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What is an Indie Game? A Comprehensive Guide

indie video games

The definition of an “indie” video game has long been imprecise. It’s one thing to label a game as independent because it doesn’t have ties to a major studio. It’s a much more difficult process to pin down what elements make a game “indie” as a style and a genre, which is how the term is typically evoked by gamers, journalists, and critics. 

This is because indie, as a cultural category, is and always has been highly contextual. After all, a game’s “indieness” can be signified by a myriad of things. These can range from the reputation of its developer to its production budget to its storyline to its aesthetic qualities.

But, of course, murkiness as a category hasn’t stopped this sub-genre from exploding in popularity in recent years. In 2020, the global indie games market reached a value of $2 billion. And as of 2021, indie games made up 40% of all products sold on Steam, a leading video game distributor. 

In light of this, we’d like to clear the air around indie games. And what better way to do this than with a comprehensive guide on the topic?

Let’s get started!

What is an Indie Game?

Indie games stand for “independent video games.” At the highest level, they are games created by individuals or small teams who operate independently from major studios, both financially and creatively. This independence allows creators to experiment with unconventional narratives, aesthetics, and game mechanics, which often result in truly distinctive and memorable gaming experiences.

That being said, limiting the definition of indie games solely to those that are self-funded overlooks the full spectrum of the genre.

For instance, some indie games have million-dollar budgets, such as The Witness. Others are distributed by massive studios; the wildly popular Shank was developed by the Canadian studio Klei Entertainment but published by developer giant  Electronic Arts. 

And what about a game like Minecraft, which started as a modest indie project but was ultimately acquired by Microsoft for $2.5 billion? Is Minecraft still an indie game? 

Again, it depends on your definition. The game is now owned by a large studio, but its origins, concept, look, and feel, remain wholeheartedly “indie.”

The point is, a game’s classification as “indie” is complex and typically made up of a combination of factors, including its source of financing but also the game’s concept, graphics, and style.  

The History of Indie Games

The history of indie games links back to the dawn of computing in the early 1960s and has since been tied to a vibrant subculture. Let’s take a look at how indie gaming has evolved over the decades!

Origin of Indie Games

Due to their recent explosion in popularity “indie games” feel like a fairly new trend in the industry. However, this kind of independently developed, underground game has been around since the start of video game history. In fact, one of the first indie games to ever be released, Spacewar!, made its debut way back in 1963.

Indie games in the 80s and 90s

Flash forward to the 1980s and 1990s, and developers around the globe had begun creating indie games on the world’s first personal computers and were releasing them through shareware or mail-order distribution methods. During this time David Braben and Ian Bell released the groundbreaking space combat game Elite and the gaming community fell in love with the niche offerings like Another World and Nethack

Indie games in the 2000s

In the 2000s, we witnessed the rise of digital distribution platforms, such as Steam and GOG.com (formerly Good Old Games), which revolutionized the gaming industry by providing independent developers with a new method for reaching bigger, non-niche audiences. 

These platforms allowed creators to bypass mainstream publishing methods and distribute their games directly to consumers. This increase in accessibility, combined with the widespread availability of affordable game development tools like Unreal Engine and Unity, fueled an unforgettable boom in indie game production. It was during this time that classic indie titles such as Braid, RuneScape, Counter-Strike, and Cave Story were launched and a vibrant, supportive indie gaming community was fostered. 

Indie games today

In recent years, indie gaming has experienced extraordinary growth and diversification. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for an indie game to compete with those offered by major studios, both in critical acclaim and financial success. Games such as Minecraft, Undertale, Hollow Knight, and Celeste were all released within the last decade and have gone on to generate millions of dollars in revenue while garnering massive fanbases.

Famous Studios and Developers

In the world of indie gaming, developers often establish their own dedicated fanbases. In many ways, this is comparable to the indie film scene, where production companies like A24 garner standalone followings thanks to their consistent delivery of innovative movies. 

Let’s take a look at three leading indie game developers right now!

Mojang Studios 

Mojang Studios is one of the most widely recognized developers in indie gaming. The company was founded in 2009 by Swedish programmer and designer Markus Persson, also known as “Notch.” Mojang is the company behind the wildly successful sandbox game, Minecraft. In 2014, Mojang was acquired by Microsoft for a staggering $2.5 billion.

Some of Mojang Studio’s top games include: 

  • Minecraft
  • Cobalt
  • Scrolls

Toby Fox

American videogame designer and developer Toby Fox is one of the most prominent figures in indie gaming. Fox is known for his remarkable ability to develop top-notch games almost entirely on his own. He is the creator of the critically acclaimed Deltarune and Undertale. At this point, Fox has achieved celeb status amongst the indie gaming community and his games are beloved by millions of players around the world. 

