The Dreamcast commercial indie scene enters a 'Golden Age'

When Sega pulled the plug on the Dreamcast in 2001, few would have predicted that our beloved little white box would still be pushing out new titles 20 years later. Flicking through the pages of the multitude of gaming magazines that were vying for market share at the time, readers were presented with a journalistic consensus that the Dreamcast was well and truly dead (note: for younger members of the audience, magazines were bounded sheets of paper with writing and artwork printed on them).

Of course, by industry standards, this assessment was bang on the money. The gaming reporters may well have known that a trickle of official releases would continue to see the light of day for a few more years, or had an inkling that a sizeable portion of the Dreamcast’s enthusiastic fanbase would continue to support homebrew projects, some of which could conceivably be released in physical form on a small scale. In the terms of reference that mattered to the industry and the wider public though (revenue, profit, audience size), the writing had already been on the wall for some time.

Where it all began...

Although by these standards the Dreamcast's new releases are still undoubtedly small fry, the commercial Dreamcast indie scene has been through an astounding boom in recent years; one which is becoming hard to ignore. The tongue-in-cheek opinion shared amongst Dreamcast fanatics for many years that "the Dreamcast is a current gen console" is getting less and less absurd by the day. What began with the release of Cryptic Allusion’s Feet of Fury in 2003 (more info here) has snowballed to a point where 14 indie games were released in 2021. Furthermore, there are as many as 30 Dreamcast games forecast for release on a commercial basis in 2022 and beyond - a figure that is edging close to the 50 or so officially licenced releases seen in Europe in 2001, and which far outstrips the 9 released in 2002.

Of course, the rocketing quantity of releases doesn’t single-handedly uphold the claim that we’re in a “golden age” for the Dreamcast indie scene, but there are many other signs that accompany this trend. For one, the variety of games available is wider than ever, putting to rest the persistent trope that all the Dreamcast indie scene has to offer is shooters (which to be fair, had some validity in the mid to late noughties). Everything from platformers, fighters, puzzlers, RPGs, racers, and visual novels are finding a home on a professionally printed Dreamcast-compatible MIL-CD these days. Furthermore, there has been a diversification of contributors who are throwing their hats into the ring. Longstanding Dreamcast developers with a mountain of credibility stored up, such as Senile Team, are thankfully still here, but they have also been joined by a new wave of developers and publishers that are rapidly earning their stripes, including the likes of PixelHeart/JoshProd, LowTek Games, RetroSumus, The Bit Station, and WAVE Game Studios to name but a few.

What really adds weight to the hypothesis that the Dreamcast indie scene is entering a golden age though is the quality of many of the games - something which is undeniably more subjective and harder to pin down, but which will be recognised by many. Throughout the lifespan of the commercial Dreamcast indie scene there have always been standout titles, such as Wind & Water Puzzle Battles (2008) or Sturmwind (2013), which drew worthy praise at the time. Dreamcast enthusiasts would often wait in anticipation for years at a time for these gems; games that had clearly benefitted from the great care and attention to detail of their developers. Yet in 2020 and 2021 we were spoiled rotten with the release of three extraordinarily good titles in Intrepid Izzy, Xenocider and Xeno Crisis. These have all been extensively reviewed elsewhere too, so I won’t pour out my adoration here. Suffice it to say that they each set a high standard which others should be aiming for.

Three of the recent 'big' indie releases on Dreamcast

So, what exactly is driving this boom? Through the highly scientific method of poking around the internet, chatting with fellow devout Dreamcast fans, and mulling it over whilst munching on Hula Hoops, here's "what I reckon."

First and foremost, there is a longstanding healthy demand for commercial indie releases. Folks are willing to part with their cold hard cash for these games, and fundamentally that is what makes it viable for them to be released, especially in a physical format. Many indie games that see the light of day in a commercial form on the DC are undoubtedly labours of love and have had countless hours of voluntary or underpaid labour poured into them. Yet, however much these development costs can be kept in check, and no matter how much cheaper printing a CD is compared to producing another medium (such as a cartridge), it still requires funding, and so a reasonable level of demand is essential. 

Sales vary heavily from game to game, but it isn’t unusual to hear of indie Dreamcast releases selling over a thousand units, while those that sell well have the capability of reaching far beyond this over the course of their shelf life. For example, we know that Intrepid Izzy rapidly sold out its initial 700 copy print run within weeks of its release date, while the numbers shown on the PixelHeart website imply that a game such as Arcade Racing Legends has sold 2,500 copies of its PAL variation alone to-date. To put this into perspective, Radilgy, one of few final officially licensed Dreamcast games, was purported to have a print run of just 4,000 copies. When you add highly priced collectors’ editions into the mix - something that a section of the Dreamcast scene’s sizeable ‘adult-with-disposable-income’ demographic keenly buy into - then breaking even is a realistic, though not guaranteed, goal.

