Indie Games, Established Expectations

Posted By on Jan 03, 2013 in Frustrations, Indie Games | 3 comments

Happly New Year to everyone! It’s the end of another holiday season, and that means that there was (is still, even) another Steam sale. With that comes the inevitable realization that I have way too many games. And while that realization does seem to repeat itself quite often, it hasn’t stopped me from participating. Again.

However, this year, I’ve been a bit more judicious than in the past. Or maybe I’ve just purchased most of the large packs that interest me already. Who knows? What I do know is that I’ve picked up a number of indie games that I have somehow missed in other packs or shopping sprees. So far, that has included Intrusion 2, FTL, Legend of Grimrock, Mark of the Ninja, The Binding of Isaac, and Hotline Miami (thanks Liore!).

I haven’t yet approached Mark of the Ninja or Legend of Grimrock – or FTL, since that kind of scares me – but Steam is reporting 8 hours on Hotline Miami, 2 hours on The Binding of Isaac, and 30 minutes with Intrusion 2 (enough for the point I’m going to make, here). And I have to say that while all three of these games are fun, they each very much suffer from being “indie”.

Hotline Miami is probably my favorite of the bunch, and the time I’ve put in backs that up. Sure, some part of that time was paused while I was doing things around the house, but I’ve completed all the levels, unlocked a number of the masks, AND gone back for more. It’s a cool mix of strategy and shameless beatemup, with a funky, violent vibe. It runs smoothly and supports my Xbox 360 controller well. But there is no way to control the volume in the game. Music volume has a slider, but the sound effects do not. I eventually solved this by using the Windows audio mixer to drop the sound level for the program, but that seems very silly. It also has been having issues with Steamworks – reportedly, enabling Steamworks will cause some installations to crash. For me, it just isn’t tracking any achievements. Which is annoying, because I scanned through the achievements and a lot of them seem really fun to try to pull off! I can obviously take on those challenges anyway (or make up my own), but it has definitely impacted the replay value for me.

The Binding of Isaac is a really bleak game that is set somewhere between a child’s nightmare and purgatory, with distinctive art and sound – I mean, you literally fight your enemies with your tears! The problem is, I am constantly fighting against the controls. It plays in a similar style to an old top-down shooter – say, Smash TV – and is crying out for dual joysticks. By default, these are implemented with WASD for movement and Up/Down/Left/Right for shooting. It’s undocumented, but you can also use the mouse to fire, with aiming direction determined by your cursor’s relative position to your character. This is… not the easiest. I went looking in the menus for controller support, and the game literally says “Gamepad? Use JoyToKey (Google it!)”. I mean, it’s nice that there are some breadcrumbs but also… fuck you. I mean, I got the program and set it up (with more googling for how to map a 360 controller to the keys, and a lot of experimentation for which mapping made sense), but I haven’t had to do this sort of shit for like 10 years. And JoyToKey does not seem to play very well with analog sticks – they seem to “stick” in a given direction occasionally. I mean, I’ve been pushing through it because the game is fun, but actually having precise control would be nice.

Intrusion 2 is another dual-stick shooter, although it’s more side-scroller and reminiscent of Contra than top-down. The problem here is just that it’s not smooth. Everything is just a little bit jerky and kind of frustrating. I want to like the game, and I don’t hate it, but I feel like I’m again missing out on some more responsive controls. This one at least works with my controller.

So I guess the meat of this is that I am sort of struggling with myself over the following questions: Given that I like a lot of things about the indie development trend (in terms of storytelling, interesting/innovative gameplay, publishing/pricing models), is it also unreasonable to expect some level of polish and support? Is asking for controller support, resolution control, and SOUND LEVELS too much? Should I just be happy that I’m getting to experience these games at all?


  1. I’m actually shocked that Binding of Isaac doesn’t have better controller integration, because when I played it for a bit on a keyboard it just seemed DESIGNED for two thumbsticks. Like, perfectly. Like.. what?

    Also, good questions! As the line between AAA titles and indies gets closer and closer this becomes harder to discern, but I think a certain amount of leeway has to be given for a game that’s $15 when brand spanking new. That being said, cheap is no excuse for unplayable, and … actually, I was going to say that I’d pay an extra $5 for those “nice to haves”, but the honest truth is that I wouldn’t. Soooooo, I’m part of the problem. 🙂

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  2. I’m glad to see that the “angry” part of the dwarf is back! 😉

    Unfortunately, I don’t have much to add, since I am a lame video game non-hipster and don’t really play that many indie games, but it seems to me that there are indie games out there that have all the cool indie aspects and DO have well developed controls. Would Journey be considered indie? Because that seemed pretty polished to me, same with Portal, which I think was considered indie when it first came out? Maybe that’s the difference between a $5 (or less) indie game and a $20 indie game?

    I do think that the polishing determines whether or not an indie game will be really successful though, since a game can have an amazing story and/or a unique approach/design, but if the controls are frustrating, it’s just not going to have the same appeal.

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  3. I think Telaan’s last comment there is really at the heart of it. I was having a similar conversation with some friends about a Kickstarter campaign for a new version of a pen-and-paper RPG that apparently has a really cool setting but really terrible game rules. I think, in the end, the success of the game is going to hang in the balance of the two, and whether I’m paying $0, $10 or $60 doesn’t much matter. Sure, I might be more lenient to the cheaper games, but the fact is that when I’m investing money and/or time into a game, I want that time to be fun. Not fiddling with settings or searching the internet for bug fixes.

    And I think Journey is considered an indie game. It’s actually a great example, because it doesn’t have any of those weird issues that can pop up in indie games. And, truly, most indie’s don’t suffer from this. But I just sort of hit on a few over the holidays, and wouldn’t Hotline Miami or Binding of Isaac be even better if I could at least count on the basics working as expected?

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