The 14 Best Games Developed By Only One Person
By Jordan Ramée | @JMRamee on
One Game, One Dev
A majority of indie games are developed by teams of creators, but every once in a while, someone comes along and builds an entire game by themselves. It's not an easy task, but it's possible with the right amount of hard work, passion, and luck.
Over the years, we've seen hundreds of indie games developed by one person. Many are passion projects, designed and developed in a few weeks to scratch a creative itch, fulfill an academic requirement, or realize a dream. However, some developers take the extra time to make something that can compete with a triple-A title in terms of length, graphics, or cultural impact. The best of those games have been highlighted in this gallery.
These games encompass a variety of genres and popularity, so we've simply listed them alphabetically. A third of the games take inspiration from Metroid or Castlevania, while the rest range from survival horror to life simulator. One of them can be completed in five minutes, while two others never really end. But one thing remains the same for each of these games: they are all developed by only one person--and sure, there might have been a little help from their friends along the way.
What's your favorite game that was developed by only one person? Let us know in the comments below.
Axiom Verge, 2015 - Thomas Happ
Axiom Verge is developed by Thomas Happ. This Metroidvania game originally released for PS4, before launching on PC, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One, and Switch. Taking inspiration from Metroid and Contra, Axiom Verge is a side-scroller that focuses on both exploration and combat. Players take on the roll of Trace, a scientist tasked with saving an alien world from a mad man. Scattered items and power-ups improve Trace's attacks and his ability to navigate the world.
Prior to his work on Axiom Verge, Happ worked on several different types of video games, such as End of Nations and NFL Street. His work in game design started well before that though, including an incredible reimagining of the original Metroid--which Happ refers to as Orn--that he designed back in 2004.
Axiom Verge originated as a side project that Happ started in March 2010. The game was scheduled to launch in a year, but after gaining attention, Happ put additional time and energy into development and Axiom Verge was pushed to a 2013 release for PC and Xbox 360. Happ delayed the game once again after that to work out the last few kinks. Despite the workload, Happ remained the sole contributor to the game's design, art, and music throughout the entire five-year development cycle.
His effort was worth it though, as Axiom Verge launched to near universal critical acclaim. In our Axiom Verge review, Peter Brown praises Happ's game for its mysterious sci-fi setting and the "seemingly endless number of abilities" available for the player to find, before concluding that Axiom Verge "is better than the games that inspired it, because it's so inventive and thoughtfully crafted."
Braid, 2008 - Jonathan Blow
Braid was originally only developed by Jonathan Blow. The first version of this puzzle platformer launched for PC in 2005. In the three years that followed, Blow was joined by webcomic artist David Hellman, who finalized the art for the Braid that most people played, which initially launched on Xbox 360 in 2008. This version of Braid would make its way onto PC as well, and also later on PS3.
Even before Hellman finalized Braid's artwork, the indie game was still a masterpiece. The 2005 version of Braid incorporates the same worlds, puzzles, and story as what released in 2008, winning it the Independent Games Festival game design award at GDC 2006.
In Braid, players take control of a man named Tim who is searching for a princess captured by a monster. Why he's trying to save her isn't clear at the beginning of the game, but the player receives small clues at the start of each world that slowly hint towards Tim's motivations. Each world Tim visits affects how time works in a different way, and the player must master new strategies to overcome a wide range of platforming challenges.
Blow originally came up with the concept behind the game in December 2004, started work on the game the following year, and finished the first version of Braid in December 2005. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Blow reported he then invested over $180,000 of his own money into further development, most of which went towards paying Hellman.
It was money well spent, as Braid went on to receive both critical acclaim and financial success as one of Xbox Live Arcade's finest titles. The money he made off Braid would fund Blow's next game, The Witness, and Braid's mainstream success would go on to be the turning point for independent game development. Players suddenly wanted more games like Braid to play between the triple-A releases, and this inspired a whole new generation of creators to start looking at the indie scene as a reliable source of income. Without Braid, we probably don't have many of the other games in this gallery.
Braid is a deconstruction of the trends Blow noticed in video game development. Believing current video games are too easy and congratulate players for the smallest of victories, Blow purposely created Braid to challenge how players think about completing a level. It was a point of contention between him and Microsoft, as the company repeatedly asked Blow to add in-game hints to assist players. Blow wouldn't budge, and Braid remains a difficult game that tests a player's ingenuity to this day.
