on the indie house of cards: hello games and no man’s sky

this probably would’ve been topical months ago, but now that this infamous hacking incident has gone down (where the Hello Games twitter account was hacked to tweet “No Man’s Sky was a mistake.”, and then their hacked email account assured everyone it wasn’t a hack and we all briefly believed it until one of the guys confirmed with us that, yes, it was a hack) i can steal the mic and try to funnel this bullshit into a subject that’s important to me, which is this: the AAA games industry built a house of cards on top of indie games and left us to take the fall.

lots of us in games today were around and present for the early years of indie games, me included, but for those who weren’t: let me try to convey what i think we were all feeling then as best i can. we were all thinking “holy shit, we can make games”, for one. we definitely weren’t thinking “holy shit, we can make so much money by fetishizing a retro aesthetic and banking on nostalgia.” well, except, some people definitely were, but it really wasn’t the modus operandi yet, and furthermore retro fetishism hadn’t been codified yet. a lot of us either grew up on the 8-bit and 16-bit eras or in arcades or grew up emulating them on our PC’s. either way, there were a lot of us in proximity of each other who had this shared body of inspiration, a slowly and collectively built-up empowerment over our ability to make games, and the recognition that a lot of things about games that mattered to us from those gaming eras had been discarded for more marketable paths. maybe most importantly, 8-bit and 16-bit style games were a form that was accessible for us to follow up on (not always in aesthetic!!!! but always in spirit), and for so many years that was treated as a shortcoming by the larger gaming world. like any wide-eyed underground scene, it was highly experimental and divergent, and actually the culmination of many other movements that preceded it. the “retro” thing was (for most) a starting point and a shared basic language, not the destination. and again like any wide-eyed underground scene, it was corrupted and reduced by capitalism’s mechanisms into a brand and etc etc etc here we are today.

anyway, so indie games got corrupted. no matter when you got on the videogames boat you’re probably familiar with their current image. which, like, i’m a little salty over, how couldn’t you be? but nothing lasts forever either right. regardless, the AAA industry has spent what’s at least the last four years building up indie games into the perfect pet brand. after all, they’re infinitely iterative, cheap to produce, have high returns, cater to a highly renewable niche fanbase, and they get to have this air of being on the artistic vanguard charting waters grandpa Battlefield wouldn’t dare to tread at his age.

so hello games pops up and they’re this group of 12 (?) or so folks who made a cute and as far as I can see reasonably successful mobile game, and they’re like “we wanna make this space exploration game that happens to be highly compatible with all these buzzwords that are currently highly marketable” and AAA has a fucking epiphany. remember Peter Molyneux, how he was going to turn gaming on its head and usher in the future at least 20 times and never did, and then how he said he was going to do it in indie games and instead made a clicker game? well here’s these blokes nobody’s ever heard of, they’ve got a knack for thatgamecompany-esque mystique so they must be indie enough. here’s what AAA says, they go “hey, get a fucking load of this, people are disillusioned with AAA right, and indie’s where it’s at, right, let’s give this game a shitload of marketing and tell everyone they can do everything we can’t.”

and it all goes downhill from here.

for who knows how many years hello games, a little-known studio of 12-or-so who’d made a runner game for mobile, was given the complete JJ Abrams marketing fanfare treatment. obscure trailers implicitly promising everything-and-more were shoved in the faces of the bloodthirsty audience of wider gaming (which even AAA has struggled to contend with in recent years) to massive applause. it was minecraft but in space and not blocky. it was the star trek AU you always wanted. it was what EVE online always wanted to be. it was star citizen but real. there’s no way hello games could’ve delivered on its expectations because it was never allowed to create any, it was made to be that Molyneuxian boundless game which fulfills all your wildest fantasies and ushers in the singularity from beyond the event horizon. and what’s brilliant about this from AAA’s end is it massively ramped up enthusiasm for videogames across the board, it briefly revived people’s starry-eyed wonder for gaming, and when it was time for No Man’s Sky to release and take the fall, AAA was nowhere to be seen. it made its pre-release hype sales and their investments almost definitely cashed out.

this is the climax of a long road for indie games, first as a movement, then as a brand, then as a bond. while no man’s sky might share very little with the original spirit of indie games, it is nonetheless the fate it was shoved into and the path it was made to walk. this is where we’re kind of at with videogames, over and over again and in different forms. the house of cards is built up and cashed out on before it can all go tumbling down. maybe i could say that’s just capitalism, but i don’t want to get too reductive or abstract. either way, i’m tired.

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