Undoubtedly, one of my favorite aspects of indie game development is the freedom that is afforded to developers to make any kind of game under the sun, stockholders be damned because in indie game development, there are no stockholders. Want an isometric action RPG dating sim? Great. A Wild West-themed detective puzzle game? Giddiyup! But there comes a point where what is “unique” becomes . . . problematic. A fresh, unique idea can be executed well, but when navigating through uncharted waters, the threat of your development ship crashing into the jutting rocks of failure is an ever-looming threat. There is something to be said about executing an old idea well, and I hope to make a case for it.
When we talk about unique games, we often talk about a mashup of genres. Crypt of the Necrodancer is a rhythm-based rogue-like. The cult classic N64 game Hybrid Heaven is a turn-based RPG fighter. HuniePop is a puzzle dating sim. There are certainly many success stories about hybrid genres, but there are only so many genres and so many ways to combine them.
As the games industry develops, creating a game that is unique solely based on its confluence of genres will become increasingly difficult, and with every successful mashup, a torrent of copycats hoping to ride on the coattails of the first successor floods the market. While a unique mashup of genres can be a nice marketing point, the basics of good game design will always still apply. A game that chooses to forego good design for the sake of novelty chooses to play with fire.
The Resurgence of the Classics
I suppose this is where I lean back in my rocking chair, load my pipe, gaze longingly into the distance, and say, “Back in my day, a good game didn’t need a gimmick!” There is nothing wrong with designing a game in a traditional genre, and while there are certainly benefits to creating interesting gameplay merely from the confluence of different genres, solid gameplay is solid gameplay regardless of whatever bells and whistles are bolted on to it.
And to add to that, we’re starting to see a resurgence in classic games. Whether it’s due to nostalgia stirred up by the resurgence in the 8-bit art style, a tiring of the deluge of “unique” games, classic genres, or my own increasingly advanced case of get-off-my-lawn-itis, there’s a growing trend to revisit the classic genres and execute something compelling. I Am Setsuna sports an Active Time Battle system, as well as tech combo mechanics, as seen in Chrono Trigger. The game is artful in its minimalist dressings (the entire soundtrack is played on a single piano), presenting a clean, refined environment for the player to experience the story. And on the other hand, we have FFXV, which uses a more modern battle system borrowed from Kingdom Hearts and more than dips its toes into the open world sandbox genre. Both games are good, but from a design (read: semantic) standpoint, FFXV is a JRPG, while I Am Setsuna uses its JRPG genre to tell a story.
Potato Potato, Tomato Tomato
I will admit that I am really just splitting hairs here, and one person’s potato is another person’s . . . also potato. In our race to put out fresh, unique ideas, it’s important to remind ourselves that we do what is weird and artful and unique because we want to, not because we have to. A genre or mechanical/gameplay gimmick is just one of a multitude of tools available to you as a developer. Craft your game how you want, but don’t feel pressured to create something unique for the sake of uniqueness. A unique special snowflake is one among countless other unique special snowflakes, but it’s the bowling-ball-sized hail that makes the news.