2019 Year-in-Review: Independent Studios of the Year

It’s the last day of the year! Though no slowing down just yet. My year-end posts roll on with an extremely special one to me. During 2019, I’ve branched out more into critical reviews. With that I’ve written more about independent games, which are seriously the lifeblood of creativity in the games industry. As the barriers to entry of publishing on major platforms is more a reality than ever, these types of teams can earn the type of exposure they deserve.

I admit that “indie” is such a nebulous term, so let’s not get caught up in nailing down a definition. Rather, I plan to highlight those studios that either are smaller in scope, aren’t owned by major publishers and/or produce games on a lighter budget. These certainly vary in size, though each of them operates on their own and that’s what counts.

Here’s my list of seven awesome indie teams of 2019.

Asobo Studio (France)

I wrote about it in my review, A Plague Tale: Innocence is one of the most powerful games I played this year. And I was admittedly skeptical of it when I saw streams during E3. It’s the breakout game by French team Asobo Studio, previously known for working on adaptations of Pixar games and supporting the likes of ReCore and The Crew 2, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. Plus, its enemy design and artificial intelligence technology is extra impressive as the player navigates a pair of siblings through middle century, plague-ridden France. A likely candidate to occupy a very high spot on my Game of the Year list, and I’m not the only one.

Bungie (United States)

You know I couldn’t finish these annual awards without mentioning the Destiny franchise. Maker of my favorite online looter shooter Bungie is now technically independent after its split from Activision Blizzard in January. Since then, the team released the Shadowkeep expansion for Destiny 2, offered a free version of the game, moved to a more seasonal event-driven model, instituted cross-save functionality for players to take characters anywhere plus became the flagship launch title on Google Stadia. Granted, the Washington-based studio is larger than most indie teams. Yet as a self-publisher it now faces many of the same challenges. And has succeeded in facing them thus far, to the point where I’m as excited as ever for its future.

Gabe Cuzzillo (United States)

A one-man team is still a team. Gabe Cuzzillo created one of the most unique, striking games of 2019 in the frenetic, stylistic Ape Out. Cuzzillo is a graduate of NYU Game Center and made his second game here in conjunction with fellow student Bennett Foddy and associate professor Matt Boch. Ape Out is top-down beat-em-up where the minimalist jazz soundtrack reacts to the player controlling an ape trying to, well, get the heck out of places. It was a finalist for the Independent Games Festival back in 2016 then published by Devolver Digital in February, one of those unforgettable indie games defined by its brash style and killer soundtrack.

House House (Australia)

Speaking of memorable indie gaming experiences, 2019 might as well be the Year of the Goose. Back in 2017 when House House announced that we’d play as a goose on the loose in its second game, I was captivated immediately. Right after the Australian team released on Switch and PC in September, Untitled Goose Game and its antagonizing protagonist became an instant meme. The game itself is really a puzzle game where the player, as the annoying goose, moves along by playing tricks on residents of the English countryside. One million copies, award nominations galore and plenty of funny GIFs later, House House is undoubtedly one of the year’s finest honking studios.

Kojima Productions (Japan)

Celebrity game designer Hideo Kojima split from Konami in 2015 to found his own studio, and 2019 showcased the fruits of this labor with the release of Death Stranding. Last month I wrote extensively on my thoughts on Kojima Productions’ debut game, featuring a star-studded cast with incredible tech and cutscenes despite wavering in its gameplay elements and cumbersome systems. However, there’s no denying its importance. It’s Sony’s biggest PlayStation 4 exclusive in 2019, receiving numerous industry awards. As divisive as Death Stranding turned out, Kojima’s team of around 80 fits a unique space within the industry in that it’s aligned with a platform holder yet operates autonomously. Creating whatever it wants to make. I respect that, regardless of my personal opinion on the final product.

