Two years ago, Swedish games programmer Markus Persson walked out of the development studio where he'd spent the last four years of his life making free-to-play flash games, went back to his apartment, and created Minecraft. His impulse was guided by the simple notion that game developers should only make games they care about. Less than two years after its release, Minecraft has been purchased by more than 1 million people around the world. There are more than half a million YouTube videos dedicated to the sandbox building game, numerous 24-hour live streams, and more than 3 million registered online community members. Not bad for a game made on a whim.
Given the growth of digital distribution, the rise of mobile platforms, industry-backed funding schemes, and a general feeling of competitive spirit, there has never been a better time for independent video game development. Innovation, creativity, and self-sufficiency are thriving in the global games industry; "indie" games are no longer approached with caution but are hailed as examples of brave, risky game making, led by a spirited wave of new creators who are embracing a DIY ethos. Minecraft, Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Limbo are examples of successful indie titles created by individuals or small teams that have managed to capture the attention of both the indie and mainstream space while retaining their creators' original vision. But for every Minecraft, Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Limbo, there are countless other titles--some just as innovative and spirited--that fall into obscurity and remain there, unnoticed and unappreciated. Given the means by which most indie games are published, unaided by the same marketing and promotion campaigns considered routine in the mainstream space, this is not all that surprising; nor is it surprising that luck plays such a big part in determining which indie titles "make it" and which don't. What does this unpredictability say about the future of independent game development? Can self-published games really continue to thrive in a space dominated by a handful of large studios whose overriding concern for financial gain leads them to repeat the same tired formula?
Minecraft and the key to indie success
The most astounding thing about Minecraft's success is that the game isn't even complete. Persson has kept it in beta stage until he's done implementing the various changes he has been working on since he came up with the idea for the game. It has been sold at various prices to date, according to Persson's progress; at the moment, you can buy Minecraft for €14.95 ($20.67) in beta stage. When it's finished, Persson plans to sell the game for €20 ($27.66). Take a second to reconsider the fact that the game has, to date, been purchased by more than 1 million people. Although Persson is better off financially now than the day he quit his programming job, he's no more enlightened about the reasons behind Minecraft's phenomenal popularity.
"I think it's a mixture of launching the game just as indie games were really taking off by pure luck, and the fact that people enjoy telling each other about what they make in the game," he says. "I think part of the label of 'indie' is that you make games for the sake of making good games rather than just to make money, so there's an inherent will there to be experimental and original. But as with any craft, I think it's important that you know why you're doing it. If you just want to express yourself or affect people, you shouldn't waste time trying to make business deals. Some of the time you can get lucky and find something new and exciting, but many times you just end up alienating the player unless you're very careful at exactly how you break the conventions. [In Minecraft], the combination of being able to create anything you want and the randomly generated worlds and encounters means there's a lot of room for personal stories."
This, perhaps more than anything else, is why Minecraft has gained the following it has. The game gives players freedom to leave their personal mark: there are no quests, goals, or rules; no linear story; and no guiding hand of the creator pushing players towards an inevitable end. Minecraft presents players with a sandbox world and lets them populate it with their own stories through engineering and a random combination of elements. Simplicity has a lot to do with it: building stuff out of blocks is something anyone can do. But more than that, it's the promise of possibility and depth that seems to be drawing players in. The Internet is buzzing with examples of the size, scope, and depth of Minecraft's world: a roller coaster; a topographically correct, albeit not to scale, rendering of Earth; and a highly detailed, full-scale version of the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Minecraft is doing something right. It's giving players what they want, and what they cannot seem to get from other gaming experiences. But what is that, exactly?
"I'm not so sure there's nothing indies can do that big studios can't," Persson says. "Valve took a chance with Portal but wisely chose not to spend too many resources on it, and it ended up being a huge success. I think it really comes down to risk management, where the almost guaranteed return of investment on a sequel to a popular game is more tempting than taking a chance on something more experimental. You can either try to replicate what someone else has done, and risk ending up drowning in the noise, or you can focus on making a game you yourself would enjoy playing."
"I choose to develop games I like to play myself, mostly because that's also the games I like making the most. I also happen to represent a fairly common demographic, so it works well. I think the current hype surrounding indie games will probably die out over time, and the more commercially successful companies might start to get more organized, but I see no reason why games can't continue to be made by small teams who make games for the sake of making good games, and still make a decent living doing so."
Whether it was more to do with luck than with timing, or whether it's simply a case of bringing together elements that players can't get from other gaming experiences, Minecraft has unwillingly set an example of how best to make it as an indie. You can almost hear the collective thoughts on independent game developers everywhere: "How do I do that?" Which leads to the bigger question of whether there really is a formula for success in the indie scene, or if it's merely about doing what you want and hoping for the best. Increasingly, the answer is pointing towards the latter, something that does not guarantee the indie golden age will last.
