Independent game culture has become something of a modern phenomenon within the gaming industry. The word ‘indie’ has permeated the 21st century language and is associated with being something new and quirky, outside of the norm and therefore special. Despite this, there are now probable thousands of titles swarming the games market, so much so that ‘indie’ has become a significant genre of its own in all forms of media including video games.
Where did they come from, and where do they go in the gaming industry today? There are many reasons for why indie games became so popular and why they are now so widely accepted and praised. This article will explore five significant reasons, and how these mean indie games are ever more important and relevant today.
They’re Not Like Other Games
Let us get the most obvious point out of the way: Indie games are not like mainstream games. Today one could say that there is a jadedness settling upon gamers consuming in the industry, where the frequent moan of “They’re running out of ideas” is always heard from the side lines every time a new Triple A game is announced or released. Nobody is a stranger to hearing or seeing complaints and scathing criticisms slamming games for lacking innovation or even just looking the same as another entry from the same makers.
Mainstream games industry giants are subject to the demands of their fans in terms of quantity and quality, often expected to churn out games constantly throughout the year which are supposed to feel faithful to their franchises but not too similar, otherwise they will suffer in sales and reviews. It is an inevitable fate for anyone in the entertainment industry be they single player or large corporations. The result more often than not will be some games seeming like repeats of the last, or lacking the expected qualities that fans have wished to be added in.
Indie games are not shackled by these limitations, as most titles started as projects from fresh faces to the industry. They have the freedom to experiment with their ideas and the game style, and often this is the main selling point of their games. Minecraft, for example, was developed with an incredibly basic-looking art style due to a lesser focus put on the graphics. It was released in 2011, during a time were almost all 3D titles were the likes of Batman: Arkham City, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and yet another Call of Duty entry. Noticed the pattern? All of those titles use realistic art styles, as it is almost expected of any self-respecting professional games studio to have a good portion of their budget put into making their game look good as well as playable. On top of this, Minecraft also aimed to have a relatively simple way of playing without any complicated writing or mechanics or critics to please. It was simply gather, craft and survive with no real goals or limits, enabling its players to go crazy and flourish with their creativity and probably collectively rack up more hours of gameplay than the entire human race has been alive.
For Minecraft, the simplistic and blocky art style and endless, slow-paced gameplay was something new and unusual and ended up working, as the game has gone on to be a global success with millions of players and Microsoft paying $2.5 billion to buy the franchise. Had any other already established studio announced they were making a game at E3 and unveiled a blocky, choppy-looking simplistic survival game, they might have lost a large amount of their fans.
They Hit the Spot for Nostalgia and Our Own Dreams
A majority of indie games developers are probably like us, who were alive and likely played the same games that the gamers of today played. And as we all know, nostalgia goggles make everything look rosy as many of us still probably look back on the titles which we grew up on and say that they don’t make them like they used to.
Indie developers, however, likely have that same feeling and what’s more, they have the power to do something about it and make a game ‘just like they used to’. For example Shovel Knight, a 2015 title by Yacht Club Games, took a tone and art style resembling 90s 8-bit SNES era games because the developers had a love for that generation of games and likely played them growing up too. The game has gone on to receive critical and acclaim and win various awards and accolades, mainly praising how it pays homage to games of that bygone time while having a freshness welcome in modern games.
Because of this shared feeling between the developers and those who will play their games, the indie dev gets the advantage of knowing almost exactly what gamers nowadays want. If you are reading this article as someone interested in game development, you are likely to be thinking like this too if you are making games already: We all want to make the game that our younger selves always wanted to play, and of course have been inspired by games we’ve played and loved already to pursue such a dream.
There’s Less Barriers Between Indie Devs and the Masses
Expanding on the point above, the feeling that some indie games are tailored for our personal love and experiences and that the indie developers are people like us makes an immense difference nowadays. People often seek a personalised experience when it comes to contacting and doing business with companies they buy from, but it is unavoidable that the larger the company the more impersonal contact gets. You are always going to get shunted through to a communications department who of course have no affiliation with the actual game developers who make the games, or the higher ups who actually make the decisions of what the company releases onto the market. Because of this wall, fans feel like their wishes and suggestions for the games they want to see fall by the wayside.