Mobius Digital Games (United States)

The more I reflect on Outer Wilds, and distance myself from it, the greater I appreciate its significance despite frustrations I describe in my review. The first-person exploration game is truly a special indie title, with its own solar system and stories to discover. It’s open-ended, allowing the player to figure out what’s going on rather than presenting it explicitly. It sparks wonder by suggesting questions on intelligent life, the universe and mortality. Considering how much I like it the more I think about it over time, the tight-knit, California-based team created one of the most remarkable titles of the console generation, let alone the year. They are an absolute lock for this list.

ZA/UM Studio (Estonia/London)

It’s the last entry on my list of the top indie studios of 2019, and honestly a late addition. ZA/UM are the creators behind Disco Elysium, a bold detective RPG with political themes and internal monologues that cleaned house across multiple categories at The Game Awards this month. The studio’s story is incredible, a team of around 30 people that moved from war-torn Estonia to London during development. These efforts paid off. This traditional role-playing game featuring an alcoholic cop trying to solve a murder within a city of varying political ideologies is one of the most prominent examples of what an indie project should be. And sits among the most memorable of 2019. Compelling. Weird. Unafraid. The type of game that not only occupies a genre, but transcends it.

There we have it. Shout out to all the amazing developers that made the list! Your hard work and dedication to your craft is greatly appreciated.

One more post to go for 2019 year-end accolades: My Top 10 Games of the Year. Stay tuned. It should be a fun one!

Sources: Studio websites and press photos, GamesIndustry.Biz, New York University, The Game Awards.

-Dom

Review: It’s Worth Taking a Plunge into the Pinball-Themed Creature in the Well

Amidst the pantheon of pinball-inspired video games like Sonic Spinball, Devil’s Crush and more recently Yoku’s Island Express, Creature in the Well cements its position right from launch then makes a definitive case to be considered among the very best. Boasting beautiful art and snappy mechanics plus a mysterious plot line, Flight School’s creative indie blends mechanics in the most unique of ways. It’s a seamless mix of traditional pinball elements, dungeon-crawling and sword combat that rewards the player constantly. Even with minor quality-of-life omissions, late game pacing hiccups and tricky boss encounters, I can’t recommend it enough.

Noticeable right after, hm.. launching the game is its eye-catching artwork. Almost paper-mâché in its aesthetic. A wide-ranging color palette featuring bright oranges and subtle blues creates a world in which a massive sandstorm has forced survivors to retreat within a camp called Mirage, guarded by the ever-present, titular “Creature.” Its minimalist approach is ideal in this setting, in that it acts to enhance the game’s focus on mechanics rather than causing any distraction.

General premise is the player hacks and slashes through the world as the last “BOT-C” robot engineer, trying to power up a massive weather device built into a mountain that can allegedly dissipate the storm. “How?,” one might ask. Well. By plunging into abandoned areas of the mountain to smack balls of light at objects to create energy, naturally! Individual goals come down to powering up a number of areas within the apparatus, each with a distinct color arrangement and theme like Power Reserves or the Archives. The ultimate end being to overcome the Creature then switch on the machine.

Characters such as a friendly amphibian Roger T. Frog, a descendant of one of the original weather device project leads, plus half alligator, part alien Danielle are the sole non-playable characters (NPCs) present in this world. The Creature lurks literally down in a well on the outskirts of Mirage, taunting throughout the journey. Villagers hint they are hiding in their homes while you approach. A clever way to instill mystery, even if I’d prefer it be more interactive. It’s low key a funny game, between intimate dialogue sequences with Roger and Danielle in addition to documents or world items found at the end of each section.

Boasting beautiful art and snappy mechanics plus a mysterious plot line, Flight School’s creative indie blends mechanics in the most unique of ways. It’s a seamless mix of traditional pinball elements, dungeon-crawling and sword combat that rewards the player constantly.

It’s remarkable to remember that Creature in the Well is the work of mainly two developers from Flight School’s studio, Adam Volker and Bohdon Sayre, with bits of support from additional teammates. There’s more content and lore than I anticipated. Throughout my upwards of eight hours with the game it becomes increasingly clear that every section is hand-crafted with obvious reverence for the game’s inspirations.