Arcade Racing Legends

On the other side of the coin, there are many factors that help facilitate the supply of games. Front and centre is the fact that Sega have thus far been very liberal (touch wood!) in their stance on the Dreamcast indie scene. Perhaps there is just no valid business rationale for them to dedicate resources to making things difficult (as opposed to genuine goodwill), but a laissez-faire attitude from multinational corporations under circumstances such as these is not always a given. Pair this with the Dreamcast’s capability to play games pressed to regular CDs without modification, and the relative ease of developing games for the console when compared to other platforms (often cited by developers in their DCJY interviews), and we have the foundations of the whole commercial indie scene.

Another duo of intertwined factors which are perhaps more pertinent now than in the early days are the possibility of multi-platform releases, and the feasibility of ports. Although there is nothing quite like getting a genuine exclusive, the reality is that planning for the Dreamcast to be one of many platforms that a game releases on allows developers the opportunity to reach a broader audience and potentially secure a little extra income. This is now the default operating model for the majority of contemporary indie Dreamcast releases, most of which don’t necessarily look out of place on Steam or a current-gen console’s virtual store thanks to the rehabilitation of small-scale 2D games and pixelart which has occurred over the last decade or so. And where would we be without ports?

4x4 Jam was ported from the Sony PSP

A hearty chunk (indeed probably a majority) of recent Dreamcast indie releases are ports of games that started out on the NES, Neo-Geo, PC or even PSP (see 4x4 Jam). Whilst some ports require greater intervention for them to run smoothly, many of those from the NES and Neo-Geo are in essence often little more than ROMs being emulated on the Dreamcast. These types of Dreamcast releases certainly aren’t to everyone’s tastes, but when they are executed with care and are reasonably priced, they can be crowd pleasers.

Last, but far from least, is the dedication and applied skill of the developers themselves. While the low(er) barriers to entry and potential for financial viability are factors that act as draws, chances are that what is fundamentally motivating many of them to put their efforts into creating Dreamcast indie releases is a fondness for the console and its fanbase. 

So, all’s cushdy in the indie Dreamcast scene where game development is a breeze, and punters are desperate to part with cash from their overflowing wallets, right? Well no, not quite. There are undoubtedly some black marks on the record-book and challenges that need to be contended with.

There's still hope we'll eventually see Sl@ve on Dreamcast

Although a vast number of Dreamcast indie games make it into the hands of paying customers, there are also plenty that have got stuck in limbo, disappear off the face of the earth, or have been received with disappointment. Jay Townsend's Sl@ve, originally revealed in 2014, has been stalled in development hell for the last few years of its gestation, but to their credit the publisher Goat Store has been forthcoming with refunds for pre-orders. Those who have backed other games, such as Elysian Shadows or Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs whose developers have seemingly received substantial sums of money and gone silent after delivering nothing, have not been so fortunate. 

The Textorcist reached the hands of those who pre-ordered it within the space of 6-months from its announcement to release, yet players quickly realised that the game was awash with bugs that rendered it virtually unplayable, a nightmare scenario that seemingly arose from inadequate testing of the final product (replacement discs are reportedly due shortly). These experiences are not unique to the Dreamcast indie scene by any means, but bad news travels fast within our niche community, and so when Dreamcast enthusiasts get their fingers burnt it can damage trust and heighten cynicism, potentially dampening the prospects for future releases. 

Developmental agonies and downright unethical behaviour aside, there are also some bumps in the road that even the most proficient developers can face. With so many new titles hitting the shelves of the (now mostly virtual) shops, we could hit a point where the market becomes oversaturated. If this results in the better-quality games winning out (the "cream rising to the top" as Macho Man Randy Savage would put it), then that would arguably be fair, but there is also a risk of decent games from talented developers getting lost in the crowd, failing to pick up momentum despite their underlying quality.

Taken after a particularly strenuous Samba de Amigo session

Fortunately the establishment of well-oiled publishing houses and distribution networks may lessen the likelihood of this, but these are not comprehensive in their coverage, and there is already a precedent of talented developers leaving the scene (such as Orion and NG:DEV Team) and promising titles failing to raise sufficient funding (In the Line of Fire). 

