Independent video game development

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Independent video game development, or indie 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.

Video game development is the process of creating a video game. The effort is undertaken by a developer, ranging from a single person to an international team dispersed across the globe. Development of traditional commercial PC and console games is normally funded by a publisher, and can take several years to reach completion. Indie games usually take less time and money and can be produced by individuals and smaller developers. The independent game industry has been on the rise, facilitated by the growth of new online distribution systems such as Steam and Uplay, as well as the mobile game market for Android and iOS devices.

An indie game is a video game that is most often created without the financial support of a publisher, although some games funded by a publisher are still considered independent. These games often focus on innovation and rely on digital distribution. Indie gaming saw a rise in mainstream popularity in the latter half of the 2000s, primarily due to new online distribution methods and widely available video game development tools.

A video game developer is a software developer that specializes in video game development – the process and related disciplines of creating video games. A game developer can range from one person who undertakes all tasks to a large business with employee responsibilities split between individual disciplines, such as programming, design, art, testing, etc. Most game development companies have video game publisher financial and usually marketing support. Self-funded developers are known as independent or indie developers and usually make indie games.


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.

Digital distribution is the delivery or distribution of digital media content such as audio, video, software and video games. The term is generally used to describe distribution over an online delivery medium, such as the Internet, thus bypassing physical distribution methods, such as paper, optical discs, and VHS videocassettes. The term online distribution is typically applied to freestanding products; downloadable add-ons for other products are more commonly known as downloadable content. With the advancement of network bandwidth capabilities, online distribution became prominent in the 21st century, with prominent platforms such as Amazon Video, and Netflix's streaming service starting in 2007.

PlayStation Network (PSN) is a digital media entertainment service provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Launched in November 2006, PSN was originally conceived for the PlayStation video game consoles, but soon extended to encompass smartphones, tablets, Blu-ray players and high-definition televisions. As of April 2016, over 110 million users have been documented, with 94 million of them active monthly as of May 2019.

Nintendo eShop digital application distribution platform for the Nintendo 3DS, Wii U and Switch

The Nintendo eShop is a digital distribution service powered by the Nintendo Network for the Nintendo 3DS, Wii U, and Nintendo Switch and by a dedicated online infrastructure for the Nintendo Switch. Launched in June 2011 on the Nintendo 3DS, the eShop was enabled by the release of a system update that added the functionality to the Nintendo 3DS's HOME Menu. It is the successor to both the Wii Shop Channel and DSi Shop. Unlike on the Nintendo 3DS, the eShop was made available on the launch date of the Wii U, although a system update is required in order to access it. It is also a multitasking application, which means it is easily accessible even when a game is already running in the background through the system software, though this feature is exclusive to the Wii U and the Nintendo Switch. The Nintendo eShop features downloadable games, demos, applications, streaming videos, consumer rating feedback, and other information on upcoming game releases.


The origins of indie video games may be traced back to the 1970s, when there was virtually no established computer gaming industry. Joyce Weisbecker considers herself the first indie designer, having created several games for the RCA Studio II console in 1976 as an independent contractor for RCA. [2] 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".[ original research? ]

The video game industry is the economic sector involved in the development, marketing, and monetization of video games. It encompasses dozens of job disciplines and its component parts employ thousands of people worldwide.

Joyce Weisbecker is an American retired engineer and actuary. She became the first female commercial video game designer in 1976. She considers herself the first indie developer, given that she did her work as an independent contractor.

RCA Studio II dedicated home video game console made by RCA

The RCA Studio II is a home video game console made by RCA that debuted in January 1977. The graphics of Studio II games were black and white and resembled those of earlier Pong consoles and their clones. The Studio II also did not have joysticks or similar game controllers but instead used two ten-button keypads that were built into the console itself. The console was capable of making simple beep sounds with slight variations in tone and length. The Studio II included five built-in games.

