In the Next Generation of Video Games, Indies are the New Exclusives

As I was lying in bed the other night, I found myself thinking about Sonic and Mario.

While that could serve as the intro to any number of creepy fan fiction tales, my thoughts were much more earnest, yet still slightly troubling. Specifically, they were about how the blue hedgehog and vertically gifted plumber were real oddballs as far as company mascots go, in that they weren’t really dreamed up by a PR team or advertising firm, but rather by the products themselves.

See, Mario and Sonic weren’t mascots because they fulfilled a certain percentage of demographic requirements or someone felt they could best be easily packed into a happy meal, but rather because they clearly represented exactly what you got with the product their faces were associated with. If you bought Sega, you got Sonic games. If you went Nintendo, Mario was your man.

Sonic Mario
They were the icons of an era when gaming exclusives drew lines in the sands and led to some of the fiercest playground battles over system loyalty the industry would ever see. Sonic/Sega fans would push and say “Sonic games are faster, and therefore better. Plus, we’ve got blood in Mortal Kombat.” The Mario/Nintendo loyalist would throw sand in their foe’s eyes and retort, “oh yeah? Well Mario’s about the adventure, and so is Final Fantasy.” It was a time when you usually owned only one system, and you owned it because you would only get certain games. It was…well kind of a glorious age.

It wasn’t meant to last though, as even though the 32/64 bit era only barely blurred the party lines, with every subsequent gaming generation, it became harder and harder to separate one system from another just by looking at the games on the store shelves. By the time that Peter Moore revealed a “GTA IV” tattoo on his arm at E3, the message was clear that Triple A titles had become too big and too expensive to only commit to one system or another and, outside of some in-house and privately published development teams, the idea of big name exclusives was a dying light in the night drowned out by the dawn of a new day.

Ideally it’s the optimal situation for consumers. You buy a system, and you have access to almost every major game, with as few exceptions as possible. To me though, it’s a sad thought, as I sometimes long for a time when there were an assortment of games I couldn’t play because I could only afford one system. When that one guy in the neighborhood who bought the Xbox would show us all “Halo” and have us regret our PS2 decision (if only for a moment), or when N64 owners could stretch arguments with their Playstation rivals on into the morning by just dropping the name “Goldeneye” every now and then.

A peaceful thought occurred to me though, and suddenly I worried no more about the bygone era of exclusives, as I realized that they are, in fact, making a comeback in the form of indie games.

If you followed Gamescon this year, you’ll have no doubt noticed that the word on the lips of every Microsoft,Sony, and Nintendo representative was “indie.” Whether it be Sony revealing that Minecraft, Rogue Legacy, and The Binding of Issac would be part of the PS4 family, Microsoft unveiling a pretty daring new system to encourage indie development, or Nintendo showing that indie developers are fully prepared to make use of the unique capabilities of the Wii U, it became clear that both companies have suddenly realized that indies are no longer a niche market ran by eccentrics and snatched by the gaming version of hipsters, but a viable and exciting source of incredible new ideas, and creative final products.

Even better, indie games can afford to lose. They are often low cost, low maintenance, high concept works that don’t rely on reaching a certain figure to be considered viable, and as such they can throw caution to the wind and take some big risks while still making a profit off of even the most modest sales. That means they can also afford to remain loyal to a system like an undertaker with a debt to the don, as while they might want the money that can come with being a multi-platform release, what they need is the backing and spiritual support of a major company like Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo to get their games out there. A backing that is no longer lip service and is becoming very, very real.

In a way its reminiscent of the film industry in the ’90s, when guys like Quentin Tarantino were causing as much buzz as names like Steven Spielberg, and for a fraction of the cost. It was a time when film studios were snatching up every indie film they could get, while others like Miramax were becoming among the most successful around for being known as the home of daring new independent films that not only excited audiences with their infinite artistic possibilities, but equally thrilled their producers with insane profit margins.

From everything that we’ve seen and heard so far, it looks like gaming companies are doing just the same, as an arms race to acquire as many indie games as possible is about to get very heated. Just like there is still some studio executive who is kicking himself for missing out on The Blair Witch Project’s profits, no gaming company wants to be the one who turned down the chance to have the next Minecraft solely on their system. Perhaps more than ever, the power in games belongs to the individual artists.

The age of system mascots and Triple A exclusives may be a fading memory, but it’s really no matter, because the one we are about to enter where innovative new ideas and bold risks are rewarded, encouraged, and prized above all may just be the most exciting time ever to be a gamer. All the hype on which system you should buy may be focused on what a system costs, or what it can and can’t do in its multimedia capabilities, but trust me when I say that in the end, you’ll be keeping an eye on who’s got what indie titles all to themselves when deciding which console is right for you.