Indie Games Analysis

 

Background

Video games are becoming one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the 21st century. Over the past 50 years as technology has advanced, video games have grown in popularity and complexity. Today, the video game industry is a $100 billion-dollar international industry consisting of thousands of games played by hundreds of millions daily. Within the player base, a subgroup known as ‘indie’ gamers have set their games and themselves apart from the majority. The initial challenge is defining which videogames and gamers fall under the indie label. “Coming to a determination of what constitutes ‘indie gaming’ is a slippery task” (Fisher and Harvey 2013)

 

History

Mario in 3D running down a path

Super Mario 64 Screenshot

A brief review of video game history helps to explain the division between mainstream and indie gaming. In the 1970s, video games first emerged in arcades. Atari, (one of the first game developer companies), developed Pong, a table tennis sports game where players had to move their paddle to hit the ball back and forth. As arcades grew in popularity, the variety of games grew, including shooting, dueling, and racing games. The first generation of home consoles brought arcade video games into people’s homes. Later, the development of more sophisticated computer programming languages enabled games to be played on a computer. The early computer games provided text-based adventure and puzzle-solving games. Over time, both consoles and computers became more sophisticated and powerful, allowing game developers to create more complex game design and detailed graphics. Through the 1980s and 1990s, major companies that currently dominate the gaming industry  were founded including: Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Bethesda Softworks, Activision, and Nintendo. By the turn of the 21st century, 3D gaming was introduced through the release of consoles such as Sega Saturn, Sony’s PlayStation, Microsoft’s Xbox, and the Nintendo 64. On June 23, 1996, Super Mario 64 was released and sold over 11 million copies worldwide. The game design and creativity set a precedent that continues to impact gaming today. The 3D game allows players to explore worlds, solve puzzles, defeat enemies, and complete tasks.  During the 21st century, a plethora of games pushing the boundaries of available technology have emerged. In 2017, Steam (the digital video game distribution service) announced that it had released 7,672 unique games. Numerous categories of games are sold including: role playing, simulation, racing, story driven, puzzle, strategy, massive multiplayer, first person shooter, survival, and turn based.

What is Indie?

Indie is one of the most popular categories of video games. What are indie games? Put simply, an indie game is a video game created by developers who label themselves as indie and is played primarily by gamers who consider themselves indie (Simon 2013). The definition is purposely vague. “There is no single indie movement nor indie genre but rather a set of tendencies regarding how it is described by participants and outsiders” (Lipkin 2013). Therefore, the most accurate examination of the ‘indie’ subculture will be an exploration of these common tendencies that constitutes the authenticity of indie gamers.

Anti-Mainstream

Menu showing available loot boxes that can be opened by the player

Loot box menu in Star Wars Battlefront 2

Indie gaming’s fundamental characteristic is that it separates itself from and challenges mainstream gaming. Similar to other forms of media like indie film, the word indie “by its nature, [is] a protest against the status-quo” (Lipkin 2013). In the video game industry, status-quo games contain two qualities: games are designed to maximize developer profits and appeal to a wide audience of gamers. Many contemporary games are designed to encourage players to spend money during gameplay through microtransactions, which is an expense in addition to the cost of purchasing the game. Electronic Arts (EA) has developed games like FIFA, Madden, and most recently Star Wars Battlefront II that contain a loot box system, where players are strongly encouraged to spend either actual money or in game currency to open a box that might contain items necessary for the player to advance. EA designs its games to maximize profits rather than prioritize creative or engaging gameplay. It intentionally designed the game to require the gamer to spend so much time earning in game currency that players are driven to skip the grind (when the game requires the player to repetitively accomplish simple tasks) and spend actual money. Belgium, worried about the exploitative game design of Star Wars Battlefront II, passed a law making loot boxes illegal after finding that they were “in violation of gambling legislation” (BBC 2018). The rise of mobile games includes exploitative games that encourage players, often targeted at children, to spend dollars to progress in the game. There is a growing trend by developers to include microtransactions in mainstream gaming. The indie community opposes the greedy mainstream gaming companies, which they view as “evil, because they bluntly prioritize money over creative vision” (Lipkin 2013). The indie community believes that games should be designed by gamers for gamers, rather than by capitalists seeking to maximize their profits. “Developers on the ground floor of indie game development see indie as representative of … a conscious alternative to the status-quo and a moral, artistic high-ground” (Lipkin 2013).

