Indie game developers were once limited to Adobe Flash and RPG Maker as their tools to create their interactive stories and adventures. While the days of flash games were novel and nostalgic, the depreciation of flash and the rapid advancement of accessible game development tools has created a tidal wave of indie games that rival larger studios in their game’s popularity.
The success of Undertale, Stardew Valley and Minecraft was just the start of the golden age of indie games. It is now more common than ever for the latest smash hit to be a game developed either by a hobbyist or a small team at a larger studio. Recent examples are in abundance.
The recent surreal sci-fi horror game SIGNALIS’s story is so complex it requires an intricate guide to understand even after two playthroughs. That’s not something that you can experience in larger budget games that can’t experiment with their style. SIGNALIS delivers a cryptic and disturbing experience with its retro pixel art style contrasting sharply against the cosmic existential threats the protagonist faces. Every detail of its strange world invites analysis and theorizing from players. Small two to three person indie studios like rose-engine, the developers of SIGNALIS, have the creative freedom to take risks on innovative game narratives and mechanics that major studios making big-budget titles cannot.
Dave the Diver, developed by MintRocket, recently reached a million titles sold after a brief period in early access. The team behind Dave the Diver was very small but the game has instantly won the hearts of gamers everywhere with videos and streams rising rapidly in popularity. Older indie franchises, like Five Nights at Freddies, have spawned their own sub-genres of games that aim to mimic the original. A full feature box office movie comes a Halloween treat to fans of a game that was originally designed by a single developer.
No longer do players have to languish between long development cycles of high budget triple AAA games when they can now instead feast on release after release from the indie developer scene. Popular sites like itch.io have tons of creative games bite size and full length games, for free or small charges, that explore deep and personal themes, like more typtical blockbuster titles.
Of course, making a hit indie game is still incredibly difficult and competitive. For every Stardew Valley there are thousands of indie games that fade into obscurity. But with digital distribution platforms like Steam and the Nintendo eShop making it easier than ever for small developers to release their games, indies now have opportunities that simply didn’t exist 10 years ago. And talented, creative developers continue to push boundaries and innovate in ways that giant AA and AAA studios with corporate stakeholders often cannot. As technology improves and making games becomes even more democratic, it’s an exciting time to be an indie game developer or a fan hungry for new gaming experiences. The future of indie gaming looks brighter than ever.
However, the indie boom isn’t without its downsides. The sheer volume of indie games being released makes it difficult for many quality titles to get noticed, as we mentioned earlier. Steam’s library is overflowing with thousands of indie games of varying quality, making it hard for players to sort through and find the gems. This discoverability issue, combined with the ability for anyone to publish games regardless of quality, has led some players to see “indie game” as a derogatory term denoting cheaply made shovelware. While ambitious indies push boundaries, many quick cash-grab games have flooded the market too. And small teams often lack skills in areas like marketing and PR that help make games successful. Still, for creative developers willing to put in the massive amounts of time and effort required, the potential rewards of developing an indie hit make it an enticing prospect.