Uncharted Territory: The History of Indie Video Games

(Written as of 2014)

Whilst there is no universally accepted definition of what an indie game actually is, it is a generally shared commonality that they mainly consist of games developed by independent video game companies. But the term “indie game” can also refer to games developed with insubstantial financial backing, or games, which are simply considered to be generally inferior to mainstream titles. To have indie games funded, indie developers can choose to rely on either establishing crowd-funded campaigns to fund their games, or building community support whilst their games are in development; communities most commonly found on the internet, as a majority of indie games originate on PC before they are considered to be ported for home consoles, depending on their level of popularity and critical acclaim as well as sales figures. The difference between indie game development and hobbyist game development being that indie developers are much more product-orientated.

Although most people may think that the indie game development scene is generally a new phenomenon, it’s origins can actually be traced back to the late 70’s during the arcade era, when there was next to no established computer gaming industry at all. Indie games were first most commonly distributed amongst friends, coining the term “shareware” titles; most notably throughout the 1990’s. But the most notable story throughout this early period of the movement was the founding of the company Activision back in 1979. When Atari were at their apex, they saw their game developers as nothing more than disposable commodities. They did not promote their developers, or even credit them for their work, insisting that they remain anonymous; even in interviews, Atari had their names changed in order to keep knowledge of their involvement in the development of their games a secret. Four Atari employees, David Crane, Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead, one day decided that they’d just about had enough of it, following their failure to demand from Atari that they change these policies; the end result being the four developers regarded as “towel designers”, and that “anyone can do a cartridge”. So they then decided to leave Atari, and form Activision; the world’s first independent games development company. They took the name Activision for the sole purpose of appearing before Atari in the phonebook.

In the early stage of their existence, the problem was that rather than create a new console from the ground up, they instead decided to continue developing games for the Atari 2600 console, as well as venture in other form of software rather than merely video games. Atari, infuriated by this, attempted to sue Activision, as the newly found outfit’s titles consisted of over half of Atari’s cartridge sales at the time. The court case wasn’t settled until 1982, which resulted in things going Activision’s way, which ultimately ended in the legitimization of third-party games development.

As the industry was almost finished in the early 80’s, and as it then began to rebuild in the middle and late periods of the decade, video games were cited as becoming increasingly more difficult to publish. In particular, it was then-prominent game designer Chris Crawford who was quoted as saying:

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 prospect. It’s much more difficult to break in, much less stay in. Right now … I would discourage anyone. If you want to do a game, do it for fun, but don’t try to do game designs to make any money. The odds are so much against the individual that I would hate to wish that heartbreak on anyone.”

So judging from what was considered a professional opinion at the time, but what may not be considered by some now, it seemed that hobbyist games development had a bleak future ahead of it, and was looking most like a very fleeting thing in the industry. This fire seemed to be even further fuelled before the mid 90’s, when commercial game distribution was solely controlled by the biggest names in publishers and retailers. Things looked even worse for indie game developers, as at the time, they were forced to self-publish their games by building their own publishing companies, find a publisher willing to distribute their games or distribute their games in some form of shareware. However, doing so was made a very considerable risk, given the heightened production costs implemented in the early 2000’s.

However, some indie developers were able to begin taking the opportunity of making their games open source, thus creating a much larger group of potential participants, depending, of course, on overall interest in their games. The method of making games open source was adopted to also prevent their games becoming Abandonware. This also allowed games to be ported onto multiple systems, and thus further increasing their potential audience, whilst also providing software support by themselves, when developers ended official support.

Digital distribution, which has been made available since the 2000’s, continued to offer new possibilities to indie game developers, who now have the ability to bypass big-name publishers in order to have their games more widely distributed. The rise of online video games shopping and digital distribution has seen a huge boost in the development of independent video games created on small budgets. Probably the greatest example of which is Minecraft.

Since the release of the game back in 2009, Minecraft has become a global success, becoming the second best selling video game of all time. Swedish programmer Markus Perrson began to develop the game as an independent project for King.com. The inspiration for Minecraft came from such games as Dwarf Fortress and Dungeon Keeper. It was visualized as an isometric 3D building game, which would also later become influenced by a title called Infiminer; another independently developed game. It was released on May 17th 2009 as a developmental alpha release. Since then, it was built on and heavily modified by Perrson and has garnished an unprecedented amount of universal acclaim, global popularity and commercial success. When games like this are released, it’s no wonder that big-name game companies such as Sony have chosen to delve deeper into this market and potentially uncover a few diamonds in the rough. Overall, I believe the future of independent games development looks increasingly more exciting, with the release of Don’t Starve on the PlayStation 4, and of course, the release of other games in recent years, which have garnished much popularity, such as Castle Crashers, Super Meat Boy and World of Goo. I hope that Sony can just keep continuing this good run of form in putting out indie games that are of undeniable quality, but with several big-name titles on the way in the near future, it will by no means be a walk in the park for indie game developers to compete in this ever-growing and ever-thriving industry.


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