Independent video game development

Independent video game development is the video game development process of creating indie games; these are video games, commonly created by individual or small teams of video game developers and usually without significant financial support of a video game publisher or other outside source. These games may take years to be built from the ground up or can be completed in a matter of days or even hours depending on complexity, participants, and design goal.

Driven by digital distribution, the concept of independent video game development has spawned an "indie" movement.[1] The increase in popularity of independent games has allowed increased distribution on popular gaming platforms such as the PlayStation Network, Nintendo eShop, Xbox Live and Steam.


The origins of indie video games may be traced back to the 1970s, when there was virtually no established computer gaming industry. As video game firms developed they employed more programmers. Nonetheless, independent programmers continued to make their own games. During the 1990s, indie games were most commonly distributed as shareware or shared from friend to friend and therefore known as "shareware games".

As the industry grew during the 1980s, publishing a game became more difficult. Chris Crawford said in late 1984,

I will point out the sad truth. We have pretty much passed the period where hobbyists could put together a game that would have commercial prospect. It's much more difficult to break in, much less stay in. Right now ... I would discourage anyone. If you want to do a game, do it for fun, but don't try to do game designs to make any money. The odds are so much against the individual that I would hate to wish that heartbreak on anyone.[2]

Before the mid-1990s, commercial game distribution was controlled by big publishers and retailers, and developers of indie games were forced to either build their own publishing company, find one willing to distribute their game, or distribute it in some form of shareware (e.g. through BBSs). The increased production costs at the beginning of the 2000s made the video game publishers even more risk averse and let them reject all small-size and too innovative concepts of small game developers.[3]

By the mid-2000s, some indie (computer) game developers have also taken the opportunity to make their games open source, thus rendering the group of possible participants much larger depending on the interest a project generates. Other developers decided to make their games open source on end of commercialization phase to prevent their work from becoming Abandonware.[4][5][6] This approach allows the game community also to port the game to new platforms and to provide software support[7] (community patches) by themselves, when the developer ends the official support. Several online communities have formed around independent game development, like TIGSource. Ludum Dare, and the blog.

The digital distribution available since the 2000s offers new possibilities for the whole video game industry, especially for independent video game developers who can now bypass the big publisher for game distribution.[8][9] Gabe Newell, creator of the PC digital distribution service Steam, formulated the advantages over physical retail distribution for smaller game developers as:

The worst days [for game development] were the cartridge days for the NES. It was a huge risk – you had all this money tied up in silicon in a warehouse somewhere, and so you’d be conservative in the decisions you felt you could make, very conservative in the IPs you signed, your art direction would not change, and so on. Now it’s the opposite extreme: we can put something up on Steam [a digital distributor], deliver it to people all around the world, make changes. We can take more interesting risks.[...] Retail doesn’t know how to deal with those games. On Steam there’s no shelf-space restriction.

The creator of Oddworld, Lorne Lanning, expressed his desire to only make games independently instead of going through publishers. “I’d rather not make games than ... be a slave for public companies who care more about their shareholders than they do about their customers."[11]"

With the rise of online shopping and digital distribution like the Steam platform,, and the Humble Store), it has become possible to sell indie games to a worldwide market with little or no initial investment by using services such as XBLA, the PlayStation Network or PayPal.[12]

Also since the 2000s, the new trend of crowdfunding platforms (like or indiegogo) allows smaller developers to fund their work directly by their fans and customers, bypassing traditional and problematic financing methods.[13][14][15]

Leading into 2015, there has been concern that with the number of easy-to-use tools to make independent games and avenues to commercially release such games through digital distribution, as well as a broader consumer market for games, that there is a potential for an "indiepocalypse", where the indie game market would become so large as to collapse under its weight similar to the dot-com bubble. The size of the indie game market is large, estimated in March 2016 to be at least $1 billion per year for just those games offered through Steam, using statistical sales estimates from Steam Spy.[12] While no drastic event has happened as of December 2015, the indie market has seen shifts that are released to these factors, including the rise of publishers catering to indie developers to help on promotion, marketing and distribution, and improved storefronts like Steam that help consumers to find games more suited to their preferences. There still remains fear that such a collapse could happen in the future.[16] There has been signs leading to potential issues but no dramatic event, according to indie developer Jeff Vogel; since 2008, where Steam and XBLA enabled for ease of distribution, there was a boom, a bust, and a recession within the indie game market, but not of the scale that some have worried the indiepocalypse would carry.[12] Mike Wilson, Graeme Struthers and Harry Miller, the co-founders of indie publisher Devolver Digital, stated in April 2016 that the market in indie games is more competitive than ever but continues to appear healthy with no signs of faltering.[17]


