About 100 indie game studios from around the world gathered in San Francisco this March to show their latest projects, and make connections to get their game to market. While the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) makes headlines with major announcements from movie-studio-sized teams, sometimes the future comes in smaller packages.

Away from the corporate giants and their blockbuster budgets, interesting patterns can be identified when it comes to the games developed and technology used by indie studios. Here are four key highlights.

Waiting for Virtual & Augmented Reality

The absence of AR demos among indie studios doesn’t come as a surprise, since industry experts are still questioning its best uses. The small number of VR demos proves the technology has yet to break into the mainstream. Reasons may differ, starting with a lack of affordability for hardware or out to the limited success of games on these platforms, especially on indie budgets.

Making a VR or AR game can be risky for a new or small studio, and unprofitable for independent studios. Only few have ventured into these lands to provide visitors demos of their prototype. Some were appealing enough that queues of people were waiting to test their game. That isn’t unheard of at GDC Play, but can definitely be considered an achievement.

It also tells us that the appetite and curiosity for the tech is there, waiting for the gaming studios to catch up.

Indie VR

VR-focused studios were the minority at GDC Play, but what we saw from their demos proved they are aware of the challenges VR games face. Some studios are looking to tackle these issues like the unfamiliarity with new VR controllers. The games are played through an HTC Vive headset but users are able to use a standard Xbox remote in order to flatten the learning curve, lower expenses and allow the player to dive straight into the game. So, what did the brave forays into indie VR games look like?

Hell-Ellujah, a Swiss horror board game, aims to reduce the isolation associated to VR games. It is played with a group of friends, a tablet, and one person wearing a mobile VR headset. The game creates a strong sense of cohesion and triggers friendly rivalries. Every player has a direct impact on each other’s experience inside the virtual world, and the headset wearer is never truly “alone”. It’s also a great approach to building team play in a tech format that not every game player has access to.

“Couch games” still influential?

A few years ago, the trend of competitive online multiplayer games took the industry by storm and is still present in today’s latest releases. The indie scene at GDC seemed to swim against that current, working to preserve the original “form” of gaming: in your living room, with a group of friends (and potentially tearing friendships apart!), but above all: working without an Internet connection. Collaborative games such as Deru or Oniri Islands even took things a step further, requiring a physical person by your side to start and complete the game. Better be committed!

Some interfaces can get your hands dirty

The Alt.Ctrl.GDC forum is a collection of edgy, avant-garde and oftentimes just plain weird new concepts like Zombie Crawler where your goal is to get your zombie to crawl through a corridor, avoid obstacles, and ultimately, reach your human “prey”. This time however, the player needs to physically crawl and shift his weight on a treadmill-like controller to move the zombie forward. Most innovative platforms on display have a single purpose, and can be quite limited to the story of a single game they’re produced for. But one stood out this year.

Produced at the Digipen Institute of Technology, Team Psylight takes “Sandbox games” literally with Sand Garden. Consider it an Alternate Reality game where actions in the physical world have a direct impact on the virtual one.

So how does it work? The player stands in front of a box containing about 100 pounds of sand being scanned by an Xbox Kinect camera. At eye level stands a monitor displaying a virtual island with little villagers on it. Like any other “god game”, the goal is to modify the landscape to meet the needs of these villagers. You change their world by moving the “physical earth” in the actual sandbox. The equipment required for this game may not make it consumer-friendly per se, but the tech is sparking interest beyond the gaming world and into applications for architectural and engineering simulations. It will be exciting to see where they are this time next year.

What’s NEXT?

This year once again reinforced the appeal of independent studios. The novelty and progressive quality of these showcased projects reveal that smaller studios can be more creative in producing the quality required to contend with AAA games, but without the budget. Even if profit isn’t the main focus, it seems independent developers will keep doing what they love and consumers will keep loving what they do.

Learn more about the #SwissGames events at GDC 2017