What makes an indie game “indie”?

Development Team

Typically, the first thing a gamer does to determine whether a game is indie is to examine the development team. Often a single individual or a small team of passionate developers create indie games. While the working environment for EA game designers consist of long hours and lack creative freedom, indie developers have greater freedom to create games they enjoy. Greater freedom allows indie game designers to pursue their creative visions for the game, whereas mainstream developers are pressured into producing what will sell the best. This DIY environment mimics the punk rocker or indie film subcultures, which also encourage the developer to explore his artistic vision in opposition to the generic mainstream. Gamers developing games for gamers generates great pride within the indie community. Indie developers utilize many methods to distinguish their games from mainstream games including prioritizing player experience, exploring new art styles as well as resurrecting older styles.

 

Game Design

Super Meat Boy leaping on platform over a sea of red

A level in Super Meat Boy

Indie developers often intentionally incorporate difficulty into their game design. While mainstream games try to cater to causal audiences who expect instant gratification and relaxed play, indie developers want to engage and challenge their players. Indie games require players to repeat levels dozens of times, each time the player makes mistakes but slowly improves his ability to navigate through a level. Once players finally complete a difficult level, they are given a different challenge, forcing them to learn new techniques. Explored in the film Indie Game: The Movie, Super Meat Boy co-developer Tommy Refenes explains that “we want to create a game that feels like you’re in a game mechanically and interactively, and have people actually play it. I’m not sure how to explain it, Meat Boy feels more like a game than Call of Duty, to me.” The difficulty of playing indie games acts as a gatekeeper. Gamers willing to dedicate the time and patience succeed playing the game, while casual players will often fail and give up in frustration. Another challenge that indie developers insert into their games is depth. While mainstream games design the various elements that constitute a game easily accessible, indie games will encourage player exploration and curiosity by hiding content behind puzzles and requiring player interaction with non-player characters (NPCs) or the environment.

 

Art Design

Minecraft avatar made up of blocks holding a diamond pickaxe with a Minecraft world in the background which is also made up of blocks

Minecraft character holding diamond pickaxe

The nature of DIY indie game development means the developers lack the financial resources and access to the cutting edge tools used in contemporary game design. To create games, mainstream developers utilize elaborate game engines containing a plethora of tools for both game design and art style. Generally, mainstream developers exclusively use and closely guard the game engines. Therefore, indie developers are forced to create most of their games with cheaper software that was formerly cutting edge, but due to rapid technological development is now seen as old school by contemporary fans. Indie developers most frequently use software like the Unreal Development Kit and the Unity Engine along with coding in Java, Flash, and many more open-source programs. Minecraft, one of the most famous indie games, was created with Java. Developers using older, and therefore free, tools produce a nostalgic visual style that set indie games apart from the mainstream. In addition to lowering costs, the older graphics support the indie narrative that mainstream gaming has gone in the wrong direction, thus indie players seek out games with an older appearance. Many indie developers grew up playing the older games, so nostalgia motivates them to design similar looking worlds. For example, an average player would assume the game Undertale had been released a decade before its actual 2015 release. Also, using less advanced software forces developers to more creatively design art for the game. Rather than objects

Don't starve gothic art style with character holding a spear and wearing a helmet, standing in a basic base with a stove, chest, and meat drying rack

Don’t Starve Screenshot

appearing realistic, artists experiment with their own styles, resulting in games like Don’t Starve. “Independent Style is a construct, but it also genuinely represents a cheap way of developing games, and its popularity makes it possible for developers to develop low-budget games that are understood by players not as cheap games that would have been better had they had a bigger budget, but as games that embody a particular style,and belong to a new type of video game” (Juul 2014). Developers that utilize the “indie style” are able to tap into the subcultural capital gained from pursuing your own creative vision rather than mimicking the mainstream. 

