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Friday, April 19, 2024
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Cardinal Gaming: Lethal Company shows indie games have a place in gamers’ hearts

The hit video game Lethal Company has a surprising backstory that gives hope for indie developers everywhere.

Lethal Company was nominated for Game of the Year on Steam in 2023 and, while it lost to Baldur’s Gate 3, it’s a major win for indie games and their developers.

Why is that significant? Baldur’s Gate 3 was created by Larian Studios, a video game studio that employs 450 employees across six countries, according to Bloomberg. IGN reported Baldur’s Gate’s budget came in at $100 million.

Meanwhile, Lethal Company was designed, programmed and published by a single developer, Zeekers. Zeekers’ Twitter shows they are a self-taught developer passionate about video game design. 

Zeekers started by designing levels on Roblox and eventually published four games on Steam that drew a few decent reviews from gamers. The next game he published was Lethal Company, and it would explode.

Lethal Company received 97% positive feedback on 250,000 reviews on Steam from gamers. For reference, the ever-popular Resident Evil 4 developed by Capcom — a major studio — gained the same percentage with just under 80,000 reviews on Steam.

Imagine a mom-and-pop grocery store competing at the same level as Walmart, Target, Costco and Pick n’ Save. It’s hard to imagine that case, but Lethal Company has proven that competition in the video game development scene is possible.

The significant news here is that there is still a place for indie games to succeed, even if the market is increasingly saturated with major players who can — between all of them — release constant streams of games that compete for players' time and money. Even more concerning is the consolidation of games under these companies.

Microsoft has been making significant moves on independent developers. In October of 2023, Microsoft absorbed Activision Blizzard — a developer that held the largest-ever market value of any developer at a whopping $67.06 billion — in a record-breaking deal, according to Statista. Nintendo is the second largest behind that, which maxed out at $60.28 billion in 2022. Activision Blizzard is behind giant franchises like the Warcraft, Starcraft and Overwatch games, all of which now fall under Microsoft’s control. 

Microsoft had already absorbed Minecraft developer Mojang and a holding company that held developers Bethesda, id Software and Arkane. Bethesda produces the Fallout and The Elder Scrolls series, id Software is known for the Doom games and Arkane developed the Prey and Dishonored games.

Take Two Interactive, known for 2K games and Rockstar Games, of the famous GTA franchise, is the second-largest video game developer by market value, according to Statista. They snagged the second-largest developer acquisition in history when acquiring mobile developer Zynga, best known for Farmville.

Overall, the consolidation in the industry has been so fast that gamers may not realize their favorite franchises and games shifted hands. That’s left an increasingly challenging market for indie and independent developers.

But indie games stood out in 2023. Larian Studios of Baldur’s Gate 3 — which won game of the year at The Game Awards as well —  is independent, and the staggering success of Lethal Company shows that gamers will continue to support indie games and their developers. 

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Of course, consolidation is an issue. Recent activities from the largest developers show that acquisitions are likely to continue in 2024. Some games, developers and franchises undoubtedly benefit from acquisitions — those who lose and struggle to find their feet benefit from being taken under the wing of a stable studio. But for others, it signifies the closing of the ‘mom-and-pop’ shop that had made the games what they are and handing it over to an uncertain future with one of the ‘big box’ brands.

The good news is that gamers continue to reaffirm their love for indie games. Lethal Company and other indie titles — such as the 2020 cultural phenomenon Among Us — are hit titles that gained fame because they are great games and not much else, with little to nothing to claim as a marketing budget.

At the end of the day, video game design is an art just like any other form of entertainment out there. Late-night sweat and tears go into their creation, and we should reward games that try to level up the gaming experience — regardless of the team or person behind them. 

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Ian Wilder

Ian Wilder is a senior staff writer and current men’s hockey beat reporter for The Daily Cardinal. He’s a former state politics and features reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @IanWWilder.

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