Presentation is via an isometric view, though its camera is much more dynamic than traditional games using this perspective. Shifting in angle while following the protagonist winding through corridors. Moving vertically while confronting the Creature in a boss fight. I’m openly not a huge fan of games using this type of vantage. It’s essential here to maximize the viewing angle and effectively simulate a virtual playfield, so I applaud the design choice over a more third-person action or static top-down like say The Legend of Zelda.

Each room is a self-contained puzzle, the source of the game’s real joy. Progression is achieved by absorbing energy through slashing orbs with one’s weapon to bounce them off bumpers, slingshots and related pinball accoutrements. BOT-C then opens doors with said energy, proceeding on to the next. Gameplay is furious and fluid, with obstacles to dodge and barriers to consider. In its most obvious tribute to its pinball roots, the best sequences require a level of precise shot-making that’s instantly gratifying. Volker and Sayre succeed in layering mechanics even late into the expedition, like exploding energy pillars or switches that cause pathways to emerge. It’s familiar enough without being predictable.

Game feel is top-notch, and it has to be here in order for it to work, with responsive controls and quick movement capabilities. Hit feedback is punchy, causing weapons to feel powerful when smacking around orbs. It’s worth saying Creature in the Well is far from an easy game, though I’d argue it’s accessible to all gamers. Certain rooms where enemies, hostile orbs and obstructions surround the player are tough. The nice part is other places offer no resistance whatsoever, they exist purely to build up energy while enjoying bright lights and flashy sounds. Like being able to control the flippers when a machine is stuck in attract mode.

Now, this might all end up feeling stale or overstaying its welcome if it wasn’t for nearly two dozen items and upgrades available. These are found strewn throughout both Mirage and the mountain, in secret areas. Which always provide a sense of accomplishment. While a few are cosmetic, the two main categories that drastically impact play are Strike Tools, which facilitate ball striking, and Charge Tools that impact how BOT-C takes hold of orbs then aims accordingly. Reminiscent of catching that coveted silver ball at the base of one’s flipper, in hopes to gain better aim.

I’ll admit when I first picked up a baseball bat or frying pan, I wasn’t quite sure how these would help. Or if they were only there to be visual and auditory pleasures. It then builds momentum by offering tools relevant to each section, like a magnetic fork or electrifying wand. Which are hugely important the more puzzle elements are thrown at the player. A personal favorite is the Fan Blade, which slows time to a crawl and opens potential for pinpoint precision. Later on, finding a weapon with a laser sight is, pun intended, a literal game-changer.

There are also cores around the world that allow Danielle to upgrade BOT-C’s health back at camp. This is essential for later stages, I highly recommend seeking these hidden areas. Oh, I almost forgot, your character wears a cape! So it’s only natural to have some fancy patterns available to find. My first standout was a regal shade of purple, then I finished the game with a scarlet ensemble. Fellow Hunters in Destiny or Castlevania enthusiasts will know just how cool it feels to dash around adorned with a beautiful, flowing cloak.

This all proves the duo of developers has crafted a title which embodies the “one more try” attraction of great pinball machines and dungeon crawlers alike. I’d even love the addition of challenge modes or high score trials. The mechanics are so tight that I’d welcome these if the team offers them in the future, albeit likely not realistic since they might be moving onto other things (bring that on, too!).

Gameplay is furious and fluid, with obstacles to dodge and barriers to consider. In its most obvious tribute to its pinball roots, the best sequences require a level of precise shot-making that’s instantly gratifying. Volker and Sayre succeed in layering mechanics even late into the expedition, like exploding energy pillars or switches that cause pathways to emerge. It’s familiar enough without being predictable.

