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Independent Games

Entry updated 12 August 2018. Tagged: Game, Theme.

Independent Games can be defined as games owned by their creators, rather than by a large development or publishing company which exerts some degree of control over the design. Such games are often also published by the individuals who designed them. This definition is difficult to apply precisely; games may be developed and published independently and then rereleased by a major publisher, for example. In practice, however, the distinction between games which are developed independently and those which are created as part of the operations of a large organization is usually fairly clear. Important new game forms typically first appear as Independent Games, with major companies – initially those founded by the first designers to work in the field – emerging as the owners of new works if the form becomes commercially successful. Independently developed games then reappear if designers become frustrated by the constraints placed on them by the commercial system, or if the form as a whole becomes less popular, meaning that it is no longer profitable for a large-scale enterprise to create games of this kind. It is worth noting that Independent Games are far more common today than in the relatively recent past, a development undoubtedly influenced by the appearance of personal computers and the internet, which have made the creation and distribution of such works significantly easier. Such technologies as print on demand, desktop publishing and software downloading have made the means of production much more readily available to small developers, though not the (arguably now more important) means of marketing; lack of visibility in crowded marketplaces dooms most Independent Games to obscurity.

Early examples of independent game development occurred in Board Games, Card Games and Wargames, typically through self publication of works rejected by the major publishers of the time. Examples include the first board and counter Wargame (Charles Roberts' Tactics [1954]), the first sf Wargame (Lensman [1969]), the innovative Board Game Hyperspace (1967) designed by Allan Calhamer and the early sf Card Game Nuclear War (1965) designed by Douglas Malewicki. The 1970s saw a boom in science fiction and fantasy Wargames and Role Playing Games, created by designers who initially were publishing their own games, but quickly became successful enough to found companies which employed other designers and owned the rights to their work. Typically such companies, including Simulations Publications Inc, Tactical Studies Rules, Game Designers' Workshop and Games Workshop, developed and published their own material and distributed it through mail order and specialist shops, an approach pioneered in the 1960s by the first board and counter Wargame developer, Avalon Hill.

The Videogame industry followed a different path. The earliest games for personal computers were created by independent developers such as Richard Garriott or Chris Crawford and primarily sold through mail order and small computer shops. Meanwhile, games for arcade machines and home consoles were made by employees of the companies which manufactured the hardware, such as the US Atari corporation. Some of these developers then founded their own companies to develop games for consoles separately to the owners of the hardware, beginning in 1979 with Activision. The industry rapidly evolved a model in which three types of companies created games: console manufacturers, which developed and released software for their own machines; large publishing companies such as Electronic Arts, who made their own games for both personal computers and consoles; and small-scale developers, who also worked on consoles and computers, but whose efforts were bought by publishers or console manufacturers which then marketed and distributed them.

With some minor modifications, these patterns persist in both the Role Playing Game and Videogame industries today. In the twenty-first century, however, games created independently of the normal system have become more prominent. The relatively small size of the role playing game market means that "independent" and "professional" developers have a great deal in common, but creators who publish their own games are more likely to experiment with the form. They are also typically less concerned with profitability, a characteristic which helped them grow in importance as the overall RPG market began to shrink after the mid 1990s. Examples of such works include Forgotten Futures (1993) – notable for being made available on the internet without charge on the basis that players who enjoy the game should pay a voluntary fee – and the radical My Life with Master (2003). Most recent releases in the "storytelling" tradition (see RPGs) have been, like My Life with Master, Independent Games; this school of development is promoted on a website known as The Forge.

Independent Videogame development, however, is quite distinct from the mainstream industry. Such games, like independent music and films, are sometimes works that probably would not have been released by a large commercial enterprise, whether because their form would be considered too risky or their content deemed potentially offensive to a mass market. If they can be developed cheaply by their designers and sold direct to the public on online auction sites or as software downloads, however, such games can be commercially viable. One prominent early example is Doom (1993), an unusual game at the time of its release, and one which was developed and sold by id Software without the involvement of a major publisher. In the late 1990s, however, as many designers became interested in following id Software's example, the steadily increasing cost of making a competitive Videogame became a problem. While alternative films can be created considerably more cheaply than Hollywood movies, and making (as opposed to promoting) new music is not especially expensive, the nature of Videogame development makes it difficult to build a visually impressive game of the kind that has dominated the market since the early 1990s without employing large teams of highly paid professionals.