Cave Story, 2004 - Daisuke Amaya
Cave Story is developed by Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya. The game launched on PC in 2004, before later releasing on PSP, Wii, and Nintendo DSi. An enhanced version, called Cave Story+, came out on PC in 2011 and Nintendo Switch in 2017. A 3D remake, titled Cave Story 3D, was made for Nintendo 3DS. The game puts players in control of a nameless, amnesiac protagonist, who finds himself thrust into the center of a convoluted drama upon a floating island inhabited by sentient, rabbit-like creatures.
Amaya programmed, illustrated, designed, wrote, and composed every aspect of Cave Story in his free time as a love letter to the games he played as a kid. Development took five years, with Amaya starting in college and continuing to work on the game once he started a full-time job. And then, after all that work, he released Cave Story for free. The game rose to prominence in Japan, was eventually translated into English, and found an audience in the West. Amaya became players' initial perceived definition of an indie dev prior to Blow popularizing the profession as a paying career: a person who builds a game solely for passion, not cash.
The ports to console and handheld do cost money, but charging players for the game didn't diminish Cave Story's popularity. People seemed happy they could finally support the developer behind one of their favorite games. Cave Story is still remembered as one of the best Metroidvania games out there, and has earned widespread critical acclaim for the sheer size of its scope and compelling narrative.
Amaya has spoken at length at GDC about his time developing Cave Story. He created the game piece by piece, starting with title screen music and character movements. The main reason the game takes place in a series of interconnected caves is because Amaya originally built a bunch of enclosed spaces like the ones he remembered from Metroid and Castlevania. Amaya just ran with these similarities, and implemented further level design decisions that resemble those seen in Metroid, like an intro level with two paths and an item down path one that unlocks the ability to further explore path two. Amaya felt this was necessary to teach players that they could solve problems on their own without a series of tutorials, something he believes is important for all Metroidvania titles.
Of course, Amaya's method of design wasn't without its issues. In an interview with The Independent Gaming Source, Amaya admits that building the game piece by piece without a strategy or overall plan beforehand went on to cause unforeseen problems. By the time he realized that dedicated map editing and data management tools would have proven useful, he was already too far into the game's development to turn back without losing a lot of his work.
Dust: An Elysian Tail, 2012 - Dean Dodrill
Dust: An Elysian Tail is developed by Dean Dodrill. The game launched on Xbox 360 in August 2012, before being released on PC in 2013, PS4 in 2014, and mobile in 2015. A Switch version has been announced, but there's no release date yet. Dust: An Elysian Tail takes place in the fictional world Falana. Players take control of Dust, one of the anthropomorphic animals that lives there, whose discovery of a sentient sword and its playful guardian leads him on a journey to stop a villainous general.
Though he didn't write the soundtrack or voice the characters, Dodrill is responsible for designing and programming the entirety of Dust: An Elysian Tail. Dodrill told Polygon that he taught himself everything he knows about both illustration and animation, and began on An Elysian Tail as an independent animated film called Elysian Tail. When he decided Elysian Tail's story would better serve as a video game, Dodrill dropped the movie idea to focus on game design.
In an interview with Ars Technica, Dodrill admitted that he first thought the process would only take three months. In actuality, it took Dodrill almost four years to finish the game. The workload took its toll on Dodrill, who tweeted out close to An Elysian Tail's launch date that he was still working and had discovered the "perfect diet" for losing weight: game development. Dodrill also tweeted he lost 15 pounds in the final two months working on An Elysian Tail, and he'd had days where he'd sit at a computer for 18 hours just to meet his deadline.
Early concepts of An Elysian Tail played out as a mere 2D platformer, but Dodrill implemented combat, RPG, and exploration elements that were inspired by the games he enjoyed playing as a kid, like Metroid and Ys I & II. Critics weren't wild about the game's combat--we also criticized the voice acting and story in our review--but An Elysian Tail has near universal praise for its character art, animation, and backgrounds.
Iconoclasts, 2018 - Joakim Sandberg
The newest game in this gallery, Iconoclasts is developed by Joakim "Konjak" Sandberg. The game released for PS4, PS Vita, and PC in January 2018, and launches on Nintendo Switch on August 2. Players take on the role of Robin, a naive and rebellious mechanic whose desire to always help others leads her to be increasingly involved in the religious and political conflicts that plague her planet and threaten her friends.
