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Everything you should know about indie game developers

If high-budget AAA titles fail to entertain and surprise you, then you should take a look at indie games. This is probably the purest form of game development because these projects are created by enthusiasts who are not afraid to experiment. Today indie game developers are responsible for the bravest and boldest titles on the market. But what does it take to be successful in this field? Let's find out!

The truth, facts, and myths about indie game developers

With the rise of crowdfunding platforms in recent years, more developers and investors have decided to step into the gaming industry without relying on major publishing companies. Sometimes even renowned creators come with their new projects to Kickstarter, trying to raise money for their games with unique vision and style. But in this case, they act as indie game developers. So today we set on a quest to analyze and examine the indie layer of the gaming industry. You will learn what it takes to start a small studio, how it works, what challenges it faces, and much more!

What is indie game development?

Usually, big game developers work in established companies and produce amazing titles you know and love. Big projects normally have a publisher that finances the development, takes care of all marketing needs as well as release and post-release routines. On the other hand, there are independent game developers that create games without any obligations to suits and moneybags.

Unlike many major studios that produce high-budget AAA titles, game-loving enthusiasts usually work in small groups. Indie game developers are not afraid to put their bravest and riskiest ideas to the test. They often prefer not to follow the industry standards and make games as they see fit without fantasizing about millions of copies sold and commercial success.

Sure, the gaming industry is one of the most lucrative and rich digital markets, but indie studios rarely get a slice of that money cake. However, there are also stories of major success like Minecraft that motivate more developers to try themselves in this field. Due to the availability of tutorials/courses and the gradual simplification of the development process, more indie gaming companies appear on the scene. Whether they succeed or not often depends on pure luck.

It means that the majority of these creators will spend their resources and skills to achieve almost nothing. On the other hand, such studios have to improvise and innovate to make memorable video games. After all, limitations force people to be extra inventive. For us, players, it promises new groundbreaking features and other advancements that enhance the gaming experience.

How to get started with indie?

Let us assume that you have come up with a fantastic idea for your game. Or maybe you have a bunch of vague ideas that can be turned into something bigger if put together correctly. Now you need a structured plan to follow step by step and make your project come to life. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut or magic button that will transform your concepts into reality. However, teams of dedicated specialists and studios can give you a proper consultation or provide the services required. This is going to be your starting point.

We believe that consultation with industry experts is a must in the beginning. Why? Because if you are new to game development, you don’t know how much a project or its particular features will cost and how long it will take to finalize them. This covers all aspects, including game design development, drawing concept art, programming, testing, and other things that must be done. Once you get at least approximate numbers on costs and time, you will have a clear scope of your project. This information will be enough to decide whether you got enough resources for the endeavor and proceed or change something fundamentally in your plan.

Motivation and reasoning are also crucial for indie game developers. If you are planning to earn a big buck on your first project, then you will be disappointed. This niche on the market is not exactly lucrative but still stressful and unpredictable. Some titles become hits right after the release; for some, it takes years, while others never receive fame or appreciation. But if you really love games and want to produce one based on your idea, we welcome you to try it. Just don’t forget to talk with expert developers first!

What’s brewing inside an indie studio?

Working processes in indie gaming companies can differ from the ones in huge established studios. Obviously, it is much easier to organize and manage a small team of 5-10 than multiple departments with 50-100 members in total. Nevertheless, it takes a talented leader to assess the strength of his team sensibly and set reasonable deadlines.

Small collectives can be more productive at times if the people working in them genuinely love what they do. Indie studios don’t rely on the classic «I’m the boss - you do what I say» scheme. Independent game developers must feel united, be one organism, where every piece is integral. All personnel must be willing to do what is needed, and there is no place for “not my job” discussions. Each working day and each meeting must be productive and reasonable.

In terms of hierarchy, indie gaming companies usually prefer the horizontal model. It makes sense because the amounts of work are not excessive, all developers have their specializations, and only one manager is needed for cooperation between micro-departments. When such a company grows bigger, then it might require more optimization of development pipelines.

Most successful indie games

Independent projects can be bold, can experiment with various game mechanics and concepts freely, thus provoking extraordinary (sometimes - controversial even) emotions in players. You must have heard big success stories of indie game creators that prove that you don’t need thousands of people and tons of money to create a fantastic product. Sometimes just bare faith and dedication to the cause is enough. To back up this statement, we would like to present to you our list of top-5 successful indie games. There is no particular order in the list, so don’t pay too much attention to the game’s position on it.

