As you already know, we love indie games! We love playing them, watching people play them, and reading about all the new charming and unique ones coming out each month. We also love pins! Because of our Indie Pin Series, we've been meeting a lot of great pin collectors who are new to indie games - and so we thought we'd write a quick primer about the world of indie games :)
Indie games often explore everything that the big studios never dare to, and when they succeed doing that, they do it big. Many games like Shovel Knight and Stardew Valley have sold millions of copies, a number that can be easily compared to many AAA games and proof that indie developers are as relevant as the famous companies out there.
independent (indie) games have been around for as long as games themselves - even a lot of the big game companies of today started somewhere in a basement, with only a handful of people, making their own dream game. While term “indie game” grew in popularity during the mid-2000s, independent developers have been making massive impacts in the gaming industry since the beginning.
So what exactly makes a game "indie"? It's debatable, but for the most part, this is a broad term that commonly refers to games made and published by an individual or a small team with a limited budget, with or without the support from a publisher.
The Ups and Downs of Being an Indie Developer
Indie devs don’t usually set out to make games that follow popular trends (so that they can appeal to the mass market), but to accomplish their vision and bring something truly new and unique to the table.
Big studios rarely take these kinds of risks as one of their most important objectives is to turn a profit so that they can keep the lights on, and keep everyone on staff. This is why we often see that, when a particular kind of game becomes super popular, most big publishers will start working on something similar so they are more likely to get a return on their investment - even though that’s not always the case.
You may have also noticed that indies tend to have a lot of freedom while developing their games: they can be open about their process, interact freely with their community, ask for feedback, and all that fun social stuff that you don’t usually see big names doing.
This doesn’t mean that indie devs have it easier overall - it's quite the opposite! While you can make a game in your spare time, taking the next step of quitting your job in order to become a full-time independent developer is a decision not to take lightly! This would mean saying goodbye to a steady income, hoping your savings last long enough, in some cases having no health benefits, and probably work 80-hour weeks so that you can launch the game before you run out of money. All of this is without the guarantee that your game will actually sell enough to remunerate your efforts.
The Early Days
Way before Steam and many other digital game distribution platforms came to be, getting a game out to players without the help of a publisher or magazine was an extremely difficult task. Your best -and probably only- option was to distribute it as shareware, making the first few levels available for free to download from a BBS, and if a player liked it enough they'd just might send you money over good ol’ snail mail to get the full game!
Well-known games from this era are Duke Nukem, Scorched Earth and of course, DOOM. Speaking of which, if you want to know more about the birth of id Software and the impact it had on gaming, Masters of Doom is an awesome read.
Going the shareware route was only an option for PC games. Consoles were very much out of the picture for anyone that wasn’t a big company. There were a lot of barriers to entry for indie developers when it came to consoles. The cost of manufacturing and distributing cartridges alone was prohibitive. Devs also had to obtain a development kit for each console, and let’s not talk about the extremely difficult guidelines and fees any team had to adhere to.
Even making a game at home was something that not a lot of people were able to do. Adequate PCs were really expensive and there weren’t many tools to help you make games if you weren’t good at coding. Nowadays we have a variety of game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine that are free-to-use and offer a lot of tools and tutorials to develop games, but we’ll talk more about that later.
Indie Games and Video Game Consoles
It was until the mid-2000s when digital distribution started to become mainstream. Steam was born, and the seventh generation of consoles (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii) started to implement their own digital stores. This opened a lot of doors for the indie scene, but it didn’t mean that any indie developer could easily put their games on those consoles quite yet.
Released in 2012, Indie Game: The Movie told the struggles behind the smash hit indie games Super Meat Boy, FEZ and Braid, detailing how console marketplaces demanded a massive amount of work from indie developers in order to allow them to distribute their games. From short deadlines that forced teams into inhuman amounts of overtime, to patch certification processes that could cost tens of thousands of dollars, there were many hurdles that indie teams had to face in order to get their games out there.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long until this changed, and many promising indie developers started to get great amounts of support from the console companies with programs like ID@Xbox, which provides free development kits and many more tools to assist the development process. In 2013, both Microsoft and Sony started to dedicate a segment of their signature E3 conferences exclusively to showcase indie games, and Nintendo followed soon after with its Nindies showcase. Today, no event is complete without a designated space for people to try out these titles.