Journey, Monaco, and the role of publishers
By definition, independent video game development is the business of making games without the support of publishers. On the surface, the indie scene is about self-sustainability and creative control; underneath, it is guided by the same set of core values that have guided other independent movements before it. The Impressionist painters of the 19th century spearheaded one of the earliest indie movements in modern art: while artists had already begun to move towards self-sufficiency after the Renaissance in the 17th century, looking for alternative ways to fund themselves outside the patronage of the Catholic Church, it was the Impressionists that finally broke free from the established rules of academic painting and began to hold their own independent exhibitions.
The Impressionists were radicals, living by the principle that progress could be achieved only through the breaking of conventions. Their ideas were also part of the larger artistic, literary, and intellectual movement of Romanticism, whose roots lay in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution; the art of the time was guided by a newfound sense of individuality and emotion, emphasizing realism and the plight of the average man and unified by a communal independence and spirit of rebellion. The term "art for art's sake" was coined during this period, a principle that has continued to guide independent movements from politics through to video games.
But while the very nature of "indie" implies a DIY approach, the ideas driving growth, evolution, and transformation are arguably more important than the methods by which they are achieved. Artists do not particularly like the idea of patronage, but have always depended on it to survive. This is an important distinction to make, for while it's in the nature of indie developers to stay away from publishers, the truth is that the indie movement could not have reached a golden age without their support. While mobile platforms are slowly growing and providing independent developers with an outlet to make small, cheap titles, it's big publishers like Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Apple, and Valve that have been the most influential in helping indies reach an audience. Platforms like Steam, XBLA, PSN, the App Store, and WiiWare have given indie games exposure and have served as a critical tool in helping audiences understand what indie games are all about. By doing this, publishers have provided indies with a much-needed audience. Click on the Next Page link to see the rest of the feature!
@Dizzzyness Yeah, I've started buying a lot more indie games because they're all so original. I'm really glad more people (including myself) are starting to see this truth.
The reason i like indie games is because they are always so different from real games like CoD of whatever. They are alot more creative and fun. Like minecraft with those graphics in a CoD game it would be bad but for minecraft it gives identity
Great article. I think the indie spirit will always be there. There may be cycles where things wax and wane, but the desire for small teams to make exactly the game they want to make will never die! MadRobert
Hey guy's if you have a 360 and want to play minecraft, There's a different/same game beta coming out in a week or two on xbox live called fortresscraft Check it out it looks great so far. Remember work in progress so don't set your bar too high.
i broth a minecraft after watching a video on youtube when i first saw a video i was saying to my self what a crappy game boy i was wrong game is so addictive that everybody must try it
In the last day, NEStalgia has gone viral, being featured on Reddit, Kotaku, Joystiq, Indie Games, G4, etc., and getting hundreds upon hundreds of new people flowing in and loving it, despite the massive lag they're putting on the servers. Actually, there was only 1 server up for the last year. Now, there's 8, and the number keeps growing as a response to the massive increase in the player base. And despite the nearly crippling lag, people are still loving it. A little media blitz goes an incredibly long way. Check it out, and play on a less populated server (save swaps to come soon). Indie games FTW, seriously.
@Ominous_Penguin "My first indie game was Uplink by Introversion Software. Loved it." Amen. Genuinely tense as well!
Thats why Indie Games are amazing. While the mainstream party develops what SOLD. Like a 27th Modern Warfare. While the Indie Game maker knows what gamers want. As a gamer, I want a game that is fun, unique, original, and flat out blows me away. Mainstream games are great, but they never give you the creativeness you want. While Indie Game Makers do. Just take Braid as an example. Braid is everything and more. I honestly think, that if Indie game developers got more publicity, they could easily fight against the big boys. And even win.
I never cared for games for long that lack any sort of story or potential insight to a creative thought. I like to see something that challenges the status quo like Super Columbine Massacre RPG did (Ironicly (when it comes to mainstream ways of thinking at least) it was more serious towards the issue then the movie based on it duck the carbine high massacre). Sandbox games that allow user creative content is great however I want to see more programmers use this as more of a story telling tool to implement their own ideals and vision relating to the Earth and it's inhabitants.
I have this feeling I'm going to love "Journey" when I play it. If I had a high end PC, I'd get Minecraft but my Macbook has a touchpad and Minecraft looks like the sort of game you really need to play with a mouse. I'm still curious about it, though.
Part of the reason why I only play freeware and Indie games have been highlighted in some of this discussion. The gameplay mechanics are unique and/or very challenging. The fact that so many retail mainstream games are being released with bugs, exploits, glitches on both PC and Consoles is just sad...on top of this many of these games are short and/or easy...Nah, I'll be with indie and freeware for a long time...