While the loop of cutting through puzzles then returning to Danielle for upgrades is addictive, I do wish the town was more dynamic. Allowing me to hear stories from survivors or showing more reaction to my efforts. It feels drab once exploring it the first time. There’s one notable change that happens towards the third act, which highlights how much of a missed opportunity this is. I didn’t experience an urge to be in the hub world for any longer than I had to be.

Before ending this round, we’ve got to talk boss fights and difficulty. The antagonizing Creature chucks barbs at BOT-C throughout the game. Like an annoying skeleton with glowing eyes. It brags about how it’s controlling the town. Stalks from the shadows. Though curiously, it never actually destroys you. Instead it thrives on failure, plucking you from a dungeon and resetting your progress, which makes it all the sweeter when given the opportunity to stop it.

Most Creature fights are well-designed, challenging yet manageable. The type of balance that’s necessary in this context. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Two later bosses in particular are severely frustrating, totally killing both my character and the steady momentum the game had up until then. Because of later game pacing interruptions, Creature in the Well suffers a similar fate as many games in that its conclusion requires multiple attempts. Each one more exasperating than the last. Problem is, it’s less a culmination of skills and more the game throwing all of its myriad of tactics at once, leaning on that for difficulty rather than more advanced mechanics.

It was moving at such a consistent clip that I was struck by how devastating it felt. Somehow the very last gauntlet is much better, though breaking through the two Creature fights that almost stymied my motivation was an endeavor. While I felt like quitting, the gameplay was still so spirited that I’m glad I stuck through it. Fair warning is all.

Turning to quality of life features and other options, these are somewhat limited which is unsurprising. There’s no brightness setting, minimal visual flexibility. No colorblind mode. Due to its higher difficulty late game, any sort of assist mode would be welcome to increase accessibility. A mini-map displays in the bottom right corner with no quick way to expand it. As I noticed multiple unused buttons, ideally one of them could bring up the map rather than having to tab through the start menu.

Nintendo Switch performance is solid running on Unreal Engine, no complaints in docked mode. It’s especially great to move and fight with a Pro Controller. Handheld mode is fine though not preferred, unless you’re looking for artificial challenge. Joystick and button positioning means it’s trickier to be precise with shots and evasion. And oddly it’s noticeably dark when using Switch’s auto-brightness setting. As noted before, there’s limited in-game visual settings. Pushing the system-level brightness up remedies this, colors popping even on the smaller screen though this will of course impact battery life.

Minor complaints on a couple boss encounters and quality-of-life items aside, Volker and Sayre have created something special with this project. A unique take within a hybrid sub-genre. It’s especially telling that I’m praising it this much, considering that isometric hack-and-slash games are not my choice style.

Similar to a classic pinball table or timeless arcade cabinet, Creature in the Well is the type of game that’s both addictive in short bursts plus fulfilling over marathon sessions. The concept is straightforward enough: grab a sword, launch a ball toward the objects in order to clear the room. Which means mastery is the true goal. While a difficulty jump in the final areas are startling compared to everything prior, a rousing finale catapults it into the upper echelon of indie games in general released this year.

Amidst the chaos in a new room or boss fight, there’s that moment of zen within a game’s mechanics that we’re all chasing. Not unlike being razor-focused on an arcade game or entering the zone while flipping on a pinball table. Where onlookers stare, dazzled by the bright lights and nostalgic accents. This is the feeling that Creature in the Well evokes at its best. Which is great, because it’s at its best almost the entire time.

Title: Creature in the Well

Release Date: September 6, 2019

Developer: Flight School

Publisher: Flight School

Platforms: Xbox One (Xbox Game Pass), Nintendo Switch, PC (Windows 10 & Steam)

Recommendation: For anyone that even remotely likes pinball or dungeon crawlers, Creature in the Well is a must-play indie game this year. Honestly, even if these genres don’t often interest you, I still bet you’ll end up thinking it’s well worth the price of admission. I certainly did!

Sources: Popagenda, Flight School, Nintendo, Screenshots from Nintendo Switch.

Disclaimer: Review code provided on behalf of Flight School.

