Indie Game Design 101: What Are Indie Games?

Welcome to our first Indie Game Design 101 – this aims to be a beginner friendly introduction to indie game development, written from the perspective of someone learning to design games in hopes it will help others gain a better insight into the world of IGD. We’ll be speaking with indie game developers to get their views and insights along the way.

Question: What Are Indie Games?

We’ve all heard the terms ‘triple-a’ and ‘indie’ being thrown around to describe games of certain size or certain scope – even overall budget. I’ve been learning to develop games for around 12 months and while I’m still at the very beginner stages as I have a full time career, I wouldn’t call myself an indie developer. I definitely don’t feel like an indie developer, but a cursory search of google provides us with this answer from Wikipedia:

An independent video game or indie game is a video game typically created by individuals or smaller development teams without the financial and technical support of a large game publisher, in contrast to most “AAA” (triple-A) games.

Wikipedia: Indie Game

Wikipedia goes on to state that the indie label may apply to other games which are still supported by publishers as the development of the game has had some measure of independence or ‘creative freedom’ as it is often referred to as – even if they supply the developers with large sums of money and advertising. It wasn’t always this way and this modern take on the indie game development scene is a huge accomplisment thanks to the fact games are much more accessible now via digital download, online distribution and even in some cases, limited run physical releases by companies such as Limited Run Games.

Limited Run Games released Celeste on physical.
Limited Run Games’ advertisement for indie game Celeste which released in 2019

Going back to the root of the concept, indie game design is like indie music or indie movies, it is entirely based upon the model of self-publishing and self distribution. Over the years many successful indie projects have seen massive success from modern day music such as the band Enter Shikari who own their own record labels to the slightly-comical-but-still-a-classic Blair Witch.

The Story Behind 'The Blair Witch Project Indie Game Design
The Blair Witch Project released in 1999 and has become a cult classic

Games By Mail Order

Indie games have been in development since games began, however it’s not something that was readily accessible to the general populace like it was today. Back in the 60’s when games were being released on BASIC computers, none of these games were actually funded in any shape or form, making them totally independent and their popularity rising due to word of mouth. Often these were distributed through mail order.

Yes, you read that right, games by mail order.

As the home console market expanded in the 70’s and 80’s, bedroom coders became commonplace and it was regular for one, two or 3-man teams to be able to put out new, fun and experimental game ideas – but this wasn’t to last. Slowly over time and as home consoles became more commonplace, so did professional teams capable of developing games at a much faster pace that dashed any commercial hopes for most indie game developers.

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) - via Imgur ( Indie Game Design )
A 1983 advertisement for the new Nintendo console

As games broke into the 90s and seemed to begin to fully recover from the disastrous gaming crash of the 80’s, many smaller developers disappeared in to obscurity. For many, this was due to the fact larger studios started to put out high quality, high budget games that they either could not compete with technically, or from a distribution point of view. Simply put – for many, it wasn’t feasible to pay for the software required to create games at the level these larger development teams could.

Slowly moving into the 90s and 00’s period, the console market fractured the game design ecosystem and access to the hardware (development kits) was often reserved only to developers who could afford the equipment, developers that had backing from publisher in most cases. Multiple systems and multiple development environments meant that it was much more difficult to make a game for the most popular system and distribution became harder via mail order due to a lack of visibility.

Share and Share Alike, Shareware Keeps Indie Games Alive

In the 90s, shareware became the new way to obtain copies of the latest indie games. You would get a copy, for free, from your local convention or event and you would be able to play the game and purchase it using the included mail order form. You could then pass this on to a friend or family member, who would also then be able to purchase the game. Many games proved this model to be successful, especially Wolfenstein, and these shareware games were often found included in gaming magazines as inserts – helping keep indie games alive.

