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How indie games took on the world (and won)

What happened to gaming? The past two years haven’t been about blockbuster games. The most exciting, most innovative, most playable games aren’t from the usual suspects. Instead, they’re being made by coffee-shop artists who are absolutely outclassing the establishment. Who are these heroes? Where did they come from? How did they do it? And, anyway, what the hell is indie gaming?

It’s a term so overused it’s lost its meaning. It means ‘independent’, obviously – but, by that token, Valve is indie. Is that a term that sits comfortably on a multi-million dollar studio? Or is indie more of a statement, an ethos where profit plays second fiddle to creativity?

Yet even the folk making these titles don’t agree on an all-encompassing definition. 2D Boy’s Ron Carmel (World of Goo), sums it up thusly: “I think that when a developer, be it an individual or a team, values design over profit, they produce an indie game. In theory, you could have a team of 50 people create an indie game, but in reality, if a company needs to pay salaries to 50 people they most likely are very careful with budgeting and scheduling and design might need to take a back seat a lot of the time.”

Dylan Fitterer, the brain behind surprise smash-hit Audiosurf, believes it’s about scale rather than intent: “It just means games made on the cheap. I kind of don’t like that, because many games can come under that definition and not be interesting at all. I’d rather think of indie games as those made through experimentation that tightly focus on a new concept. It seems to work out though, because inexpensive games need to make their mark somehow. It won’t be with hordes of content or amazing polish, so it has to be with new gameplay.”

Above: Audiosurf takes you way, way down a hole

Edmund McMillen, one of the crazily inventive madmen behind Independent Games Festival grand prize-winner Gish and currently working on Super Meat Boy and No Quarter, has a different take still: “Well, to me an indie game would be a self funded videogame with a small team of 2-3 people, where the designer(s) have complete control over the project in every aspect. I guess indie gaming would be the scene of people who are into playing those games.”

Vic Davis, aka CrypticComet, and responsible for awesome turn-based strategy game Armageddon Empires, has a more esoteric definition: “Indie means freedom, pure and simple. It’s the freedom to be your own boss and chart your own course. It’s exhilarating, frankly, to have almost no constraints on you besides the consequences of failure. It’s the freedom the internet provides to cut out the middle man and own the customer yourself. It means that you can take risks that the big developers can’t afford to take. Indie to me means that you grab your surfboard and ride the ‘Long Tail’ as far as it will take you.”

Above: Ever heard of black balls? Edmund McMullen has plenty

Differing takes they may be, but a common belief shines through: freedom and control are more important than commercialism. McMillen is a stand-out example of that. This is, after all, a man who infamously devised a game called C*nt, a shooter centered around attacking monsterized, anthropomorphized lady parts – purely because he could.

23 comments

  • JohnnyMaverik - July 14, 2009 11:58 p.m.

    "If Audiosurf takes you down a hole, that whole is the world's tightest, wettest, most perfect hole ever." Rofl. I second that though. I've bought Audiosurf and Braid and don't regret either, but where as Braid is something you play through, finish, maybe play through again and try and get those stars, and then leave, audiosurf never gets old because you can never run out of good music, unlimited replayability for a small price tag, can't get much better than that. @ GamesRadarMatthewKeast I agree with everything you just said man, I meen I'm guna start my uni course in september and it's games design (not called that but thats basically what it is), and the 2 things that scare me sometimes is a. will I beable to get a job afterwards, and b. what if I can't get a job that I like, what If I have to spend the rest of my life working of stale projects, but then I look at the indie devs and remember that all I got to do is work hard to add to and polish up my skills, then couple that with a bit of imagination and try and create something a bit fresh, I'm guna end up getting somewhere. As for what you said about dreaming about being a games designer, why not man? Theres plently of free tutorials and resources you can find out there, learn a few skills in your free time, use a bit of imagination and put a bit of heart into creating something then you'll get somewhere. Developing games isnt an exclusive party, it's not like being an actor, or a singer, or a film director, it's an open door which any1 can go throu...
  • GamesRadarMatthewKeast - July 14, 2009 11:13 p.m.

    One good reason to support (read: buy) indie games is this: how many of us have had dreams of being a game designer? Many don't get that chance, but if indie games continue to have a growing market viability, more people will realize their dreams. It also creates healthy competition by infusing originality into the games market, which in turn could provoke big studios to get more creative with their big-budget games. Also, a lot of indie developers end up having their games scooped up and given the high-budget facelift they deserve (Left 4 Dead, Portal).
  • sadisticgrizzz - July 14, 2009 4:55 p.m.

    i never tried an indie game but always wanted 2. but i must admit about 80% look awful.maybe GR can have an indie game review.
  • iluvmyDS - July 14, 2009 4:52 p.m.