-Dom

Which Indie Video Game Has More Sales Potential: Mighty No. 9 or No Man’s Sky?

Mighty No 9 Box Art

No Man's Sky Box Art

 

There are a variety of factors that drive how well a product sells: cost, marketing, timing of release, inventories and consumer sentiment among them. When it comes to video games, publishers often target the demand side of the equation by either appealing to gamer nostalgia or innovating on a familiar concept in order to draw attention to their title within the vast landscape of games released today.

 

The creators of two upcoming indie games are using these tactics: Mighty No. 9, developed by Comcept/Inti Creates with publishing by Deep Silver; and No Man’s Sky, which is made and published by Hello Games. The former is a nostalgia play, with its Mega Man-influenced action-platforming gameplay, while the latter is a monumental effort in the space exploration/survival and flight simulation category, boasting an infinite universe for players to explore. Mighty No. 9 is releasing on a variety of platforms, while No Man’s Sky is a Sony PlayStation 4 “timed” console exclusive that will also be available on PC.

 

Deep Silver Logo

 

Both games have had an interesting history to date, which will certainly impact sales potential. Mighty No. 9 is the brainchild of former Mega Man producer Keiji Inafune, and was announced way back in 2013 with a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign that has since raised around $4 million on the strength of 67K backers. However, the game has been delayed multiple times, annoying backers and potential consumers, and has been ridiculed for generic gameplay reveals and an especially corny marketing trailer (see below). Review consensus also seems to be negative overall from early impressions.

 

 

Hello Games Logo

 

No Man’s Sky was revealed at E3 2014 to broad fanfare, though skeptics point out the game’s colossal ambition could ironically also be its downfall plus Hello Games has been quite secretive on what it exactly is that you do in the game other than explore its vast universe. The game has developed a fervent online following, and was originally scheduled for a release this month but has since been pushed back to August. Upon news of this delay, creator Sean Murray received death threats from crazed individuals. As much as this is pure insanity, it also displays the thirst for a game that perfects the space exploration genre.

 

Sean Murray Twitter

 

So, what kind of sales potential do indie campaigns like this have? Mighty No. 9 has a very attractive price of $30, though the negativity swirling around its Kickstarter campaign and several delays indicates to me that the hype level is dwindling at the worst possible time with its release this week. Though the Mega Man series that inspired the game has sold approximately 31 million units to date, the highest-selling title in the series is Mega Man 2 at around 1.51 million copies.

 

I can’t see Mighty No. 9 being anywhere near as successful, even considering the 67K or so backers. I can see around 450-500K copies worldwide lifetime at the most.

 

No Man's Sky Image

 

 

Now, No Man’s Sky is a bit of a different story. It has established a following that is already starved for both information and a great game in the genre itself, so I believe it can withstand its recent delay. And even though it is only releasing on PS4 and PC, and it’s a full-priced $60 game, I still see lots of upside with the current install base of PS4 being around 40 million and the game itself appealing to a PC audience. Another promising point is that we’ve seen solid sales for space titles recently, as names like Kerbal Space Program by Squad and Elite: Dangerous by Frontier Developments (FDEV) have sold over 1 million and 500K units, respectively. Even an older title like EVE Online by CCP Games is still estimated to have around 340K active players.

 

With the hype surrounding No Man’s Sky, success of (somewhat) comparables and its release timing before the pre-holiday rush, I estimate it could sell upwards of 1.5-1.75 million around the world with most of those coming this year.

 

Do you agree that Mighty No. 9 will sell less than No Man’s Sky? Or do you think the uncertainty around delays of both titles will mean that neither will sell particularly well?

 

Note that Mighty No. 9 releases on Tuesday 6/21, while No Man’s Sky is currently slated to come out on Tuesday, 8/9.

 

Sources: Deep Silver, Hello Games, No-Mans-Sky.com, Capcom, Frontier Developments, Kickstarter, YouTube.

 

-Dom