The definition of what qualifies for independent video game development is vague. The term itself bore out from the independent music arena, where "indie" refers to publishing music without using a major record label, such as using smaller independent labels or via self-publishing.[18] One simple definition, described by Laura Parker for GameSpot, is "independent video game development is the business of making games without the support of publisher".[19] However, this independent nature can be seen described from two broad directions.[20]

The term "indie development" has been broadly applied to small development teams, realizing small and non-traditional non-AAA game titles on small budgets without financial help of a larger publisher.[18] Some notable instances of games that are generally considered "indie" but challenge this definition include:


During the 1980s, the common medium was cassette tape, which was the default software format for systems such as the ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro, Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore 64. This eventually gave way to floppy disk and then to CD-ROM in the 1990s.

Recently independent games have been released for big budget consoles like Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii. Many games that are being released for these consoles are ports of popular flash games and/or just plainly developed independent games that have received notice. Often indie games are completely programmer driven, due to lack of publisher funding for artwork.

On November 19, 2008, Microsoft launched Xbox LIVE Community Games, later renamed as Xbox Live Indie Games, which allowed independent developers to create games for the Xbox 360 using XNA development tools and sell them in an area of the Xbox Live Marketplace.

In May 2010, several independent developers organized the Humble Indie Bundle, which raised over $1.25 million in revenue (of which about $400,000 went to charity)[24] and showed the value that community involvement and cross-platform development can have for independent developers.

The majority of the distribution of PC and Mac games comes via portals of digital distributors such as Steam,, Desura and several others.

With the advent of smartphones such as the iPhone and the relative ease of producing these titles many independent game developers solely develop games for various smart phone operating systems such as the iOS and the newer Android. This has also seen games being ported across to take advantage of this new revenue stream such as the successful game Minecraft.[25]

There are also independent games distribution websites, such as IndieCity, springing up to cater exclusively for indie games, rather than including them alongside the mainstream games which are the main focus of most distribution portals (see: Desura,, Humble Store, Steam). Before the launch of the PlayStation 4 Sony made it a priority to focus on getting independent developers to create new games for the PlayStation 4[26]


C++ is a popular language of choice within the video game industry, partly due to its low-level efficient nature, but mostly because almost all popular 3D game engines are already written in C++. However, independent video games have seen use of a variety of other languages. Notably, C#, the language for XNA (Microsoft's toolkit that facilitates video game development on the Xbox 360, Windows Phone 7 and Windows PCs) and Objective-C, the language for the iPhone's Cocoa touch API, the popularity of which has grown greatly since 2008, due to the accessibility of the App Store to independent developers. Indie games written in Java are also prevalent, due to the wide compatibility for most operating systems and web browsers. Other dynamic languages, notably Python, Ruby, Lua and ActionScript have also found their way into the scene, lowering barriers of entry to game development.

Licensing fees

Personal computer platforms (such as Linux, OS X, and Windows) are traditionally financially more accessible to independent game developers than video game consoles. Aside from basic development costs, console game developers are required to pay fees to license the required Software Development Kits (SDKs) from the console maker. Manufacturers often impose a strict approval process and take a percentage of the game's net profit in addition to yearly developer fees. To develop for Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, or PlayStation 3 requires an SDK license fee of between US$2,000 and $10,000, in addition to yearly developer fees and profit cuts, although development for Xbox Live Indie Games only requires a $99/year Creators Club membership and Microsoft takes 30% of sales. Microsoft does provide a free membership to the Creators Club to students via the DreamSpark program.[27][28][29][30][31] Indie game developers can also use homebrew development libraries, which are free of charge, and usually open source.

