Indie RPGs vs. AAA RPGs
Published: December 16, 2020
One of the reasons we decided, as a studio, to lean into RPG development was the nature of RPG fans. RPG fans are uniquely open to a variety of game experiences in a way that other pockets of gaming aren’t. They want great stories. Interesting characters. Compelling choices. And challenges that stem from combat, resources, and puzzles–to varying degrees, depending on what the game calls for. RPG fans will gladly jump from a high-fantasy setting like Skyrim and into a sci-fi setting like NieR:Automata.
As part of this pure enthusiasm for RPGs, we also see players happily jumping between indie titles and AAA titles, hacking and slashing through Children of Morta while also counting down the days for the release of Cyberpunk 2077.
For us, we are like our players. We love all kinds of RPGs, but we want to shine a spotlight on indie RPGs and what makes them different from AAA RPGs. One set of games is not better than the other, but they are different, and highlighting those differences might deepen your appreciation for both.
The major differences between indie RPGs and AAA RPGs are:
1. Smaller budgets inspire different kinds of ideas.
There is an old saying that constraints breed innovation (and our docuseries on classic RPG design comes back to this idea again and again), and it continues to ring true for game design. Whether you are designing around the limitations of processing hardware or managing the realities of an indie development budget, having hard lines around what you can and can’t do often brings out creative ideas.
By definition, indie RPG developers have less to work with than their AAA counterparts which means that indie developers often build their worlds and their games in different ways. Where Diablo III features a huge variety of enemies and seasonal content, Children of Morta features a narrower range of enemy types and a much more finite gameplay experience. Both are great games, but because of indie developer realities, Children of Morta uses clever applications of pixel art, storytelling, and roguelike elements to develop a fantastically rich action RPG.
The world and narrative still feel impressively expansive, but that feeling is built on incredibly artful and judicious uses of indie resources that ooze out as game personality and tight gameplay loop design.
2. Indie developers can take more risks.
Critics often argue that the nature of AAA budgets can sometimes mean that dramatic innovation is out of reach. This perspective is often leveled at AAA designers, and though we would argue that the best RPG designers in the industry–regardless of whether or not they are indie or AAA are equally creative–comparing indie RPG catalogs to AAA catalogs makes it easy to see why players have this takeaway.
Indie RPGs represent a huge range of styles, mechanics, concepts, and scopes. Beyond the loose definition of being RPGs, titles like Moonlighter and Undertale and The Banner Saga appear to have little in common. Because indie developers often have fewer business constraints, at least initially, their game ideas often come from a place of pure passion, which can lead to games that are very different from industry trends at the time.
In this way, indie RPGs are a hotbed for new ideas and different kinds of gameplay. AAA designers are innovating in their own ways, to be sure, but how they innovate is much different from the sometimes far-out gameplay concepts we see coming from indie developers.
3. Indie games feel more personally intimate.
AAA RPGs are colossal achievements that take dozens of team members several years to realize. Dragon Age or Mass Effect are dumbfoundingly expansive and ambitious, so much so that you know that only a huge team could bring these kinds of games to life. Conversely, the very nature of indie games means that only a handful of people worked on a specific title. For a player, that means you are much closer to the individuals that brought that game to life.
Part of the allure of Stardew Valley, for example, is that it is largely the efforts of a solo developer. Yes, the gameplay holds up in its own right, but Stardew communities often reference Eric Barone’s approach to game design and the story around the game’s development. That part of the player experience matters, and it can create a different kind of connection to a game, making it feel more personal and directly connected to a creator players admire.
Are you an RPG aficionado, playing both indie and AAA RPGs? What differences do you see, and what do you feel are the compelling strengths of each category?