In the video game industry, an independent (indie) game refers to games typically created by individuals or smaller development teams without the financial support of a large game publisher, in contrast to most "AAA games". The term may also refer to those games financed by publishers who do not exert significant artistic control on the developers. Because of their independence and freedom to develop, indie games often focus on innovation and taking risks not usually afforded in triple-A games, and may explore the medium to produce unique experiences in art games. Indie games tend to be sold through digital distribution channels rather than at retail due to lack of publisher support. The term is synonymous with that of independent music or independent film in those respective mediums.
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While the nature of indie game development had existed since the rise of the personal computer in the 1980s through shareware, indie gaming saw a rise in mainstream popularity in the latter half of the 2000s, primarily due to new online distribution methods and widely available game development tools. The rise was also spurred on by several influential games released during the 2010s, such as Super Meat Boy, Fez, Braid, Minecraft, Undertale, and Cuphead.
There is no exact, widely accepted definition of what constitutes an "indie game" besides falling well outside the bounds of triple-A video game development by large publishers and development studios. However, indie games generally share certain common characteristics. Indie games are developed by individuals, small teams, or small independent companies that are often specifically formed for the development of one specific game. Typically, indie games are smaller than mainstream titles. Indie game developers are generally not financially backed by video game publishers, who are risk-averse and prefer "big-budget games". Instead, indie game developers usually have smaller budgets, usually sourcing from personal funds or via crowdfunding. Being independent, developers do not have controlling interests or creative limitations, and do not require the approval of a publisher, as mainstream game developers usually do. Design decisions are thus also not limited by an allocated budget. Furthermore, smaller team sizes increase individual involvement.
Small teams and scope, and no creative restrictions, have made indie games known for innovation, creativity, and artistic experimentation. Developers with limited ability to create graphics can rely on gameplay innovation. Indie games may fall into classic game genres, but new gameplay innovations have been seen. However, being "indie" does not imply that the game focuses on innovation. In fact, many games with the "indie" label can be of poor quality and may not be made for profit.
Further, indie games do not need to be completely isolated from large publishers. For example, Bastion, a video game developed by Supergiant Games, was published by WB Games. Though Warner Bros. paid for the distribution and marketing of the title, the developer refused any funding for development, instead building the game on their own. The resulting game is considered "indie" by the video game industry. Indie games can also be considered third party games if they are developed for a video game system not owned by the indie company.
To fund the game, developers can rely on starting a crowd-funding campaign, finding a publisher, or building community support while in development. Without publisher support, developers generally rely on Internet digital distribution options. Most indie games do not make a significant profit.
Indie game development should not be confused with hobbyist game development, as indie game developers are generally more product-oriented than those making hobbyist games. Many hobbyist developers create mods of existing games, or work with specific technologies or game parts. Such hobbyists usually produce non-commercial products and may range from novices to industry veterans.
Shareware and bedroom coders (1970s–2000s)
The onset of indie game development is difficult to track due to the broadness of what defines an indie game, and the term was not really in use until the early 2000s. There is some debate as to whether indie development started before PCs with games developed for mainframe computers at universities and other large institutions. Games such as 1963's Spacewar! were not commercially financed and were made by a small team, but there lacked a commercial sector of the video game industry at that time to distinguish from independent works.
The indie game scene generally is considered to have started with PCs in the 1970s and 1980s, where it remains prominent. Then, PCs were seen as more utilitarian, and there was little market for games on these systems, with the commercial sector of the industry focused on home video game consoles. Due to this, early games for PCs were often coded by one or two programmers and self-distributed in stores or mail order. This was particularly true in the United Kingdom, where video game consoles had not gained as much traction as in the United States. There, the early microcomputers such as the ZX Spectrum were popular, launching a range of "bedroom coders" which initiated the U.K.'s video game industry.
Shareware games became a popular means to distribute demos or partially complete games in the 1980s and into the 1990s, where players could purchase the full game from the vendor after trying it. As such demos were generally free to distribute, shareware demo compilations would frequently be included in gaming magazines at that time, providing an easy means for indie developers to be recognized. The ability to produce numerous copies of games, even if just shareware/demo versions, at a low cost helped to propel the idea as the PC as a gaming platform. At the time, shareware was generally associated with hobbyist programmers, but with releases of Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 and Doom in 1993 showed the shareware route to be a viable platform for titles from mainstream developers.
By the mid-1990s, the recognition of the PC as a viable gaming option, and advances in technology that led to 3D gaming created many commercial opportunities for video games. During the last part of the 1990s, the indie game scene subsided, since a small team could not readily compete in costs, speed and distribution as a commercial entity could. The market also became fractured due to the prevalence of video game consoles, which required expensive or difficult-to-acquired game development kits typically reserved for larger developers and publishers.
During this period, the idea that indie games could provide experimental gameplay concepts or demonstrate niche arthouse appeal had been established. Many games from the bedroom coders of the United Kingdom, such as Manic Miner (1983), incorporated the quirkiness of British humour and made them highly experimental games. Other games like Alien Garden (1982) showed highly-experimental gameplay. Infocom itself advertised its text-based interactive fiction games by eschewing their lack of graphics in lieu of the players' imagination, at a time that graphics-heavy action games were commonplace.
Digital distribution (2005–2014)
Indie development saw a resurgence in the early 2000s, principally driven by the availability of online distribution over the Internet, allowing game developers to sell directly to players and bypassing limitations of retail distribution. Software technologies used to drive the growth of the World Wide Web, like Adobe Flash, were available at low cost to developers, and provided another means for indie games to grow. The new interest in indie games led to middleware and game engine developers to offer their products at low or no cost for indie development, in addition to open source libraries and engines. Dedicated software like GameMaker Studio and tools for unified game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine removed much of the programming barriers needed for a prospective indie developer to create these games.