Sandberg worked on Iconoclasts for eight years. When he first started in 2010, the game was called Ivory Springs and was exclusively for PC. The name changed to Iconoclasts when Sandberg officially announced the game in 2011. Sandberg followed up with semi-regular updates on his progress until 2012 and went mostly silent after that. Then in July 2015, Sandberg announced in a PlayStation Blog post that the game was still in development, and now also scheduled for both PS4 and PS Vita.
Sandberg also used the opportunity to write about his inspiration behind the Iconoclasts. He wanted to create a game that mixed the strong narrative and detailed world-building seen in Metroid Fusion and Monster World IV, and also featured the types of characters that evoked the same levels of charm and emotion found in Final Fantasy IX.
Iconoclasts was positively received. In our review, we commended the game for its art style and mechanics that call back to old-school Metroidvania, as well as its gripping story and numerous unique boss battles.
Lone Survivor, 2012 - Jasper Byrne
Lone Survivor is developed by Jasper Byrne. The game originally released for PC in 2012, and a Director's Cut was ported to PS3 and PS Vita in 2013 and then to PS4 and Wii U in 2014. It is a post-apocalyptic survival horror game where players take on the role of a nameless protagonist who must survive a world overrun by an infection that turns humans into mutants. The protagonist suffers hallucinations, making it difficult to discern what's real and what's not.
In an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Byrne confirmed Lone Survivor is a post-9/11 game. Byrne took inspirations from David Lynch's films while developing Lone Survivor. Like Lynch, Byrne wanted his characters' motivations and life history to simultaneously be the most important themes of his story and the most difficult details to define. Lone Survivor has three different endings--the director's cut adds two more--and each is a confusing piece of a much larger story. Byrne deliberately kept Lone Survivor's narrative a secret throughout development, and still hasn't revealed the exact message the game is trying to present.
Byrne has expressed that one of the hardest parts of developing Lone Survivor was advertising the game, as most of its enjoyment comes from knowing nothing about the game before diving into it. Trailers exist, but Byrne hopes people don't watch them before playing.
Mainichi, 2012 - Mattie Brice
Mainichi is developed by Mattie Brice. Released in 2012 for PC, Mainichi allows players to roleplay as Brice, a transgender woman, and temporarily experience the difficulties of trying to pass as the gender you identify with within a world that largely believes gender is determined by the body you're born with.
Mainichi was an integral part of the 2012-2013 movement centered around personal lived experiences, or "personal games" as they are usually referred to as today. These type of games are typically on the shorter side--Mainichi can be completed in one sitting--but they capture the emotions and mind-sets of a particular person or disenfranchised group.
Brice was an active video game critic prior to developing Mainichi, and she continues to speak out and write against the industry's lack of diversity to this day. In her critique of Spec Ops: The Line, Brice writes about how most shooters are designed with the assumption that players need a war zone to feel the pressures of violence, and that players wouldn't recognize a game featuring a character without "a weapon, [who isn't] able to do much damage, and [has] to get from [their] house to the grocery store without being assaulted by men" as a violent one.
The gut-wrenching reveal in Mainichi works off of that assumption, as well as the knowledge that most players expect a game that quickly starts over--without an end credits scene--is probably hiding secrets. When players jump into another playthrough to find them, all they discover is a slight variation on the same day they played before. By the time they've beaten the game three or four times, they'll realize the immediate repetition isn't a gimmick, it's an imitation of Brice's life and the constant threat of violence she has to live with every time she wakes up. Her days aren't a game for her that she can just complete and move on from.
Minecraft, 2009 - Markus Persson
Minecraft is developed by Markus "Notch" Persson. One of the most well-known games in the world, Minecraft launched on PC in 2009 and has since been ported to multiple mobile, handheld, and console platforms. This RPG sandbox tasks players with surviving a blocky world by building shelters, cultivating farms, and conquering dungeons. Vicious monsters hunt the player at night, and a loose narrative provides players with a quest to hop between dimensions and kill a dragon. However, Minecraft is meant to be a game that never ends, featuring procedurally generated worlds that provide near endless opportunities to explore.
Minecraft takes inspiration from Infiniminer. According to his blog, Persson was working on RubyDung--which was never released--at the time, and thinking about also developing some sort of zombie survival game. RubyDung was supposed to be a building game in a similar vein to Dwarf Fortress. Then Persson found Infiniminer, fell in love with it, and decided to start developing something just like it. He took the concept of Infiniminer and gave it a fantasy twist and first-person perspective, while also reusing a few assets from RubyDung. That prototype became Minecraft.
