The Complete History of Indie Games
From humble beginnings to Humble Bundles, the history of indie games is one of serious graft.
What makes a video game an indie game? Ask anyone who plays or makes independent video games and not only will you receive a sigh of exasperation, but you might even receive a different response from each. Indie games are largely defined through what they aren’t, which proves their general definition exceedingly difficult.
The term itself has meant different things to different people at different points in history. Some picture a coder grafting through the night in their parents’ basement, while others see a game appearing on a digital marketplace without a publisher banner. Others take one look at the aesthetic or difficulty of a game and can determine whether or not it’s deemed indie.
Arguably, all of these definitions can be taken together to form the three building blocks of the modern independent developer, and each has played its part in the history of indie games – a history which, with the help of some of the most influential figures in indie games, we’re going to deep-dive today.
From Bedrooms To Boardrooms
The early 80s was a turbulent time for video games. While Mario was saving princesses in the hands of millions, and arcade floors were at their stickiest, a market crash and the emerging disrepute of video games were threatening to end the party outright. Beneath the bright lights of Nintendo and Sega and the implosion of Atari, however, the PC was rising. Consoles were hit hardest by the 1983 video game crash, as cartridges flooded retailers and values fell through the floor.
In response, a nerd army began to rise up – grabbing their ZX81s, VIC-20s, and Acorn Atoms and promising a better future for the entertainment medium they’d come to inhabit. These nerd armies were prepared, too. During this era, playing new games on your machine was as simple as coding it yourself from a magazine. If there was a bug, you’d have a month’s wait ahead of you before an update was written out for you to copy. Often, you solved it yourself.
The games industry itself was breeding its next generation of grafters, equipping them with an understanding of programming, a hunger to create new experiences, and a passion for tinkering with the code they’d been handed. If big-name developers couldn’t make the games players wanted, the players would. After all, if you want a job done properly, do it yourself.
One of the biggest games to emerge from this period, Football Manager, was created after designer Kevin Toms decided to combine his football management board game ideas with the new technology now at his disposal.
“The first computer I created Football Manager on was a Video Genie, which was a TRS80 clone,” Toms remembers. “The ZX81 was the second version, and essential to the future success of the game because of a much bigger UK market at the time.” Before long, Kevin Toms had created Football Manager – and with it, an entire video game genre from his bedroom.
Meanwhile, Rare founders Tim and Chris Stamper were coding a small shooter called Jetpac that would go on to win Game of the Year at the Golden Joysticks in 1983. These first indie developers sold their games via mail order in the absence of high street retailers. Send a developer a cheque for a fiver in mid-80s Britain, and you’d soon receive your game preloaded onto a cassette.
“When I released Football Manager it was January 1982,” says Kevin Toms, “and at that time, all of the games developers were indies. There were no publishers, so the only way was to do it ourselves. In fact, there were not even any retail outlets, no shops selling games at first. So the only way you could reach your customer was to place ads in magazines and sell by mail order, and that was exactly what I, and the others around at the time, did.”
It was a grassroots industry, an undercurrent running further away from the mass market degeneration of mainstream console gaming with every brown paper envelope sent.
That wouldn’t last, of course. Soon, distributors started sniffing the familiar scent of money changing hands and turned their attention to the young computer geniuses creating the popular underground gaming scene.
A Shareware Society
If you were considering creating an indie game in 1984, your prospects would be bleak. Chris Crawford famously lamented: “I will point out the sad truth. We have pretty much passed the period where hobbyists could put together a game that would have commercial prospects… If you want to do a game, do it for fun, but don’t try to do game designs to make any money.”
By the mid-90s, indie games were reduced to a select few crusaders keeping the march moving with a dollar note on a stick. Between 1983 and 1995, major changes scarred the landscape of the independent games industry. When distributors caught wind that people were paying real money for these basement games, bedroom coders were introduced to the world of publishers. When that world outgrew them, they were left on the outside.
Commercial game development had come to be controlled by big publishers and retailers. To survive, an indie developer would have to create their own publishing company, find a publisher willing to distribute their game, or give it away for free – large parts of it, anyway. In the end, many turned to the last option, Plan C. The era of shareware was upon us.
A standard video game in the early 90s was released via a central distributor and publishing party. Shareware encouraged users to rip software sent to them and send it on to whoever would appreciate it. If they enjoyed playing the game, they would open their trusty chequebook and purchase the full experience.
