If done well, the ability to create an endless amount of content for the frontloaded price of designing the generation system can provide for exponential efficiency.
As Introversion Software explains, "For Introversion Software’s latest game, DEFCON, the only real content that we made was the audio. Almost everything else in the game is generated from publicly available information -- the locations of cities, longitudes and latitudes of the various coastlines and country borders of the world are all freely available on the internet. DEFCON was in development for about a year. Introversion’s Darwinia, on the other hand, has about 10 hours of game-play from hand-built content, and took 3 years to develop." Another Indie favorite that utilizes procedural content generation is Dwarf Fortress.
Any game that utilizes a photorealistic look is immediately in visual competition with games like Crysis, and the amount of resources it takes to compete on that level is growing every year.
As David Hayward muses in this article, "Art assets as we know them are expensive,
with costs rising in each generation of hardware. This is a catastrophic
obstacle that cannot be ignored, as it means that only the largest publishers
will be able to afford photorealism with current production methods."
One way to get results with fewer resources is to explore themes and designs from 15 or 20 years ago with technology from today. Kokoromi’s Fez is quite literally a new angle on old school pixel platformer games.
At first glance, the game is a straightforward 2d sidescroller, but the modern technology twist is revealed when the entire scene rotated 90 degrees and reveals the world to be made entirely of "Trixels" or 3d pixel blocks.
As lead designer Phil Fish explains, "Since the rotation mechanic and level design might not be immediately easy to understand, I wanted everything else to be. So I just took a bunch of objects and things and concepts from these old games to give gamers a point of reference. A lot of Fez's design, besides the 2D/3D mechanic, is very oldschool for that reason. I wanted it to have a kind of 'comfort food' appeal to it."
Besides having a visual appeal, abandoning popular modern game design issues to explore new ideas through some of the most experienced legacy design choices in gaming is a very efficient development path. Trade bump maps for bitmaps and shave off a dimension or half. The popularity of retro classics on Xbox Live Arcade, as well as retro-styled hits like Geometry Wars give a sense that gamers might not mind the loss of fidelity.
There is no shame in climbing on the backs of others, especially when you are trying to make the most with the least. Counter-Strike, as I have mentioned previously, is perhaps my favorite inspiration in this respect. Counter-Strike started as mod of the original Half-Life by Minh Le and Jess Cliffe, along with the help of others in the mod community.
By only performing basic modifications to the Half-Life engine (changing game rules, weapon behaviors, creating new art), Counter-Strike came into being with a budget of roughly $0 (minus spare time spent).
The fact that a game which started with that budget went on to become one of the most popular and recognizable multiplayer shooters in gaming history still inspires me to this day. Just a fraction of the free or cheap technologies to look at are:
Game Engines: Flash 9(AS3), Shockwave, C4, NeoAxis, jME, Torque, Unity, Blitz, id Tech 3, XNA, Multiverse, Adventure Game Studio, Game Maker, Wintermute, Scrolling Game Development Kit, Source, PopCap Framework, metaplace?
For a much longer list of free-ish game development libraries/tools, check here.