Over the past half a decade or so, independent games have rocketed to major popularity. But, today, the question remains as to how and why they received such a prominent rise in mainstream popularity. Whilst many do not exactly cater to your everyday gamer, the charm, ingenuity, and passion behind the construction and presentation of these games charge them with a quality that many AAA published titles lack.
The main roots of this rapidly risen section of the gaming industry are found in the early 1990s, where many publishers would spread their content via shareware and found their name often referred to as “shareware games”. Soon, however, it became increasingly difficult and expensive to actually get games published and eventually the amount of attention they received from widespread gaming communities decreased dramatically.
But interest did remain and fortunately, many gamers (influenced by brilliantly simple games from the late ’80s and early ’90s) grew into fantastic programmers who were determined to bring their retro attitudes back into gaming to give it revitalisation after years of mechanical reproduction and sequels.
Their interest would not carry the future of independent games development. However, what would ultimately become the main fuel for the profitability and prosperity of Indie titles would be Valve’s Steam. Initially released as a platform for Valve’s titles, Gabe Newell, co-founder and managing director of Valve, recognised the potential of the independent market. And in doing so, made the vital decision to partner with third parties in order to use Steam as a platform for releases.
This revolutionary move in digital distribution paved the way for the independent gaming circle as we see it today. Suddenly it became possible for small man teams, varying anywhere from one lone man to groups of four or five, to fully produce a game that fits in with their vision. Creativity flourished and from the realms of flash gaming sites like Newgrounds came huge increases in impressive and unique titles that could now breathe some new life into the gaming industry.
It wasn’t long until Microsoft noticed the potential of these small, largely unheard of teams. Microsoft introduced an annual event in 2008 for this purpose: The Summer of Arcade. And with it one of biggest explosions of the independent market, a title many people now know, Braid. This small, beautiful, and emotional tale was representative of the true potential of independent developers. Renowned for its art style and unique plot points, it quickly rose to be a best seller and immediately drew attention to the future of independent gaming.
From here, developers such as Edmund McMillen and Tommy Rifenes (Super Meat Boy), Phil Fish (Fez), Playdead (LIMBO), Thatgamecompany (Journey), and Cellar Door Games (Rogue Legacy) have all capitalised upon increased mainstream interest in independent developers and have gone on to create some true masterpieces of gaming history.
And it doesn’t end here. Increasingly we are seeing smaller developers funded completely by companies such as Sony, Microsoft, and Ubisoft. Additionally, they are giving them the space needed in order utilise innovative ideas to produce great games. Thanks to games like these the classic platformer genre has been completely rejuvenated, storyline and plot lines have once again taken centre stage in gaming, and many major companies are taking precautions to ensure quality in all their title, as indie games regularly do.
It is definitely a refreshing sight now that gaming has taken this self-reflexive and introspective viewpoint. Games have taken a step back, looked at themselves, and said ‘What do we truly love about games?’ and if you’re going to use that as the first step, then it’s most definitely true that the independent market could be the site or some of the major innovations going into the future.