A huge contributor to growing the presence of indie games at events is Indie Megabooth. As the name implies, this organization always secures a huge space at gaming events so indie developers can connect with new audiences, as well as network with publishers and other devs. The megabooth made its debut at PAX East 2012 and is now seen in many other events around the world such as E3, GDC, and Gamescom.
Indie Games Platforms
Steam is the platform where you can expect to find the most indie games. In fact, getting your game on Steam is easier than it's ever been before. While Steam recently shut down its Greenlight service, a system in which Steam users could vote on which indie titles would be published on the platform, it was replaced with Steam Direct. With it, developers only need to fill out a form and pay $100 (USD) in order to add their game - no voting needed.
While Steam Direct created a great opportunity for developers, it also opened up the door to different problems. When it’s this easy to add your game to one of the most popular digital distribution platforms in the world, you can expect a much greater amount of games (and clones) pouring in each day. Because of this, like most big platforms, Steam is going through a discoverability issue as it can no longer efficiently showcase each game on the platform. The days of having success by just getting your game on Steam are long-gone. There are features that they've implemented to try and solve this issue though, like the Discovery Queue - a customized queue of titles for each player that features games based on their interests and play-history.
Another digital storefront that has greatly contributed to the explosion of indie games is Humble Bundle. Humble gained popularity by creating and selling bundles of indie games, known as the "Humble Indie Bundle". In addition to curating great game selections, an innovative part of the Humble Bundle customer experience is that customers can set their own prices, and also choose how much of payment goes to charity, the developers of games, and to Humble themselves. Over the years, they've grown from their humble beginnings and now distribute mobile titles, AAA titles, software, books, and more. In 2017, Humble launched its publishing service to help indie devs in various areas like marketing, public relations, and branding.
The Rise of the Indie Labels
Nowadays, unless they've captured lightning in a bottle, indie developers can rarely rely on organic reach. While there have been examples of games succeeding through word of mouth, nowadays marketing and communications are as important as your game itself, but this often requires a lot of time and money that indies often can’t spare.
Besides marketing and public relations, publishers can help with all the tasks that can get in the way of making a game but are necessary nonetheless: porting games to another platform, localization, testing, legal - you name it. The cost of obtaining a publisher's services can range from a revenue split to offering a right of first refusal, or in some cases even giving away full or partial rights to the IP. Even with these terms though, partnering with a publisher can be very beneficial to indie developers. Some developers might not have any knowledge of how to get their game on people's radar, and a publisher’s extensive experience and knowledge might be exactly what it needs to be a commercial success.
Because of the sheer amount of amazing indie games being published, indie game publishers now tend to specialize in certain kinds of games or themes. You may have already noticed that games published by Devolver Digital share some similarities, and the same goes for others like tinyBuild and Chucklefish. Indie game publishers are very similar to record labels in the way that they curate their content. In fact, The Verge recently called these kinds of publishers "the new rock labels", and Devolver has been even called the "Sub Pop for games".
A developer can turn to crowdfunding for many reasons. Maybe they don’t want to rely on a publisher but still need upfront funds to be able to work on their game full-time, or perhaps they need money to pay for things like art or music. It's also a good way to measure interest in a game idea, validate a concept, and gather feedback.
While not the only factors, a developer’s chances at successfully crowdfunding their game increase considerably according to how much work they have already done, and how large of an existing fanbase they have built.
Many popular indie games were born through Kickstarter. A few famous examples are Undertale, Shovel Knight, and Darkest Dungeon. All of these titles already had a lot of work to display when they released their campaigns but needed the funds to finish and polish the game. While Kickstarter has become saturated with projects, recent success stories like Knuckle Sandwich show that it is still a viable platform to secure funding for indie titles.
There are many crowdfunding platforms beside Kickstarter, but Fig stands out for focusing exclusively on games. Backed by icons like Tim Schafer and Randy Pitchford, Fig curates which games will be shown and only allows a few active campaigns at a time. The platform not only functions to fund games, but it also provides publishing and distribution support as well as help with marketing and PR.
Another interesting thing about Fig is that backers can opt to become stakeholders in a game - the platform has two options when backing a project: pledge or invest. People that choose to invest can receive a percentage of the game’s profits after it’s released. For the moment this option is only available to accredited investors, but Fig is seeking to make it available for everyone in the near future.
