2020 Year-in-Review: Independent Studios of the Year

This is one of my favorite articles to write in recent years, showcasing the very best of independent gaming and the people behind the projects.

When covering games and tech, there tends to be a focus on the bigger players. Especially here when I analyze the business side. Yet the industry is so much more these days, with many of the most amazing experiences coming from smaller teams that aren’t owned by major publishers. Some of them even self-publish, a risky and admirable venture in today’s landscape.

This is their much-deserved moment, on the most prestigious list of all if I may. Congrats to everyone, on the list and otherwise, who worked hard to produce and publish their indie titles amidst everything the year tried to stop it. You are among the best, most talented creators and it’s a honor to play your games.

Here goes, in descending order until we arrive at Studio of the Year!

Kinetic Games

Out of all the teams on this most distinguished of lists, Kinetic Games is unique. It’s really just one person: Daniel aka Dknighter. From what I gather, he’s a 24-year old solo dev from the United Kingdom. I don’t even know if there’s a logo or branding. He released his first game into Early Access on Steam this year. That would be Phasmophobia, a four-player co-op ghost hunting jaunt into the dark corners of horror locales such as a creepy houses, deserted hospitals and abandoned prisons. Think the show Ghost Hunters, except way more immersive. And scary.

There’s a lot of super innovative ideas in Phasmophobia. It’s less about jump scares and more the overall aesthetic and environment that’s spooky. It uses a sanity meter, where the wrong choices can result in zero sanity where spirits become aggressive. Its ghosts are procedural, meaning they don’t have a set shape, form or characteristics. Each run is unique. There’s detective work involved, where even talking to your fellow hunters on the microphone or interacting with the environment can trigger a reaction from apparitions. There’s a more “hands off” role for people who aren’t keen on going hunting yet still want to assist their friends. Plus, it supports virtual reality. Why anyone would want to play a horror game in VR is beyond me, but it’s possible. It’s nowhere near the typical horror game, combining a ton of clever systems, which is the reason for its rise to popularity in 2020.

Asobo Studio

I didn’t think it was possible for France’s Asobo Studio to repeat on this annual list of the best indie teams. Then they made Microsoft Flight Simulator. In a stark contrast to their 2019 original game A Plague Tale: Innocence, the classic flight sim is a return for the franchise that had its start way back in 1982. I mean, that predates Windows OS itself. It used to be a pillar of the PC gaming community for decades and hadn’t seen a new release since 2006!

The technology, design acumen and scope of the latest Microsoft Flight Simulator is astounding. It’s a gorgeous 4K resolution. It leverages Microsoft’s Azure to render 3D representations. Pulls in from Bing Maps to create in-game assets, which means it reacts to the world and how different locales change. 37 thousand airports. A couple million cities. At least 20 different aircraft. Realistic piloting mechanics. Asobo even recently introduced a virtual reality mode. Attracting over a million players within weeks of release in August, it’s the fastest-selling game in the series and ended up as a safe way to get one’s travel fix during the pandemic.

Thunder Lotus Games

Based in Montreal, Thunder Lotus made one of the most emotional indies I played all year in Spiritfarer, a management simulator about spending time with loved ones, facing death and moving into the afterlife. As the player takes the role as the new ferry-master to the great beyond, the game blends painterly artwork, traditional simulation mechanics like building up a boat, harvesting, growing, feeding and crafting with a narrative about spirits one must shepherd towards their ultimate passing. Every interaction feels meaningful, and each map location ties into a story of one of the animal spirits met along the way.

Past projects from the team of around two dozen employees include Sundered and Jotun, yet Spiritfarer is their true breakout. Mainly because of its subject matter and intense sense of togetherness in a year where that was near impossible in real life. Something as simple as a hug between two characters felt like a momentous occasion, and I haven’t encountered a mix of bittersweet joy and sadness as much as the final moments alongside a character meeting their maker. It’s exceptional.

Young Horses Games

Bunger Bunger Bunger Bunger. What the heck am I talking about, you say? Bugsnax, of course! A hilarious collectathon puzzler about part-bug part-snack creatures. Made by Young Horses, a team of less than a dozen folks based out of Chicago, it was the most eye-catching and innovative of all PlayStation 5 launch titles. Led by CEO Phil Tibitoski, the studio previously known for Octodad: Dadliest Catch has now solidified itself as the maker of humorous, puzzle-based games with a ton of heart.

Funny thing is, Bugsnax may look cartoonish and light, which it is at times, yet there’s an underlying unease and tension as the player learns more about the inhabitants of Snaktooth Island both character and snack. What stuck with me as much as the clever creature designs, such as the aforementioned burger-beetle named Bunger, was the realistic depiction of relationships between islanders in the community. These folks have histories and dramas, current or lost loves, and it culminates in one of the most unexpected finales of the year. I imagine we’ll be talkin’ Bugsnax as an indie darling throughout this entire console generation.

