What Are Indie Games?


What Are Indie Games?

Whether you’re looking to play football with rocket-powered cars, build entire kingdoms out of low-poly blocks, or date a hunky cartoon rendition of KFC’s Colonel Sanders, indie games have got you covered.

Indie games are home to some of the most creative experiences in gaming, appearing in all major video game marketplaces from the PlayStation Store to the Nintendo eShop.

I Love You, Colonel Sanders

I Love You, Colonel Sanders, developed by Psyop

What is an indie game?

Indie games are created by independent game developers, rather than those who work for large development studios or publishers like Sega and Ubisoft.

It doesn’t matter if they’re 2D or 3D, spider platformers or bird-cake action shooters; as long as a Triple A publisher isn’t forcing you to work through your weekends to meet a holiday deadline, you’re an indie developer.

Can you only be an indie developer if you work alone?

Indie may be short for independent, but it doesn’t mean you have to work alone to consider yourself an indie dev.

An indie development studio might hire an entire team of designers, programmers, artists, and sound engineers to help spread the load, whereas a solo dev will have to become a jack of all trades.

There’s no right or wrong when it comes to going solo or joining a team. Let’s take Stardew Valley and Celeste as examples. Which of these games do you think was made by a single developer, and which was made by an indie dev studio?

We’ll give you the answer later in the article. Or you can just Google it and spoil the fun, but why would you do that?

Stardew Valley vs Celeste

Can you guess which of these games was made by one person?

Pros and cons of developing indie games

There are some exciting advantages to developing indie games over Triple A behemoths, but there are always two sides to a story.

Advantages

Disadvantages

Creative freedom

Limited resources

No crunch culture

Lack of support

Recognition

Work-life balance

Community

Marketing

Advantages

Creative freedom

The most important factor in the eyes of big-name publishers is how much money your game is likely to make.

As an indie dev, it doesn’t matter what kind of game you’ve got in mind - you can experiment with a silly or creative premise, and make the game you want to make.

No crunch culture

The games industry has a well-documented problem with crunch culture, with some studios’ employees working up to 100 hour weeks in order to meet strict release deadlines.

As an indie dev, you may still have deadlines to hit, but you can work on your project as little or as often as you like.

Credit and recognition

When a new Final Fantasy releases, Square Enix gets the spotlight. The rest of the development team are relegated to the ending credits, which if we’re being honest with ourselves, we all skip if we have the option.

As an indie developer, your game’s success is your success. If you create the next trendsetting indie hit, it’s your name in the lights, not your publishers.

Community

One of the joys of making your own indie game is the community that builds around your project. Their excitement can be a source of real inspiration.

Passionate communities can also help you discover bugs, make gameplay recommendations, and even help you raise the money to continue your project through crowdfunding campaigns.

Meow at the Pumpkin Moon, developed by JoyHop Studios

Meow at the Pumpkin Moon, developed by JoyHop Studios

Disadvantages

Limited resources

Although it's possible to make your own games for free, game development can get expensive.

Among other things, you’ll need to consider art assets, sound effects, voice actors, and publication fees for console exports. Indie developers don’t have access to the same pool of resources that mainstream developers have, and that can soon stack up.

Lack of support

If a developer at Bethesda Game Studios needs a week off work, there’s a team of co-workers available to help cover the shortfall. Not all indie developers enjoy that same luxury.

Whether you’re making your first game or you’ve broken a leg on your recent Alpine skiing trip, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the guidance or support you need.

Work-life balance

You might not be subject to crunch culture as an indie developer, but that doesn’t mean you’re immune to it.

Not having a contracted 9-to-5 work schedule can be a double-edged sword. If you’re not careful, you could find yourself working long into the night and burning yourself out.

That’s why it’s vital you manage a healthy work-life balance, something that requires a lot of discipline according to Patryk and Paulina of JoyHop Games.