 

 

 

 

 

Contemporary Indie Scene

Steam early access store page showing suggested games and prices

Steam Early Access Page

Analyzing the current state of indie gaming calls into question its future in the larger gaming community. At the beginning of gaming, most developers and players were indie. As games developed, “thousands of games by hobbyists and small teams cluttered [the] early internet, yet today they are almost entirely forgotten; no history of video games should be complete without them, yet no history of video games has ever documented them” (Lipkin 2013). The interest and attention directed to indie gaming increased after the larger mainstream companies began utilizing digital distribution platforms to increase sales. Both Sony (PlayStation) and Microsoft (Xbox) created online stores where developers sell their games directly to players, and it allows players to download the games directly to their consoles. In the world of computer gaming, the company Valve created Steam and eventually Electronic Arts created Origin. Now, indie developers use the new marketplaces to sell their games to fans all over the world. Developers, instead of creating and distributing physical copies of their games in stores, can place their games online and have them instantly accessible to players. Therefore, developers earn additional profit from each game sold because the lower cost of distribution.

Online markets allow indie games to be sold at a significantly lower price enabling more developers to make and sell their niche game at a profit. Furthermore, interested players may support developers during game development through services like Early Access on Steam and websites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe. These technological and economic changes in the gaming

Cover of PC magazine showing various indie characters standing on INDIE ISSUE letters

PC Gamer Magazine Cover

industry led to an explosion of new indie games available for the first time to the mainstream gaming audience. Indie subculture expanded from the physical location of individual developers to a virtual presence throughout the industry. However, this has led to the diffusion of the indie community into the mainstream. Whereas in the past indie games and mainstream games were accessed in different physical spaces, now they are sold next to each other in virtual market spaces. While increased revenue and opportunity has benefited indie developers, the mixing of their games with mainstream games has led to defusion, reducing the indie developer’s power to resist mainstream publishers. Today, the indie subculture is active in both physical and virtual spaces. Gaming conventions, both large and small, are the primary physical space where indie developers share their projects and interact with peers. The Independent Games Festival (IGF) is a major event where developers can showcase new games they are designing and interact with other developers and gamers. Furthermore, the IGF provides financial support along with exposure for developers working on their own games. Finally, the IGF hosts a summit which “seeks to highlight the brightest and the best of indie development, with discussions ranging from indie game distribution methods through game design concepts, and student indie game discussions” (About IDF). Most gaming magazines now feature an indie section, and select magazines like Indie Game Magazine focus exclusively on the industry. However, the indie subculture is primarily present on the internet. A variety of websites and forums provide spaces for developers and gamers alike to communicate about gaming, learn about development styles, and distribute indie games. It is difficult to pinpoint a singular place where the indie subculture is located online. Both indie and mainstream gamers and developers communicate at forums and websites dedicated to gaming, along with websites dedicated to the development of particular games.

 