If you look at the major gaming companies they only release non original games these days. Look at the top most anticipated games on a site such as gamespot and every last one of them are compltely non original ideas. The indie games are often very original on the other hand. Nothing strange about their success.
It's true about the games in the 80's and 90's. My fondest memories of the best games played trailed off after the 90's. On my C64, RPG was Bards Tale.
Try any of the radiangames games off the indie section on xbla, particularly Crossfire 2 and JoyJoy. They actually put most xbla games to shame for a fraction of the cost.
I'm an indie game developer who helped with World of Goo and I have quite a few of my own projects. Unfortunately, 99% of indie game devs (myself included) are pretty broke. It's great to see indie games get the credit they deserve, but I wish those who are really interested in them would dig a little deeper. The TIGSource forums are a good starting point.
I have been following an Indie developer for several years now. I have become disenfranchised by big publishers and developers. Most games do not grab my interest. Games like CoD have no replay value to them, especially if you only play SP for the most part. Big developers are in a rut and not releasing anything that stands apart from the crowd any more. Couple that with customer service that is garbage makes me want to keep my money in my wallet. Valve did do something nice in releasing the Unreal Development Kit to allow those who want to try their hand at creating games and even allows them to sell said games without paying any royalties up to a certain amount. Still, how many have taken advantage of it? Markus Persson isn't the only one who became disillusioned with the "corporate" development mindset. The former lead level designer for Rainbow Six/Rogue Spear and Ghost Recon/Sum of all Fears tried working for a different company (that ended up closing mind you) so he formed his own company. He (and a couple of others) has been working on a game that will offer some things reminiscent of older games that had more features compared to games nowadays. Will it open me up to other indie developers? Maybe, maybe not, I have a narrow scope of games I like playing and they are more likely to create the niche games I prefer.
I just started playing Indie games myself about a 1 1/2 ago and I find them to be refreshing, old school gamers from the late 70's on up to current day know what I'm talking about and if you don't, well hell you missed out on a great time for gamers. I've gotten so tired of these crappy companies, well producing dumbed down games for f-cking kiddies. aka wow, EA games, ubisoft, THQ, broken, broken, broken games being released as the gold standard. I refuse to pay full price for current games made by AAA companies, as the extremely easy puzzles and 4 hours of game time that you pay \\\$60 for is complete and utter bullsh-t. Plz join me in boycotting any of these extremely crappy companies, feel free to add a few to the list. I mean seriously it just boggles my mind how ppl fall for the excellent graphics and excellent soundtracks, yet they get a broken game with crappy gameplay and virtually no time spent in game. And the ones that complain about articles like this, well you don't even realize you're part of the problem. Also big gaming companies you know why ppl hack and steal your games, because you are complete and utter douche bag companies and it shows how you treat your customers and why they have no problem ripping you off, these indie companies don't need to worry about securom/drm schemes, because ppl will gladly pay to play a good game and are willing to reward the developer with his/her hard earned cash.
considering that the major developers are going to keep catering to the casual gamer and keep dumbing them down i see a need and a market for indie developers for at least the near future. you will never see games like STALKER, Amnesia, Mount and Blade Warband, Red Orchestra, Minecraft, etc from a major developer because they wont stray from their "formula" of how a game should be. as for them getting on consoles.......im mixed about that because consoles have already destroyed many formerly good franchises such as CoD. on the other hand its a new source of revenue for them to keep making good games. i just hope that they can walk the line better than the big developers who have gotten lazy and made every cross-platform game a dumbed-down uber easy button mash fest.
Though not all indie games are 2D, I really enjoy them, its good to take a break from 3D FPS and have some old fashion fun. I have spent more money on XBLA/Indie games this year then full on AAA games.
I am one thousand percent behind the Indies being successful. I'm an old fart and i vividly remember playing games on my Apple 2 plus computer back in 1981. Almost half of the games i had would have been considered "Indie" at that time as the industry had not yet become the behemoth that it is and smaller developers were all over the place. We definitely need that balance in the gaming industry. The innovative and much more creative small guys who make games the big guys are terrified to make, and the goliaths who typically use the "me too" mold and adhere to bottom line profits and mega million unit sales to keep the industry rolling. Hopefully the "Golden Age" lasts for a while.
I'm an avid supporter of indie games. In fact, my favorite game over the last year has been a modest MORPG called NEStalgia, made by a development team of only two people, one main creator and one supporting coder. It taps into the classic formula of old school RPGs and mixes it with some modern MMO addictive traits. Indie games are so great, because no matter what, you're close to the developer, because the developer's close to you. The people who make them are themselves gamers who came from the playing side of the community, thus making them more responsive than games with multimillion dollar budgets. Like Persson said in the article, it's not that they can do anything that the big names can't. It's more that they come ready to take risks and go after what they want to make, filling niches and stuff instead of going for what they know is going to rake in the cash. And who wins? The players.
