VGArt has no tendency to categorize and discriminate games. VGArt critical approach is based on few general empirical principles that relate to the art experience in all its forms, beyond any other classification. So VGArt searches videogames art everywhere, in the mainstream as well as in the indie landscape.
Differences can only be underlined a posteriora, but do not preclude critical research, which is beyond any easy ideology and categorization. The differences emerge from the empirical data and it would be wrong not to bring them to our attention.
You can see with your eyes that VGArt curator list contains mainstream and indie games indifferently. Someone with a greater sense of observation could notice that the selected games are mostly classifiable as indie or more precisely as indie AAA, those indie productions that are somewhat richer and best known. You may also notice that games classified as mainstream date back more than several years ago, there are fewer ones among the most recent titles.
This is a posteriora result of a research based upon not-discriminatory criteria of the two categories and is not to be reported to personal preferences, but only to the response of a research conducted with founded and declared criteria. Obviously art has a minor objectivity than science, some subjectivity is unavoidable, but critic discussion never stops.
That is why the collected data tells us a lot about the two landscapes, indie and mainstream, and allow us to make a fairly objective analysis lacking of ideological and political tendencies.
That’s the fundamental question:
What mainstream and indie are?
Mainstream refers to the rich AAA game productions by big software and distribution companies that dominate the market, supported by the advertising of several paper and online magazines and mediatic events. Indie, on the other hand, refers to smaller game productions, having smaller financial, technologic and human resources (small teams), more limited distribution and lower advertising support. These terms, mainstream and indie, have always been used for movies (Hollywood films and independent films), music (big recording labels and indipendent bands) etc.
The difference generally lies therefore in market and production organization , not only for art and entertainment. Just think of the difference between major retail and distribution chains and artisanship-like productions in gastronomic market. It’s the same concept.
IT IS THE PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION SCALE TO MAKE THE DIFFERENCE.
What does it mean?
Mainstream productions focus on production performances, trying to maximize earnings; they can not do otherwise considering their dimensions and proportions. If a small independent studio fails, no one notices it except those concerned, who will have to find another way to survive; if a colossus like Ubisoft fails, it’s a great problem, because thousands and thousands of people work and create a mega-billionaire business around Ubisoft; I do not think we need any other explanation.
Large-scale production, on the other hand, allows for unmatched financial, technological and human resources. What are these massive resources for? First of all, for the quantity. Many games have to be produced and sold in the shortest time possible, or at least lots of copies of few titles must be sold. So, mainstream productions are for the masses. Consequently, on the average, they are almost never experimental, intellectual, artistic products. They are incline to entertain without big pretensions, to tickle average consumer instincts. This does not mean that they always lack of quality. There are times when a compromise is reached and titles of certain importance are produced, but this happens rarely and especially in fat years, when big companies may risk a little more, not in lean years. That’s why the mainstream games recommended by VGArt are not so many and have diminished in recent times: because of the recent and actual general crisis in the global market! So today mainstream productions tend to recycle old ideas, old franchising, old graphic engines, old libraries, old gameplay and mechanics, using poor artistic features (contents, storytelling, aesthetics, animations, AI, acting, dialogues, psychologies etc. etc.) for mass oriented products without originality and not so much appealing.
BUT WHEN YOU HAVE IN YOUR HANDS SOME QUALITY MAINSTREAM TITLES, AS ASSASSIN’S CREED 2, DEUS EX HUMAN REVOLUTION, RED DEAD REDEMPTION, THE WITCHER 3 ETC., YOU HAVE TO ENJOY, NOT TO CLOSE YOUR MIND AND REFUSE MAINSTREAM AS A TABOO.
Don’t forget that especially in the past, big companies have stimulated the technological progress of development tools, building the foundation of indie productions. TODAY PRODUCTION OF HIGH-TECH GAMES WITH AMAZING GRAPHIC SKILLS IS INCREASINGLY IN THE POTENTIAL OF SMALL DEVELOPMENT TEAMS THANKS TO THE TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENT OF DEVELOPMENT TOOLS.
Indie AAA productions are growing more and more. And they are innovating and pushing beyond the boundaries of videogames, much more than mainstream productions. It’s a fact.