Saturday Crapshoot: The Ultimate Shareware Games Collection, Vol 1 Indie Game Design
An example of a shareware game instructing users how to purchase

During the 00s, emerging software technology such as Adobe Flash made it extremely accessible from a technical and monetary standpoint for those to develop their games as SDKs (software development kits) were still readily unaccessible to most. Sony did attempt to bridge this by releasing the Net Yaroze PS1 which was a black console with additional software and an access point to connect to a computer – sadly this was marred by the relatively high price point which was almost 3x the cost of the standard Playstation. It seemed like indie game design wasn’t very welcome on consoles, or at least not if you didn’t have some sort of money to burn.

Flash, coupled with sites such as Newgrounds and Miniclip became host to hundreds of thousands of games and nurtured indie game design through the early 00’s and still hosts them today. No hosting charges, no limits to creativity and a very active userbase led to millions of plays and hundreds of hours of screen time, cementing gaming in the nostalgia centres of many peoples brains and even bringing some new players into the fray.

Newgrounds was a procrastinators best friend. Indie Game Design
Newgrounds was a haven for teenagers killing time in school and features games with impressive scope for their size

Flash forward to today (see what I did there?) and it is a stark difference to how indie game design was over 10 years ago. Digital storefronts are popping up every day, games which were previously expensive are now free and ad-supported versions exists for most if not all hypercasual mobile games. Making games is serious business if it’s done right, but it’s also oversaturating the market and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Developer Talk

I checked in with the Indie Game Developer forum on Facebook to speak with some indie developers to find out what they think really makes an indie game what it is and to find out what sort of spirit the indie game design community has. I was instantly met with contributions from those who had developed and published their own games, and those who were on their journey. I’ve included links if any of these guys interest you!

T’Sar Beard is a fledgling indie developer and believes that indie games are created by individual teams or start up developers rather than just being ‘small projects’ undertaken by larger or well established teams:

…taking myself as an example, I am making (with friends) a 24 world full game and because we’re not a huge name like Sega or Nintendo, we would fall under the indie category
At least thats what I think, I could be wrong!

T’sar Beard, fledgling developer working on his first game (Facebook: HERE)

He’s currently working on a game in it’s early stages of development called Galaxy Gang and it’s aiming for a Spring 2022 demo for players to try out. T’Sar couldn’t share any more details but he did let us see some early level design for testing the game and its features. If you’re interested in the development of Galaxy Gang, the official Facebook group is available HERE!

Galaxy Gang pre-alpha screenshots - Indie Game Design
Galaxy Gang pre-alpha screenshots - Indie Game Design
Galaxy Gang will have a demo availabile Spring 2022

Drew Pan, developer of Gloom and Doom, says he would classify his game as indie because it’s a passion project he’s committed to without any financial backing from publishers or other sources. Drew doesn’t believe that being a one-man team is the only thing that makes an indie game what it is and told us that any team without financial backing or support from a major publisher should be seen as an indie developer and went on to say:

It’s not unlike the movie industry, where indies are films financed and made independently with the hopes of being noticed at a film festival and getting picked up by a distributor later, versus a studio film which was greenlit and funded by a big player from the beginning.

Drew Pan, Creator of Gloom and Doom

Others, such as Jon Jon Tang, had a little more to say

For me, indie games represent smaller businesses that cannot afford major assets and funding like current AAA games, where every asset is polished into realism or highly textured designs that major companies can afford spending money on.

Indie games do not have major budgets – henceforth they are limited by monetary funding, which breeds creativity as they explore new and exciting ways to revamp old features into something new and daring. The monetary restriction itself defines the creativity and expectation of indie games in the current market.Consumer-wise, supporting indie devs is like supporting local businesses.

When a game gets corporated like consumer products, you don’t feel the passion put into it, rather like a factory made product that has been churned out to provide expensive features.

Jon Jon Tang, indie game developer

I got a few good responses from the Indie Game Development group, and got the feeling that everyone generally felt the same way about what makes a game truly an ‘indie’ game – no backing or support from a major publisher or developer – even if there was some varying opinions on other aspects. I’ll include them down below at the end of the article.