Moon Studios

Fully remote indie developer Moon Studios followed up its 2015 instant indie classic Ori and the Blind Forest with yet another amazing game last year, the sequel Ori and the Will of the Wisps. It’s not often that the follow-up to a great project can both continue its story and mechanics well then improve on them in almost every single way. That’s what Moon did with 2D action metroidvania Will of the Wisps, as I wrote extensively in my review, one of the top games of 2020.

Its backdrop is a similar dreamlike aesthetic of the Forest, the art team really outdid themselves again, with the similar main character Ori and even higher stakes this time. Platforming is as smooth and pinpoint as ever, while combat is overhauled for the better with a variety of new abilities plus a slotting system of different traits to tailor one’s playstyle. There’s a new quest approach, opening up the map to possibilities and side content. Minus a somewhat tropey main villain, Will of the Wisps defines what a sequel should be and made for a most memorable of adventures.

Mediatonic

Flash back to August 2020. Couldn’t go a day without everyone talking about the latest phenomenon of the battle royale genre, this little old game with a clever twist. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout immediately dominated headlines for the entire month when it launched on PlayStation 4, via PlayStation Plus, and Windows PC. The competitive, physics-based platformer royale from Mediatonic, a London-based team with a history of making flash games and Murder by Numbers, found its groove with Fall Guys, hitting the 10 million units sold mark on Steam alone within a couple months.

While it didn’t necessarily have the longest of legs, mainly due to the next entry on this list, its moment was massive. Gameplay is simple, random and somehow elegant at the same time, effectively a fierce party game with its variety of stages and game modes. It provides a sense of progression via a free battle pass and its round-based approach. Plus there’s nothing quite like grabbing that crown to become the winner. Mediatonic proved there’s room for new ideas, and hilarious hijinks, in an over-saturated genre.

InnerSloth

Three Developers! One Communications Director! That’s the team behind Among Us, only one of the biggest multiplayer movements out right now. And it’s not even a 2020 game, technically. Forest Willard, Marcus Bromander (totally dope name), Amy Liu and Victoria Tran are responsible for one of gaming’s wildest stories in 2020, the resurgence of a 2D co-op/competitive spy game from 2018 about shipmates trying to get stuff done while some members are undercover imposters intent on wiping out the crew. (Like, you know your game is big when politicians are playing it online!)

Its gameplay is straightforward enough, centered around movement and completing tasks via puzzles. Genius arises in the interaction between people, making decisions on how to deceive or reveal the truth, convincing others that you aren’t the killer when you really are, that makes it special most notably in the streaming community. InnerSloth’s creation won best multiplayer game at The Game Awards recently, beating out the likes of Animal Crossing and Call of Duty, plus the much-deserved recognition here for the team’s brilliant idea and sound execution. These folks aren’t sus at all.

Supergiant Games

And finally, the indie Studio of the Year is none other than Supergiant Games. It’s impossible to talk the year in gaming without mentioning Hades. Honestly, a game about continually trying to escape Hell defines 2020. It’s simply one of the best roguelike, dungeon crawlers ever made. Want to know how I’m so sure? Because I love it, and I’m notorious for being sour on these genres.

Part of what makes Hades special is its journey. How it began in Early Access, transformed with feedback from the community and launched in peak form in September. Players take the role of Hades’ son Zagreus in his attempts to fight out of the underworld in order to learn more about his family legacy. Its action combat is exquisite. Weapon variety is great. All the mythical gods and personalities are here, many offering assistance in the form of boons that change how each run plays out. Then there’s the most important part, and that’s the persistent story progression. It’s self-referential, acknowledging Zagreus’ continued struggles when characters talk and react to the player’s actions. I’ll gush more about it during my Game of the Year article, suffice to say it’s a must-see of 2020.

Lastly, a special shout out to Supergiant for its company culture. Based on interviews, there isn’t a lot of turnover on the team. Many of the same people have been there throughout its release of critical standouts Bastion (way back in 2011), Transistor and Pyre. There’s zero crunch. Instead of mandatory overtime, there’s mandated vacations. Everyone checks out of work communication for the weekend on Friday afternoon. This is the type of studio environment I want to reward in this setting, not to mention how the result is an incredible game like Hades. It’s a model for studios everywhere, no matter the size.

There’s another list of awards complete. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by as I shout out the best of the indie space in 2020. Plenty more back at the Year-in-Review megathread, including the upcoming, historic Game of the Year awards. Until then!

Sources: AIAS Game Maker’s Notebook Podcast, Company Websites, Press Kits & Twitter, Xbox Wire.

-Dom

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