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

Chris Crawford (game designer) Computer game designer

Christopher Crawford is a computer game designer and writer. He designed and programmed several important computer games in the 1980s, including Eastern Front (1941) and Balance of Power. Among developers he became known for his passionate advocacy of game design as an art form, founding both The Journal of Computer Game Design and the Computer Game Developers Conference. In 1992 Crawford withdrew from commercial game development and began experimenting with ideas for a next generation interactive storytelling system. In 2018, Crawford announced that he had halted his work on interactive storytelling, concluding that it will take centuries for civilization to embrace the required concepts.

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. [3]

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. [4]

Shareware is a type of proprietary software which is initially provided free of charge to users, who are allowed and encouraged to make and share copies of the program. Shareware is often offered as a download from a website or as a compact disc included with a magazine. Shareware is available with most computer software. Shareware differs from open-source software, in which the source code is available for anyone to inspect and alter; and freeware, which is software distributed at no cost to the user but without source code being made available.

A Bulletin Board System or BBS is a computer server running software that allows users to connect to the system using a terminal program. Once logged in, the user can perform functions such as uploading and downloading software and data, reading news and bulletins, and exchanging messages with other users through public message boards and sometimes via direct chatting. In the early 1980s, message networks such as FidoNet sprung up to provide services such as NetMail, which is similar to email.

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[ weasel words ] developers decided to make their games open source on end of commercialization phase to prevent their work from becoming Abandonware. [5] [6] [7] [8] This approach allows the game community also to port the game to new platforms and to provide software support [9] (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. [10] [11] 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." [13]

With the rise of online shopping and digital distribution like through 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. [14]

Also since the 2000s, the new trend of crowdfunding platforms (like Kickstarter or Indiegogo) allows smaller developers to fund their work directly by their fans and customers, bypassing traditional and problematic financing methods. [15] [16] [17]

Leading into 2015, there was concern that the rise of easy-to-use tools to create and distribute video games could lead to an oversupply of video games, this was termed the indiepocalypse. [18] This perception of an indiepocalypse is not unanimous; Jeff Vogel stated in a talk at GDC 2016 that any downturn was just part of the standard business cycle. The size of the indie game market was estimated in March 2016 to be at least $1 billion per year for just those games offered through Steam. [14] 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. [19] Gamasutra said that by the end of 2016, while there had not be any type of catastrophic collapse of the indie game market, there were signs that the growth of the market had significantly slowed and that it has entered a "post-indiepocalypse" phase as business models related to indie games adjust to these new market conditions. [20]


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. [21] One simple definition, described by Laura Parker for GameSpot, says "independent video game development is the business of making games without the support of publisher". [22] However, this independent nature can be seen described from two broad directions. [23]

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. [21] Some notable instances of games that are generally considered "indie" but challenge this definition include:

Games that are not as large as most triple-A games, but are developed by larger independent studios with or without publisher backing and that can apply triple-A design principles and polish due to the experience of the team, have sometimes been called "triple-I" games, reflecting the middle ground between these extremes. [27] [28]


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.[ citation needed ] 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) [29] 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. [30]

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. [31]

Licensing and platform access

Personal computer platforms (with OSes such as Windows, Linux, macOS) are traditionally more accessible ("open platform") to independent game developers than video game consoles ("closed platform"). [32] Similarly, developing for mobile platforms is often accessible or becoming more accessible.[ citation needed ] For example, Apple's iOS platform has been historically inaccessible, [33] but has become more open with many games submitted, [34] such as with the launch of an "indie" store section. [35]

Console manufacturers often impose a strict approval process and can outright reject approval (closed platform). [36] Also, game developers are required to pay fees to license the required Software Development Kits (SDKs). An example is independent developer Wisdom Tree who created in late 1980s video games (Bible Adventures etc.) for the NES console and got for legal but unlicensed development under pressure by Nintendo. [37] [38] Another example where the rejection of a SDK license prevented access to a platform is the case of Robert Pelloni and his game Bob's game in 2008. [39] To develop for Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, or PlayStation 3 requires an SDK license fee of between US$2,000 and $10,000. The console maker also take a percentage of the game's net profit in addition to yearly developer fees.

There is also movement from some manufacturers to lower the threshold for indies; for instance, 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. [40] [41] [42] [43] [44] Indie game developers can also use homebrew development libraries, which are free of charge, and usually open source.

See also

Related Research Articles

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