One of the things that definitely seems to be a key part of an ‘indie’ game is the creative freedom afforded to these developers, something studio developers have long since forgotten existed. One of the major complaints of today’s gaming industry is a lack of unique IP – intellectual property – and that the same tried and tested formula is beginning to wear thing, most evident in titles such as Battlefield, Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. While some of these have tried to adapt and change, they ultimately never do and simply adopt gimmicks to make them stand out from the rest – something that I personally began to dislike after the first Call of Duty: Cold War game.

While indie games have also allowed creators to realise their vision, they have also lead to some success in revitalising or reviving genres and even types of gameplay long thought forgotten by mainstream development.

Edward Newton, an indie developer who is working on ‘The Hustle‘ said an indie game is:

A game conceived by an individual or small group of individuals, whose initial development was not approved by a corporation or board of directors.

Edward Newton, developer of indie game ‘The Hustle

I followed this up by asking if he considered small projects that have expanded due to external interests are still classed as indie when they finalise their and publish their game:

I guess it depends on how much support they receive?

No Man’s Sky would be a perfect example of riding that line – they were/are very much a smaller studio, but they also got a lot of support from Sony, presumably.

It’s probably worth mentioning that “indie” – in both films and games – has a production-facing and an audience-facing definition.

Production-facing is about how many people worked on it, and how many roles they filled on it. Audience-facing (arguably the one most people are thinking of when they say “indie”) is about the feel and content of a game – less polished, more niche, and basically anything that breaks away from the mainstream “pre-approved as safe because we don’t want to risk a class-action lawsuit”-type games.

I expect as indie games become more and more mainstream, you’ll see bigger publishers create branches of their companies devoted specifically to selling to that market (Warner Independent Pictures is one such division for indie film).

Edward continues..

Ed’s current game is coming up for its alpha release and while not many details are available (you can see more on his page here) he has upload a little draft footage. Below you can see some in-development animation of what looks like a very interesting character called Penny!

Development doc for The Hustle

No Man’s Sky, the perfect exampleindie game where the perils of infinite scope contributed the downfall, making promises they couldn’t actually keep in the final, released product. A delusion of grandeur some might say, feeling that No Man’s Sky’s overpromising and underdelivering was fueled because of the pressures of living up to the expectation of grandeur.

Peter Molyneux is another once-independent developer who fell on this sword and had his reputation ruined by it, making promises of wild systems that would allow acorns to fall from trees and grow as you play in the game. Nowadays something like this may well be within the scope of few developers, but back then was a wild fantasy. Dubbed ‘The Man Who Promised Too Much’ by (now-ex) Kotaku staffer Jason Schrier, Molyneux has seen little critial success in modern days.

Peter Molyneux : Indie Game Design 101
Peter Molyneux, creator the Fable series

Over time, Molyneux eventually faded into the background of the game development world. His last bow out due to the pressure over Godus and it’s God of Gods promotion in 2015.

He vowed never to talk about his work again in public befor release. Good idea, Pete.

Wrapping up our first Indie Game Design 101, we’ll leave you with the thoughts of what makes an indie game from other indie developers, and leave your thoughts in the comments below. Make sure to check out these creators and their games!

Indie Games are works of art as well as a playground for developers to push solutions, gameplay experiences and not-proven concepts which a large publisher won’t allow due to it being too experimental. This is what differs them from big, corporate titles – the freedom to do YOUR dream as a game dev instead of creating something for someone who first of all looks to make profit on the title.

Mariusz Stachniuk; beginner indie developer

A game is classified as indie when it has the lack of a AAA budget – that’s my 2 cents

Luke Draper; creator of mobile game Rap Steady

I think it comes from the name itself – Indie = Independent.

Most indie studios are independent of large publishers since they don’t have the resource backing from them.

Donovan Foo; Community Manager

Click HERE for part 2 of Indie Games 101
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Czech Falcon

Gamer, creator, collaborator and owner of five (yes, five!) cats. Currently learning to develop my own games after 25 years of playing them!

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