So far we’ve talked about what it takes for an indie dev to sell their game, but what about actually developing it? A game engine is a software development environment that provides a number of features to help build games quickly and efficiently. Core functionality areas that engines provide (so that developers don’t have to build them from scratch every time) include rendering, physics, collision detection, sound, animation, networking and more.
As we mentioned before, Unity and Unreal are the most popular engines in the industry, and they've also played a huge part in the rise of indie games by making these powerful tools available for everyone.
The Unreal Engine is developed by Epic Games, the creators of iconic games like Gears of War and Fortnite. It was first released in 1998 and its license was limited to large AAA studios with a cost of millions of dollars. In 2015, the engine became free for anyone to use, with a selective royalty where the developer pays Epic 5% of gross revenue only after the first $3,000 USD per game, per quarter.
Epic also launched the Unreal Dev Grant program, a 5-million dollar development fund to help innovative projects being built in Unreal. The awards range from $5,000 to $50,000 and there are no strings attached - the developer keeps the rights to their game and is free to do whatever they please with the money.
Some examples of games made with Unreal Engine are A Hat in Time, Rime, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and We Happy Few.
Unity is a cross-platform engine developed by Unity Technologies. Games made with this engine include Hearthstone, Ori and the Blind Forest, Inside and Kerbal Space Program. Unity's objective from the beginning was always to make game development universally accessible. It was much less expensive than Unreal, with an indie version that was $199 (made free in 2009). In 2015, when Unity 5 was announced, it was also revealed the engine with all its features would be available to anyone for free with the Unity Personal license. They also released a Unity Plus and Unity Pro licenses for larger and more established developers.
Each year Unity celebrates the Unity Awards, where the company along with a vote of the community, recognizes the best games made with the engine in different categories. There’s no monetary prize since the contest focuses on games that are already released, but the showcased titles get a large amount of exposure that might lead to more sales.
As for project funding, Unity for Humanity supports projects that encompass themes of social, healthcare, science, education, humanitarian or environmental issues. Each year the company gives a $25,000 grant to a project in this category.
There are many more engines that also contributed to making game development accessible for everyone. A couple examples are Game Maker Studio and RPG Maker, both of which are focused on 2D games and are extremely friendly for people with no programming knowledge while allowing for a lot of customization for people who do code. Some popular games made with Game Maker Studio are Spelunky, Hyper Light Drifter, and VA-11 HALL-A; while To the Moon, Lisa: The Painful and Finding Paradise were made with RPG Maker.
Oftentimes it’s very hard to come up with a game idea out of nowhere, but there are a ton of hackathon-style events focused on developing games. These are called game jams, and the goal is to develop a game in a short span of time that can range from 24 to 72 hours. The events are often centered around themes that developers must explore in any way, allowing them to flex their creative muscles. Of course, games made in a game jam are owned by whoever develops them, so it’s perfectly fine if someone decides to keep working on their game after the jam and then sell it.
Events like these have allowed many developers to explore ideas that they wouldn’t have thought about in any other environment, giving birth to very successful games such as Superhot, Surgeon Simulator and Gods Will Be Watching.
Pony Island -Indie Section’s first pin!- was also born from a game jam, specifically Ludum Dare 2014. The jam’s theme was “entire game on one screen”. The game was originally only a 5-minute entry, but it caught the attention of many players, inspiring the developer, Daniel Mullins, to further develop the title over the course of a year and publish it in 2016 - and the rest is history!
It’s also common for video game studios to hold game jams for their employees. Some of these in-studio jams have resulted in games actually getting published, like Goat Simulator by Coffee Stain Studios, which generated more than $12 million in revenue - much more than the studio’s Sanctum and Sanctum 2 games, which generated almost $2 million each.
As game development tools become more accessible than ever, anyone can try their hand at developing games. While it’s no easy task to make a successful game, the freedom indie devs have to bring innovative ideas to life is an invaluable resource to keep the games industry moving forward. Being an independent developer is a status to be proud of instead of just a situation.
Indie Section exists thanks to the amazing indie game world, and the team is super proud to be able to work with talented developers whose creations have made an impact in many, many lives. Who knows, maybe our greatest pin will feature a game being made right now in a garage somewhere!