There are a lot of well-known and highly-celebrated indie games that prioritize polish. If you look at creators who make a living off of Indie content - take, say, Gellot's boss fights account - you'll see that tons and tons of games are being made at an astonishing rate, many of them featuring extremely beautiful hyper detailed artwork, gorgeous professional quality music, and so on. Beyond that baseline, games like Iconoclasts, Owlboy, and Axiom Verge are pointed at as examples of stellar works that comprise a sort of indie video game "tier 1". One thing people often talk about is the amount of effort that went into them - Owlboy is the result of 10 years of effort, Iconoclasts took 10 years as well, Axiom Verge took 5.
I feel like we've entered a world where in order for your indie game to considered worthwhile, it has to look professional. It feels like people want their games to look and sound pretty first, and if a game doesn't grab them in this way immediately, they'll dismiss it before interacting with it at all. People make games whose art fits the standards of these "approved canons". If you can't make something that pretty, or with that much depth, why are you even bothering?
Now, to be clear, I understand that some of this is the inevitabilities of the market. You need to stand out. Ironically, I would say that looking like all the other hyper polished indie games makes you less likely to stand out, but I know that many people would disagree with me on that aspect and it's not really integral to my point anyway. Personally, I believe more people should be encouraged to understand that you can make a game that isn't polished beyond belief and doesn't require you to spend years of focused effort on it for it to be good.
If you actually listen to developer interviews for the games I mentioned, a sense of vague melancholy pervades. Owlboy wasn't meant to take ten years, but it spiralled out of control due to a combination of personal factors and panic regarding keeping up with the market. How many times have we heard that story? The game existed as a nebulous set of ideas without a concrete core until they synthesized their demo in 2011. Even after that core was formed, the team felt forced to reboot the game entirely at regular intervals because it was felt that gamers kept demanding higher and higher quality. With the game now a primary aspect in their lives, the stress of delaying it in favor of this idealized final product reverberated throughout everything they did. Something particularly worrisome to me is this segment:
After working on the same game for so long, the team worried it wasn't capable of even shipping a game. To prove themselves wrong, instead of taking a vacation, they spent the summer of 2013 working on Savant - Ascent, a quick 'n' dirty pixel shooter that, thankfully, was well-received. It also proved to Owlboy fans that, yes, that game might actually get finished. It's gone on to sell more than 500,000 copies, keeping the team afloat financially.
This might be reading into it, but it honestly sounds like the creators were so wrapped up in the troubles of this project that they had to skip a vacation to prove to themselves that making games could be fun again. Let's look at Savant - Ascent. This game might not be a huge fancy work akin to Super Metroid, but it's absolutely a professionally polished creation. It only took them one summer to make something like this. They were able to make something awesome in one summer without it taking over their life and becoming a white whale! Is it not kind of tragic to see these release interviews where people's feelings towards their work can be summed up as "well, I'll be glad to see it finally over"? Imagine a world where they made multiple games with Ascent's level of polish that they felt good about, instead of one giant project that they could only regard ambivalently!
Iconoclasts is a game by Joakim Sandberg, a developer who's produced a variety of fascinating and awesome games. And indeed, while it wasn't a huge favorite of mine, I still think it had some very unique ideas as a project. But it too is a game where the developer's feelings about it are fairly depressing. Unlike Owlboy, made by a team of 5 people, Sandberg had to handle similar issues despite acting totally alone. He himself directly states that he doesn't want people to follow in his footsteps, and that he too felt this urge to keep up with the Joneses... so his game could live up to projects like... Owlboy!
Part of the pressure he felt no doubt came from seeing the way the indie game market was evolving around him. While he was busy toiling away on Iconoclasts, the Metroidvania genre was experiencing a glut of high-quality entries. Sandberg namechecked Hollow Knight specifically, but we'll throw Ori and the Blind Forest, Salt and Sanctuary, Owlboy, Guacamelee!, Axiom Verge, La-Mulana, The Swapper, and Sundered on the list as some other strong entries in the genre that hit the market during Iconoclasts' development.
"Nobody should attempt to make those right now. They are extremely risky because people are so done with them and there have been such huge, polished ones that you can't really have a small one at the moment," Sandberg said. "It's going to come around, it always does. But look at Hollow Knight and the presentation of that game... That genre is kind of dead for the time being, unless you have a lot of backing and talent and good fortune."
Isn't that kind of miserable? Isn't it a bit like a rat-race of people exhausting themselves to make their games worthy, only to in turn raise the bar so others feel they need to exhaust themselves more to live up to that game's high standard? Where things that should be seen as achievements in a field become nothing more than another requirement for a developer to achieve before they can make the thing they actually want to make? I think that if everyone keeps feeling the need to change their vision not because of what they want but because of how they feel games should be, only to find themselves at the end of the development cycle unhappy about it, something's gone wrong with our priorities.
