An integral part of developing with little resources is collaborating with others who have the resources you need. Indies look for other developers with a similar focus or that might be willing to collaborate or trade in lieu of a more traditional business deal. Unrestrained by the clout of commercial competition most developers actively participate in online communities and share the most intimate details of their development processes.
Sites like TIGSource and Indiegamer are both hotbeds for developer discussion and collaboration along with many others. The desire for collaboration can hurt as well as benefit, as passion and enthusiasm tend to be a more fickle force than a paycheck.
The most successful collaborations are centered on developers that share a very similar set of goals and motivations. While there is plenty of pro-bono works in the independent sector, it does also host many developers who contract out their services.
There could be more efficient ways to monetize your game other than the traditional means. A game designed to be played for free could still be monetized in a variety of different ways. Advertising, micropayments, virtual item sales or even sell your game while it's still in development.
Similar to how the advent of Google’s AdWords revolutionized monetizing
content on the web, technology is providing alternate ways to make money
other than the traditional fixed-price for a box of goods model.
One example is a website run by Gene Endrody, MaidMarian.com. He makes multiplayer 3d games using Shockwave that players can access directly in their browser. Instead of charging players directly to play the games, they are made free to play without any restrictions.
By removing almost all barriers to playing his games, MaidMarian.com attracts 1.5 million unique visitors a month, and up to 4,000 concurrent users, which generates a comfortable amount of revenue solely through advertisements on the site.
By the time Gene left his role as a technical art director at Radical Entertainment to focus full time on MaidMarian.com, he was already earning more than his day job by attracting visitors to roam through his virtual worlds.
A game developed with a fraction of the resources of a blockbuster game does not need to sell a blockbuster number of units to be merited a financial success. Many independents don't spend resources trying to develop features that will cater to the mass market. Often, they spend their resources on what they feel is important for their game, and let their target audience be gamers with the same tastes.
One case in point is Gish, which was made by developer Chronic Logic who has been so open as to share their sales stats. The figures show an approximate total income of $121,000, an amount which might be a drop in the bucket to many larger game studios. But to a team of 3 developers who took only 6 months to make the game and whose budget (not including time) was only $5,700, the amount warrants enough of a success for a sequel.
That does not mean indies never pull the big bucks. RuneScape is a java-based MMORPG created by brothers Andrew and Paul Gower. After getting a basic version of the game operating as a project during university, they implemented an optional membership service that provided paying players with access to additional areas, quests, and items. The players who don't pay are still monetized by advertisements displayed above the playing window.
To any developer looking at the game, it would jump out as a game made with few resources. It doesn't have flashy graphics, or a soundtrack specially recorded by a choir. The gameplay must ring true with some segment of gamers, however -- today, Andrew Gower is the 654th richest man in the UK.