Another challenge that developers are beginning to grapple with is the provision of digital versions of their games, something which is necessitated by the unrelenting rise of Optical Disc Emulators (ODEs) as a preferred choice amongst Dreamcast owners. The vast majority of those who are looking to play these games are probably sensitive to the need to materially support indie developers, yet the ease of piracy when it comes to digital Dreamcast releases could be a worry. 

Elysian Shadows promised so much, yet delivered nothing

Despite these difficulties, the indie Dreamcast scene has reached a remarkable status today, one which may justify the definition of a "golden age." Dreamcast enthusiasts are blessed to have a bountiful platter of new commercial indie games to choose from, complementing the nostalgic back catalogue of officially licensed titles as well as innumerable non-commercial homebrew projects - something which warrants an article of its own. The opportunity to receive a big hit of serotonin that accompanies the ripping of cellophane off a brand-new game is something which we are now running into on a frequent basis.

Things could get better still if we begin to receive indie releases with online gaming capabilities (is a "platinum age" a thing?!), or come crashing down if we have to endure many more Drascula’s (OK, this may be a tad hyperbolic). For now, let’s appreciate the games we have been blessed with, and keep an eye on DCJY to see what is coming down the line.

Once again, huge thanks to Lozz for this excellent review of the commercial Dreamcast indie scene. If you'd like to to submit something for publication, please feel free to get in touch via our Discord or Twitter.


DCGX said...

Nice write-up!

One thing I wish is that, and I know it would be hard to coordinate, the spines of these indie releases were more uniform. They are all over the map. Some use official Dreamcast logo-ing, some their own logos, some try to mimic the official Dreamcast logo-ing with their own logos. 'Leona's Tricky Adventure' has a green spine. My shelf already looks hectic with white US spines, black US spines, orange/white Japanese spines and PAL games. It looks more like a 90s CDs collection than a single game console collection.

Wow, long rant.

It is crazy though, that game like 'Postal' get quick commercial releases like they do. I skip all JoshProd games because they are of dubious emulation quality, but the rest I try to snap up. The problem now is shelf space.

Tom Charnock said...

Yes, it's a great article - thanks Laurence for submitting this. And yeah, DCGX - you raise a good point. Maybe we should establish the official 'God Dammned Dreamcast indie spine council' or 'GD DISC' for short XD

way2easy said...

What a great article! I learnt about a few indie games that I hadn't heard of. I'd love to see a section on the website that lists the current sellers of Indie Dreamcast games. It's so hard to keep track of where to buy these games from.

Tom Charnock said...

way2easy - that's actually a great idea. I'll try to create something like that and add it to the blog. Cheers :)

Laurence Goodchild said...

DCGX, thanks for your kind words! I agree a standardised case template would be nice, although I imagine getting agreement on that across the myriad publishers might be tricky. Personally my favourites in terms of the physical aesthetics are the RedSpotGames (R.I.P) Japanese style jewel case releases and the WAVE PAL style jewel cases. Not a fan of the DVD cases, but those seem to have been phased out since Hucast left the DC indie scene. I had thought about commenting on the production quality and design of the game cases and discs, but the article was already getting a little lengthy so I had to reign myself in.

Re: Postal getting a quick release. I believe the developer has actually been working on the port for a couple of years, so it's not necessarily any speedier than other commercial indie releases. The timeframe between its formal announcement and the release date is short though - something which can happen for games that aren't relying on Kickstarters (where everything is laid bare from the off).

Way2easy, I think lots of folks will be in the same boat as you (including me). It is quite easy to not hear about certain releases, or for some to get lost in the crowd. That's something I touched upon in the article. I'm not totally sure what the solution is. Ultimately the developers/publishers are responsible for their marketing, and I think they need to have a good strategy to ensure their game gets noticed. With that said, I do feel a bit sorry for good quality titles that fail to pick up momentum solely because they haven't had the glitz and glamour of other titles that are (in my eyes) less worthy. I suppose being a good developer and being a good marketer require separate skill sets.

Having a centralised location where basic info on where games can be purchased would be valuable though. Sounds like Tom may run with that suggestion.

Dan said...

Great article. Would be cool to have a run down of what games are expected in 2022.

There definitely seems to be some varying quality of what’s being released on the Dreamcast. Texorcist was released way too early and I’m glad Gamefairy are putting it right, as it has the potential to be one if the highlights of the Dreamcast indie scene. Joshprod I find can be quantity over quality and have had some good releases (Flashback, Volgaar, Alice Sisters) and some that should never have been released in their current state (Captain Tomaday and Arcade racing legends). WAVE genuinely seem passionate about the scene and have already impressed me with their releases so excited to see what they have in store for us in the future.

