Yesterday, I was writing up a news article on the new Cuphead art book. Whilst I was typing away, it hit me that the game is nearly 2 years old, yet there is still such a demand for new content from a relatively small independent developer. What then, I pondered, is the secret to Cuphead’s success? What sets it apart from other, flash in the pan indie gems, helping it to last beyond their average lifespan?
Quite obviously, Cuphead certainly wasn’t the first indie game to set the world alight in this way, with titles such as Shovel Knight and Five Nights at Freddy’s having a similar appeal that lasted for many years and across multiple consoles. At a glance, there seems to be no link between these titles, other than their immense rags to riches stories.
On the other hand, there are those indie darlings which remain just that, not translating to the mainstream. Just this past year, Return of the Obra Dinn topped many critics’ best of 2018 list, despite going under the radar of the common gamer. In the same way, Celeste, a game I personally adore and feel extremely passionate about, whilst still being insanely popular within the indie community (appearing most days on Reddit threads and the like), simply doesn’t receive the same amount of commercial buzz after initial release as the aforementioned select few titles.
Without exposure from certain high profile reviewers, YouTubers or (in Celeste‘s case) online subscription rewards, these games would have been experienced far less frequently, possibly even signaling the end for their hard working developers.
Contrastingly, Cuphead came at the ideal time for Microsoft, a unique, fresh product dropped right on their doorstep whilst they were losing ground on Sony in the console war. Arguably running out of ideas themselves, with a list of console exclusives that pale in comparison to the Playstation 4’s growing library, Microsoft wisely snapped up Studio MDHR‘s creation for exclusive distribution. As a result, Cuphead had a marketing campaign that games its size rarely see, making its way onto the Xbox Homepage as well as the main stage at E3. When this was coupled with the games already larger than average development team, with many animators and an entire orchestra providing assets for the title, of course, this highly polished product with enhanced reach outperformed its initial expectations.
What about something like Dead Cells then? Coming out of nowhere and taking the world by storm in a competitive market. Of course, polished games are likely to rise above their mediocre contemporaries, but there’s just more to these products, a nondescript spark that sets them apart.
Some games are so clearly inspired by titles of the past, they become spiritual successors, homages to days gone by. More often than not, this is achieved through soul-crushingly hard difficulty – bottomless pits, instant kill spikes, and screen-filling boss attacks being the go to. Often this is met with critical acclaim, cries that the industry holds our hand too much, consequently praising those that dare harken back to the good old days. We cannot underestimate the power of these reviews, akin to a large company pushing a games sales, as these are often not only the first point of contact for most casual gamers; they’re the only interaction had whatsoever. I shudder at the thought of how many people have missed out on rewarding experiences such as Alien Hominid because of a few misleading headlines.
Alternatively, other titles just capture the spirit of the gaming scene at that moment perfectly. Undertale falls into this category, being infinitely meme-able thanks to a stellar script, a phenomenon few before it had experienced. Naturally, this attracted crowds from all around, what is this funny game with the silly little skeleton man? Once that inquisitive hook has grabbed you, be it either by a triple-A or totally independent game, it is stupidly hard to escape.
So, even with 10/10 reviews, a die-hard community and growing publicity for your game, what pitfalls are there to fall in? Well, there is clearly some divide to be found even under the encompassing label of indie games. If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend checking out the excellent Indie Game: The Movie. Sure, the landscape of gaming has shifted a whole bunch since it was made, but following the production efforts of three minuscule teams making three now iconic titles really are fascinating, even today. Whilst Super Meat Boy was arguably the original indie success story, I believe Fez to be the better case study.
The story of Phil Fish in infamous nowadays as a precautionary tale of burning yourself out in pursuit of a vision. One man attempting to build a puzzle game so massive, before receiving such a mixed critical and commercial reply, it nearly broke him. Making the sequel actually did. More recently, these developers are better protected, investing in a smaller producer is much less of a risk in modern times since the industry is aware of the quality they can produce. Nevertheless, look after yourself first people!
Aside from this, there are lessons to be learned regarding game design. Replayability plays a massive part in the lifespan of smaller titles, going back to The Behemoth, BattleBlock Theater failed to emulate the massive popularity of Castle Crashers before it partly because of its one-and-done type gameplay. Fez was similarly genius, but infinitely more impenetrable to the average player. Difficulty is one thing, but when introducing your friend to a game, the simplicity of a concept can take you a long way.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t me putting down the more successful games as basic, or saying that a complicated title cannot do well commercially. Quite the opposite, in essence, the point I am trying to make that the best indie titles, both critically and publicly, capture the best parts of gaming as a whole like lightning in a bottle. The joy of tight controls, engagingly creative concepts and passion bursting through the seams, all brought to you in a package that feels much more personal: the vision of a handful of artists rather than a committee’s design, just be careful of where on this scale you fall.
It’s quite interesting to draw comparisons between what I’m saying now and the recent ‘Best Year in Gaming’ series we’ve been running here at n3rdabl3. The influence of indie games is clearly growing, as I mentioned before, these sorts of title are making their way onto the best of the year lists with satisfying frequency, earning more and more well deserved recognition as these titles are often the ones making taking the biggest leaps of faith and pushing the boundaries of the industry; just as look at Minecraft for goodness sake.
However, the simple answer to the question I posed as the title of this article is simply: I don’t know. Luck of the draw plays a huge part in success, as does the timing of release and influencer coverage. There are games which, in my opinion, have earned praise in excess of that which they deserve and likewise those which have been woefully disregarded. All we can do as members of this community then is recognize this greatness and influence where we see it, flying the flags of those games that you love, spouting well-formed opinions and supported arguments until we’re blue in the face. So, do yourself a favor, pick up something like Spelunky, Enter the Gungeon or Owlboy today; you really won’t regret it.