What Is An Indie Game? Everything you need to know


Indie

The term ‘indie’ is used to refer to games all the time, along with terms like ‘indie developer‘ and ‘indie publisher’. But what does it really mean to be Indie?¬†What is an indie game? Well, let’s find out!

What Does Indie Mean In Games?

Indie is short for independent and usually denotes a video game built without a publisher’s financial or technical support. However, some indie developers partner with publishers who allow them to retain creative independence. These types of publishers are known as indie publishers. Creative independence allows developers to innovate and experiment with gameplay, allowing them to create experiences that are radically different from AAA (triple-a games).

The term “indie game” itself is based on similar terms like “independent film” and “independent music”, which both also value artistic freedom and self-publishing. But, there is no accepted definition of what counts as an “indie game” besides being outside the budgets and scope of triple-A games development.

When we want to define indie game, we have a problem. When a game is defined as Indie, it tells gamers nothing about its quality, content, or gameplay. In his 2011 IGN article, author Michael Thomsen suggests that the Indie Gaming category is a meaningless classification that exists as a placeholder in the absence of a more descriptive word.

“The only reason we use ‘indie,’ honestly, is because there isn’t a better word,” 

  • Celia Pearce, Festival Chair at IndieCade and Professor at Georgia Institute of Technology

This perspective seems to have some weight. After all, what does it mean when someone says, “it’s pretty good for an indie game”?

Pretty good for an indie game could mean anything. There are no clearly defined benchmarks. Are we comparing it to The Sims to Toilet Management Simulator? Or Call of Duty to Cuphead? They are not like for like. Quality is a subjective measure, and someone’s literacy of games heavily influences these sorts of comparisons.

Comparing the quality of games is a weird problem indie games face. Maybe it is unfair since we know both Indie and triple-a games developers produce a plethora of excellent titles and equally hot garbage each year.

A Brief History of Indie Games

Indie games might seem like a relatively new phenomenon, but their history can be traced back to the so-called ‘bedroom coders’ of the 1980s. Before the year 2000, indie games were referred to as amateur or hobbyist games. Here’s our brief history of indie games.

  • 1977: The first personal computers, which come with the computer language BASIC, are released.
  • 1978: A book called BASIC Computer Games is published and becomes a bestseller.
  • 1980: The ZX Spectrum is released in the UK; it spawns a wave of “bedroom coders” and kickstarts the UK’s Video Game industry.
  • 1985: The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was released in Japan, which popularized video gaming across the globe.
  • 2005: Indie game development starts to be compared to the independent film movement as they are used to tell messages related to social and political changes. This creative freedom is not seen in aaa games.
  • 2006: Braid is released, which uses time manipulation as a central gameplay mechanic. It has become one of the highest-rated games of all time.
  • 2008: Minecraft is released by Swedish video game programmer Notch (Markus Persson). The game goes on to become the biggest-selling indie game of all time after its sale to The Microsoft Corporation.
  • 2012: Indie Game: The Movie is released, a feature-length documentary following the creation of games: Super Meat Boy, Braid and FEZ.
  • 2013: Journey becomes the first indie game to wind the Game Developers Choice Game Of The Year Award.
  • 2017: Valve launches Steam Direct, an initiative to allow independent game developers to publish their games on the Steam distribution platform for a $100 registration fee.
  • 2015: The term “indiepocalypse” is coined in response to the increased competition developers face with the oversupply of indie games. These conditions are attributed to the accessibility of easy-to-use tools to create and distribute video games. But these fears are put to rest as the market matures and adjusts to the increased competition.
  • 2021: A total of 10,696 games are released this year alone on the Steam platform.

Indie games have a rich history, and this timeline only scratches the surface. The question remains: Are the best days of indie games behind us?

The Future of Indie Games: 3 Big Predictions

Predicting the future of the indie video game is a challenging task, not least because it hasn’t happened yet! Never less, we can make some inferences by looking at the trends that have taken the industry to where it is today.

Games Lose Their Spirit

The events of the 2015 Indiepocalypse have led us to the point where the indie games market is maturing. This means indie games are increasingly losing their Punk Rock Spirit as they have their edges smoothed off. Far from selling out, this is indie developers trying to survive.

