Indie games have become a positive trending phenomenon in the entertainment industry. They have shown the world that anyone, regardless of their resources, can create something remarkable through their skills and creativity. At times, some indie games can even set their own trends, which bigger AAA studios have followed due to their popularity. In such homogenous cases, what actually makes an indie game an indie game?
That’s what we’re here for! To dissect what makes them distinctive and why they hold a special place in the hearts of gamers and developers alike. So you’ll know how to define and distinguish what actually makes an indie game, and in turn, you’ll know who to support with your money.
What Actually Makes an Indie Game Indie?
Indie games, short for independent games, are computer games crafted by anything from lone developers or small teams consisting of less than a dozen members. That’s not a hard rule, by the way; some indie games have a few dozen developers working on them. The idea is that they’re made with a smaller budget and a smaller team compared to bigger games.
These indie games stand out because they are typically created without the backing of major game studios or publishers (producers). Practically, this allows developers to exercise their creativity and experiment with innovative ideas since no one (who controls the funding) is figuratively watching over their shoulders or breathing down their necks while they create their art.
Indie games often embody a sense of artistic freedom and a unique approach to game design.
The roots of indie development can be traced back to the early 2000s when the gaming industry faced significant challenges, dominated by giants like Sega and Nintendo. However, a turning point arrived in 2004 with the advent of the Steam platform. Steam provided a new platform for indie developers to showcase their creations independently of the major funding providers.
This development was instrumental in popularizing indie games and answering the question of what truly defines an indie game.
AAA Game vs. Indie Game
The distinction between AAA (Triple-A) games and indie games primarily revolves around budget and scale. AAA games are typically produced by large (sometimes multinational) companies, boasting expansive budgets, advanced graphics technology, and massive development teams.
These games typically target global audiences, aiming for cinematic experiences with high production values. While AAA games dazzle with their visual prowess and epic scale, they often come with a hefty price tag and are easy to mismanage since the publisher (or the source of funding) could have a hand in the development.
In contrast, indie developers create games with a more personal touch. Lacking the resources to produce large-scale, technologically advanced titles, indie games shine through their unique gameplay and distinctive art styles.
These games are often smaller in size, have lower system requirements, and rely on innovative mechanics to captivate players. Moreover, they have lower prices.
The current standard for the biggest AAA video game is $70 (USD). You’ll find indie game prices significantly lower than that. Stardew Valley, for example, is one of the most prominent indie games right now and in the past, and it only costs $15 (USD).
AAA & Indie Hybrids Can Exist
While one can argue that something like Cyberpunk 2077 is an indie game since CD Projekt RED published the game themselves without a publisher or another licensing studio, it’s important to note a key difference.
CD Projekt RED is a publicly traded company, much like Ubisoft—a corporation where the shareholders claim profits and assets. Corporate investors are thus present in the equation, and they can even push to rush the development cycle.
A better example is Baldur’s Gate 3. It’s made by an indie game developer, Larian Studios (a privately-owned company), but despite the indie tag, Larian Studios has a AAA budget ($100 million for Baldur’s Gate 3). Sadly, developers like Larian Studios are rare.
The Popularity of Indie Games
Indie games have experienced a surge in popularity over the years. As we mentioned earlier, platforms like Steam have played a pivotal role in facilitating this growth.
Valve even reported a significant increase in indie game profits, dispelling the notion that indie games had limited appeal due to the presence of major releases. The number of indie games earning over $10,000 in their first two weeks after release tripled in 2019 compared to earlier years.
This trend has continued into 2023, with a substantial number of indie games being released on Steam and even outside of the platform. Impressively, four out of the top 10 highest-grossing games on Steam were indie releases, further cementing the genre’s popularity.
Some of the most popular indie games include:
- Minecraft (initially made as an indie game but has been acquired by Microsoft)
- Stardew Valley
- Super Meat Boy
It’s Hard Developing an Indie Game
Developing an indie game offers numerous advantages and challenges. One of the most compelling advantages is the complete autonomy it affords developers. Indie developers have freedom and independence over the development, from conceptualization to release.
This freedom allows them to set their own pace and maintain ownership of their creations throughout. That’s the major advantage. It shows well with horror indie games, too.
Monetization also falls under the purview of indie developers. They can choose the monetization model that aligns with their vision without having to pay royalties to publishers.
This level of control extends to the opportunity for collaboration, as indie developers can choose to collaborate with publishers after their game has successfully entered the market. Such was the case for Minecraft, which Microsoft has bought out.
However, the path to creating an indie game can be demanding. Developers often find themselves working alone or in small teams, shouldering the responsibilities of development, marketing, and more.
The process can be time-consuming, particularly when building trust within the gaming community. Securing media attention can also be challenging, as the spotlight is often dominated by more established companies or even indie competitors.
Furthermore, the financial aspect is crucial. While indie development offers creative freedom, it can be costly if you fail to find a solid financial footing. Budgets for some indie games can easily surpass the million-dollar mark. This expense covers not only development but also various other costs, such as licenses, outsourcing, marketing, and legal fees.
Many indie projects are born out of personal sacrifice and dedication, and many also get canceled either due to lack of funding or other reasons concerning the developers.
The Wildly Varying Cost of Indie Games
The cost of developing an indie game can vary significantly. While some indie games are developed on a shoestring budget, others can require substantial financial investment. Even a budget of $1 million for an indie game is not uncommon.
One factor contributing to the expense is the need to pay competitive salaries to developers. Skilled programmers and other team members can demand salaries upwards of $100,000 annually.
When you factor in multiple team members over several years, the costs can escalate quickly. That’s why some indie game devs prefer to work alone on passion projects.
Star Citizen, for example, is by far the most ambitious indie game ever, and it’s still currently under development (since 2012) with a budget of $600 million, mostly all from pledges. This technically makes Star Citizen the most expensive video game ever, as even AAA titles have never come close to that kind of budget.
Hence, indie games are simultaneously the cheapest and most expensive video games to develop, and it all depends on scope and ambition.