DCGX said...

@ Tom - lol that's a snappy idea!

@Laurence - Yeah, I don't see a uniform spine because of logistics either. It would just be nice lol

In regards to 'Postal,' that's more what I meant: announcement to release. 'The Textorcist' definitely had that too, and was obviously not ready, whereas I'm sure 'Postal' is. I have to preorder that yet.

@Unknown - WAVE does seem passionate about these releases. I think Senile Team wouldn't have chosen them as a distributor otherwise. I'm hoping that lights a fire under JoshProd as far as port quality goes. JoshProd packaging has always been stellar, but I think it's another case of poor quick turnarounds like 'The Textorcist' where we see the actual game quality lower than we expect. I'm optimistic.

JúlioSlayer Oliveira said...

If someone asked me something about new Dreamcast games 20 years ago, I'd say that would be an impossible dream. Fortunately it wasn't!!!

Anyway, I'd like to see more 3D games that use more of the console's capabilities. Something along the lines of Arcade Racing Legends or 4X4 Jam. Yes, I know that such projects are more difficult to accomplish (see Arcade Racing Legends bugs) and would require bigger teams, more money, etc... Or else more versions of 3D games released between 1995 and 2000 and that had the Source code leaked on the internet (and that are within the capacity of conversion to the console without a big team behind). But who knows in the near future, with the KallistiOS Development Kit evolving even further to a level close to what the SGDK stands today for the Mega Drive/Sega Genesis? And honestly, I don't really like the exaggerated criticism that scene had towards Arcade Racing Legends. Even with issues it is a better game (or at least on the same level) than the OFFICIAL 2001 racing game, Exhibition of Speed (Titus), for example.

JúlioSlayer Oliveira said...

"One thing I wish is that, and I know it would be hard to coordinate, the spines of these indie releases were more uniform". Yes, agree 100%!

Tom Charnock said...

I've added this directory page to the blog (also in the side bar):

It's not as good as something as Indie Dreams wiki, but it shows the current active developers and publishers of indie games for those who want to purchase them. I will add to it as and when people spot things I've missed (probably loads!)

ikeshiavaccarelli said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
SegaSen said...

I really like that it still receives so many games and I buy them often. I sure hope they will keep releasing these games physically, as I have zero interest in an ODE. It is often difficult to find out what new releases are worthwhile, as there are hardly any critical reviews online. The showcases by Adam Koralik for example aren't. The quality of the releases varies wildly. I did not order any of the games in the last batch of JoshProd releases for example, even though I love their packaging. I disagree that Arcade Racing Legends is better than Spirit of Speed.

OneStar said...

Great article. We have definitely have had some stellar releases in the homebrew/indie scene. I remember immediately ordering Feet of Fury when I could. I still hate that we lost Yuan Works after Wind&Water didn't do as well as planned, as there were three other titles planned IIRC. Wind&Water is an excellent game (this coming from someone who doesn't care for puzzle games) with tons of features and love put into it.

I'm still anxiously awaiting news of Duranik's Midsummer. Hopefully we get some info sooner than later. Sturmwind is one of my favorite DC games from the entire catalog.

I purchased two of the first JoshProd releases and never did again. I want new DC stuff, but those low effort ports/emulators don't cut it.

I finally got my refund for Sl@ve a few years ago. That is never happening which is sad. Same with Hypertension. Both those projects showed so much potential, but unfortunately they suffer from the curse of secrecy/pride that has plagued the DCscene since it started. Nothing will come from those games, and everything made for them will die on someones HDD never seeing the light of day.

And regarding Elysian Shadows. Fuck Falco! He stole so much money (while still accepting paypal for it on his website until now), shat on everyone he came across or worked with, tarnished the Dreamcast indie scene and went into hiding like the pathetic snowflake he is. If he really cared about the DC scene and his project so much, or felt any regret for being an asshole and a failure, he would release everything him and his team put together (which wasn't much obviously) and apologize. The entire scene needs to drop him and his project entirely.

We have gained devs back over the years and I am glad to see the community growing , especially with the DreamPi / online game revivals. - still waiting for new of Bomberman/Outrigger one day.

The homebrew scene had been lacking but seems to be getting a revival. Personally glad to see Ian Michael working on ports again, and Senile Team producing Intrepid Izzy was awesome. Let's see "Age of the Beast" picked up again one day :p

Serious ups and downs, but overall great to see the DC scene so healthy these days.
I'll end it here as I got a lot more long winded than I planned to. Love the site and its content. Keep it coming.