Release date: November 18, 2011 (official)
Platforms: Windows, Linux, macOS, PS3+, Xbox 360+
Developer: Mojang Studios
Sold: 238 million copies
Right now, we cannot say that Minecraft is a product of indie game developers, but it was in the beginning. This simple yet incredibly deep and complex game satisfies one of our essential needs – the need for self-realization. It provided millions of players with tools and space to let their inner creators do whatever they wanted. Today Minecraft is more than just a game – it is a universe that prospers and evolves with each update.
The success of Minecraft was sealed when Microsoft decided to buy the title for $2.5 billion. This astronomical sum made this project the most successful indie game ever made. Its author, Markus “Notch” Persson, released the first public version of Minecraft back in 2009. One year later, Notch started a public alpha-test and initiated paid early access. He used this financial boost to quit his main job and focus on improving his digital creation. In September of 2010, Markus founded Mohjang Studios with his friends to make Minecraft even better.
The game has become a worldwide phenomenon. It is loved by gamers of all types and ages. Minecraft is available on all platforms, including portative consoles and next-gen consoles. No wonder that it has become the best-selling game in history, with 238 million copies sold.

Release: July 21, 2010 (Xbox Live Arcade)
Platforms: all platforms
Developer: Playded
Sold: over 6 million copies
Limbo is a story about a boy looking for his lost sister in a gloomy monochromatic world. The visual style of this game looks simplistic yet super enigmatic. This grim side-scrolling platformer challenges you with clever puzzles often based on real-world physics. It might not be hard to beat like some other games on this list, but it does not need to. Talented indie game developers from Playded invite players to discover the mystery and dissolve in a visually stunning game environment.
Limbo was critically acclaimed and received multiple rewards. It took two weeks to sell over 240 000 copies of the game, which was already a great success. However, after the game’s release on PS3 and PC (initially it was an Xbox exclusive), Playded reported about 3 million copies sold. As for 2021, this number has doubled.

Release: May 16, 2011
Platforms: all platforms
Developer: Re-Logic
Sold: over 35 million copies
Back in the day, Terraria was labeled as ”Minecraft in 2D”. The titles shared many similarities indeed: look-alike graphics, crafting, building activities, and the ability to realize your ideas within the game world. However, over time many things have changed. Today Terraria is not a simple, humble project but one of the most successful indie games with loads of fascinating mechanics, scenarios, and content. Players are free to explore the procedurally generated game world and go on adventures backed up by the complex crafting system.
What makes Terraria unique, that it is a product of two independent game developers who never stopped working on their dream project since its release in 2011. It seems that today each new major update brings more players in. By the end of 2020, Re-Logic sold over 35 million copies of Terraria, and who knows how many should we add to that number by the end of 2021.

Release: September 29, 2017
Platforms: Windows, macOS, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Studio MDHR
Sold: over 6 million copies
This 2D-platformer will destroy you with its crazy difficulty and dynamic run-and-gun gameplay. However, it is not the difficulty the game is known for in the first place but for its visual style. Each time you start Cuphead, you dive into one of those old classic cartoons by Disney and other studios.
Indie game developers from Studio MDHR wanted all the models, environmental details, and animations to be hand-drawn, so they did! It took years, but the result is worth the effort. Luckily the game was a commercial success – more than a million copies sold in two weeks after the release! The total number of copies on all platforms in 2021 exceeds 6 million copies.

Super Meat Boy
Release: October 20, 2010
Platforms: Windows, macOS, Linux, Xbox 360, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U, Nintendo Switch
Developer: Team Meat
Sold: over 2 million copies
If you want something even more challenging than Cuphead in terms of gameplay, try Super Meat Boy. It is a bizarre hardcore platformer where your death is inevitable. SMB is not for the faint of heart – you will die a lot before getting used to the controls and game mechanics. Also, don’t forget to bring nerves of steel and loads of free time to hone your skills and reaction! If you lose focus for a millisecond, your lovely red protagonist will die instantly. Consider this a warning!
For some, Super Meat Boy is exciting and frustrating at the same time. But for independent game developers from Team Meat, it is nothing but a huge success. Originally published on Xbox Live Arcade in October of 2010 and then made available on Windows, Super Meat Boy reached 1 million copies in January 2012. Another million came in 2013. We don’t have exact information for 2021 but believe it should be somewhere between 4-6 million.

NFT games wave

With all the recent hype around cryptocurrencies, the field of non-fungible tokens or NFTs has also received its share of interest. These tokens use blockchain technology and represent various objects that exist in one copy. So, for example, a real painting or mp3 file with a song can have a unique NFT attached to it, and that token will have a monetary value, which means it can be sold.