Although he created the game completely by himself, in a Gamasutra interview, Persson said that some of the game's features came from the community. Persson would implement features from suggestions he liked and patch mistakes discovered by other players.
As stated before, Minecraft has released for a lot of platforms--nearly a dozen all said and done. We've actually reviewed the game on five different systems. Every time, we've complimented Minecraft's core concepts of exploration, experimentation, crafting, and surviving. As we wrote in our review of the original PC version, "it's a game changer to be sure and one that will live on in the annals of gaming history for a long time to come."
Minecraft is one of the earliest examples of a successful Early Access game.
Papers, Please, 2013 - Lucas Pope
Papers, Please is developed by Lucas Pope. The game has players taking on the role of a nameless immigration officer of a fictional country called Arstotzka, currently experiencing hostile action from neighboring countries. As the officer, the player must review the paperwork of immigrants attempting to enter Arstotzka and determine whether someone is accepted, detained, or rejected. Meeting a quota earns the officer their paycheck, while making mistakes results in fines.
After Pope left Naughty Dog, he wanted to focus on smaller games. He and his wife moved to Japan, briefly relocated to Singapore, made a few return trips to the United States, and traveled throughout southeast Asia. In an interview with Edge, Pope said that through his and his wife's travels, he became interested in immigration and passport inspectors. Though a repetitive job, Pope recognized it as an overwhelming tense one, which he figured would make for a fun video game.
Argo and the Bourne films, movies where secret agents repeatedly need to sneak past border checkpoints and immigration desks, were the inspiration behind the story in Papers, Please. The setting, Arstotzka, is one of the countries at war with Republia, the location of one of Pope's earlier games, The Republia Times. When talking with Gamasutra, Pope said he went with a fictional country so he could write without being limited by a real country's history and to prevent preconceived assumptions from informing players' decisions.
Pope completely funded Papers, Please himself and started work on the game in November 2012. He posted updates to his progress to TIGSource, and regularly received feedback he'd later implement into the game. His work continued until April 2013, when Papers, Please was submitted to Steam Greenlight. The game was voted through in a few days, and Pope finalized Papers, Please over the next few months.
The game released in August 2013 to positive reviews. In our Papers, Please review, we admitted the game will stress players out, but is still worth playing for the same reason someone occasionally reads a depressing novel or watches a bleak movie: "if only to remind ourselves how much worse off we could be."
Despite the game's popularity, in March 2014, Pope told VG247, "I'm kind of sick to death of Papers, Please," citing a desire to move on to other projects and distance himself from repeated requests for a sequel or DLC expansions.
River Raid, 1982 - Carol Shaw
River Raid is developed by Carol Shaw. Released for the Atari 2600 in 1982, River Raid is the oldest game on this list. Players take control of a fighter jet flying over the River of No Return, and maneuver left and right to avoid obstacles and shoot down enemy aircraft. The game ends when the player's jet is destroyed, crashes, or runs out of fuel. In the event a player avoids all three outcomes, River Raid theoretically continues forever.
A programming pioneer, Shaw built a name for herself for the games she helped develop for Atari back when video games were still in their infancy. She'd later go on to work at Activision where she worked solo on River Raid. The game went on to sell one million copies and earn awards for best action game.
River Raid's legacy is still felt today as a major inspiration for many top down shoot-em-ups. It was also the first game banned by Germany's Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons for displaying "military content," making it an early precursor to today's argument that video games corrupt the minds of young children.
Spelunky, 2008 - Derek Yu
Spelunky is developed by Derek Yu. Originally released as freeware on PC, it was remade for Xbox 360 in 2012. This remake was then ported to PS3, PS Vita, and PC in 2012, and then to PS4 in 2014. Players control an unnamed spelunker who must gather as much treasure as he can from the caves he explores while also avoiding deadly traps and fighting off vicious creatures. Damsels in distress also populate the cave, and they can be saved in return for health regeneration.
In an interview with Polygon, Yu referred to the Super Mario series as one of the major influences behind Spelunky, specifically "in terms of the feel and physics." Yu also said the visual styling, character designs, gameplay elements, and mechanics were all inspired from La-Mulana, Rick Dangerous, and Spelunker.
Although a dungeon crawler, Spelunky incorporates roguelike elements, such as randomly generated levels, a high difficulty, and a lack of save points. This makes Spelunky one of the first roguelike-like titles, a type of game that borrows roguelike elements without committing wholeheartedly to the genre.
