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The State of Indie Gaming

April 30, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[In this in-depth Gamasutra analysis, casual game veteran Gril looks at the state and evolution of independent gaming, from PC to console, from Desktop Tower Defense to fl0w and beyond...]

Independent development is one of the hottest trends right now within the game industry. And fortunately the public is responding well (but not necessarily responding to an "indie" trend, as we'll see below). N+ is a success on Xbox 360. Kongregate's traffic is growing steadily. Pixeljunk Monsters and particularly flOw are doing well on PS3. If things continue this way, by the end of 2008 most innovation in gaming is going to happen in independent games.

But are they a viable venue for developers? Leaving aside the fact that for every N+ there are a lot of failures (that happens everywhere else and it's a redundant point) in order to make a game that finds its audience you need to be careful about the platform the game is targeted to. Let's look at the market analytically.

But wait -- what is an indie game?

There is a big discrepancy right now in the definition of an indie game. On one hand, you've got those who think that the word "independent" means "independent funding". In other words, the development is financed by the developer. On the other hand, you've got those who think that the word "independent" means "independent thought", which means those games where the design was not dictated by middle managers.

I'm more inclined for the latter definition, as the truth is that in most cases you will need a significant chunk of money to create an independent game, and regardless where you get that money from, what matters is that the game was created following a creative-led game design idea.

Here is then my own definition of an independent game:

An independent game is above all trying to innovate and provide a new experience for the player. It is not just filling a publisher's portfolio need. It has not been invented at a marketing department. And it has not been designed by a committee.

Please also note that I have taken out of the definition any references to the team's size. Even though today most independent games have been done by small teams, that doesn't mean it's going to be the case in the future.

Q-Games' PixelJunk Monsters

Who is the audience?

A good starting point to discuss the opportunities is to try to identify who the audience buying independent games is. In most cases, and based on my research, independent game players can be categorized in one or more of these categories:

  • The Cult Gamer. This type of gamer is an active hardcore gamer, who is very well-informed about games and trends in games, and is always looking for games that are different and not part of what the masses play. The cult gamer may be also looking for a lightweight experience for a change (in let's say Halo 3 breaks).
  • The Casual Video Gamer. This type of gamer plays games on the web, and maybe some downloads on PC or console. His/her first exposure to video games was when he/she was young, so it differentiates from the Solitaire/Bejeweled/Diner Dash/Mystery Case Files type of player in that the latter in general has started playing games in the late '90s or later.
  • The Ex-Hardcore Gamer. The ex-hardcore gamer is generally 25 or older, and has played a lot of games. He may have a family and only 15 to 30 minutes to play games per sitting. The ex-hardcore gamer is aware of the new trends in gaming, although he rarely plays most of the new retail games, unless it's a party game such as Wii Sports.
  • Game Industry Professional or Academic Gamer: That's some of us reading this article, and the smallest portion of the audience. Game professionals or academics need to be very impressed by the gameplay of a game in order to add it to their roster. We are a hardcore version of the cult gamer.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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In my personal opinion the wii I think would have the strongest stance here IF they'd just impliment some kind of chat system. I heard rumors of a chat to text system to make it so the kids don't hear anything offencive though if they do that I hope there's a parental pin option to switch to normal voice chat. Also heard rumors of a bluetooth headset at some point. Anyone know if there's any truth to these?

Michael Black
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I think FaceBook needs more Turn Your Friends Into Zombies games. With only three or four coming out each day it's hard to stay occupied.

Kevin Kofler
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I'm not entirely sure how voice chat equates to a better casual games platform, but I do agree that the Wii is ideal at the moment, especially with the added Wiiware and hype in recent weeks. Chat-to-text seems to be a convoluted solution to the "bad words" problem, so I doubt we'll see Nintendo adding anything like that to any VOIP plans they may have. Those Bluetooth headset rumors are old news, and since nothing's come of it yet, I'll have to say it's not happening. Considering what excellent titles Smash and Mario Kart would've been to market such a device, I'll play devil's advocate and say Nintendo isn't even considering VOIP for Wii.

