August 2, 2019

You’ve probably heard the term “indie” applied to films, record labels, and musicians, but did you know that it can be applied to video games, too? 

This month, tens of thousands of people will flock to PAX West to demo new indie games. But what exactly makes a game “indie?”

The definition of an “indie game” varies. That label could mean any of the following: developing outside of the “publisher” system, working with a small budget, or having creative freedom. 

In film, the “indie” category is similarly complicated. Technically, Lucasfilm is an independent studio, even though it has produced the Star Wars franchise. In a similar vein, an indie game developer like Double Fine can employ hundreds of people and still be considered “indie.” Another indie is Tetris, created by one man by the name of Alexey Pajitov in the 1980s and ultimately sold over 170 million copies worldwide by 2010. 

Indie games can find big audiences. Beat Saber, Undertale, and Stardew Valley have made anywhere between one to two million sales on Steam, according to Steam Spy. In a presentation from the 2018 Game Developers Conference, Steam Spy reported a 533.969 percent increase in indie games on digital gaming platform between 2015 and 2018. Additionally, 65 million players own at least one paid indie game, and 24 million players own five or more paid indie games. To put this in perspective, Steam has about 90 million monthly users.

Another example: Toby Fox made Undertale—a unique role-playing game about a child who has fallen into an underground, secluded region, and the player meets various monsters during the journey back to the Earth’s surface. The development of the game was funded entirely through a Kickstarter campaign. When it was released in 2015, Undertale was one of the best-selling games on Steam that year.

Blurred lines in distribution. With its haunting art style, sprawling visual metaphors for loneliness, and fantastical monsters, the recent indie release The Sea of Solitude feels like an indie game and that’s how press is categorizing it. Sure, enough, The Sea of Solitude was developed by an independent studio based in Berlin, Jo-Mei Games, but it was also published by Electronic Arts, a publicly-traded multinational company. 

The game is part of the EA Originals program, which aims to support independent developers. Since EA is the second-largest gaming company in the Americas and Europe, its games under the Originals initiative have been dubbed “pseudo-indies” by some games journalists

EA isn’t the only big gaming company that recognizes the value of indie games. Last year, the Epic Games store shook up digital distribution by offering a more generous revenue share than Steam to lure indie developers to its platform. 

Steam has been the go-to destination to buy indie games, along with micropublishers, but Epic Games, the company behind the cultural phenomenon Fortnite, is heavy-hitting competition. Earlier this year, “the launcher wars” in digital game distribution began, with Steam’s long-held monopoly being threatened by Epic and other newcomers. With previous successes coupled with the growing ability to reach more players through different online storefronts, indie games are here to stay. While high-profile titles like Fortnite or Apex Legends get all the glory, remember that there are dozens of indie games with a strong, dedicated following as well. 

In the next part of this series on indie games, we’ll speak to an expert in the space about whether or not the label matters, what draws players to indies, and the teams behind them. 

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