“The popularity of a game never implied financial success,” recalls Bill Dedes, developer of shareware titles Alive Sharks, Animal Quest, and Bill The Kid Returns. “Unlike Unity and Tool Shareware applications that required tech support or a detailed manual, games were consumables – and therefore the most successful games were the ones that employed a ‘give away a free demo and sell additional level or episodes’ technique.”
In what would become known as the Apogee Model, a shareware title would typically release in three parts. The first would be free to play and free to share, an introductory (and often the best) section of a game. Then, two commercial sections would be reserved for those who wanted in for the rest of the ride. Like all key events in the history of indie games, shareware represented a moment of pure dedication to the cause of creativity. “Specialised game resources were non-existent,” Dedes explains, “so authors had to do everything from scratch: coding, graphics, music, sound, marketing etc.”
Shareware offered a viable way of at least getting your bedroom creation under the thumbs of gamers; payment came later. That said, many shareware creations often led to a developer doing paid work for a major company, and the model supported the independent industry throughout the exponential growth of the commercial mainstream. Not only this, but shareware opened the floodgates for the indie PC revolution, with games like Commander Keen proving that home ‘work’ machines were capable of entertainment, and Jazz Jackrabbit offerings running parallel to the quality of commercial titles.
By the mid-90s, however, commercial giants completely outran the indies. Technology was developing at such an unprecedented rate, even smaller triple-A companies were left at the starting line. In the race for the video game upper hand, indies were in danger of forfeiting completely.
To stop the total destruction of the homegrown industry, indies went even further underground. Renowned RPG developer Jeff Vogel maintained his small slice of gaming with Spiderweb Software, releasing notable titles such as Exile and Geneforge during this period. And Newgrounds was soon founded by Tom Fulp, quickly developing into the first site that allowed users to upload their own games for general consumption. These practices would become the lifeline of the indie community… until Gabe Newell took the stand at GDC in 2002 and changed the history of indie games forever.
Let’s Get Digital: The Steam Revolution
Until the steampowered.com domain was registered, and while shareware titles continued to grind their way up the payment ladder, physical retail was where the money was. At the time, British indie studio Introversion was burning games to discs and taking orders online. Introversion would later be one of the first third-party developers to release on Steam, with their techno-adventure title Darwinia.
Co-founder Mark Morris remembers the frustrations of physical retail clearly. “Even if you managed to convince them to take your game, the deal terms were awful,” he says. “On a game that sold at £19.99, we might get about £2.99 back from the shop. You paid for the stock, and if the retailer didn’t sell it, they’d just send you a box of stock back and wouldn’t pay anything. And even if you got a major player to carry your games, there was no guarantee that they would even bother to put it on the shelves.”
As prospects of developing fully fledged games were becoming dimmer and dimmer, indie developers turned to modding existing games to keep their skills sharp and their name on a screen. When Gabe Newell and his team at Valve released Half-Life in 1998, they would have no idea of the impact they would have on the history of indie games. Their free software development kit generated a vibrant modding community that needed to be housed. Enter Steam.
It wasn’t until a year after its announcement that the Steam digital storefront first opened its doors in 2003. Buggy, overloaded, and painfully designed, the first iteration of Valve’s PC gaming power-house served the simple needs of distribution and updates for Valve games and the modders who supported them. While it was certainly nowhere near perfect, Steam represented the first successful attempt at creating a digital distribution service that honed in on its users’ needs. Games could be downloaded onto any computer, forever.
2005 marked a beacon of hope for the independent developers pushed underground by the giants of the commercial industry. Valve signed a series of distribution agreements that afforded it the freedom to sell games not made in-house. Ragdoll Kung Fu and Darwinia would become the first third-party titles on the service.
Mark Morris recalls how the team initially had reservations about signing with the young company. “Obviously Steam had asked to take a cut, so the question that pre-occupied us was: ‘why should we give them a cut when the customer is only a click away from our store?’.”
But as Morris says, “in those days, online retail was very poorly understood,” and ultimately the team found out that their concerns were unfounded: “Darwinia was the second non-Valve game on Steam and it sold considerably more there than we had ever sold from our crappy webshop.”
Not only was Steam ramping up to take on the mainstream gaming industry, but a year previously, Bill Gates had announced Xbox Live Arcade at the Microsoft Conference. When the Xbox 360 launched in 2005, the service took off. Live Arcade proved important in getting big budget names behind the indie movement, providing the status and financial security of the Microsoft brand.