See also


  1. "Indie Game Developers Rise Up". Forbes. 20 November 2008.
  2. Darling, Sharon (February 1985). "Birth of a Computer Game". Compute!. p. 48. Retrieved 6 October 2013.
  3. MARCELO PRINCE, PETER ROTH (2004-12-21). "Videogame Publishers Place Big Bets on Big-Budget Games". Wallstreet journal Online. Retrieved 2013-07-01. The jump in development and marketing costs has made the videogame industry "enormously risk averse,[...]Publishers have largely focused on making sequels to successful titles or games based on movie or comic book characters, which are seen as less risky. "We don't green light any more things that will be small or average size games.[...]"
  4. "Revenge of the Source Code". Puppy Games. 2011-04-20. Retrieved 2011-08-23.
  5. "Aquaria goes open source!". Wolfire Games blog. 2010-06-03.
  6. Lugaru goes open source Wolfire Blog, May 11, 2010
  7. Unofficial update packs! (1.1.3+)(Updated 14th Oct 2012) on (October 2012)
  8. Garr, Brian (17 April 2011). "Download distribution opening new doors for independent game developers".
  9. Stuart, Keith (27 January 2010). "Back to the bedroom: how indie gaming is reviving the Britsoft spirit". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 November 2012.
  10. Walker, John (2007-11-22). "RPS Exclusive: Gabe Newell Interview". Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Retrieved 2013-06-28. The worst days were the cartridge days for the NES. It was a huge risk – you had all this money tied up in silicon in a warehouse somewhere, and so you’d be conservative in the decisions you felt you could make, very conservative in the IPs you signed, your art direction would not change, and so on. Now it’s the opposite extreme: we can put something up on Steam , deliver it to people all around the world, make changes. We can take more interesting risks.[...] Retail doesn’t know how to deal with those games. On Steam there’s no shelf-space restriction. It’s great because they’re a bunch of old, orphaned games.
  12. 1 2 3 Wawro, Alex (March 15, 2016). "Devs share real talk about surviving the latest 'indiepocalypse'". Gamasutra. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
  13. Parker, Laura (February 14, 2011). "The Rise of the Indie Developer". GameSpot. Retrieved December 4, 2012.
  14. Thompson, Michael (January 18, 2010). "Searching for gold: how to fund your indie video game". Ars Technica. Retrieved December 4, 2012.
  15. Hietalahti, Juuso (May 19, 2006). "The Basic Marketing Plan For Indie Games". Gamasutra. Retrieved December 4, 2012.
  16. Graft, Kris (December 10, 2015). "The 5 trends that defined the game industry in 2015". Gamasutra. Retrieved December 10, 2015.
  17. Pearson, Dan (April 13, 2016). ""Every year has been better than the last. Thriving is the best way to put it."". Retrieved April 13, 2016.
  18. 1 2 3 4 Dutton, Fred (2012-04-18). "What is Indie?". Eurogamer. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
  19. Parker, Laura (2011-02-13). "The Rise of the Indie Developer". GameSpot. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
  20. Gril, Juan (2008-04-30). "The State of Indie Gaming". Gamasutra. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
  21. Cook, Dave (May 13, 2014). "Why Supergiant ditched publishers for the release of Transistor – interview". VG247. Retrieved April 26, 2016.
  22. Conditt, Jessica (January 21, 2016). "Traveling through time with 'Braid' creator Jonathan Blow". Engadget. AOL Tech. Retrieved January 21, 2016.
  23. Kamen, Matt (2016-03-04). "No Man's Sky director: 'everything is to the wire, we work all night'". Wired UK. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
  24. "Humble Indie Bundle Page and Stats". Retrieved 2011-04-30.
  25. "Official iOS Version of Indie Game Minecraft to Hit iTunes App Store Later This Year | Unlock iPhone 4, unlock iPhone 3GS, jailbreak iPhone – how to with". 2011-02-22. Retrieved 2011-04-30.
  27. "Frequently Asked Questions". XNA Creators Club Online. Microsoft Corp. Retrieved 5 January 2010.
  28. "Wii Development Kit to Cost $1700". Nintendo Wii Zone. Nintendo Wii Zone. 21 June 2006. Retrieved 5 January 2010.
  29. Carless, Simon (19 September 2006). "Xbox Live Arcade Makes How Much?". GameSetWatch. Think Services, UBM TechWeb. Retrieved 5 January 2010.
  30. Orland, Kyle (21 September 2006). "The economics of Live Arcade development". Joystiq. Weblogs, Inc. Retrieved 5 January 2010.
  31. Elliot, Amy-Mae (19 November 2007). "Sony's half price sale on PS3 SDK for developers". Pocket-lint. Retrieved 16 May 2013.

External links

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