Indie gaming has seen a massive boost in popularity in the last couple of years. Arriving in the mainstream with the Xbox Live Arcade platform, the indie genre has gone from strength to strength. Today, indie games occupy top billing in the release calendar of any gamer.
Treading a similar path to the music industry a decade before, the gaming world is experiencing a sharp divide between the publisher driven mainstream, and the artistically free indie scene. Indeed, many gamers see the indie scene as the descendant of 90s/early 00s gaming culture, with difficult games and a strong focus on artistic integrity. Mainstream publishers are seen as more interested in marketing their visual experiences towards the ‘regular’ crowd. Resulting in games that take fewer risks, and instead aim for consistency and approachability to ensure that players aren’t scared off. When a publisher is on the record as saying that a score of 81% on Metacritic “doesn’t suck, but it ain’t the bestest ever”1 you know that artistic vision and gameplay innovation are taking a backseat to potentially profitability.
Indie developers on the other hand, are able to take significantly greater risks in style and execution. Thanks to their significantly lower costs, indie developers can target incredibly focused niches. Euro Truck Simulator, Agricultural Simulator and Banner Saga all bear testament to developers ability to find an audience for just about any genre. Indie games have also seemingly managed to avoid the macro-trends of DLC and ‘pay-to-win’ that have infiltrated much of mainstream gaming. Although the vocal minority present on many gaming forums is unlikely to have an effect on development policy at EA or Activison, it is providing an explosive level of support to the indie scene.
Look at any game-of-the-year list and you’re likely to fine Hotline Miami, FTL, Bastion and many others on there. Indies are not only artistically innovative – but fun and popular. In contrast to the film world, where independent films are often seen as presumptuous and obscure, indie games have found a central place in many gamers libraries. They have been able to unify creative visual experiences with enjoyable gameplay and have been rewarded by the gaming market.
Indie games have been able to generate signifiant profits in recent times. Minecraft developer Mojang posted revenues of more than $250 million per year,2 an amount that any traditional gaming publisher or developer would love to have. There are also success stories at the lower end too, with many sole developers able to enjoy commercial success thanks to the broad exposure that the iOS, Steam and Play stores can bring games.3 The commercial and cultural success of Minecraft and other indie games does raise an important question though – at what point does an ‘indie’ developer join the ranks of traditional gaming houses?
When does a game such as Minecraft – a pop-culture phenomena – achieve traditional gaming status? Is it a question of revenue? Perhaps the only indies are those slaving away in a basements existing on 50c packets of ramen. Or maybe it is a question artistic style? Is it popularity? Niche appeal? Sales? In your correspondent’s opinion, the likely answer is that an indie developer is a person, group or company that is relatable on a human level. It’s when you can hit up the lead artist on Twitter and have her respond to your question – as opposed to winging a tweet at the generic ‘official’ Twitter account, and being directed to a recent press release.
Where does the indie scene go from here? For at least the time being, it should proposer. With their current commercial profitability and repeated review success, indie games will continue to carve out an interesting niche in broader gaming culture.