I just watched this brilliant video which discusses how new distribution methods are encouraging third-party development and innovation. It made me start thinking about two relatively recent games and how they went from inexpensive cult classics to groundbreaking A-list games.
The two games in question are Grand Theft Auto and Fallout. Not to sound like a hipster, but I played both of these games before they made it big with their big budget, high-graphics third installments. I never really got into them, but I definitely saw the appeal.
Both games have a very unique and specific setting. In GTA, you played the role of an amoral criminal accepting odd jobs from similarly immoral people in a fairly real (although comically exaggerated) environment. Although this sounds fairly conventional today, when I was in high school, this was extremely unique and edgy. In Fallout, the environment was post-Apocalyptic and you were forced to negotiate with strangers in a very realistic way for goods, although you could choose whether this was done by barter or force.
To get to the point, I think the reason why these games succeeded as well as they did when they became high-budget platform games is because the game mechanics were so strong in the originals. In GTA, they seemlessly integrated driving, running, shooting, storytelling, and map exploration to bring you a truly immersive experience. It is rare that any game does even two of those things well. In Fallout, they had a compelling environment which we can all relate to. What would you do to survive in the post-Apocalypse? And by limiting your resources, expanding your skill set, and varying the number of ways you can interact with NPCs, they gave you an open-ended gaming experience where you can truly craft your own story.
In short, if you can make a really well-designed game with a low budget and simple graphics, you have a much better chance of creating a groundbreaking game when you are fortunate enough to get commercial backing. But if you have the budget from the start, you might spend so much time trying to make the graphics good or adding a silly gimmick that you may forget the essential, simple elements necessary to really become absorbed in a good game.