The Pixel Revival – Are Indie Developers Too Reliant On “Retro” Style?


by Bob Reinhard

As a life-long gamer who loves both “old school” games and modern games, I’ve often noticed a dangerous rift in the gamer community. Often times it’s older players, in their mid-to-late 20s and up, vs. anyone that started gaming in the 3d era. It boils down to those that think gaming today is weak compared to how it “used to be” and those that think that these retro gamers are simply blinded by nostalgia and modern gaming is way better. And whether we like it or not, this has almost created two different markets for developers to focus on while developing.

But do the games suffer because of this?

Retro Meets Modern

Seeking the retro feel has brought forth a growing trend in the indie game market: the heavy reliance on “old school appeal”. Be it the aesthetics of an 8-bit art style or a throw-back controller-throwing level of difficulty, many game developers in the indie market have opened their arms and embraced the retro audience as their own.

Originally, the “throwback” style showed up as somewhat of a breath of fresh air. With the heavy emphasis of big-name developers pushing to make games hyper realistic, and hence crippling a lot of developers from creating more unique, stand-alone experiences, it was nice to see some people returning to a simpler time where graphics took a back seat to cleverness.

But with the popularity of games such as Fez which utilizes a beautiful, unique blend of 8-bit styling and modern game mechanic sensibility, comes the inevitable “me too” mindset of the game development world: now EVERYONE wants to make an 8-bit game that’s held up there with the Triple A titles.


So Much More Than Pixels…

Every few months, we see a new crop of pixel-based games pop up on Steam or across the many indie sites on the internet, and the trend only seems to be growing. With games such as Retro City Rampage riding the high of nostalgia-based humor, and games like Lone Survivor managing to give gamers a modern experience with a very played-down style, it’s not surprising to see a lot of small developers starting to leap aboard that pixelated train.

How It Hurts Some Games

But not every one of these “retro style” games is getting the attention from gamers. Because at their core, they’re missing something else very important about the popular throw-back games: they also have their own personality. Many of these “me too” games don’t have the same appeal because, quite frankly: they’re boring. The indie games with the 8-bit art that make it big don’t push the art as the main thing that makes the game special. They establish something else that draws in the player, with the retro style just being an “Also!” to give it an aesthetic appeal.

I’ve seen a lot of comments recently in Steam’s Greenlight section whenever a new pixel-based game is pitched with questions of “isn’t this being done to death?”. This is a sign that the game in question isn’t doing anything other than using the pixels as a drawing point, without presenting anything else that makes the game interesting or worth playing. And while the game may be structurally sound, it ends up being a one-of-a-million deal that is almost impossible to pick out of a crowd of similar games with similar concepts. And that means: people AREN’T going to pick it out of the group. And you’re going to end up not getting your game out there.

Easier Said Than Done, Sometimes.

And Enjoy It We Shall. For More Reasons Than It’s Graphics.

The problem with trying to rely too heavily on the retro appeal is that some completely ignore what makes the games that do succeed in this area good in the first place. While the style may draw in the eye, its unique concepts and mechanics and real, genuine hard work and heart that keep people around. While your 8-bit platformer throw-back may be fun for awhile, it’s not going to be remembered if it doesn’t have something more to talk about.

This Matters To All Game Developers

Surprisingly, this isn’t a concept that’s unique to just the retro-style games. Hyper realistic games actually suffer from the exact same thing: they’re focusing too heavily on making the game the most “realistic experience” that they’re failing to concentrate on developing a game that sticks out from the pack. Every realistic military shooter is trying to catch up to Call Of Duty, for instance, and isn’t doing anything to make itself look like anything other than a clone or a lesser version.

Take for instance the recent success of the Borderlands franchise. Borderlands is, at it’s core, Fallout. But instead of just copying the gritty darkness of the Fallout franchise, Borderlands went with a more crazy, out-there style. The quirky humor, frantic gameplay, and over-the-top characters helped establish it as more than just a Fallout 3 clone. And not once did I mention the fact it ALSO has a unique visual style thanks to it’s cel-shaded graphics. That’s simply an after-thought to it’s already well-done development. Instead of trying to just focus on the visual style, the game concentrated on building a unique experience outside of that.


That is the kind of mindset that all game developers can benefit from. While it’s easy to focus on graphics as a selling point, the industry, and most importantly the consumer, is starting to see that there are other things that matter besides which one is the most flashy. This isn’t something unique to modern games or retro games, big titles or indie titles, it’s something that ALL game developers must take mind of when they’re trying to make their product stick out amongst the herd of games being released these days.

This in no way is meant to tell people NOT to utilize graphics, both realistic and retro, as a means to express yourself. The key here is to realize that there has to be more to it than that in order for that to work at all. Don’t make a game pixelated or super-realistic just because you think it’s the quickest way to get noticed. Because you won’t. In fact, it may very well do more harm than good.


One thought on “The Pixel Revival – Are Indie Developers Too Reliant On “Retro” Style?

  1. Deraj626

    I agree for the most part. If a game isn’t at least a bit unique, it’s not going to stand out. I like the throwbacks, but only if it’s done well and in moderation.

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