E3 used to be a show dedicated to the big boys and girls of the AAA industry. In recent years, there’s been a shift in the status quo. It’s still firmly about the AAA industry, but each company is in a mini-arms race to see who can show off the most, or the most interesting, indie games. Whether it’s Microsoft executive Phil Spencer constantly changing his shirt to a new indie game, or Sony dedicating an entire block of their show to indie games, things have heated up in recent years.
This year likely won’t be any different. The big three console makers are constantly making moves. The Nintendo Switch is still new, Microsoft is debuting the Xbox One Scorpion soon, and Sony currently holds a massive sales lead over both of them, and they’re not looking to run out the clock. A little-known indie game could be one of these company’s secret weapon. So we have to ask, which of these three will have the most, or the best indie game at their show?
Poor Microsoft. Much like Valve, they’ve pretty much given up making or producing games. Unlike Valve though, they don’t have the biggest digital distribution storefront for selling games, so this has been a lost generation for them. They’ve relied heavily on indie games in the past few years, especially with the aforementioned Spencer shirt rotation, which just seemed more desperate than anything else.
It’s likely they’ll have some indie games this year. Expect to see Cuphead, which they’ve paraded out every year since 2014. They might show more We Happy Few as well, which is also exclusive to the Xbox One and PC. Ghost of a Tale is another possibility, as it’s currently exclusive to the Xbox One console-wise, but it will eventually head to the PS4, according to developer SeithCG.
But Microsoft themselves may not be too friendly to indie developers. Most stick with either the PlayStation 4 or Nintendo Switch, both of which are indie gaming hotspots. Microsoft may simply not have enough indie games to show this year.
Of the big three, Sony seems the most dedicated to presenting indie games at their booth. Last year they showcased Here They Lie, Bound, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, and about 22 more. Their on-stage press conference was pretty light for indie games. Many of their PlayStation VR offerings were of the independent variety. If you want to get technical, Death Stranding might count, and Shenmue 3 debuted at their 2015 conference.
It’s hard to say what games exactly Sony might have up their sleeves this year. Unlike Microsoft, they don’t have any PC games to rake in. Any exclusives to the system wouldn’t really “feel” indie either, would they? One possibility is Pyre, which Sony had at their booth last year. Psychonauts 2 is another possibility, since they funded Psychonauts: Rhombus of Ruin for the PlayStation VR. They also helped Double Fine produce their LucasArts remasters.
More possibilities include Life of Black Tiger, Skylight Freerange 2: Gachduine, or Firefighters: The Simulation. As Jim Sterling and Kotaku AU document, Sony has been on too much of an indie binge lately. Steam Greenlight may be dead, but that hasn’t dissuaded Sony from publishing some of the worst indie games ever released on a console. In truth, those three games are only the tip of the iceberg, there are more, and the floodgates don’t appear to be closing. While Sony can’t be stupid enough to show off games like this at E3, it does call into question their indie game strategy.
The Switch may be a newcomer to the console scene, but it’s already setting the indie scene on fire. Indie developers are tripping over themselves to announce Switch versions of their games.
But Nintendo doesn’t do the usual E3 press conference anymore. Instead, they hold what they call Nintendo Direct. These shows contain the same information you’d find from a live press conference. Usually have more production value thanks to being filmed online, and in a controlled environment. They also usually stick with first party games, like whatever monstrosity Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is supposed to be. Indie developers will have a harder time showing their games during their show. They can’t physically be in them and at E3 at the same time, unless they split their teams. It can be a big hassle many smaller studios don’t want to bother with.
Nintendo will still try though. They dedicated a big chunk of the GDC 2017 showing to indie games. There was Stardew Valley, Overcooked, and Runner 3, among others. At E3, we could see Wargroove, which Nintendo head of Partner Management Damon Baker specifically pointed to at GDC this year. Lab Zero recently announced Indivisible would be getting a Nintendo Switch port. Yooka-Laylee’s could be a good fit, especially if they want to show off all the new fixes they’re touting.
Who Will Win?
It’s hard to say who’ll pull ahead in the battle of the indies this year. There’s a lot of tough competition, especially in a year that’s already produced so many great games. The safe bet is to say Nintendo will have the most indie games, Sony will have the best, and Microsoft will have one or two decent ones. They’ve gotta have something at their show, after all.
What’s most interesting in all of this is that indie studios don’t really need the console makers anymore. The marketing and extra money is nice, of course. But back in the day, if you were an independent developer, you were stuck with the PC. Today, there are tons of publishers who are willing to sign smaller games and port them over to consoles. Indivisible got a pre-alpha demo on the PlayStation Network while the game was still seeking crowdfunding. Microsoft started an Early Access program, and showed We Happy Few to promote it. Nintendo’s relied almost entirely on indie games to carry the Switch in its first few months.
These are exciting times for indie games on consoles. The real winner of E3 2017 will be all of us. The console makers for getting great games on their platforms, the developers who get to share their games with a wider audience (and make more money doing so), and the fans.