What is an Indie Game? Indies & Games of Today

As AAA big-budget blockbusters are leading the games industry, I’m here to ask – But what about the little guy? What’s the indie’s role in all of this? What even makes a game indie?

October 29, 2019

An indie game can be multiple things to multiple people. I’ll be the first to admit that my personal interpretation of Indie might not be the same as yours, and that’s ok. Here’s my exploration of what indies mean to me, and how they’ve shaped the gaming landscape.

State of Today

Nowadays, games have gone from being seen as a geeky pastime, to a widely accepted and popular form of entertainment and art. Long gone are the days where releases were few and far between. Games news used to be found only in monthly paper magazines, and brick and mortar stores were the place to go if you wanted to buy anything.

what is an indie game

For the past 16 years now, the gaming industry has been earning more than film or music. In 2018 we’ve had over 2000 games released, and that’s solely on Steam without taking into account any other stores or platforms – way more than any regular person could buy or keep up with.

This is the era where annual franchises are churning out sequels left and right, tiered preorder DLC has become acceptable for both cosmetics and gameplay. Microtransactions, loot boxes are sneaking into full-price games and businesses are moving away from one time deals, towards Netflix-like subscription models.

In this environment, the flashiest games with the largest marketing budget tend to spend the most time in the public eye and attract your hard-earned dollars. One has to wonder then, how many gems in the rough pass by undiscovered, buried underneath advertiser-friendly marketing bling? Because of all this, I feel that mainstream gaming has begun to feel rather formulaic, repetitive, preferring to play it safe instead of daring to innovate, barring a few exceptions.

Still, due to this flood of new releases, we are now at the point where there’s something out there for everyone. Every genre exploited. Every setting explored. Every niche filled. Maybe even, every fetish fulfilled?

The Little Guy

Ready to step up and fill in the void left behind by AAA developers, independent creators now have ample room to flourish and even punch well above their weight. But where did they all come from and how come we didn’t use to have any indie games before?

what is an indie game overcookedMany of the big names of today got their start in the ‘80s as independent developers – Rockstar Games, Blizzard, Epic Games, Activision to name a few. In the ‘90s large companies had conquered the market, and independent games had all but died off. You’d still see a few projects here and there, mostly for PC, with most people working on small mods for existing games, or total conversions like Team Fortress for Quake, and later the for Half-Life alongside Counter-Strike.

In the mid-2000s however, we had the perfect mix of sugar, spice, and everything nice to create the perfect little indie darlings. Widespread broadband internet adoption paved the way for digital distribution, developers were yearning to scratch their creative itch and provide us with a labor of love. The term indie started to really take hold during this period, and thanks in no small part to Steam on PC and Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade on consoles, we had our first runaway hits.

A Role to Play

As the industry diverged, two main roles emerged:

The AAA – its place is to grow ever larger, attempt to polish and refine the ideas that came before it, all while trying to appeal to the largest audience possible. In order to make a profit, or at least cover the initial publisher investment, concessions have to be made, be it development time, innovation, or additional monetization further on.

A massive undertaking, dozens if not hundreds of people, can work on a project. Once moving, a mammoth like this has a hard time changing the path it’s on, often leading to a go big or go home attitude.

The Indie – picking up the creative slack, these tend to be smaller, focused experiences that often fall into a specific niche. Whether out of a need to see their vision fulfilled or just trying out new ideas, developers tend to innovate and tread new ground. Unchained to the will of a publisher and working with much smaller teams provides much greater agility to a project.

Developers are free to take risks, to push beyond for a passion project, and drive the industry forward. Games like Minecraft, Braid, Counter-Strike, PUBG, League of Legends, have shaped the gaming landscape into what it is today. While true that some of the names mentioned aren’t indie today, you’ll have to remember where they’ve all started from – original ideas by passionate individuals.

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What is an Indie Game?

I’ve left this topic for last, as I feel it’s a subjective term, only worth tackling after going through a few of what I consider to be if you’ll pardon the pun, game-changers.

Early on, Gish, Garry’s Mod and Cave Story showed the ability of a handful of people working on a project and how they were able to innovate and improve on existing concepts. Darwinia, Toribash, Retro City Rampage discovered there’s a place for a retro aesthetic as long as the gameplay is solid and fun. Braid, Journey, Limbo, The Stanley Parable proved that games can be thought-provoking works of art in their own right.

what is an indie game spelunky

Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, Cuphead, reminded us that while struggling can be frustrating, overcoming a challenge can be exhilarating. Castle Crashers, Trine, Overcooked had us couch co-oping with our friends once more.

Pillars of Eternity, Elite Dangerous, Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey proved how crowdfunding can not only be viable but also provide direct feedback from the intended audience. Minecraft, Terarria, Starbound, PUBG spearheaded new genres of games all by themselves and provided unparalleled freedom to the player at the time.

A type of content most usually tend to omit, NSFW, shows how it’s not only in demand but how it’s evolving and struggling to be accepted in the industry. Ladykiller in a Bind, Genital Jousting, and the upcoming Subverse show how NSFW can be thoughtful, funny, and even have good gameplay while still managing to titillate.

There’s even a few games you might not traditionally think of as indie. The Witcher series, No Man’s Sky, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Life is Strange, Divinity Original Sin, all of these are indie in my book, and proof of what a driven developer can do with a larger budget, without having to submit to interference from the publisher.

To me, an indie title is all of the above and more. A game that stays true to its soul, that dares to experiment, that trusts its audience to understand it. It isn’t afraid to make a statement or to be quirky. It’s not concerned with being the largest thing on the market, it’s concerned with bringing the best experience, as seen by the developer, to the player.

Some are artistic, some are masochistic, some have a message to tell, while others are there just for the gameplay, for a quick laugh or as a college project – one thing they all have in common is passion and a personal touch.

But don’t take my word for it see what it means to be indie for the devs: Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure, Unbound: Worlds Apart.

Now That You Know What An Indie Game Is…

We’ve looked at where games are today and how they got here. We see how they’re moving forward and branching out into Indies and AAA, while still staying connected. One pushes the other to grow, evolve and innovate. Games can be art, or they can be popcorn. They can be educational or addicting. They’re a personal experience and a passion project. Whatever the creator wants them to be it’s certain there’s something out there for everyone.

How about you? Where do indie games fit in your world?

Stefan “Reaver” Baltasiu

Stefan “Reaver” Baltasiu

Contributor

Growing up I loved strategy games and platformers. I’d spend hours on end playing skirmish matches in the first Red Alert game, going through turn after turn in Heroes of Might and Magic 2, and endlessly dying in Commander Keen or Earthworm Jim. While others were outside playing ball, I spent my time reading LEVEL gaming magazines and getting lost in new and amazing fantasy worlds.

Slowly but surely my love for PC gaming grew and with it a lust for new challenging stories and experiences. Playing RPGs like Gothic, Planescape Torment, later modding Morrowind, Neverwinter Nights shaped my tastes through most of my school years and instilled in me a lust for tech, games and the process behind it.

Nowadays most of my gaming time is spent with soulsbornes, metroidvanias and roguelikes while occasionally dipping into VR. Having done a stint of game-testing, video-editing and Youtube, I find myself slightly jaded and ready to slice through the fat of the gaming industry of today while giving you my honest opinion.

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