubisoft’s saving grace.

The big games of 2014 weren’t at all bad games. They were admirable, to say the least. They looked good, they controlled well, and they were enjoyable to play. However, the indie titles definitely took the spotlight due to the new innovations and the polish and the love that was put into them. The trend for the last few years has been a slew of sequels coming from big companies while the new ideas are left to the indies to make. The big names in gaming are pushing out the same old games while indies are breaking boundaries. Just last year the smaller titles looked to be nominated for equal, if not more, awards than the AAA titles. People are starting to see the merit in all of these games when compared to the cash grabs of late. If this trend continues, we could see the entire ecosystem of gaming shift to the smaller titles. Personally, I am not opposed to innovation coming back into the mainstream market. These are the games that are keeping gaming interesting, and we need more of them.

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One Comment

  1. While I’m quite the fan of indies, I hope for a resurgence of quality in the AAA-space in 2015. Games like Dying Light, The Witcher 3, Arkham Knight, and (hopefully) Uncharted 4 are seeming to reinforce my hopes!

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