    @oryandymackie: Did you actually read the article? I like this article, good reason to root for the little guy.
  • CH3BURASHKA - July 14, 2009 5:25 a.m.

    I didn't see this game on the list, but Giant Bomb posted a mini-preview on a game (the name eludes me right now) in which the surroundings were all black, and the only thing you could do was shoot a white paintball (that would arc) and the resulting white splash would paint the surroundings white. It was a cool mechanic and I remember there to be some horror elements, such as discovering blood on the ground. Anyone know what it is and if it's out right now?
  • JohnnyMaverik - July 14, 2009 3:33 a.m.

    Indie is the way. I still maintain that games are just as valid a form of art and a medium for expression and storytelling as movies, tv, music and even books, perhaps more so infact, a great game is a great movie, with the depth of a book and the length of season from a tv series which can encorprate a great soundtrack to boot, and can immerse the player in the world set before them to a higher level by giving them a level of control. Too often the big companies seem to forget this and think that a series of flashing lights and a few explosions are all we require to throw the cash at them, which is frustrating, but indie developers on the whole seem to fully realise games potential, and only financial contraints hold them back (although some seem to even break throu that barrier).
  • Turkeykilla7 - July 14, 2009 12:21 a.m.

    Indie games are alright every once in a while when you get bored of your good games. Totally not super pwnies.
  • CRYPTONiC - July 13, 2009 9:59 p.m.

    yea im not really a big fan of indie games i think they kinda suck
  • shinywaffles - July 13, 2009 8:03 p.m.

    Where's Media Molecule? They made LittleBigPlanet!
  • DEFAULT - July 13, 2009 7:06 p.m.

    Yay indie!
  • thochaos - July 17, 2009 9:39 a.m.

    Good article, just horribly written. Was the guy trying to impress his English teacher?
  • heartskuppy - July 15, 2009 4:17 a.m.

    i wonder if kyle gabler when he went to sweden met nifflas (nicklas nygren), who's probably my favourite indie developer, and i am suprised he wasn't given a mention in the article considering he's a very popular indie dev and has a game coming to wiiware, night game, which looks awesome. if you've never heard of him, go to his website (http://nifflas.ni2.se) and give his games a try, they are completely free and, imo, absolutely amazing. and if you like them, keep an eye out for night game on wiiware. apologies for the obnoxious plug, but i wouldn't be doing it if i didn't love this guy's games and wish to share them and wish for them to be successful. support the indies!
  • Life - July 14, 2009 11:20 p.m.

    If Audiosurf takes you down a hole, that whole is the world's tightest, wettest, most perfect hole ever.
  • JohnnyMaverik - July 14, 2009 7:35 p.m.

    @ sadisticgrizzz "maybe GR can have an indie game review." ...if you mean a review of an Indie game then they have many, World of Goo, And yet it Moves, Braid and Aquaria all picked up pretty favourable GR reviews and are all indie games mentioned in this article. "but i must admit about 80% look awful." Well, 80% ARE aweful, infact probably more than 80%, but there again I'd say that about games in general not just indie games... there again I'm a bit picky.
  • Diosjenin - July 14, 2009 7:53 a.m.

    The Experimental Gameplay Project was relaunched within the last several days. http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2009/07/08/experimental-gameplay-project-it-lives/
  • DaBadGuy - July 14, 2009 12:34 a.m.

    Hell yeah indy devs rock. They always make the best stuff for hardcore gamers, like Braid, that game was aweomse.
  • goodguy - July 13, 2009 10:37 p.m.

    i love u indies
  • doomdoomdoom - July 13, 2009 8:34 p.m.

    Some of these are really good games... But some of them are really bad and are copy each others basic left and right jump screen.
  • Corsair89 - July 13, 2009 7:49 p.m.

    Normally, I hate indie shit. But, indie seems to work for games, unlike most indie music and films. I usually define indie as "1% gold, 99% shit" but thanks to games, I may need to re-adjust that definition. reCaptha: toga colonel
  • oryandymackie - July 13, 2009 7:43 p.m.

    God, "indie" games, are not. It might be uber-cool to play the latest recycled 8-bit and casually slip in that you don't "Like, play MODERN games, they're so old and tacky". Braid was just created by a smaller developer, doesn't make games cooler depending on the obscureness of the developer. God, I wish somebody would smack all these "indie" gamers.

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