Marketing

The best and worst aspect of indie games is that anyone can make them. Nearly 11,000 games were uploaded to Steam in 2021 alone, and unfortunately, some people are happy uploading any old tosh in the hopes of making a quick buck.

Indie devs need to learn how to market their games effectively and grab the spotlight they deserve. It’s a competitive market, filled with high-quality and low-effort titles alike, and you need to make sure your game stands out from the crowd.

For every Moonleap, there’s a bottom of the barrel disaster that makes us feel grateful for Ubisoft and their otherwise ridiculous 22GB day-one patches.

Moonleap

Moonleap, developed by guselect

Why are indie games so popular?

It was Ben Franklin that famously said: “In this world, nothing is certain except death, taxes, and Activision releasing another bloody Call of Duty every year”.

Indie gaming has been rising in popularity since the mid-2000s, fuelled by services like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade, and by the games industry’s increasingly profit-before-player attitude to game development.

Players were looking for new experiences that were creative and story-driven. Indie games gave them a chance to scratch that itch.

Games like Braid and Super Meat Boy helped spark the indie boom in the late 2000s, before viral sensations like Doki-Doki Literature Club and BAFTA-award winners like Chicory: A Colorful Tale sent indie gaming mainstream.

It hasn’t stopped EA releasing watered-down revisions of last year’s sports titles, mind you, but such is life.

Benjamin Franklin quote meme

A definitely real quote by Ben Franklin

What are the best indie games of all time?

We’d be here for hours if we listed every major indie game ever released, but some of the most successful indie games of all time include:

Popular indie games

Which indie games have been made with GameMaker?

Some of the most popular indie games made with GameMaker include:

Popular indie games made with GameMaker

How does it cost to make an indie game?

The cost of making a video game varies from project to project. We’re not talking multi-millions like modern Triple A titles, but you could be looking at multi-thousands depending on the size of your game.

Some of the factors that can affect how much it costs to make a game include:

  • How large your project is
  • Whether you’re making your own assets or buying pre-made ones
  • Whether you’re working alone or hiring a team
  • Your coding experience

Many indie devs start crowdfunding campaigns in order to raise their capital. Cattails, for example, set a Kickstarter target of $24,000, which it reached within two hours of its campaign going live.

How much can you earn as an indie game developer?

There’s no definitive answer to how much money indie developers earn, since their revenue depends on the commercial success of their games.

Some indie devs strike it big with just one major release. Others, like Toroom developer Gabriel Gonçalves, are able to finance their careers with multiple releases.

Research conducted by Video Game Insights found that of the 44,000 developers on Steam, 57% raised less than $1,000 in gross revenue, and only 3% earned over $1m.

Lifetime gross revenue of Steam developers

Video Game Insights Lifetime Gross Revenue data, as of February 2022

How to monetise your indie game

Outside of the obvious method of selling your game on as many platforms as possible, there are four main ways to monetise your game:

  • In-app purchases
  • Merchandise
  • Partnerships
  • Advertising

How to make a successful indie game

If there were an easy way of making a successful indie game, we’d all be millionaires and blowing our noses with $100 bills.

Although there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, there are a number of tried and true steps that you need to take if you’re planning on making your own game:

  • Play games for inspiration
  • Choose your game genre
  • Choose your art style
  • Choose your game engine
  • Make or choose your game assets

The most successful indie games are usually defined by an incredible gameplay element, gimmick, or art style that sets them apart from the competition.

Indie devs can afford to be bold, so don’t hold back. If a Colonel Sanders dating sim can go viral, then anything’s possible.

If you’re ready to make your first game, get a taste of life as an indie dev with our GameMaker tutorial series, including:

By the way, it was Stardew Valley that was made by a single developer. Five points if you got it right, no points if you Googled the answer.

Happy GameMaking!


Written by Ross Bramble

Ross Bramble is a writer and collect-a-thon platform lover from Southampton. You’ll often find him replaying Spyro 2, chickening out of playing Bloodborne on New Game Plus, and begging Nintendo for a new Kid Icarus game.