I hope so, its like going back to the golden era of games IMO (Genesis/SNES) its just pure fun, nothing more nothing less. For example, by brother just got ME2 for the PS3, he used the code for the cerebrus network, now if i wanna use its another 15?, we play on the same freaking console... Other example, when my early 60GB YLOD i had to buy a new one 320GB bundle with FIFA11, all the save games i copy from my old PS3 don't work anymore cuz they are console locked not user locked, so now i stopped playing one of my fav games this gen, RE5 simple cuz all my weapons are gone and i don't feel like starting all over again. This indi games remind me of better times, a time where friends lend games to each other in collage, just a better simpler time where we didn't knew what milking is, it was just Video Games.
I don't usually play indie games but it was a nice article. And Joruney might be my first played indie produced game ever. It sounds nice
Well, at least this Schatz guy aknowledges he's old and boring, as soon as he realises he's also full of himself he will be the master of self-awareness.
man...i have so many idea's for indie games and i want to create some on my own so bad, i graduated from AiV with a 3d modeling for animation and games diploma...but i lack the programming/scripting knowledge to actually go forth and start building my own games on my own time using things like XNA game studio and stuff...maybe one day i'll take the time to learn it...it's just so complex to my feeble mind :X cuz i know in my personal likings that..art and quality is one thing in a game specially how it changes year by year...but gameplay is what draws crowds in and being an avid gamer since i could remember i'd just love to be given to opportunity to experiment myself without relying on a team because i lack the knowledge :\ so...seeing minecraft and other successful indie games just give me inspiration and hope, and this article proves that it only takes one person to do something so successful.
@106473 First off, the value of a game is the time that gamers are willing to play them, and the price they are willing to pay for them. If a game is not bought and/or played, it has no value. That said, when I play a game, I want to be blown away. Simple as that. I am looking for an experience similar or greater to the experience I would have watching a really great movie. Games like Call of Duty, Fallout, Oblivion, Mass Effect, and others do that for me, and therefore that's what I enjoy. I have tried a handful of indie games, and I have come to the conclusion that I really don't enjoy games with low production value, and therefore they have no value to me.
Sorry guys, but these indie games, with their horrible graphics and intentional 'quirkyness,' are just not my thing. Seriously, why play a game that has sub-par production value when I could instead turn on something like Fallout 3 New Vegas or Red Dead Redemption? It just doesn't make sense to pay 20-50 dollars for what amounts to a glorified budget game when there are games for exactly the same price such as Mass Effect 2.
This is one of the most interesting articles I've ever read on Gamespot. A lot of interesting information, and I definitely will look for Indie games this year. I appreciate their non-conservative approach and how they do things they want to. Big publishers can definitely be repetitive, and Indie games can help to keep games interesting.
Have anyone who cares about game graphics noticed that... if you compare a 2D game and a game with a early 3D graphics, 2D game would look more neat, and a 8-bit game like Minecraft looks better than the game with horrible 3D graphics?
Also Braid, Darwinia, and Machinarium are great examples of these kinds of games. Hes also tappe dinto why we love Fallout 3 and Bestheda roleplaying games. it allows us to create a little of our own story in the game, that most games dont allow us to do. its also why Age of Empires 2 was popular and Starcraft. The story is there, but the way you get to the end is all up to how you create. Another reason why Left 4 dead and Half life 2 and Crysis is popular. Its a linear game, but every time you play it, it feels slightly different than the last time. If a game can have some rules but you can pretty much play it the way you feel like it or are givin the impression you have freedom, its successful as hell. Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 and Civilization 4 is another great example of games that give you freedom to aply within the rules but flexible enough to create your OWN story within it. FPS Multiplayer games also allow us to create our own little stories each round we play.
@eyerok That's part of what I was trying to say (in a sense), Diablo II wouldn't be an indie game because at the time, Blizzard was a subsidiary of a larger company (Vivendi), so at that point, nothing they could make would be an indie title, no matter their size or budget (though, it turns out I was wrong about Starcraft, as Vivendi owned Blizzard by that point). An indie studio is merely of others, that's it. A company could be bigger than microsoft, and so long as it operated as a single unit (no diversification, subsidiaries, parent comanies, etc.), it could still be an indie outfit. "Mainstream" is not the antithesis of indie. They simply tend not to coincide.
Minecraft has its graphics for a reason. The game HAS to be blocky to work right, and the graphics suit the blocky-ness. And has anyone forgotten the slew of large games with poor graphics? One of the newest Mega Man games had eight-bit graphics or something of that sort!
@ jollybest1, you forgot to add Rockstar to the list of good companys. ---- I'm not going to say anything against the game play of these titles. But I can't play games with bad graphics anymore, I guess I've just been spoilt with all the beautiful games out now. I need to have both great game play and decent visuals that don't look older than six years.