A key advantage that indie developers have is the ability to contact their fans and potential consumers like any normal person. It is standard for indie developers to have development blogs and open up their social media accounts inviting others to talk to them about their game projects and share any anecdotes and commentary. Some indie developers even go as far as to allow interested persons to suggest ideas and influence the game’s development, sometimes allowing others to contribute directly to the game. Games that start on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo often make the offer in their reward tiers for the chance to contribute to the game or get a special mention and Easter Egg tailored for backers.
With such a level of transparency put into the development process, you can really start to be charmed by a game which they have watched the creation of from its early conceptual stages, and would be inclined even more to love it if it makes you feel like it’s been made with you in mind. With that said, it is true that the big established companies are starting to cotton on and open their own social media accounts and Q&A sessions with developers, but there is still a degree of feeling removed when compared to the more personal and hands-on approach indie devs can provide.
A fairly simple reason to state, but easy to understand. The average retail price of a normal, professionally published Triple A game for console or PC is about £40 at time of writing. There are probably some incredibly obscure indie games out there with pricing akin to a normal game, but realistically the indie market parameters are somewhere between £5 to £10, up to £20 in certain special cases. Most of this is of course boils down to production costs – A single person working at their own pace on a game at home will spend less money and have less expected of their product than a professional studio with potentially hundreds of employees working on many complicated assets and mechanics at a time.
And let us be honest with ourselves. Nobody likes to spend a lot of money even on something they love, and consumers are always hyper-critical of getting their money’s worth out of what they buy. With the aforementioned fed-up attitude with mainstream games meaning that only those who really feel dedicated are willing to splash out, this has drawn many to the indie markets in search of something cheap but satisfying for their itchy fingers.
They’re Easier to Make, Market and Distribute
A trend in most modern indie developers is that they usually have experience in the field through way of game mod and hack communities to which they contributed in the past and were able to share and exchange their works. A lot of these sharing communities felt closed off, however, either because of their narrow scope for audience or general obscurity in the internet. Some of this shareware even existed in the times when computers still had floppy disk drives, and the internet didn’t have social media or even a stable connection without your phone or fax machine choking up. On top of this, it seemed like it wasn’t just for anyone to pick up game making with the woes of lacklustre hardware and the threat of remaining in obscurity turning people off game development as anything but a hobby.
As a result, enthusiastic game makers and modders had to wait until technology marched on before they could recreate their visions and their work could be discovered and spread far and wide across the net. And with the rise of several novel sites, tools and platforms, success became even easier.
There are now plenty of free or easy-to-obtain professional game-making tools and resources available on line, ranging from simple but effective engines and creation software like GameMaker to full-blown functional 3D engine in Unity. And that’s not mentioning the plethora of resource creation programs and sharing sites, where you can create your own or get others’ creations and royalty free resources from art to music quickly. YouTube and Twitter’s creations enabled an easy way to advertise and hype a game quickly and expose it to the masses on the internet in minutes. Crowdfunding sites enabled developers to quickly obtain money for their development needs as well as exposure and potential fans with whom they could share their development logs with in a simple and direct manner. The rise of Steam was particularly pivotal in the scope of the entire industry, with Steam Greenlight allowing anyone to expose and have the chance to put their game on an official PC distribution platform as legitimate as buying physical copies off shelves or digital copies direct from companies. Now most digital distribution platforms and app stores have had to open their doors to allowing new indie titles into their shops in order to keep ahead of the game and snag the potential hits as they come in. Even if you’re not going through any of these stores, there are now plenty of sites like Itch.io and GameJolt where you can upload and share games by yourself for all to see and download with ease.
Streamlining the game creation and distribution process helps matters immensely on both ends. Consumers are constantly supplied with their fill of interesting new games to look at, get excited for and buy, and the game developers are saved a lot of stress during the development and release process.
What Happens Next?
Indie games are flourishing, and it seems they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Despite the origins and connotations of the word, there are so many indie games out there that they are becoming almost mainstream. There are a large community of gamers who sometimes only have interest in playing indie titles, the same way that some gamers only ever play one company’s games, or only play in one genre. There are even sites and magazines like Kotaku and Indie Game Mag completely dedicated to the indie games genre, and they won’t be running out of ammunition anytime soon. So long as there are people continuing to be interested in creating games for fun or for a professional cause, the indie movement will continue to thrive.
And the truth is that people like you and me, who are interested in game development and making our own games, are all going to be part of this – or maybe already are. If you make and release a game all on your own – congratulations and welcome, you are now an indie game maker!
While the ‘indie revolution’ started long ago already, it has been a true turning point for gaming culture world-wide that will keep on giving to the industry.