1. Experimenting with graphics. While it may get a bit wearisome to see yet another indie showing its retro-chic by using 8-bit graphics, it’s also true that producing those graphics is a great savings. Those savings can be put into other areas of the game, like design, programming, marketing and more. Games such as Minecraft teach us that it’s that graphics are not the only thing that sells a game–and not even the most important thing.
Some AAA studios have given their games a distinctive, non-photorealistic look. Think Sunset Overdrive or something akin to Borderlands, games that aren’t striving for scenes that look real. These games are creating a fantastic graphic style with a distinctive look, and it helps the games appeal to a wide audience. And, not coincidentally, aids in marketing as well.
2. Not being afraid to innovate. The lesson for big game publishers and studios is this: The biggest risk of all is to take no risks. Eventually, that strategy leads to boredom on the part of the audience, who will wander off to find more interesting and innovative games. The most successful games are the ones that really pioneer a new playing style or genre, Could Minecraft have been the product of a big studio? That hardly seems likely. Certainly it’s safer to create new versions of bestselling franchises than to create something new, yet eventually creating new versions of old games begins to lose steam (witness the gradual sales decline of Call of Duty from year to year).
Granted, spending tens or even hundreds of millions on a brand new game is a huge risk. But indies can try out interesting new concepts for a fraction of the cost. Large game studios and publishers are filled with creative people who must have plenty of ideas–why not let them build a few in-house, inexpensively, and try them out on digital platforms? Try out a new concept inexpensively, and if it proves popular then pour more money into it.
It’s not to be expected that major publishers or studios will risk huge amounts of money on brand new gameplay ideas, not without some indication that it’ll appeal to a mass audience. Many gamers are eagerly waiting for the next innovation in gameplay from indie game developers. It does seem like big publishers or studios could make their own low-cost gameplay experiments, and then be poised to take swift advantage if the idea proves to be popular enough.
3. Finding creative ways to do more with less. This is something indie developers are always forced to do. If you can’t afford to build a huge 3D world, maybe the game will work in 2D. Not enough time and money to animate everything? Design the game so fewer objects need to be on screen at once. Can’t work for months to create 40+ hours of gameplay? See if you can boil down the essence of the experience in a couple of hours, and then charge far less for it.
Designing under constraints of time, budget, or technology can lead to interesting choices that may be popular. Shortcuts can lead to new and interesting places, and the journey may turn out to be lots of fun. But if you never constrain your development team, they may never be looking for unusual solutions to game design problems.
4. Having a ton of community engagement. The relative openness of many indie games is perhaps the greatest difference, aside from budget, that separates them from big-budget products. Crowd-funded games are, by necessity, open projects that involve the community from the beginning. The fans who support a game become part of the design process, and this can lead in very different directions than originally anticipated. Chris Roberts will tell you that he thought Star Citizen was mostly going to be about ship combat, but after surveying the backers he found the exploration was the part of the game they were most interested in by far–and this led to a significant shift in development resources.
Opening up development becomes a terrific marketing tool, as well as validation of the audience size and interest. It also helps in finding the key parts of the design that resonate with the audience. The danger has always been perceived that your competitors will be able to copy what you’re doing and profit from that… but everybody is already doing that with every moderately successful game out there anyway, so don’t be afraid to show the world your game!