Together, Steam and Xbox Live Arcade dropped the ladder and pulled underground indie devs up into the sun. The opportunity to make money from a program written in a bedroom was once again open, and many came to the independent scenes from a number of different backgrounds. Burnt-out employees took refuge from commercial games giant bureaucracy, desperately seeking creative freedom, and hobbyists took to their keyboards once more. With the industry already thriving, software was created to further bolster it – Game Maker and Unity became staples of a programmer’s toolkit. The effects of the indie boom were translated across press, as the word ‘indie’ started to enter mainstream media with significant status attached to it.
“Steam was fair and honest,” explains Morris. “Once you were through the front door it felt like the world was your oyster – for pretty much any independent game. It was perceived to be a bit of a club, though. I was constantly asked, ‘how do you get a Steam deal?’. There were whole masterclasses on it at games industry conferences.”
A year after Steam first opened its doors to third-party titles, the service had almost 100 games available, and the issue of visibility began its early rumblings.
As the independent industry flourished, with rising ecosystems fuelling further developments and public consciousness at an all-time high, it became clear that indies were here to stay. Certain genres began to bloom in popularity and soon came to epitomise indie culture in many eyes. Old-school pixel aesthetics took arcade veterans back to the 8-bit days, while narrative exploration games like Dear Esther and Gone Home introduced the potential for games to offer profound messages and stories.
The industry was at an all-time creative high, pushing textual and industrial conventions with each new release. One of the earliest players in this rush to innovation was The Chinese Room with Dear Esther – often considered to be the first ‘walking simulator’. “Steam had just opened up,” remembers creative director Dan Pinchbeck, “but the market was significantly smaller than now, which meant titles could really stand out, and experimentation felt really fresh. By 2011/2012 it was just a snowballing thing where everyone was pushing the boundaries and audiences were really into that. Esther was part of that movement.”
Dear Esther itself is a shining example of the history of indie games timeline and the experimental titles it yielded. As Pinchbeck explains: “Esther was first a Half-Life 2 mod released on ModDB, and I figured we might get a couple of hundred downloads and people would probably have issues with it. We made the mod whilst I was working at a university and doing a PhD in first-person shooters, and it grew out of questions that had come up there. With Dear Esther and [its spiritual successor] Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, there was definitely an underlying experimentation. Esther came from the double-question of: ‘is story on its own enough for an engaging experience?’.”
More and more developers begin to leave big companies to start their own indie studios, and some of the industry’s greats saw the light of day, planted firmly in the fertile ground of the era. Three of the most successful titles of the era were introduced to wider audiences thanks to the wildly successful Indie Game: The Movie documentary that proved pivotal to the growing acceptance of the independent scene. These were games created by people, and passionate people at that. The story of Phil Fish’s agonising perfectionism over his title Fez may have defined him as an industry wild card, but ultimately enlightened the gaming and non-gaming public to the determined, artistically nuanced, grafting culture of the indie world.
These three titles, Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Fez, alongside Minecraft, would come to define the Indie Golden Era, and in themselves cement many of the key aspects of the industry in the minds of the public.
On 6th August 2008, Jonathan Blow released Braid. The Xbox Live Arcade title introduced players to the concept of personal stories with highly unique aesthetics. The idea that you were playing someone’s idea rather than a corporation’s budget became central to indie games.
Following Blow’s dreamy entrance, a gargantuan player entered the arena. Minecraft opened its pixel-heavy servers on the 17th of May 2009. Other than celebrating the potential of the pixel and demonstrating its power within a gaming landscape obsessed with beige realism, Minecraft offered a success story that encouraged countless others and brought press rooms knocking. Notch himself was hailed as a hero, a godlike figure of indie creativity and freedom evidenced by both his personal story and Minecraft gameplay.
Super Meat Boy followed in 2010, bringing with it a distinct sense of auteurist ownership that would come to separate the greats of the indie Who’s Who. A unique brand of comedy mixed with mechanics and gameplay that would be hailed as “incredible” by Gamespot and “tough as nails” by its developers introduced a key trope to the scene. Seemingly insane difficulty followed eventually by a smile of relief soon became a concoction well known to the indie gaming community.