Portal 1 and 2 were inspired by young indipendent developers hired by Valve, which at the time was a small/medium-scale company.
The Walking Dead S1 and Life Is Strange are two of the best selling and innovative games in recent years; they were produced by small-scale companies such as Telltale and Dontnod, now richer and bigger than before! Telltale made the big jump thanks to the big sales of TWD1, produced with small resources but great intelligence and creativness; now Telltale has changed its production and distribution scale, it’s a medium/big companies that invests in quantity more than quality! I think it is wrong to deny the quality that has brought you to success… I hope Dontnod is not going to do the same mistake with its upcoming title Vampyr and the next Life Is Strange game recently announced….
Do you see? INDIE AND MAINSTREAMS ARE NOT SEPARATE WORLDS.
But you cannot deny that today indie landscape is more effervescent, innovative and promising; let’s think of games such as The Path, The Cat Lady, Dear Esther, Beyond Eyes, The Stanley Parable, The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter, Journey, The Unfinished Swan, The Talos Principle, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, Abzu, Firewatch, Inside, What Remains of Edith Finch, just to name a few.
BUT LET’S SAY THE TRUTH: LITTLE INDIE PRODUCTIONS ARE TOO MANY, AND MOST OF THEM ARE FORGETTABLE!!
Independent teams start and die continously like flies, but without serious consequences for themselves and for the market. On such large numbers the probability that a brave team comes out with the ambition of making art and being noticed, the desire to experiment and the ability to innovate with a relevant technical level, is very high. That’s exactly what I call indie AAA!
A MELTING POT OF HIGH TECH AND RICH RESOURCES OF MAINSTREAM PRODUCTIONS WITH FREE ARTISTIC AMBITION AND BRAVE INNOVATION OF INDIE PRODUCTIONS, IT WOULD BE THE BEST! Though rarely, it has happened in the past and i think it’s going to happen in the future. I think of games such as Shadow Of The Colossus by Fumito Ueda, which has taken advantage from Sony’s copious financial support.
As said, indie and mainstream are not separate world. MOST OF AAA INDIE TEAMS COME FROM JOB EXPERIENCES IN BIG COMPANIES! Just to make a recent example, let’s think of the independent and debuting Panache Digital Games, currently in the forefront with the development of Ancestors – The Human Odissey. Its creative director is Patrice Desiléts, the very one who developed the first and best three episodes of the Assassin’s Creed series at Ubisoft!! Today, creative people tend to start their own business and take risk while avoiding to work in big companies, where job routine is harder and there is less creative freedom. When an indie team fails, its members often return to work again in big companies as Ubisoft & Co!
There is also a new “force” training the market and favouring artistic indie productions:
some players are becoming more and more mature and demanding. PEOPLE BORN WITH SPACE INVADERS AND PAC MAN ARE NOW GROWN UP AND WANT TO KEEP PLAYING, BUT THEY ARE NO LONGER STIMULATED BY USUAL SIMPLE GAME MECHANICS BASED ONLY ON CHALLENGES (shoot, fight, jump, run, puzzle, etc.); THEY CALL FOR DEEPER EXPERIENCES, GREATER SUBSTANCE AND SMARTNESS, MORE ATTENTION TO CONTENTS, NARRATION, AESTHETIC, IN A WORD: ART. They want videogames to satisfy their “intellectual” appetite just like Cinema. Acclaimed titles like Firewatch, The Town of Light or What Remains of Edith Finch are the answer to this new market need.
IN RECENT YEARS VIDEOGAMES BIG COMPANIES HAVE WISELY DECIDED TO SUPPORT VALUABLE INDIE PRODUCTIONS. That’s how it was born games like Journey, The Unfinished Swan, What Remains of Edith Finch, etc. Square Enix Collective is an excellent example of what i’m saying. This fairly recent synergy is perhaps the best compromise; it can give rise to games that are not only for the mass but for a more demanding audience, and at the same time are supported by high budget, several human resources and high-tech tools. In the near future, more and more welcome surprises are attended from small and medium-scale productions, thanks to this new synergy, to the technological leap of development tools and to the cultural evolution of players.