Spelunky launched to universal praise. Critics describe Spelunky as something that's both easy to hate and easy to love. Spelunky almost seems to goad the player into trying to overcome its challenge. As we concluded in our Spelunky review, "When you finally conquer something that has been hounding you for hours, you feel like the best darn explorer on the planet, and that feeling overshadows all the hardships you overcame down the troubled path you traveled."
Stardew Valley, 2016 - Eric Barone
Stardew Valley is developed by Eric "ConcernedApe" Barone. The game released for PC, PS4, and Xbox One in 2016 and was ported to Nintendo Switch in October 2017 and PS Vita in May 2018. Players manage the life of a character who, trying to get away from the never-ending stress of their office job, takes over their late grandfather's farm in a fictional place called Stardew Valley.
In a PC Gamer interview, Barone said he originally started on Stardew Valley in 2011 so he could get a job. Graduating with a degree in computer science, he couldn't find a way into the industry and decided to develop a game to improve his prospects. Growing up, Barone had been a fan of the Harvest Moon series, so he wanted to make something similar. However, he also felt like the franchise had gotten progressively worse since the release of Harvest Moon: Back to Nature, so he used Stardew Valley to fix the problems he saw in the series. He took elements from other games, like Minecraft and Terraria, to construct his crafting, quest, and combat mechanics.
Barone told Gamasutra that his initial plan was to get Stardew Valley to launch as part of the Xbox Live Indie Games program, but as his scope for the game grew, Barone realized his game was going to take a lot longer to finish than he thought. Stardew Valley was approved for Steam Greenlight in September 2012. Barone turned to both Reddit and Twitter to provide feedback on his process and garner feedback on his game.
In April 2015, Barone announced that he had no intention of releasing Stardew Valley in Early Access and would only launch the game once it was 100% complete. The game launched the following year to favorable critiques. In our Stardew Valley review, we celebrated its heartwarming charm and wrote about how the game's "meditative activities often lead to personal reflection in the real world."
Thomas Was Alone, 2012 - Mike Bithell
Thomas Was Alone is developed by Mike Bithell. It originally released as a Flash-based browser game in October 2010, before being expanded for a PC release in July 2012. PS3 and PS Vita versions released in 2013, and the game launched on mobile devices, Xbox One, PS4, and Wii U in November 2014. The player platforms through levels as rectangles, each one representing unique artificial intelligence entities that possess different abilities and traits.
Bithell came up with the concept behind Thomas Was Alone in October 2010 during a 24-hour Blitz Games' jam session. Much like Jonathan Blow and Braid, Bithell wanted to create a more complete version of his game. Danny Wallace was brought on to voice the narrator that Bithell wrote into the game, and David Housden helped out with the soundtrack. In an interview with Eurogamer, Bithell reported having spent £5000 to finish development on Thomas Was Alone.
Thomas Was Alone's storytelling, characters, and soundtrack were met with a positive reception and the game sold over 1 million copies. The Penny Arcade Report wrote that Bithell attributes that success to the exposure Thomas Was Alone received on YouTube upon its release. In our Thomas Was Alone review, we praised the game as "a worthwhile experience that rises above its basic mechanics to prove heartfelt and engaging in unexpected ways."
Undertale, 2015 - Toby Fox
Undertale is developed by Toby Fox. The game released on PC in September 2015 and was then ported to PS4 and PS Vita in August 2017. A Switch version has been announced, but no release date has been revealed yet. In Undertale, you take control of a human child who falls into the Underground, home to various monsters. The child wants to escape the Underground and go home, and the player determines whether or not they do so violently. Depending on the player's choices, the dialogue, characters, and story in Undertale change.
Fox worked on Undertale for nearly three years, starting on the game after it was successfully crowdfunded--about 1022% above the original goal--through Kickstarter in 2013. Other than a few pieces of art, Fox developed Undertale completely on his own, not wanting his creativity to be influenced by others.
Undertale draws from several games Fox played as a kid. Fox worked on Earthbound ROM hacks in high school, which may explains why the writing and music in Undertale matches that of the Mother franchise. Fox built the defensive segment of the battle system off of what he enjoyed from Super Mario RPG and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.
Undertale released to critical acclaim and achieved a near cult-like following in a matter of months. Our Undertale review concludes, "Without spoiling the many ways it will screw with your expectations, it isn't possible to truly capture how wonderful Undertale is. You wouldn't know it with a passing glance, but it's one of the most progressive and innovative RPGs to come in a long time, breaking down tradition for the sake of invention, with great success."