If you spend a lot time in the world of gaming, you know that independent games are a big deal. For some, it might feel like these games came out of nowhere. In reality, though, it’s been a long and storied road to get these games to consumers.
The Early Days: A World of Obscurity
The earliest days of gaming were, technically, made of nothing but independent developers. The lack of an established gaming industry in the late 1970s meant that the companies that made games were, at least by modern standards, the equivalent of current indie developers. It didn’t take long, though, for these small developers to be pushed out by larger conglomerates.
By the 1980s, a great deal of gaming’s momentum was tied up in arcades. If you wanted to get an arcade game made, you worked with one of a small number of major publishers. There was no such thing as an indie scene in the arcade world, though there were doubtlessly individuals who owned private cabinets and would tinker with the programs.
Most of the early indie gaming scene revolved around early home computers. The first PCs were affordable enough that hobbyists could finally started making games on their own. These games were rarely in anything that could be considered wide distribution, but they did exist. A fair number of major game programmers would come out of this burgeoning independent scene.
The 90s: Shareware
By the 1990s, the independent scene began to flourish in an unusual way. Instead of selling the independent titles, most were distributed as free shareware. While little or no money was made through this model, it gave programmers a chance to hone their skills. Independent games were often used as proof of concept, sometimes leading to an individual developer’s ability to become hired by a major company. These games ranged from simple modifications of existing games to major projects on their own, but they were still incredibly primitive compared to what most players would expect today.
There wasn’t really an independent gaming scene at all on the console market during this time period. The major console companies had a stranglehold on development and required that companies go through an often-expensive vetting process before they allowed games to be released on their systems. As such, there were a very limited number of games released for early consoles that didn’t bear the mark of a major developer – and those that did are almost all relegated to obscurity today. It would take at least another decade for independent games to hit the console market.
The 2000s: The Rise of the Indie
Everything began to change for indie games in the 2000s. The major reason for this, of course, was the internet. It became easier not just to distribute games for a limited cost, but to gain access to the tools. Platforms like Flash or XNA Game Studio began to put the power of development in more hands. Now that major retailers could be cut out of the loop, releasing a game could be as easy as creating a site to host the downloads. Some of the more successful indie developers had their roots in this time period, many of whom would go on to become major players in the industry later.
This is also the era in which indies began a slow march towards the consoles. While most of the games released in this era were still from major publishers, downloadable game stores on the consoles began to make room for the indies. Xbox Live was particularly important for the push forward of independent games on the console market, though the Playstation Store would ultimately catch up with Microsoft’s ambitious plans. By the end of the first decade of the 2000s, it was nearly as easy for a console gamer to find an indie game as it was for a PC gamer to do so.
Today: A Genre of its Own
Today, it’s as easy to find an indie game that suits your taste as it is to find a nice first-person shooter game. In fact, one can argue that there’s even a glut of great independent games out there, making it harder than ever for any one game to be seen. Thanks to services like the Humble Bundle or the various Steam sales, it’s easy for players to get access to dozens of these games at any given time. They may not share physical space in stores with AAA releases, but these games are often very financially successful.
The indie movement has become so strong, in fact, that some developers are choosing to go independent instead of staying with the big companies. One Angry Gamer reported on IO Interactive’s celebration of breaking away from Square Enix to continue publishing Hitman games, and that’s far from the only studio to make a move towards independent status. Developers from successful series like BioShock and even Metal Gear Solid have moved away from their larger companies in order to focus on designing games that are closer to their hearts.
It’s become increasingly clear that the independent game scene is not just another part of the regular gaming scene. While indie games may have had a hard road, they’re now part and parcel of the gaming community. While some individual indies may not be terribly successful, the field as a whole is better than ever.