Some of Toby Fox’s top games include:

  • Undertale
  • Deltarune
  • Halloween hack
@erinruinseverythingg

HAD to make one for the beginning of the game because that once upon a time rendition had me in TEARS #fyp #undertale #deltarune

♬ Beginning (From “Deltarune Chapter 1”) [Piano Version] – Masters of Sound

Team Meat

Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes are the developers who make up Team Meat, the studio behind the immensely popular platform game, Super Meat Boy. Although the studio is best known for Super Meat Boy and its remarkably challenging gameplay mechanics, the duo also gained notable media exposure by appearing in the documentary “Indie Game: The Movie.”

Some of Team Meats’s top games include:

  • Super Meat Boy
  • The Binding of Isaac
  • Super Meat Boy Forever
@charlieleeks8

Like and follow for part 4!#supermeatboy #supermeatboyforever #supermeatboybosses

♬ original sound – CharlieLeeks

Supergiant Games

Founded by Amir Rao and Gavin Simon, Supergiant Games is an indie game development studio that has garnered widespread acclaim for its unique and captivating titles. Best known for their atmospheric storytelling and visually striking art, the indie studio has carved a niche in the gaming industry.

Some of Supergiant’s top games include:

  • Bastion
  • Transistor
  • Hades
@matchamellowttv

My favorite Hades build by far is the Hera bow. Since the hades 2 announcement I know so many of us are going back to playing hades or maybe it’s our first time playing. I’m making guides on some of the best builds in the game to help you win your next hades run. The trippy Hera bow build is my favorite in the game and you should really try it out. #hades #hades2 #supergiantgames #indiegames #roguelike #roguelite #hadesbuilds #hadesbow #hadesstreamer #gamergirl

♬ original sound – Matchamellow

Answering Your Indie Game Questions

Q: Is Minecraft an indie or AAA?

A: Minecraft straddles the line between indie and AAA due to its indie origins and subsequent acquisition by Microsoft. While it’s not a traditional AAA game, it’s no longer a purely indie title either.

Q: Is Roblox an indie game?

A: Similar to Minecraft, Roblox began as an indie game but has since grown into a massive platform with millions of users and developers. It’s now a publicly traded company, which places it outside the traditional indie game category.

Q: What is the biggest indie game of all time?

A: In terms of sales and cultural impact, Minecraft is arguably the biggest indie game of all time. Its sandbox gameplay and limitless possibilities have made it a global phenomenon, with over 200 million copies sold as of 2021.

Q: What is the longest indie game?

A: This is a difficult question to answer definitively, as the length of an indie game can vary greatly depending on a player’s playstyle and the type of game. However, some notable lengthy indie games include Hollow Knight, Stardew Valley, and The Binding of Isaac, all of which offer dozens or even hundreds of hours of gameplay.

Q: What is the most popular indie game right now?

A: The popularity of indie games can fluctuate with new releases and trends. As of the writing of this article (March 2023), some popular indie games include Hades, Slay the Spire, and Celeste. Keep in mind that this answer may change as new games are released and gain popularity.

The Future of Indie Games Looks Bright

All in all, indie games have come a long way since their humble SpaceWar! beginnings. These days, they’re an integral part of the gaming landscape. They represent a massive multi-billion dollar sub-sector of the industry and, for many, the pinnacle source of creativity and artistic expression within the medium. 

Although nailing down what constitutes an indie game remains a challenge, there’s one thing for certain: indie games are here to stay. Therefore, it’s important that we allow our understanding and definitions to evolve in tandem with this boundary-pushing subgenre, especially as it continues to expand in new and exciting ways. 

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in indie game development, you can explore the game development programs offered at Toronto Film School.

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Niko Pajkovic
Niko Pajkovic is a marketing copywriter at the Toronto Film School. He’s also an academically published author whose research focuses on algorithms, AI, and their intersection with film and television. Niko holds an MA in Professional Communication from Toronto Metropolitan University and a Hon. BA in Communication Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University. His freelance bylines include Film Threat, Independent Australia, Film Matters Magazine, and Film Cred.

Niko Pajkovic

Niko Pajkovic is a marketing copywriter at the Toronto Film School. He’s also an academically published author whose research focuses on algorithms, AI, and their intersection with film and television. Niko holds an MA in Professional Communication from Toronto Metropolitan University and a Hon. BA in Communication Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University. His freelance bylines include Film Threat, Independent Australia, Film Matters Magazine, and Film Cred.

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