An interesting game to compare these to is Axiom Verge, the last I mentioned. Axiom Verge was originally one I thought of as being in the same boat, but it's actually quite a different case. Happ does say some similar things on the topic, mentioning that you shouldn't quit your day job and that works like this are best done as something on the side. His business liason comments on, in particular, how you shouldn't go into this field looking to be like the success stories and you should instead do it because there's a specific game in your head you really want to make. And most notably, Happ seemed to get a positive enough feeling from releasing his game that he wanted to make another one in the series, given the recent release of Verge's sequel.
Hell, on the topic of quitting your day job, notice that in both Owlboy and Iconoclasts's articles the creators mention their living situations were lucky in a lot of ways. They were able to work on these games because they were living in situations where they didn't need to make full rent, where their friends and family were able to help them have a place to stay without worrying about work. It's really important to remember when you look at games like this that the people making them were in relatively privileged situations where they could afford to spend that time, especially when trying to decide what's more possible for you. I'm nowhere near a career game creator, and I only have my single game and a variety of failed projects to speak from. Yet it's interesting to me, I think, that when I made my only finished game of note, I was able to do it primarily because I was living at home with my parents during the pandemic. In many ways, what I made feels like the result of similar urges and work procedures on a smaller scale. I even had the help of an entire engine's worth of assets to base my game on and put my unique stuff over - imagine how endlessly I could have worked to make something comparable had I tried to start from absolute scratch?
I still think that Axiom Verge is a game that was designed with artwork polish as a heavily integral aspect, which is in general not what I care the most about in games. But it seems to me that Happ was much happier with his work because he didn't let this game take over his life in the way that the other 2 did. He had a good idea of what he wanted to make and he set out to make it in a structured fashion. He seems like he enjoyed working on it. That's really what's more important than anything else for me - whether or not the person enjoys what they were doing and could come out the other side feeling like they didn't waste their time.
"Now hang on, Narf" you might ask, "I thought you were talking about disliking polish in video games, but there you are pointing at the polish of Savant - Ascent as a positive aspect. What's that about?" The point really isn't that polish itself is bad. I myself spent a lot of time polishing the minutiae of movement and art for my game. What I don't like is encouraging people to feel like if they can't make their dream game in a way that fits the ideals of the market, so that it can live up to these super long and intensive games made by people in lucky situations through a decade's worth of struggle, then it won't be worth making. I think that this ties into the history of games as a consumer product, where companies would constantly attempt to outdo each other by using their artwork as a selling point. People had to break into making stuff look as good as corporate games for people to really get the ball rolling with the "indie movement", and I think that outlook's partially responsible for this polish focused viewpoint. To discuss more of that would involve getting into analysis of what being an AAA game means these days, though, and that's far beyond the scope of my article.
In all these cases, the really big games are pointed to as amazing and used as comparison sticks despite the fact that they are exceptional. When you dream about what you want to make, using real games as a baseline has obvious value. It's just also integral to really understand what creating these games entails, to understand how making them in the wrong way can drag on endlessly and painfully, and to recognize that sometimes making smaller projects over a shorter period of time is a way healthier way to engage with creating media. Were someone to look at the consequences and accept early on "I'm willing to spend 10 years on this." then that'd be a totally different way of handling it, but in the cases I've presented, that wasn't really what people said. They overscoped, and dealt with the consequences.
An aspect of this for me is that I'm most involved in fan communities, where work is done for free, but people still use these polished games as inspiration when deciding what they want to make. No one is making money off of Megamix engine projects, and certainly not off of rom hacks. Gamers, however, will always judge these games based on the best examples they can find, looking at the games that live up to and feel like professional works and saying that "finally, a fangame has been created that's worth respecting". In all these communities you end up with little hatedoms obsessed with the right and wrong ways to create games, fixating on showing off how bad the works of CHIKO are or how terrible Mega Man 42 is for content. It becomes this system of showing how games are a failure because they can't live up to the standards set by the originals, or by whatever is the popular game of the time. Why even bother making Rockman Hacks if you can't use assembly code to make something like Rockman 4 MI or MM4 Voyage? Why make a fangame if you can't make it at least as good as Mega Man Unlimited?
In my eyes, everything really goes back to the two cakes principle. Making a new game is better than not making anything. If it's not as pretty as you wanted it to be, you can always go back and make it prettier later. Things like assets and polish are far easier to update than the core mechanics of a game, and you don't have to get them all up to snuff before your game is worth looking at. I think it's better to prioritize figuring out what you want your game to be and making a strong structure so that you can release it as it is even if you end up not being able to polish it, instead of constantly estarting to try to satisfy the hopes of a nebulous caste of 'gamers'. Someone will probably like it.
Just please remember, exceptional games are created by exceptional circumstances, and you should never see your game as needing to be exceptional to be worth anyone's time.