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How indie games took on the world (and won)

While it’s tempting to think there’s a New Brat Pack of independent developers who hang out at all the right parties, indie is much, much bigger than that, made of very different people with very different attitudes and lifestyles. Take Vic Davis, who, unlike the scattergun approach of a McMillen or Cactus, works solo on huge projects, far away from that US scene. “I honestly can’t imagine something like that. Hip is not a word that you would ever associate with me. I’m actually the closest you will get to anti-hip. I mean come on, I play war games, board games, still read comic books and love to make Star Wars references even though I thought the last three films were pretty bad. Besides, like somebody famous once said, I would never join a club that would have me as a member.”

Above: Zeno Clash made one of our favorite pastimes in game form. It had been so long since we punched an ugly face in

Something else that differs from indie dev to indie dev is their ultimate ambition. “Audiosurf has been selling really well and that’s been awesome,” says Dylan Fitterer, “but I’m not sure that kind of success is a useful goal. I was always happy to build Audiosurf even if nobody ever bought it.”

McMillen hasn’t yet enjoyed that kind of success, hence the upcoming Wii release of Super Meat Boy – but he doesn’t want to abandon his regular esoteric output. “At this point in my life I need to prove my worth and at least attempt to take a crack at a mainstream release. If I want to continue to make whatever I want, sadly, I need money to do so. Bringing my work to the mainstream might be the best way to fund my more ambitious and risky projects.”

2D Boy, meanwhile, wants to stay the hell away from the mainstream. “We both realize working for large enormo-cash studios would be a bad idea,” says Kyle Gabler, who was also partially responsible for the sadly now defunct Experimental Gameplay Project – itself the origin of World of Goo predecessor Tower of Goo, and which was instrumental in revealing indie to a larger audience. Gabler took a job at Maxis after the success of the EGP, but left soon after to found 2D Boy.

Above: The Maw the merrier

“Limited resources have always forced us and other indie developers to be more creative, and to think really hard about everything that goes into a game. If we had ‘money’ and ‘people’ propping us up, we’d probably make a 3D platformer, where your guy has muscles, an angry face, and lots of angry polygons.” No interest in escalating the scale and scope of your games then? “No way,” says Ron Carmel, “that would be the kiss of death. The reason indie games can do well is because we don’t try to compete with the big boys. We need to play a different game in order to win.”

“There’s always pressure to try and one-up yourself,” adds Gabler, “which might be smart to ignore. In the near future, we’re on a quest to return to our roots, and make some little toys Experimental Gameplay style that are small and fun, that have no ambition of being big and slick. We’ll post them online if they aren’t too horrible.”

Cryptic Comet’s Vic Davis feels similarly: “If anything I plan on mastering my tendency to slide into massive ‘scope creep’ and tighten up my games. Armageddon Empires and my next game Solium Infernum are really massive undertakings for a one man team like me. I outsource the art and music but the design, coding and project management is a huge burden. AE had over 250 thousand lines of code without comments. Solium Infernum is already larger and I’m still working on the AI. The combined development time is going to be over five years. But in my opinion it’s the design that is going to sell my games. I make a real effort to offer artwork, illustrations and music that enhance the experience but in the end the goal is to stimulate the player’s brain. It’s the ‘one more turn’ feeling that you have to evoke.”

Above: Mondo Nation attempts to make players question their perception

Which brings up one of the other major issues around indie games: how do you let people know about your game if you don’t have the promotional clout of a major publisher behind you? Well, ideally the internet does the work for you.

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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