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How indie games went mainstream
Indie games continue to appear, and the industry is quickly seeing a normalization of indie at a larger scale. Where did this come from, and what opportunities exist for indie developers as future projects grow and change?
What was once a niche genre of games has expanded into a large and innovative world of development. Indie developers continue to shock and expand the limitations of design, and further, they are being published and promoted like AAA titles. Indie games have been normalized and are no longer a niche as they once were. With indie games being promoted to the forefront, it’s a good time to look at why indie games have risen to the surface.
Why indie games are on the rise
Indie games, at their core, have one strength that AAA titles can not afford: they can take risks. From low graphic options to unconventional controls, indie games have long been a bastion of new ideas and experiences. Combine that flow of creativity with flexible publishing options like Steam and GOG, and indie games have a world of growth opportunities.
While indie games have been around for over 20 years, the accessibility of game development tools and lessons has also played a vital part in the growth of the genre. Unity offers lessons on game development, Blender is a free 3D modeling tool for asset generation, and there are countless open-source game engines to run your latest creation. For many game developers, all the tools are available and waiting for a new idea to launch into the indie sphere.
Meanwhile, larger development studios run on complex engines and they are bound by publisher and fan expectations. Brand appearance is important, and a failed launch could doom a studio from breaching the market for several years. Indie studios do not share the same stress during the development process, and rather approach game development like an artist rather than a business. With time and resources available, every risk is warranted within the indie sphere.
Source: VG Insights - Indie games make up 40% of units sold and almost 30% of revenue on Steam during 2021.
As Andy Schatz, the founder of Pocketwatch Games, stated "It's part of the nature of the indie scene to cater to audiences that aren't being satisfied by big-budget games, so I think there will always be an indie scene making the games that the AAA guys and gals are too risk-averse to attempt."
Major contributions from PlayStation and Xbox
Major studios have begun to invest in indie developers and are funding a variety of projects for full release. Xbox has the ID@Xbox program that has been going on for nine years helping indies to self-publish. The project focuses on the ability of smaller releases being able to explore ideas and expand without the weight of competing with fan expectations.
Indie developers, through programs like this, have started to create a wide variety of content and found a way to create sustainable businesses to make their art a reality. Further, smaller titles do not discriminate against genres, and by empowering new developers, Xbox’s ID@Xbox program can invest in the future of gaming.
Source: Microsoft ID@Xbox program
Playstation has also taken up the mantle by expanding opportunities across the world for indie game development. With multiple showcase opportunities, fully funded budgets, and a wide variety of educational resources available, this program can help small ideas become giant ones. To further stimulate the industry, PlayStation revealed a $10 million dollar fund to support indie developers throughout COVID-19. This fund supports the publishing of not only indie games for PlayStation but indie game releases across multiple platforms.
With heavy foundations being set, indie development teams are able to invest in their own self-publishing options. Crowdfunding, streamlined distribution, and influencer marketing platforms open the door for publishing without major publishing companies. This increases the influx of indie games available and creates room across the industry for the overall normalization of indie game publishing.
For those looking for crowdfunding opportunities, Kickstarter and similar services have created a strong environment for indie development. However, the distribution of media and early access to the game itself has helped create an environment for self-publishing throughout the development process. Despite the minor stigma revolving around early access releases, the varying programs on Steam, Xbox, and PlayStation have proved viable for launching low-budget projects prior to a full release.
Self-publication does not come without its challenges, but studios that succeed at self-publishing their titles tend to have a stronger stance when approaching their next release. Dedicated practices, lessons learned, and a mountain of viable data to analyze for an indie development self-publishing is only the first step in a long journey.
Passion driven innovation
This discussion would not be complete without a dip into why indie games surge and the passion that drives the world of indie game publishing. These developers can create their titles without the fear of preconceived expectations or the deadlines that larger studios often deal with. This turns almost every indie creation into a project driven by passion. As indie games' popularity becomes more normalized, these projects are able to reach even larger audiences and expand way beyond any expectations set years prior.