Kevin Kofler
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Oh, and props to the article by the way. Very cleanly written and well-presented.

Bryson Whiteman
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This is a tangent, but I just wanted to note that Nintendo enabled voice chat in Metroid Prime Hunters for DS in 2006. In that game you could chat with players that you exchanged friend codes with -- this assumes that you know the person you're actually getting that code from. I feel that it's unfortunate that they haven't adopted any voice chat plans with the Wii so far. I'm still disappointed that you can't communicate with other players in Smash Bros. Brawl, taking a lot of the fun out of it and making it essentially "Smash Bros. - With Lag!".

Steven An
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"An independent game is above all trying to innovate and provide a new experience for the player. It is not just filling a publisher's portfolio need. It has not been invented at a marketing department."

You seem to imply that marketing cannot possibly be a source of innovative ideas. I'm an engineer, but I think this is an unhealthy attitude to have. A smart company will have a marketing department that recognizes the importance of innovation for sustaining their business, and they will actively make innovative games a part of the company's portfolio.

Sure, more often than not, marketing will want developers to make "Post-Apocalyptic Shooter 3: A New Gimmick." But if they're smart, they will also promote risky, innovative ideas. These days, with digital distribution, small innovative games can make economic sense.

I guess all I'm saying is, innovative ideas _can_ come from marketing :)

Stephen Chin
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I would like to suggest the thought that intellectual circles are actually very receptive of 'games'... the 'problem' lies in that what they want and are looking for are different than what the vast majority, indie and non-indie alike, are doing. Teachers and professors and such don't want Portal... they want serious games. Most modern critics look for the same thing - gameplay rather than intellectual stimulation (not that gameplay can't be intellectually stimulating). Those trying to study games and gameplay don't want or need Crysis or GTA4... they want to be able to adapt the engine to provide learning experiences and controlled environments.

Eric Diepeveen
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I think Stephen Chin nailed it.

Juan Gril
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Stephen, thank you for your comments. In what I would disagree with you is that you seem to imply that intellectual circles are composed just by academics. Intellectual circles are composed by theorists, scientists, fellow artists from other areas, etc. There are a lot of people in the intellectual circles who don't even know what a serious game is.

What hurts the most to me are our fellow artists in other art fields. You ask a photographer about art he likes and he or she will gladly give you examples from film, painting, architecture, literature as well as photography. I'm looking forward to the day photographers, film-makers, architects, writers and painters will start looking at games and think about them as an art-form. And I'm pretty sure they would prefer something like Rez over an interactive tutorial.

Stephen Chin
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I didn't mean to imply just academics as I had in mind everything from military simulations to edu-tainment; so I agree with you that such circles are broader than I had written initially and that not all of them are necessarily serious games and such.

The point I was making though is told through your second paragraph: there is a lack of a vocabulary, a common vocabulary, with which people from a variety of circles can talk and discuss a game about. And even if there were, this vocabulary may still be very distinct between two or more groups as video games are a multimedia form of ... well, whatever you want to call 'em.

When you ask a player to describe their time and to discuss playing GTA, they will describe it very differently than a designer would; the former describing their experience while the designer would describe the game/game mechanics, use of physics, pacing of missions, etc. This would be distinct again from an artist who would probably describe it through the art (technical and artistic) - texture, building layout, ability to minimize pop-in, etc. Even the way a QA tester plays and views the game is distinctly different than a normal player of the game. The way the QA tester, the designer, and the artist abstract the game are very different. Everyone sees Rez through different colored glasses. This is, perhaps, somewhat a result of the immaturity of video games, the highly technical aspect of it, as well as pure social conventions, and the varied intents among other things. To boot, someone making a game to make a point (a game about Darfur) has different goals and intents and vocabulary than someone making Warcraft 3 - the former may not be all that concerned about actual gameplay while the latter will be very concerned - both will describe what they want differently.

