Independent video game development, or indie game development, is the video game development process of creating indie games; these are video games, commonly created by individual or small teams of video game developers and usually without significant financial support of a video game publisher or other outside source. These games may take years to be built from the ground up or can be completed in a matter of days or even hours depending on complexity, participants, and design goal.
Driven by digital distribution, the concept of independent video game development has spawned an "indie" movement. The increase in popularity of independent games has allowed increased distribution on popular gaming platforms such as the PlayStation Network, Nintendo eShop, Xbox Live and Steam.
The origins of indie video games may be traced back to the 1970s, when there was virtually no established video game industry. Joyce Weisbecker considers herself the first indie designer, having created several games for the RCA Studio II console in 1976 as an independent contractor for RCA. As video game firms developed they employed more programmers. Nonetheless, independent programmers continued to make their own games. During the 1990s, indie games were most commonly distributed as shareware or shared from friend to friend and therefore known as "shareware games".[original research?]
As the industry grew during the 1980s, publishing a game became more difficult. Chris Crawford said in late 1984,
I will point out the sad truth. We have pretty much passed the period where hobbyists could put together a game that would have commercial prospect. It's much more difficult to break in, much less stay in. Right now ... I would discourage anyone. If you want to do a game, do it for fun, but don't try to do game designs to make any money. The odds are so much against the individual that I would hate to wish that heartbreak on anyone.
Before the mid-1990s, commercial game distribution was controlled by big publishers and retailers, and developers of indie games were forced to either build their own publishing company, find one willing to distribute their game, or distribute it in some form of shareware (e.g. through BBSs). The increased production costs at the beginning of the 2000s made the video game publishers even more risk averse and let them reject all small-size and too innovative concepts of small game developers.
By the mid-2000s, some indie (computer) game developers had taken the opportunity to make their games open source, thus rendering the group of possible participants much larger depending on the interest a project generates. Other[weasel words] developers decided to make their games open source on end of commercialization phase to prevent their work from becoming abandonware. This approach allows the game community also to port the game to new platforms and to provide software support (community patches) by themselves, when the developer ends the official support. Several online communities have formed around independent game development, like TIGSource, Ludum Dare, and the indiegames.comblog.
The digital distribution available since the 2000s offers new possibilities for the whole video game industry, especially for independent video game developers who can now bypass the big publisher for game distribution. Gabe Newell, creator of the PC digital distribution service Steam, formulated the advantages over physical retail distribution for smaller game developers as:
The worst days [for game development] were the cartridge days for the NES. It was a huge risk – you had all this money tied up in silicon in a warehouse somewhere, and so you’d be conservative in the decisions you felt you could make, very conservative in the IPs you signed, your art direction would not change, and so on. Now it’s the opposite extreme: we can put something up on Steam [a digital distributor], deliver it to people all around the world, make changes. We can take more interesting risks.[...] Retail doesn’t know how to deal with those games. On Steam there’s no shelf-space restriction.
The creator of Oddworld, Lorne Lanning, expressed his desire to only make games independently instead of going through publishers. “I’d rather not make games than ... be a slave for public companies who care more about their shareholders than they do about their customers."
With the rise of online shopping and digital distribution like through the Steam platform, gog.com, and the Humble Store, it has become possible to sell indie games to a worldwide market with little or no initial investment by using services such as XBLA, the PlayStation Network or PayPal.
Also since the 2000s, the new trend of crowdfunding platforms (like Kickstarter or Indiegogo) allows smaller developers to fund their work directly by their fans and customers, bypassing traditional and problematic financing methods.
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.
The definition of what qualifies for independent video game development is vague. The term itself bore out from the independent music arena, where "indie" refers to publishing music without using a major record label, such as using smaller independent labels or via self-publishing. One simple definition, described by Laura Parker for GameSpot, says "independent video game development is the business of making games without the support of publishers". However, this independent nature can be seen described from two broad directions.
- Financial independence: In such situations, the developers have paid for the development and/or publication of the game themselves or from other funding sources such as crowd funding, and specifically without financial support of a large publisher.
- Independence of thought: In this case, the developers crafted their game without any oversight or directional influence by a third party such as a publisher.
The term "indie development" has been broadly applied to small development teams, realizing small and non-traditional non-AAA game titles on small budgets without financial help of a larger publisher. Some notable instances of games that are generally considered "indie" but challenge this definition include:
- Journey was created by thatgamecompany, but had financial backing of Sony as well as publishing support. Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany believes that they are an independent studio because they were able to innovate on their game without Sony's involvement.