While direct online distribution helped indie games to reach players, the arrival of online digital game storefronts such as Steam and GOG.com further boosted awareness of indie games, as these storefronts allowed developers to publish, update, and advertise their games directly, and players to download the games anywhere, with the storefront otherwise handling the distribution and sales factors. While Steam itself initially began heavy curation, it eventually allowed for indie publishing with its Steam Greenlight and Steam Direct programs, vastly increasing the number of games available. Separately, console game systems from the seventh generation in 2005 and onward included Internet-based services for players, such as Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and Nintendo Network, which included digital distribution of games. Following the increased awareness of indie games for PC, these services started publishing indie games alongside commercial offerings to expand their libraries. Mobile games also became popular with indie developers, with inexpensive development tools and low-barrier storefronts with the App Store and Google Play which opened in the late 2000s.
Indie games became more visible in the period from 2005 and 2010 in part due to digital distribution, placing coverage of them alongside traditional AAA titles. Personal computer games like World of Goo got recognition at various award events including the Independent Games Festival, leading to publishers to offer to publish the title. Microsoft premiered several indie games as part of its Xbox Live Arcade program, including Braid, Castle Crashers, Super Meat Boy, Limbo, and Fez. An additional cause for indie game growth in this period came from the departure of large publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision from their smaller, one-off titles to focus on their larger, more successful properties, leaving the indie game space to provide shorter and more experimental titles as alternatives. The 2012 documentary Indie Game: The Movie covers several of the games that flourished from this period. The single best-selling game of all time, Minecraft, was also released originally released as an indie game during this period.
Indie gaming saw a further boost by the use of crowdfunding as a means for indie developers to raise funds to produce a game and to determine the desire for a game, rather than risk time and investment into a game that does not sell well. While video games had used crowdfunding prior to 2012, several large indie game-related projects successfully raised millions of dollars through Kickstarter, and since then, several other similar crowdfunding options for game developers have become available. A number of boutique indie game publishers have appeared to support funding, technical support, and publishing of indie games across various digital and retail platforms. Examples of such companies include Devolver Digital, Chucklefish, Gun Media, Raw Fury, 505 Games, Private Division, and Annapurna Interactive. Other boutique publishers have come from established properties, such as Double Fine Productions who offer publishing services atop their own development studio, and Cartoon Network's Adult Swim progaming that has expanded into games publishing.
Leading into 2015, there was concern that the rise of easy-to-use tools to create and distribute video games could lead to an oversupply of video games, this was termed the "indiepocalypse". This perception of an indiepocalypse is not unanimous; Jeff Vogel stated in a talk at GDC 2016 that any downturn was just part of the standard business cycle. The size of the indie game market was estimated in March 2016 to be at least $1 billion per year for just those games offered through Steam. Mike Wilson, Graeme Struthers and Harry Miller, the co-founders of indie publisher Devolver Digital, stated in April 2016 that the market in indie games is more competitive than ever but continues to appear healthy with no signs of faltering. Gamasutra said that by the end of 2016, while there had not be any type of catastrophic collapse of the indie game market, there were signs that the growth of the market had significantly slowed and that it has entered a "post-indiepocalypse" phase as business models related to indie games adjust to these new market conditions.
While there has not been any type of collapse of the indie game field since 2015, there are concerns that the market is far too large for many developers to get noticed. Very few selected indie titles get wide coverage in the media, and are typically referred to as "indie darlings". In some cases, indie darlings are identified through consumer reactions that praise the game, leading to further coverage; examples of such games include Celeste and Untitled Goose Game. However, there are also times where the video game media may see a future title as a success and position it as an indie darling before its release, only to have the game fail to make a strong impression on players, such as in the case of No Man's Sky and Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. Discoverability has become an issue for indie developers as well. With the Steam distribution service allows any developer to offer its game with minimal cost to them, there are thousands of games being added each year, and developers have become to rely heavily on Steam's discovery tools - methods to tailor catalog pages to customers based on past purchases - to help sell their titles. Mobile app stores have had similar problems with large volumes of offers but poor means for discovery by consumers in the late 2010s. Several indie developers have found it critical to have a good public relations campaign across social media and to interact with the press to make sure a game is noticed early on in its development cycle to get interest and maintain that interest through release, which adds to costs of development. Other popular indie games released during this period included Undertale and Cuphead.
As the mainstream video game industry is comparable to the mainstream film industry, so is the indie game industry comparable to the independent film industry. However, game distribution is shifting towards online marketing. For developers, online marketing is much more profitable and more readily available than retail marketing, although distribution portals have been criticized for collecting a large portion of game revenue.
In 2008, a developer could earn around 17% of a game's retail price, and around 85% if sold digitally. This can lead to the appearance of more "risky" creative projects. Furthermore, the expansion of social websites has introduced gaming to casual gamers. Nevertheless, there are few examples of games that have made large profits, and for many, indie game-making serves as a career stepping stone, rather than a commercial opportunity.
There is contention as to how prominent indie gaming is in the video game industry. Most games are not widely known or successful, and mainstream media attention remains with mainstream titles. This can be attributed to a lack of marketing for indie games, but indie games can be targeted at niche markets.
Indie Game Jam (IGJ) is an annual event that allows indie game developers to experiment and present ideas without publisher restrictions. IGJ was founded by Chris Hecker and Sean Barrett and first held in March 2002. Each year IGJ poses different questions about innovation in settings, genres, and controls. The IGJ was considered an inspiration for later game jams, including the Nordic Game Jam and the Global Game Jam (GGJ), which was first held in 2009 with 1650 participants at 53 locations.
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