The Merge into Mainstream

Main character made out of yarn with a large zipper down its chest smiling

LittleBigPlanet

The rising popularity of indie has not only allowed more indie developers to create and sell their games, it has also motivated mainstream developers to commodify the indie gaming community and profit from its success. Today, “it is possible to create a game that passes for indie without bearing the background markings that define the movement according to its early adherents” (Lipkin 2013). Major developer studios and publishers now release games that appear and play like an indie game. However, the very origins of such games violate the anti-capitalist and anti-large studio philosophy that indie developers hold with pride. For example, the PlayStation 3 game LittleBigPlanet “is based on high-end 3d representations of handmade materials built from cloth, thread, buttons, and stickers” (Juul 2014). Frequently indie media will promote a game produced from mainstream publishers. “It is possible to create a game that passes for indie without bearing the background markings that define the movement according to its early adherents” (Lipkin 2013). The mainstream companies’ financial power has convinced some of the defining indie developers to give up. Marcus “Notch” Persson, the developer of Minecraft, was a fierce champion of the indie community fighting against mainstream publisher’s wealth and power. In 2012, he responded to a software patent lawsuit filed against him by a mainstream publisher saying “if needed, I will throw piles of money at making sure they don’t get a cent”. Yet, in just two years, he sold Minecraft to Microsoft for $2.5 billion dollars. Now Minecraft legos, bedsheets, toys, and conventions are sold around the world, a clear sign that Microsoft is monetizing the massive market that Notch created. Mainstream companies have also forced themselves into the indie community through creating “indie departments”. Electronic Arts, frequently considered the definition of evil in the indie gaming community, announced in 2018 that it was creating a unit called “EA Originals” where it will be “supporting small developers and helping them make the most of our games” (Polygon 2016). This raises the question whether the indie games developed by the mainstream companies can be properly considered indie. Instead of standing against and opposing the massive publishers, indie developers are becoming more integrated with them. This has led to a confusing market, where gamers can no longer easily distinguish between which games are genuinely indie or mainstream. However, the creativity of Minecraft, is not diminished despite Microsoft now owning it, and EA emphasizes that the games released through EA Originals will be “unique, gorgeous, innovative and memorable” (Polygon 2016).

This clip is from the gaming convention E3, where an indie developer talks about his game Fe which he is publishing through EA.

The Influence of Indie

Main character of Witcher 3 entering a medieval looking town

Town in Witcher 3

The merging between mainstream and indie development does not run in only one direction. While mainstream companies are taking advantage of a new indie market to reap additional profits, many indie gamer beliefs are becoming more mainstream. Gamers are beginning to stand up to the dominant companies in the industry, calling into question their aggressive use of microtransactions and manipulative game design. An acknowledged mainstream gamer, popular YouTube channel personality AngryJoe challenges mainstream companies to stop exploiting their player through including microtransactions and dumbing down games to make them more popular with wider audiences. During 2018, gamers have resisted new releases from major gaming publishers. Blizzard’s decision to release the next game of the popular Diablo series exclusively on phones was met with boos from the audience, Bethesda’s Fallout 76 received overwhelming low reviews for being released unfinished and poorly designed, and EA’s Battlefield 5 saw a significant reduction of sales compared to their previous game Battlefield 1 because of their failure to innovate and improve their game design. Furthermore, some large mainstream companies are creating games that possess many of the traits associated with indie games. Both indie and mainstream gamers overwhelming praised CD PROJEKT RED’s release of Witcher 3 for the creative and well-designed game that refused to exploit its player base.

Conclusion

Image with 10 popular indie games store art. Games are hotline miami, binding of issac, magica, fez, bastion, limbo super meat boy, faster than light, and braid

Popular Indie Games

Gaming has evolved rapidly since its inception, and over time the industry has become more popular. The indie community is made up of dedicated players who deeply appreciate the value that games bring to their lives. Today, understanding what classifies a gamer or developer as indie is vaguer than ever but, the influence the community is making on gaming cannot be overstated. The indie community’s passionate dedication to create thought provoking games for fun rather than for profit has challenged and influenced the mainstream gaming industry at a critical time. Contemporary games released by mainstream publishers reflect their priority to their shareholders over their player base.  The indie gaming community has become a leader resisting the effect capitalism has had on the industry, and the popularity and success of indie games has shown the larger gaming community agrees. “The indie developer becomes a point of struggle between notions of the counter-hegemonic creative artist and the idea of the success-drive technology startup company, with the concepts of passion, art, and sustainability suturing the two perspectives together” (Vanderhoef 2017). People may no longer be able to tell the difference between a mainstream and an indie game, but the values and style of indie games has successfully altered the future course of the gaming industry.