- Bastion, similarly, was developed by Supergiant Games, but with publishing by Warner Bros. Entertainment, primarily to avoid difficulties with the certification process on Xbox Live. Greg Kasavin of Supergiant notes they consider their studio indie as they lack any parent company.
- The Witness was developed by Jonathan Blow and his studio Thekla, Inc. Though self-funded and published, the game's development cost around $6 million and was priced at $40, in contrast to most indie games typically priced up to $20. Blow believed this type of game represented something between indie and AAA publishing.
- No Man's Sky was developed by Hello Games, though with publishing but non-financial support from Sony; the game on release had a price equal to a typical AAA title. Sean Murray of Hello Games believes that because they are still a small team and the game is highly experimental that they consider themselves indie.
Games that are not as large as most triple-A games, but are developed by larger independent studios with or without publisher backing and that can apply triple-A design principles and polish due to the experience of the team, have sometimes been called "triple-I" games, reflecting the middle ground between these extremes.
During the 1980s, the common medium was cassette tape, which was the default software format for systems such as the ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro, Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore 64. This eventually gave way to floppy disk and then to CD-ROM in the 1990s.
Recently independent games have been released for big budget consoles like Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii. Many games that are being released for these consoles are ports of popular flash games and/or just plainly developed independent games that have received notice. Often indie games are completely programmer driven, due to lack of publisher funding for artwork.
On November 19, 2008, Microsoft launched Xbox LIVE Community Games, later renamed as Xbox Live Indie Games, which allowed independent developers to create games for the Xbox 360 using XNA development tools and sell them in an area of the Xbox Live Marketplace.
In May 2010, several independent developers organized the Humble Indie Bundle, which raised over $1.25 million in revenue (of which about $400,000 went to charity) and showed the value that community involvement and cross-platform development can have for independent developers.
With the advent of smartphones such as the iPhone and the relative ease of producing these titles many independent game developers solely develop games for various smart phone operating systems such as the iOS and the newer Android. This has also seen games being ported across to take advantage of this new revenue stream such as the successful game Minecraft.
There are also independent games distribution websites, such as IndieCity, springing up to cater exclusively for indie games, rather than including them alongside the mainstream games which are the main focus of most distribution portals (see: Desura, gog.com, Humble Store, Steam). Before the launch of the PlayStation 4 Sony made it a priority to focus on getting independent developers to create new games for the PlayStation 4.
Licensing and platform access
Personal computer platforms (with OSes such as Windows, Linux, macOS) are traditionally more accessible ("open platform") to independent game developers than video game consoles ("closed platform"). Similarly, developing for mobile platforms is often accessible or becoming more accessible. For example, Apple's iOS platform has been historically inaccessible, but has become more open with many games submitted, such as with the launch of an "indie" store section.
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Console manufacturers often impose a strict approval process and can outright reject approval (closed platform). Also, game developers are required to pay fees to license the required Software Development Kits (SDKs). An example is independent developer Wisdom Tree, who created video games (Bible Adventures etc.) for the NES console in the late 1980s. Another example where the rejection of an SDK license prevented access to a platform is the case of Robert Pelloni and his game Bob's game in 2008. To develop for Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, or PlayStation 3 requires an SDK license fee of between US$2,000 and $10,000. The console maker also takes a percentage of the game's net profit, in addition to yearly developer fees.
There is also movement from some manufacturers to lower the threshold for indies; for instance, development for Xbox Live Indie Games only requires a $99/year Creators Club membership and Microsoft takes 30% of sales. Microsoft does provide a free membership to the Creators Club to students via the DreamSpark program. Indie game developers can also use homebrew development libraries, which are free of charge, and usually open source.
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The worst days were the cartridge days for the NES. It was a huge risk – you had all this money tied up in silicon in a warehouse somewhere, and so you’d be conservative in the decisions you felt you could make, very conservative in the IPs you signed, your art direction would not change, and so on. Now it’s the opposite extreme: we can put something up on Steam , deliver it to people all around the world, make changes. We can take more interesting risks.[...] Retail doesn’t know how to deal with those games. On Steam there’s no shelf-space restriction. It’s great because they’re a bunch of old, orphaned games.
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