This technology could not stay away from the gaming industry for too long, and as a result, today, we have NFT games where players can earn crypto rewards. Different in-game objects and items can be tokenized and sold. How about a collection of swords or maybe a garage full of futuristic supercars – all with their own NFTs? For this to work, a game must have certain trading and collecting mechanics. Otherwise, players won’t be able to produce and sell tokens. Each NFT game has its own rules regarding token trading and crypto rewards for players. In some cases, it is even possible to have regular income from playing.

But what’s in it for indie game creators? Lots of attention and powerful advertising for the project (if done correctly). Cryptocurrencies bring potential investors (players) that look for promising projects that can become the next Minecraft so to say. Having an early start in such games with NFTs allows hoarding a vast collection of unique things to sell later on. The more players come to your game, the more funds you have to support and improve it.

In 2021, NFT games have become a big thing. Titles like Axie Infinity have more than a million active users and a web marketplace with thousands of items selling daily. When games development and blockchain technology unite, they may produce original gameplay solutions that reward developers and players. We are looking forward to seeing where it will lead us in the nearest future.

Challenges Indie gaming companies face

Small independent teams of developers can be easier to manage compared to huge studios, but there are other significant challenges to deal with.

Lack of experience or particular skills
It is not uncommon for passionate indie developers to have a great idea but not enough experience or expertise to turn it into a game. Some projects struggle with main gameplay elements; some don’t have intuitive interfaces; others lack content, and so on. It is understandable: without professional developers in each department, you cannot create a working game. That is why the indie market used to be full of low-quality games.

Poor marketing
One of the main reasons why indie games fail is the lack of funding for effective PR campaigns. You cannot underestimate the power of marketing today. Big companies are willing to spend millions on ads and promotions with popular bloggers, artists, and movie stars. Unfortunately, even a powerful PR campaign does not necessarily guarantee that your game will be commercially successful with millions of copies sold. But indie game creators have practically zero chances to get noticed without advertisements and promos.

Oversaturated market
The number of indie releases per year began to grow almost exponentially in past years. Most indie gaming companies chose to release on Steam because new titles on the platform rarely got a thorough examination. Back in the day, the store was flooded with low-quality projects, famous games clones, and even fraudulent programs that had mined cryptocurrency unbeknownst to users. Eventually, Steam decided to end this madness and closed the Greenlight program in favor of their new initiative called Steam Direct. Now Valve’s specialists spend days checking if a new indie game meets the platform’s requirements. However, the market still stays overcrowded with indie titles of questionable quality.

Starting small
If you plan to make your dream game, you probably should not start working on it without practice. It would be better to create a few small games first to see how it goes and how it works. After completing and releasing several titles, you will understand all processes better and will be ready to take on the game you always wanted to build.

It is hard to persuade investors to give you money when you are a no-name in the industry. So you have to find other ways to fund your project. Sometimes crowdfunding platforms help with that, but you still need to present your future game properly and convince random people on the Internet to become your backers.

Looking for a development partner

Established indie developers have all the necessary skills, experience, and vision for producing and promoting video games. In addition to that, they have a motivated desire to move forward fueled by their previous success. They are determined to expand their knowledge in programming, designing, graphics, marketing, and so on. But what to do if you are a rookie in the gaming industry but still want to make games? Look for a reliable development partner, of course!

Today it is common to cooperate with dedicated studios that have experience in game development. The experts will gladly consult you and introduce you to the basics of game making. In the beginning, proper advice can make a world of difference and save you a lot of trouble. That is why here, at Argentics, we prefer a structured approach when working with all our clients. Whether it is going to be a partial outsource job or a fully-fledged project development from A to Z, our specialists will support you on all stages.

And here is a quick list of “to-dos” for beginner independent game developers:
  • Focus on the quality of your games, not quantity or length. It is better to release a small solid game than a half-baked frankenstein without enough content.
  • Participate in regular brainstorms with your team and development partners. Therefore, you can come up with original ideas to complement your project.
  • Leave the marketing to professionals: drawing promotional art, making video ads, writing press releases – not your job. Instead, keep the focus on the game.
  • Test game features and mechanics in practice, not on paper. No matter how strange some suggestions might sound, they still deserve to be tested. Maybe they will become a big hit.

Final thoughts

Many beginner developers and investors think that the gap between commercial projects and indie games is insurmountable. They assume that only big-budgeted blockbusters with insane marketing pools can be successful. But these are two extremes, and there is enough space in the middle. With a smart approach to game development and reliable partners on your side, it is possible to create your own games with humble budgets. Of course, you will need a cool idea and original features to make your project noticeable. Who knows, maybe your title will be the next Minecraft or Terraria?
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