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What Counts as an Indie Game?


a screen capture of a sparkly character shader
A sparkle shader I worked on for my game recently

I’m a big fan of indie games. I’m working on an indie game right now, and since I stream a lot of indie games on Twitch, I sometimes get caught by questions about what “indie” means.


What counts as an indie game?


Just like with movies or music, “indie” means independent, or that the content creator (whether they’re a developer, musician, videographer, or other creative), isn’t backed by a publishing company or other established force in the industry. They are independent of that support and also independent of that influence.


As a natural result of being independent, indie dev teams are usually very small and work with limited resources, which gives their games a particular feel. Since high-resolution, photographic-realism art assets can be expensive or time-consuming to create, indie games often develop a distinct style that their artists can produce quickly, whether it’s 2D or 3D.


This doesn’t necessarily equate to the art assets being simpler, or less detailed. It just means they have a strong style in mind that plays to their strengths of their artists (or a singular artist, as is this case for many small studios).


Because there are few (if any) company stakeholders driving decisions from outside the dev team, indie games will typically explore unusual game premises that are more risky, a little more wild. They have the freedom to explore ideas borne out of passion.


Large studios that are beholden to a publisher make big-budget games so they have to be confident that the game will sell widely enough to recoup that cost. They’re not as likely to take risks on quirky ideas or new franchises.


Of course, these are generalizations! Triple-A studios sometimes tackle wacky new ideas, and indie studios sometimes build “realistic” games that fit neatly into an existing niche. These are just trends that I have noticed during years of game-playing and game-making.


What are some good indie games?

This list is subjective, and people may disagree, but these are some indie games I have personally enjoyed and have seen commercial success within the past few years. I selected from a variety of art styles and game genres to show the variety possible with indie games. Note: all of these games are available on Steam, with the exception of Ooblets which is currently an Epic exclusive and can be found on the Epic store.


Wickerbottom, the best character in Don't Starve

Don’t Starve

This game is 2.5D, which means that many of the in-game elements are flat 2D but they exist within a 3D space. The studio, Klei, uses a distinct drawing style for characters that has become recognizable amongst some of their games (Don’t Starve and Oxygen Not Included).


They also use musical instruments as character voices, which I believe is one way that the limitations of a smaller studio forced them to get creative. It costs more money to hire voice actors than generate sounds in-house. Using instruments lets them give each character a unique “voice” without breaking the bank.


Don’t Starve is a sandbox-style survival game with an optional “story mode” composed of challenging survival puzzles! It can be punishing; there is perma-death and it’s normal for new players to die several times and have to start over before getting the hang of it. The difficulty combined with the cute-spooky art style has made it a fan favorite.


You're not really supposed to put this many inmates in one cell

Prison Architect

This game has a special place in my heart and in my Steam metrics (it is my second-most played game). It is a 2D cartoon-style simulation game where the player builds and runs a prison. It was initially published and maintained by the indie studio Introversion. Much later, the game was acquired by Paradox Interactive (a big publisher and developer).


I crave simulation games with the “ants in a farm” look, with dozens or hundreds of tiny people running around, each with their own needs and behaviors. Prison Architect scratches that itch perfectly. It’s addictive, encouraging you to build just one more cell block before bed. Even though the subject of the game is fairly serious, they’ve added whimsy with a playful visual style and animations, and by incorporating silly crimes or prisoner bios.


A level in Death's Door that really caught my attention

Death’s Door

This game fits into a pretty mainstream genre as an action-adventure game with a linear progression that leads the player through a series of “dungeons” and boss fights. Where it gets its original, indie flair is from the art style and the story.


Death’s Door has a soft, 3D art style and uses color very intentionally. Much of the starting area of the game is dark and monochrome, while the levels are given their own lively color palettes to portray certain emotions.


The main character is a crow that works as a soul reaper, on a quest to gather souls that have lived past their time.


This game is the prime example I use when I want to prove that a tiny game studio can make a stunning, powerful, and well-designed game. Acid Nerve is an indie studio made up of just two people and Death’s Door is gorgeous, fun, and the music is amazing. Seriously, it has some of the best game music I have ever heard.


The gameplay design is also very well done. Action-adventure games are usually not my favorite, but I was so interested in the premise of this game that I tried it out.


I loved it. It was challenging, but not so challenging that I got frustrated or stuck. It’s an all-around quality game and I’ve recommended it to several friends, especially to anyone who enjoys Zelda games.



Ooblets

Ah, Ooblets. This game is done in 3D as well, and everything about this game can be described as cute and wholesome. This game was developed by Glumberland, another team that originally had just 2 people, that has grown since their release to take on more developers and artists.


It is a farming and creature-collecting game with light story. The core mechanic is that the player can use their creatures to dance battle other creatures. The vision behind this game is that it allows for relaxing, non-violent fun. It’s a game that makes you feel good.


This game is still in Early Access, but it is a solid game (very few bugs and they update a few times a year) and it’s another that I recommend eagerly to friends who want a nice chill game.



Graveyard Keeper

This last game is one I started playing very recently, and I chose it for this list because it is similar to Ooblets but contrasts in a few critical ways.


It is another town-based farming sim game, but everything about the atmosphere is grim and unsettling (but still kind of cute, somehow?). In the game, you play as a “graveyard keeper”, with the main game mechanic being that you strip parts from dead bodies and use them in crafting recipes.


Themes of death and struggle drive the story, and there are dry bits of satire peppered in. It also uses a 2D pixel-art style (inspired by another indie game, Stardew Valley) rather than the cutesy 3D of Ooblets.


This comparison shows the freedom and originality possible with indie games. Two games that have similar mechanics and a similar goal, but they invoke different experiences and emotions in the player.



Why play indie games?

There are plenty of large, AAA studios that make great games, but indie games have a special place in my heart for their bold creativity and the promise of an inherently new experience.


Not every indie game is going to be a winner, especially as it gets easier to make and publish games (a double-edged sword), but the ones that break through the noise are unique and lovely.


When you support indie games, you’re also supporting individual people. Just like shopping from small businesses over Wal-Mart, your patronage has a much larger impact on a solo dev than it does on a multi-national media conglomerate.


Buying indie games is a way to encourage games that are deeply personal, developed by a variety of people and for a variety of audiences.


This is why I play mostly indie games, and why I decided to develop indie games myself rather than pursuing a career at a large game studio. I enjoy the creative freedom. I enjoy exploring ideas. I haven't published anything yet, but I hope that once I get there people can connect with my work the way that I have connected with so many indie games.

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