Growing numbers of aspiring developers are building games in their bedrooms and basements. Find out who's leading the new indie scene.
Video games are a little like sausage -- they taste great, but you don't want to see them being made. Between the programmers, artists, producers, sound engineers, marketers, animators, testers, executives, assistants, and executive assistants, it can easily take over a hundred people at a major studio to create one lousy action-adventure. Prospective game makers who think it's all ping-pong tables and ergonomic chairs are in for a rude awakening as they endure countless squabbles between artsy developers and fiscally responsible publishers. This is big business, after all.
But like many businesses, there's a way to work from home. The past few years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of quality indie games being created by unheralded, unknown designers. Often working from humble, makeshift offices, indie developers lack the financial firepower and publisher contacts of the bigger teams, yet with a simple twist of fate, they can suddenly find themselves on the front line of a new era in gaming.
Back when the industry was in its infancy, pretty much every notable game came from independent developers. The landmark coin-op Pong was essentially built by three guys trying to emulate a tennis game from the Magnavox Odyssey. Major third-party publisher Activision was founded by four rogue programmers longing for respect and artistic freedom. Classic games such as Pitfall and Adventure were created by literally one-man development teams.
Somewhere along the way, that all changed. But now, it's changing back.
Much of the success of the burgeoning indie movement can be ascribed to the Internet itself, or at least the section of it devoted to fast, casual gaming. Sites like Armor Games, Kongregate and, of course, Yahoo! Games, promote a wealth of bedroom-built games. They're not all hits, but when you're searching for diamonds, you gather as much coal as you can.
Every so often, a diamond is exactly what you find. Arguably the spiritual forbear to the modern indie movement, quirky sleeper hit Katamari Damacy grew out of designer Keita Takahashi's senior thesis project at a school sponsored by publishing giant Namco. At the time, Takahashi didn't even own a Playstation. More recently, the Guitar Hero phenomenon owes its inception not only to the musicians- turned-developers at Harmonix, but also to a tiny start-up publisher called Red Octane. Now, Harmonix is working with decidedly un-indie EA and MTV, while Red Octane got scooped up by the ex-indies at Activision.
In other words, people are starting to notice. At the recent E3 expo in Santa Monica, tons of games with seemingly indie roots were being prominently displayed by major publishers. Indicade, an independent games showcase, promoted the movement by connecting with potential indie developers and pushing nine specific titles with demo stations. From wall to wall, console to PC, the influence of independent game design can be found everywhere.
Including here. Check out how the indie scene is set to rock the gaming world.
Pay to Playstation
Some might find it surprising that a company as massive as Sony would give a hoot about independent gaming, but the Playstation powerhouse knows a good thing when it sees it. Here are three that wooed Sony into playing along.
Original designer: Jenova Chen
Guide a worm-like creature through multiple layers of ocean, consuming smaller organisms to grow larger. From flash game to PS3 download, this arty, soothing thesis project stresses aesthetic design over complicated mechanics.
WATCH flOW GAMEPLAY NOW
Original designer: Jonathan Mak
Mak is the current "it" guy in the indie scene, and after spending a few minutes with the impressive Everyday Shooter, you'll know why. A compelling combination of music, design and action, his game is addictive and attractive.
WATCH EVERYDAY SHOOTER GAMEPLAY NOW
Little Big Planet
Original designer: Media Molecule
Technically, LittleBigPlanet isn't really an indie title, but having been responsible for cult indie hit Rag Doll Kung Fu a few years back, Media Molecule represents the natural evolution of an indie company. Their incredible game sticks to its DIY roots by taking the concept of user-created content to adorable new heights.
WATCH LITTLE BIG PLANET GAMEPLAY NOW
Xbox Marks the Spot
Microsoft's Xbox Live is the definitive console community experience, offering users tons of fresh content while generating enormous sums of revenue via millions of micro- transactions. No one loses in that equation (other than your creditors), and as the company turns its powerful gaze to the indie scene, the future is only looking brighter.
Original designer: Metanet Software
Having won the Audience Award at the Independent Game Festival in 2005, this fast-paced platformer is on the fast-track to success. Players control a ninja, leaping and running around giant levels while collecting gold. Think of it as the extreme evolution of Lode Runner, and, shortly, as a great reason to blow some Microsoft Points.
Play the original N!
Original designer: Jeff Minter
An explanation: the game was accidentally named after its creator attempted to describe the lead character on a forum. Despite the kooky title, this arcade shooter is inspired much more by the classic Tempest than Zoo Tycoon. It so impressed the Microsoft brass that they included it in one of their gameplay montages during their E3 07 press conference.
WATCH SPACE GIRAFFE GAMEPLAY NOW
Original designer: Klei Entertainment
Best described as a cross between Lemmings, The Incredible Machine and Hello Kitty, the original Eets was a very successful shareware game. Its great puzzle gameplay quickly garnered the respect of gaming luminaries and eventually transitioned over to the consoles as an Xbox Live Arcade title.
Check out Eets!
WATCH EETS: CHOWDOWN TRAILER NOW
PC for Free
Indie games often start out as free PC downloads. Most stay that way, providing shrewd gamers with some of the finest entertainment no money can buy. Behold some of the indie bigwigs.
Original design: Bay 12 Games
Like its stocky stars, Dwarf Fortress is ugly. But if you can look past the crude ASCII graphics, you'll find one of the deepest, most advanced world simulations ever coded. Build an outpost and help your dwarves search for riches while exploring a vast, persistent world, complete with dynamic weather, dozens of towns, various civilizations and even a few pets. Give it a graphical upgrade and it's Game of the Year material. .
Download Dwarf Fortress!
Desktop Tower Defense
Original design: Paul Preece
How powerful is the web? Just ask Paul Preece, a visual basic programmer who decided to build his own version of the tower defense game style popularized in 2002's WarCraft III. With over 20 million monthly page views and six-figure revenue on Google ads alone, his incredibly fun side project is one heckuva success story.
Play Desktop Tower Defense!
Original design: Jenova Chen
Funded by a grant from EA, this whimsical USC game project took home awards at both the Independent Games Festival and the Slamdance Film Festival. Play it for a few minutes and you'll see why. Fly around the bright blue sky as you collect clouds and draw pictures in the air.
From Indie to Outie
Just like the rock band slogging it out night after night at your local pub, the dream of any indie developer is to get signed. In the past that was a nearly impossible task. Now, the perfect storm of increased web exposure and the desire for quirky, sleeper hits is swirling overhead. Here are two titles plucked by publishers and set to appear on a major console shortly.
Original design: Students at Utrecht University in the Netherlands
Paint the town red, blue, purple and yellow as an intergalactic glob of goo in this offbeat game. After spotting it as a free PC download, the folks at THQ decided to pick up the rights De Blob and gussy it up for release on the Wii and DS. Now there's an eye for fine art.
WATCH DEBLOB TRAILER NOW
Original design: NinjaBee
This space station tycoon game made waves when it hit the web in 2004. It looks to do so again courtesy of Namco, who snagged it for release on the Wii as Space Station Tycoon. But while they somehow made the title more boring, they haven't messed with the great strategy simulation gameplay...we hope.
WATCH OUTPOST KALOKI TRAILER NOW