 

 

 

Indie Game Examples

 

The indie gaming subculture is centered around the games members play. Some games have massive player communities that rival mainstream titles, while others have a smaller presence. Furthermore, because the indie title encompasses such a variety of games, it is likely that many would consider the games too mainstream. However, the games below are overwhelmingly considered premium indie games by both indie and mainstream gamers alike. Each of these games represent very different designs and styles, but they also contain all of the characteristics that makes a game indie.

Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley is a country-life RPG where players explore Pelican Town, a rural community where their grandfather willed them a farm. The game was designed entirely by one person, Eric Barone. Gameplay consists of developing your own farm through clearing land, planting crops, and raising livestock. Furthermore players can interact with the other citizens of Pelican Town, forming relationships which includes romance.  The pixel art style and gentle music is both charming and relaxing, creating an open ended world where players can relax and explore.

Undertale

Undertale and its newfound popularity may precede it in many forms, but in terms of story driven gameplay, Undertale is a narrative titan in the industry. Made entirely by one author, Toby Fox, Undertale proves to gamemakers everywhere that you don’t need a studio to make a game–but passion and an idea. With a cast of relatable characters and backstories where you, as the player, choose to destroy or save their world, Undertale lets players play how they see fit. Undertale’s pixel art style takes on a darker and nostalgic tone.

Cuphead

Cuphead combines a phenomenal art style with difficult gameplay making it another excellent example of indie games. The game was designed by a team of five dedicated gamers who wanted to push the boundary of art and creativity in video games. Cuphead places players against difficult bosses that they must defeat in order to progress. Only after attempting the same fight numerous times players will learn the mechanics and be able to defeat the boss. The original art style were painstakingly created with hand drawn animation and watercolor backgrounds inspired by cartoons of the 1930s.

Binding of Issac

The binding of Isaac designed by Edmund Mcmillen and Florian Himsl is a rogue-like dungeon crawler inspired by the Legend of Zelda games of old. Not shying away from uncomfortable material like abortion, blood and bodily horror with a cartoon twist, ISAAC truly is a game to break the mold. A grotesque art style and rapid, arcade-like gameplay make for a unique experience in this rendition in the classic genre.

Other Resources

 

Film

Indie Game: The Movie is a documentary following the experiences of three indie developers as they create their games Super Meat Boy, Fez, and Braid.

Surviving Indie is a documentary which provides insight into the everyday challenges and demands of indie developers from diverse backgrounds.

Academic Sources

Critical Reading: Lipkin, Nadav. 2012. “Examining Indie’s Independence: The Meaning of ‘Indie’ Games, the Politics of Production, and Mainstream Cooptation.” Loading… The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association 7(11).

Fisher, Stephanie J. and Alison Harvey. 2012. “Intervention for Inclusivity: Gender Politics and Indie Game Development.” Loading… The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association 7(11).

Phillips, Tom. 2015. “‘Don’t Clone My Indie Game, Bro’: Informal Cultures of Videogame Regulation in the Independent Sector.” Cultural Trends 24(2):143–53.

Ruffino, Paolo. 2012. “Narratives of Independent Production in Video Game Culture.” Loading… The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association 7(11).

Services, End User Computing and Jesper Juul. “High Tech – Low Tech Authenticity.” 11.

Simon, Bart. 2012. “Indie Eh? Some Kind of Game Studies.” Loading… The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association 7(11).

Vanderhoef, John Robert. 2017. “An Industry of Indies: The New Cultural Economy of Digital Game Production.” ProQuest Information & Learning (US).

Westecott, Emma. 2013. “Independent Game Development as Craft.” Loading… The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association 7:78–91.

 

 

Relevant Websites and Videos

Video discussing the appeal that difficulty brings to Cuphead:

A Day in the Life of an Indie Game Developer

Indie Games VS Mainstream (AAA) Games

Indie games are on the rise, bringing innovation and creativity to gaming

How indie games went mainstream

Us and the Game Industry – how indie games are the new counter-culture

Examples of indie websites: Indie Subreddit, Indie Games Plus, TIGSource Forums, GameDev.net

Special Thanks to Professor Ross Haenfler and Macintyre Lindsay for supporting the creation of this webpage.