An independent developer is one that is not tied to a publisher. Most of the major developers making AAA games, such as Naughty Dog, DICE, Rareware and Visceral, are funded by the publishers that they have agreements with, whether they are platform-specific such as Sony and Microsoft or multiplatform like Ubisoft and EA.
Independent developers don’t have that luxury.
While some developers can find funding easily for their games, like Insomniac or formerly Mojang, many struggle to find the money to both make and publish the game. Some games self-publish, while others have Kickstarters or Patreons—independent fund-raising campaign platforms—to raise money. Usually, though, these independent games, or indies, do not make a profit.
Many indies do have massive success. The most famous of these is “Minecraft,” Marcus Perrson’s creation that became a gaming phenomenon. It has sold over 15 million copies on PC alone, not counting the versions on Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and iOS. Other famous successes include “Braid,” “Fez,” “Super Meat Boy,” “Spelunky,” “Terraria” and “Day Z.”
However, for every breakout hit, there are several that are terrible. Many indie titles are simply other successful games reskinned or with little innovation. Others, like “Day One: Garry’s Incident” and “War Z,” are filled with bugs, glitches and terrible graphics. It takes outlets like YouTube’s TotalBiscuit and mainstream sites to filter out the good from the bad.
Even with the unavoidable limitation that the good games are incredibly hard to find in the midst of all the terrible ones, indie games are essential for the advancement of our industry.
For example, the horror genre has been given a second life due to independent developers. With horror staples like Resident Evil and Silent Hill forgoing their roots, the genre has been devoid of good horror until “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” came along. Amnesia in turn gave rise to similar indie titles that leaned on the fact that players could not fight back against the things that lurk in the dark. “Slender,” “Outlast” and, more recently, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” are proof that indies are giving forgotten genres a chance to begin anew.
Another example of the indie market bringing things back from the dead comes in the form of platformers. One easy way for indies to save on costs is to make a game that uses nostalgia in order to gain popularity and, often in conjunction, to use pixelated graphics.
Since the platformer is the nostalgic genre of choice, many of these platformers have appeared, with several doing it well. These successes include the recent “Shovel Knight” and “Rouge Legacy.”
In fact, “Rouge Legacy” is also one example of another reason indie games are important. “Rouge Legacy,” along with several “rouge-like” games, are procedurally generated, meaning that every time a game restarts, the environment is not the same.
In the games “Don’t Starve” and “Minecraft,” the environment is never the same, giving an extra initiative to explore the world. Sometimes characters can even be procedurally generated in order to keep a player on their toes. This not only makes the game more entertaining to play again, but also shows that every experience can be unique within the same game.
In the AAA game industry, a game with procedural generation would not have been thought of because, traditionally, many of those games rely on storytelling, which is nearly impossible in a game where everything changes.
Also, indie games are cheaper than AAA games. So, for gamers on a budget, indie games are the perfect choice.
This doesn’t mean that one type of game is better or worse than the other. It simply means that there is a place for indies, and that people should look out for them and not be afraid to buy them whenever one catches their eye.