With that in mind, my point was that the sort of vocabulary a psychologist wants to use with a game to deal with in terms of what they want out of it is different than the sort of vocabulary that a game theorist will want. I suppose, then, the ultimate point I'm suggesting is that there first needs to be an internal vocabulary with which we can talk with as other mediums and sciences have (contrast, saturation, pacing, long shot, etc and rules of how to form a good, say, action sequence from other forms) - vocabulary that is shared, common, and accepted no matter who is talking or listening. So when discussing story versus gameplay, however you feel, you can talk about it in concrete and meaningful terms. So that talking about player experience is as meaningful an abstraction to anyone of any game discipline as phat loot.

Once we have that, then we can attempt to merge that vocabulary as developers of games with the vocabulary of other fields. We can have someone talk about why and how a game works and everyone can nods in agreement even if they don't personally like the piece.

Stephen Chin
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To clarify on the example of QA, designer, art, and game player, I don't necessarily mean technical terms specific to that discipline but rather broader terms. When a mainstream filmmaker, an indie filmmaker, an arthouse filmmaker, a film producer, a film buff, and most anyone that participates in films hears the word "cinematography", everyone hears the same thing and knows what it means. We don't yet have that sort of vocabulary that breaks down games.

Juan Gril
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Hey Stephen. I see what you are saying. I think one way to solve part of the problem is through the fact that most of these games are not easily accessible. I always tell the story of my wife and Rez to exemplify this point. My wife (an architect) saw Rez for the first time in a museum (a Yerba Buena Center of the Arts in SF exhibit about games). While watching someone else play the game, she absolutely loved the visuals and the sound coming from the monitor. But when it was her turn to play, she couldn't do anything.

She couldn't recreate the experience the previous player had because Rez is a game that you can truly enjoy if you had previous experience playing a shooter.

When I first brought a Wii console to my house, and as most people, she was able to have a really good skill level in Wii Tennis in minutes. She truly enjoyed the game, but she wouldn't qualify it as an artistic experience as the game is based in a popular sport.

More people will be able to talk about games once they truly experience them. If they just watch, they are just simply espectators and they may use the conventions of the audiovisual field to describe what they see, without exploring the concepts of gameplay.

Olivier Besson
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According to your definition, Super Mario Galaxy is an independent game... why not?

But confusing "innovative" with "independant" leads to false views. Actually:

- not every indie developper wants to make innovative game

- not every "dependant" developer is unable to make innovative game.

If you draw a table exploring the different cases (indy+innov, indy+not(innov), not(indy)+innov, etc..) it's probable that each cell will be filled with many games. A more accurate survey, with real numbers, would be interesting here ;-)

I think independance and innovation are quite different in theory. But only in theory, because lower development cost allows self funding. It would be interesting to study if it is "self funding" (allowing the creative freedom of single author) or "lower cost" (allowing more risk taking), which is the most favouring innovation.

Inversely, big funding can also favor innovation (eg: Nintendo), but it seems quite rare.

It's possible that innovation is actually related to some "skill or culture of innovation", that must be explicitly cultivated, refined and improved within the company.

Interesting studies for academics !! ;-)

Juan Gril
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Olivier, thank you for your comments. You raise some fair points, although I disagree with some of them.

I don't see where can I be quoted that innovation can only happen at independent outlets, although I agree it will be an interesting article to look at what makes an innovative environment.

You have to realize too that at some point we have to draw the line. If we consider that every game clone out there made by a 15 year old can be considered an "independent" game then we are putting the independent label to a load of crap.

Try going at Gametunnel and IGSource and JayisGames and count how many games featured there have not tried to be different or innovative in something. That's going to be a small table for sure.

But to your point, we probably need to make a semantic change in my definition, so we are inclusive of those who like to make games just different in themes or stories instead of game mechanics:

"An independent game is above all trying to innovate OR provide a new experience for the player. It is not just filling a publisher's portfolio need. It has not been invented at a marketing department. And it has not been designed by a committee."