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An independent video game, or an indie game, is a video game that is often created without the financial support of a publisher, although some games funded by a publisher are still considered "indie". Indie games often focus on innovation and rely on digital distribution. Indie gaming saw a rise in mainstream popularity in the latter half of the 2000s, primarily due to new online distribution methods and development tools. Some indie games have been very successful financially, such as Undertale, Braid, World of Goo, and Minecraft.
There is no exact, widely accepted definition of what constitutes an "indie game", however, indie games generally share certain characteristics. Indie games are developed by individuals, small teams, or small independent companies; companies that are often specifically formed for the development of one specific game. Typically, indie games are smaller than mainstream titles. Indie game developers are generally not financially backed by video game publishers (who are risk-averse and prefer big-budget games) and usually have little to no budget available. Being independent, indie developers do not have controlling interests or creative limitations and do not require publisher approval as mainstream game developers usually do. Design decisions are thus also not limited by the allocated budget. Furthermore, smaller team sizes increase individual involvement. Indie games can also be considered third party games if they are developed for a system not owned by the indie company. Minecraft, for example, on Nintendo Switch is both an indie title and a third party title.
Small teams, scope, and no creative restrictions have made indie games known for innovation, creativity, and artistic experimentation. Developers limited in ability to create graphics can rely on gameplay innovation. Both classic game genres and new gameplay innovation have been seen. However, being "indie" does not imply that the game focuses on innovation. In fact, many games attributed the "indie" label can be of poor quality and may not be made for profit.
Further, indie games do not need to be completely isolated from large publishers to be considered indie. For example, Bastion, developed by Supergiant Games, was published by Warner Bros. Interactive. Though Warner Bros. paid for the distribution and marketing of the title, Supergiant Games refused any funding for development costs, building the game on their own, and the resulting title is considered an indie game by the industry.
To fund the game, developers can rely on starting a crowd-funding campaign, finding a publisher, or building community support while in development. Without publisher support, developers generally rely on Internet digital distribution options. Most indie games do not make a significant profit.
Indie game development should not be confused with hobbyist game development, as indie developers are generally more product-oriented than hobbyist game creators. Many hobbyist developers create mods of existing games, or work with specific technologies or game parts. Such hobbyists usually produce non-commercial products and may range from novices to industry veterans.
The onset of indie game development is difficult to track due to the broadness of what constitutes the definition of an indie game, and terms like "indie game" were not really in use until around 1999–2004.
The indie game scene started on PCs, where it remains prominent. In the 1970s and 1980s, PCs were seen as more utilitarian, and there was little market for games on these systems. Due to this, early games for PCs were often coded by one or two programmers and self-distributed in stores or mail order. Shareware games became a popular means to distribute demos or partially complete games in the 1980s and into the 1990s, where players could purchase the full game from the vendor after trying it. As such demos were generally free to distribute, shareware demo compilations would frequently be included in gaming magazines at that time, providing an easy means for indie developers to be recognized. The ability to produce numerous copies of games, even if just shareware/demo versions, at a low cost helped to propel the idea as the PC as a gaming platform.
By the mid-1990s, the recognition of the PC as a viable gaming option, and advances in technology that led to 3D gaming created many commercial opportunities for video games. During the last part of the 1990s, the indie game scene subsided, since a small team could not readily compete in costs, speed and distribution as a commercial entity could.
Indie development saw a resurgence in the early 2000s, principally driven by the availability of online distribution over the Internet, allowing game developers to sell directly to players and bypassing limitations of retail distribution. Software technologies used to drive the growth of the World Wide Web, like Adobe Flash, were available at low cost to developers, and provided another means for indie games to grow. The new interest in indie games led to middleware and game engine developers to offer their products at low or no cost for indie development, in addition to open source libraries and engines. Dedicated software like GameMaker Studio and tools for unified game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine removed much of the programming barriers needed for a prospective indie developer to create these games.
While direct online distribution helped indie games to reach players, the arrival of online digital game storefronts such as Steam and GOG.com further boosted awareness of indie games, as these storefronts allowed developers to publish, update, and advertise their games directly, and players to download the games anywhere, with the storefront otherwise handling the distribution and sales factors. While Steam itself initially began heavy curation, it eventually allowed for indie publishing with its Steam Greenlight and Steam Direct programs, vastly increasing the number of games available. Separately, console game systems from the seventh generation in 2005 and onward included Internet-based services for players, such as Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and Nintendo Network, which included digital distribution of games. Following the increased awareness of indie games for PC, these services started publishing indie games alongside commercial offerings to expand their libraries.
Indie gaming saw a further boost by the use of crowdfunding as a means for indie developers to raise funds to produce a game and to determine the desire for a game, rather than risk time and investment into a game that does not sell well. While video games had used crowdfunding prior to 2012, several large indie game-related projects successfully raised millions of dollars through Kickstarter, and since then, several other similar crowdfunding options for game developers have become available. A number of boutique indie game publishers have appeared to support funding, technical support, and publishing of indie games across various digital and retail platforms. Examples of such companies include Devolver Digital, Chucklefish, Gun Media, Raw Fury, 505 Games, Private Division, and Annapurna Interactive. Other boutique publishers have come from established properties, such as Double Fine Productions who offer publishing services atop their own development studio, and Cartoon Network's Adult Swim progaming that has expanded into games publishing.
As the mainstream video game industry is comparable to the mainstream film industry, so is the indie game industry comparable to the independent film industry. However, game distribution is shifting towards online marketing. For developers, online marketing is much more profitable and more readily available than retail marketing, although distribution portals have been criticized for collecting a large portion of game revenue.
In 2008, a developer could earn around 17% of a game's retail price, and around 85% if sold digitally. This can lead to the appearance of more "risky" creative projects. Furthermore, the expansion of social websites has introduced gaming to casual gamers. Nevertheless, there are few examples of games that have made large profits, and for many, indie game-making serves as a career stepping stone, rather than a commercial opportunity.
There is contention as to how prominent indie gaming is in the video game industry. Most games are not widely known or successful, and mainstream media attention remains with mainstream titles. This can be attributed to a lack of marketing for indie games, but indie games can be targeted at niche markets.
Indie Game Jam (IGJ) is an annual event that allows indie game developers to experiment and present ideas without publisher restrictions. IGJ was founded by Chris Hecker and Sean Barrett and first held in March 2002. Each year IGJ poses different questions about innovation in settings, genres, and controls. The IGJ was considered an inspiration for later game jams, including the Nordic Game Jam and the Global Game Jam (GGJ), which was first held in 2009 with 1650 participants at 53 locations.
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