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How indie games took on the world (and won)

“We did OK with just word of mouth,” says Ron Carmel. “We sold about 3,000 copies of the game as pre-orders and sales on our website have done really well for us and still bring in a good amount. But there have been three promotional events that were huge for us. One was Nintendo of America sending an email to everyone who has their Wii only saying ‘Hey, check out World of Goo!’ Another was the 75%-off sale we had on Steam. And most recently, the MacHeist bundle. Each of those generated massive, massive sales and without them we would probably have sold about half the number of copies that we did.”

Edmund McMillen, meanwhile, tends to put in a bit more promotional elbow grease himself, but in characteristically oddball ways. “I try my best at promoting my work in any way I can. Honestly I don’t know how important it is. I just do it because it’s fun. Like that Hitler Meat Boy ad [‘Hitler was a vegetarian. Don’t be like Hitler’] – of course I put it out because I knew people would pick up on it... and being indie what other options do I have for self promotion? I have no money... so how do I get an ad for my game out to the masses? I simply say if you don’t like the game you’re like Hitler and tada – people post our ad on their websites. Now at this point I have no idea if this will help sales – but I did it for the same reasons I make games, to entertain myself.”

Dylan Fitterer also relies on third-party promotion. “Audiosurf was spreading way beyond my expectations before it was on Steam, but then being featured there gave it a big multiplier. It’s a little fuzzy though because Steam brings extra value to games – not just exposure. For example, it’s usually not Steam that first exposes games to me, but I do prefer to buy them there. Also, it’s gotten hard to tell what to call third-party promotion. Online media coverage and online word of mouth are both blogs.” Which in turn feed major websites and – hey! – magazines, and then good folk like you get to hear about these incredible little games.

Vic Davis has a slightly different approach. “It’s not that hard to stand out at all if you decide to seek out your own niche. If you want to make an iPhone or casual match 3/hidden object game, then good luck with that.  In my case, the space that I am competing in is like one of those old west ghost towns. Ten years ago there was a booming turn-based strategy game genre. Today, not so much. Turn-based strategy games don’t fit the blockbuster business model with the arguable exception of the Civ franchise. My games are pretty complex and geeky though, so my niche is even more restricted. But that’s my selling point and a way to stand out in the crowd. I’m going for the demographic that will read the manual eventually even if they are the type of player who first likes to sit down and just start clicking buttons.”

Above: Spelunky is randomly generated love

So, ‘indie’ is at an absurdly exciting and diverse time at the moment. But what brought about this new era of independent game-making?

“I think people have grown bored of being force-fed the same old shit from the same old people over the years,” says McMillen. “My wife is an indie artist in the plush art scene and its having a similar boom these days as well. We live in a world where everyone has access to everything, at this point when you want to see a movie you have about 15 ways of doing so with a few clicks of a mouse. In a world where anyone can tap into the flood of mainstream crap with a click of the mouse people are desperate for something new, something fresh and exciting. Do you want to spend 50 bucks on the next WWII shooter? Or do you want to play a game where you control a bloody chunk of meat? The indie scene has something to offer that the mainstream will never have, it has heart, and for the most part it’s honest, pure and untainted by money. Out of everything I think those are the qualities that bring people in.” Clearly, it also has developers capable of genuinely inspiring words.

Of course, there are practical reasons for the boom too. “I think it’s a combination of chance and opportunity” says Ron Carmel. “The opportunity is digital distribution. The chance is that 2008 was a huge year for indies. It saw a whole bunch of indie hits like Audiosurf, Braid, Eden, World of Goo, and Castle Crashers. Most of these games have been years in the making, it’s just chance that they all came out in the same year. So I’m guessing that this boom is smaller than people think. I don’t expect 2009 to be as big a year for indies as 2008, but I do think that there’s a growth trend in the indie scene, more people are entering the game industry by simply making games instead of getting game jobs. You can see that by following the number of submissions to the IGF over the years.”

Above: The Path shows players how lumberjacks and seemingly hot chicks drink beer in the woods

Dylan Fitterer, meanwhile, points out another possible cause: “I see a lot of players asking how games run on netbooks rather than wondering which GPU features they have. Hardware advances and content quality have gotten less interesting. Content improvements don’t play to the strengths of gaming the way interactivity improvements do.”

Guys like Dylan, like 2D Boy, Edmund McMillen and Vic Davis are changing gaming as we know it – evolving it into something new and endlessly diverse, made from love and wonder rather than commerce. And yet, at the same time we’re going backwards – this is a bigger, bolder return to the way games development once was, when tiny teams free of publisher interference were releasing some new slice of crazy wonder every week.

Jul 13, 2009

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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