In 2012, Fez was finally finished. Rather than serving as a pillar of indie development for its actual gameplay, however, the world-spinning platformer sits in the canon because of its creator’s seemingly eternal struggle to press upload. Phil Fish cemented the idea of the developer as a martyr to the cause and promoted the concept of a highly personal experience that many who were tired of the ever-masking triple-A beige were drawn to.
Amidst all this success, more distribution sites began to take advantage of the immense popularity of indie games, hungrily eyeing Steam’s monopoly. Humble Bundle was launched in 2010, encapsulating and modernising the ‘take a penny leave a penny’ foundations of the industry, while Itch.io was founded in March 2013 and still offers a classically underground indie experience today.
With the success stories piling up in the newsroom and new developers’ fingers itching for a piece of the pie, 2015 saw the independent industry reach boiling point. The popularity of platforms, prominence of godlike developer heroes, and ease of creation and distribution soon brought about murmurings of an ‘indiepocalypse’. In 2017, Steam Greenlight – a service that had offered new games a way to compete for carousel slots on various Steam pages via crowdsourcing – was shut down to be replaced by an open-door distribution policy, and the term threatened to come to fruition.
The indiepocalypse was based on a series of fears and unanswered questions spurred on by a sudden influx of poorly-produced titles. Shovelware threatened to eat through the Steam ecosystem and gamers began looking to the iOS App Store as a terrifying future of their PC gaming experience. Digital storefronts were crowded and developers faced the threatening possibility of paying a substantial amount of money to get onto a platform and never be seen.
Similarly, the over-saturation of the digital marketplace took many back to the start of this story with the Video Game Crash of 1983. These concerns around competition and saturation, however, formed a larger question of whether the recent changes to the industry are part of a natural business path, or the mark of the future of the industry.
If the former, we are to expect these rises and lulls in popularity, competition, and viability. If the result is the latter, we may see some dramatic changes to the operation and culture of the independent industry within the next few years.
“The numbers now are getting ever so slightly worse all the time, and it’s for a whole range of different factors which we’re never going to be able to fix,” says Mike Rose, indie game veteran and boss of publishing label No More Robots. “But I don’t know what that means. I honestly can’t say where that means we’re going to end up by the end of this year, but for anybody that wants to keep in business, it’s about keeping an eye on it and making sure that you are in the best position possible when shit really does start hitting the fan.”
Certainly, there are some comforting arguments against this happening. Looking to the App Store as a potential future model for Steam can be considered unproductive, due to the two distinct audiences that inhabit these marketplaces. The App Store offers quick browsing and impulse downloads based on 99p price tags or free-to-play models. Often these games are deleted just as rapidly as they’re downloaded. Steam, however, caters to gamers who have a larger vested interest in ensuring they are purchasing a worthwhile experience. These are consumers who are researching their purchases, taking advantage of the increased press surrounding available titles and contributing to a crowd curation of the most successful experiences. In this way, many argue that a genuinely good game will always make it on Steam because the audience will ensure that it does. Essentially, these arguments stem from the idea that if you’re worried about visibility on Steam, your game isn’t good enough.
The Chinese Room’s Dan Pinchbeck, however, isn’t sure that’s a fair assessment. “There were tons of people working on great games who still struggled [around the time of Dear Esther’s release],” he says, “so it’s not like everyone was a winner. It’s not that simple.”
The independent video game industry has been a pillar of creativity and freedom for much of commercial video games’ lifespan. Many make the mistake of attributing the movement’s beginning to the ’00s days of Minecraft, Cave Story, and Braid, but indie developers have always been there. When Donkey Kong was throwing barrels at Mario, indies were creating their own genres. When walls were smashed in Arkanoid, indies were breaking their own development barriers with a VIC-20 and a cuppa. When Sonic The Hedgehog was hanging upside down on an island with bizarre architecture, indies were waiting for cheques in the mail so that they could finally have someone play the second and third sections of their games. When the World of Warcraft server button was switched, Minecraft lit up as well.
“It connects back,” says Kevin Toms of the independent industry today. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m creating games again, because once more you can produce your own idea and bring it to market. You don’t need to get the approval of a publisher. This unleashes creative energy and freedom.” Big-budget games may be the historic face of the video game industry, but the indies were the creative backbone supporting the very experimentation, personalisation, and dedication that had laid the foundations of our entire medium from the start.
Additional reporting by Jon Calvin. Disclosure: Lewis Denby, the publisher of The Indie Game Website, has previously worked for The Chinese Room in a freelance capacity.