Big Budget vs Indie: Can The Next Gen Produce Masterpieces Like These?

Shadowrun Returns and The Last of Us: shining examples of what is possible.
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Video games are a big business these days, and measures of “success” vary depending on the developer, the title, and many other factors. Big budget studios tend to measure themselves against standards so high that many smaller or indie developers could only dream of achieving. It’s not always a high review score that deems a game a success either, because all factors need to be examined. What do I mean? Let’s take a look at two games with different budgets, visions, and review scores that came out this summer that many people, myself included, consider to be successes. 

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Shadowrun Returns

If you haven’t played Shadowrun Returns, available on PC and Mac through Steam for under 20 bucks, you’re missing out on something truly remarkable. It’s not that the game itself is perfect (far from it actually), or that it does anything truly innovative (Ummm… 1998 called. It wants its isometric perspective back.), or that it even tells an amazing story. While doing a lot of things very well and marred only by a few shortcomings, Shadowrun Returns shows just what can be done through sheer willpower and public support. 

Shadowrun Returns began its life as a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to raise $400,000. When it was all said and done, the project, led by Jordan Weisman and developer Harebrained Schemes, raised over $1.8 million. This provided a lot more capital for the team to make the game of their dreams, and what they delivered was an exceptional turn-based role-playing experience. But it’s not necessarily the specifics of the game that are important here. What really matters is that this was accomplished at all.

The Kickstarter campaign for Shadowrun Returns began in March of 2012, and the game was released in July of this year. This is incredibly quick turnaround when you consider the state of the games industry in general. 

The Elder Scrolls series is highly revered and considered by many one of the best franchises in gaming, but their development cycle is not exactly short. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim came out November of 2011 – five years after The Elder Scrolls IV: OblivionGrand Theft Auto V will hit the streets more than five years after Grand Theft Auto IV. Even the infamous Call of Duty series has been on an every-other-year schedule, alternating its annual releases between the Modern Warfare and Black Ops series (although this year they are introducing a brand new series in Ghosts).

Shadowrun Returns went from not even existing to raking in tremendous reviews in about 16 months. 

Now, I’m not saying game developers need to start pushing to get their games out faster. That’s not what I want at all. I am a big fan of the “when it’s done” philosophy practiced by companies like Rockstar and Bethesda. But considering that Harebrained Schemes was held to the pressures and expectations of Kickstarter backers, the end result is a major success. Hopefully, given a little support and even more time, a potential sequel would fix some of the current game’s problems and push the limits even further.

So in my opinion, Shadowrun Returns was a great success. With a Metacritic score of 76, the reviews weren’t off the charts, but most of them acknowledged that the game was at least good. Shadowrun Returns would have been a failure if it was $60. But for 20 bucks, you get a good looking game that is very nostalgic in its play style, has a fun and engaging story, fantastic music, and offers a nice variety of ways to play. A lot of $60 games can’t say all of that. So, while measuring it against AAA big budget titles would probably reveal even more flaws, when measured against the price tag, this game is a home run.

Gaming isn’t just about flashy, loud, fast-paced games. It’s about experiences that truly matter and have an impact on the world. Game developers, whether they realize it or not, have reached an interesting crossroad. Let’s take a step back from Shadowrun Returns for a moment, and look at another game that released this year: The Last of Us.

The Last of Us

If you haven’t played The Last of Us yet, don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything for you, except to say that the game is amazing. Unlike Shadowrun Returns, Naughty Dog’s latest title is absolutely a Perfect-10, not perfect in every way, but a perfect experience from beginning to end. But more than being a fantastic game, The Last of Us is an exploration of our souls. The choices you make in the game and the experiences you witness are enough to make you question your faith in humanity and even yourself. 

And this is where the crossroad lies. What will developers do now that we live in a world that exhibits The Last of Us as a living, breathing example of what’s possible? Why even bother attempting to make a triple-A, heavy-hitting blockbuster title if it doesn’t offer the same emotional connection that The Last of Us was able to garner? Why should we, as gamers, settle for an experience that doesn’t give us everything it’s got from start to finish? Why should we allow developers to throw a pile of crap at us, charge $60, and expect us to come back for more (DLC)?

We shouldn’t!

As gamers, we have come to expect a certain quality from the graphics and storylines in our games. We want precise control schemes, engaging combat, and games that offer choice with lasting consequences. Why not demand games that are so much more than all of that? 

The Last of Us succeeds because it grips players with an emotional story, looks beautiful, and plays well. There are certainly things here and there that could have been done differently and maybe even better, but that doesn’t detract from my opinion that when evaluated from start to finish, The Last of Us is a masterpiece. This game was not only worth the $60 price tag, but it could have probably charged more and still be considered a massive success. I’m not talking in terms of sales here, either. Certainly companies do judge whether or not a game is a success by how many units it sells, but this is dangerous territory. If that was the only metric used, many indie games would be considered massive failures, and I don’t think anyone is ready to proclaim the indie market a failure just yet.

My hope is that AAA masterpieces like The Last of Us, and even unexpected successes like Shadowrun Returns, are not just blips on the radar. I want other companies to look at these games and understand that it doesn’t necessarily require millions of copies sold or perfect review scores to mean you’ve created something worthwhile. Developers will be forever under the pressure of hitting sales targets, and that is unfortunate, but I hope someday the suits will be able to look at the bigger picture. Did your company make a great game? Did they create something worthwhile that people love? Because that’s the other bottom line you need to think about. Did the people buying your product enjoy it?

Putting It All Together

Today I featured both Shadowrun Returns and The Last of Us in the same editorial. What do these two games have in common? They are two shining examples of what’s possible. Shadowrun Returns blasted through development without losing too many parts along the way, and proved that making a fantastic game doesn’t have to take years. The Last of Us held no punches, changed the way the world looks at video games, and shines as the crown jewel of this generation.

It’s time to stop settling and demand excellence from your games. Don’t be content to play a simple rehash or port of a previous game, push game developers to think outside the box and come up with new ways to entertain us. There’s so much more out there that is possible than what we’ve seen, and we got a glimpse of that with The Last of Us and Shadowrun Returns.

Now that we know what can be done, there’s no reason to accept anything less.

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Brian Armstrong
Proud gamer parent and freelance journalist (and fundraiser). I cover anything and everything that's interesting about the gaming industry, and even some stuff that isn't so interesting.