Big Money Floods Into The Market

The video gaming industry has ballooned to US$ 201 billion in 2021, so when it comes to indie games, the cat is truly out of the bag – there’s money to be made. So, naturally, the greedy investors will want their slice of the pie and are flooding into the market for the chance to back the next game to take off into the stratosphere. However, many of these bigger projects will come with significant bloat, being slow-moving behemoths that never get off the ground. On the other hand, smaller teams will be more agile and adapt faster than a large studio.

Technological Innovation Will Be Destructive

Game developers have, for the most part, always adopted new technology. And for the most part, it has been a positive experience. But with the convergence of VR (Virtual Reality), AI (Artificial Intelligence) and the increasing investment from the gambling industry, conditions look set for a perfect storm of games that will have terrible real-life consequences.

If this last part has left you feeling down, let me raise hope by the fact that these changes will not be everywhere. We still have truly independent game developers.

Indie Developers

An indie game developer is one person or a small team who makes games while keeping creative control by working independently of large studios and publishers. This creative freedom allows them to create unique, innovative and surprising games that would not be possible inside the system.

Notable indie game development studios include Supergiant Games, The Behemoth, and Team 17. Indie game devs come and go, but all these studios have stayed the course and released multiple projects.

Indie Publishers

An indie publisher is a company that publishes indie games. They provide various services to developers, such as marketing, PR, QA, and distribution. They often take on a higher risk than traditional publishers, as they invest in titles that may not be commercially successful. However, this also means they can offer developers more creative freedom. Many well-known indie games, such as Braid and Journey, were initially published by independent publishers.

Well-known indie publishers include No More Robots, Devolver Digital, and Iceberg Interactive. These companies have all published successful indie games that have gone on to critical and commercial acclaim.

When researching for this article, I was lucky enough to speak with a developer who’s run a successful indie studio for the last six years and has launched multiple titles, both self-published and with the backing of a publisher. So, I asked him, what does a developer give you in return for a cut of your profits? His answer was simple: “In a word, marketing”.

This answer didn’t surprise me since marketing seems to be the number one challenge for indie game devs. A recent analysis by Arts Technica found that 80% of games released on Steam failed to make $5,000 in their first two weeks of sales. If you’ve been working on a game for months or years, less than $5k is tantamount to a slap in the face!

Marketing is why this website exists. We want to help indie developers (like you) find the tools and information to successfully market their games and earn real money for your hard work.

If you’ve found this article helpful and would like more valuable and practical marketing information, please consider joining our mailing list so you don’t miss out on future articles.

Top FAQs

Why Are Indie Games So Popular?

There are many reasons why indie games are popular; some key factors are creativity in gameplay, freedom of narrative and unique visual styles. These factors are not often seen in games published by major studios. To learn more, check out our guide: why are indie games so popular?

What’s the difference between an indie game and a AAA game?

In general, indie games are developed by small teams or solo developers with little budget but complete creative control where they can take more risks. Whereas large studios develop AAA games with budgets of millions of dollars, these AAA studios are often backed by investors, so they are more limited in the creative risks they can take.

What does iii (triple i) mean in games?

The term “iii” or “triple i” describes independently developed, published and financed games. These games are usually produced on a smaller budget than AAA games but have polish and refinement comparable to big-budget productions.

What are some popular indie games?

There are thousands of great indie games out there, and there is something to suit everyone’s tastes. Some of our favourite indie games are Minecraft, Stardew Valley, Cuphead, Celeste, “Papers, Please”, Among Us, Goat Simulator, and Untitled Goose Game.

What’s the difference between an “indie game” and an “independent game”?

These terms are both used to describe video games created by independent developers; without the backing of a major publisher, there’s no difference between them.

What are some popular indie game development conferences?

Some popular indie game development conferences are the Game Developers Conference (GDC), IndieCade, and Fantastic Arcade. These conferences are great places to learn about the latest game development trends and meet other indie developers.

Aron Marriott-Smith

Aron is a hobbyist indie game developer. Before building this website, Aron spent many years helping businesses market their products and services.

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