Independent developers, therefore, have generally concentrated on alternative forms of Videogame, such as the combination of storytelling and strategic gameplay with largely static illustrations seen in King of Dragon Pass (1999) (see Interactive Narrative) or the turn-based Play by Email approach to online gaming used in Laser Squad Nemesis (2002) (see Laser Squad). As with publications produced by Small Presses in the written genre, the lack of a significant marketing budget means that commercially successful examples are generally those which can rely on some degree of name recognition from potential customers. Examples include games made by designers well known for their previous work in the mainstream industry (such as Laser Squad Nemesis and Battlecruiser Millenium [2001] [see Battlecruiser 3000 AD]), spinoffs from already popular games (as with King of Dragon Pass, a descendant of the RPG RuneQuest [1978]) and the recipients of well-known awards (e.g. Darwinia [2005], a Grand Prize winner at the Independent Games Festival). Such free publicity is not, however, required for a game to become popular; one example of an sf Videogame which attracted many players without this kind of assistance is VGA Planets (1992).

Some independently developed Videogames are not sold at all, but made available for download without charge. This is, for example, how text Adventures – such as Galatea (2000) designed by Emily Short – which were produced after the collapse of the form as a commercial enterprise have been distributed; most can be obtained from the Interactive Fiction Archive. Other projects are written by large teams of volunteers and released under an Open Source licence, meaning that the program code must be freely available. Experience suggests, however, that games built by open source teams are most successful when they are either fairly simple or based on an existing commercial work; examples include Wing Commander Privateer Gemini Gold (2005) (see Wing Commander) and Spring (2007) (see Total Annihilation).

Although there is a long standing community of amateur text Adventure writers, in the 1990s most independent Videogames were created by isolated groups of developers. (Before the 1990s few console games were created by independents due to hardware restrictions and legal issues, while the then largely separate computer game sector was enough of a cottage industry that there was often little distinction between independent and professionally published games.) The twenty-first century, however, has seen the emergence of an "indiegaming" movement which explicitly models itself on independent film making and indie music labels. The members of this group have typically devoted themselves to creating action games – often based on jumping from one platform to the next – with gameplay which may contain novel twists on old designs. Some of these innovations are humorous in intent, while others are primarily visual, or concentrate on reinterpreting the structure of an earlier work. Achieving social or aesthetic significance is a not infrequent goal. Such games can be created by small groups, since they are generally modelled on the relatively uncomplicated products of the early years of the Videogame industry, but presented with an irony and sophistication which – with the exception of the text Adventure form – was perhaps absent from their antecedents. Sometimes, they are simply short works made by professional Videogame developers who have become frustrated with the creative restrictions of the modern industry. To date, few of these games have been of science-fictional interest, though Machinarium (2009) and Strange Adventures in Infinite Space (2002) are both notable works of sf. However, recent crowdfunding initiatives – in which websites such as Kickstarter are used to obtain funding from large numbers of donors or small investors for projects which are more expensive than most indie games but less costly than current professionally published efforts – have made it clear that cult games can be funded directly by fans of the designers or of previous works in a series. A crowdfunded sequel to Wasteland (1988) is now in production, for example. Such efforts seem likely to produce novel and intriguing works of science fiction.

To date, a number of interesting Videogames which might not have been created by the mainstream industry have been developed independently, notably Doom and King of Dragon Pass, but most innovative works have been published by major companies. As the costs of development continue to rise, however – Videogame budgets in the late 2000s are comparable with the costs of film making towards the end of the 1970s in real terms – it is becoming steadily more difficult to finance novel (and thus risky) games by conventional means, suggesting that Independent Game makers might become more important as a source of innovative designs. The issue here appears to be largely one of form, not of content; Videogame publishers have historically not been overly concerned by the possibility of offending some sections of the population, but unenthusiastic about releasing games with radical designs which their core customers might not enjoy playing. As William Goldman wrote about Hollywood, "Nobody knows anything"; publishers find it very difficult to predict which games will prove profitable, and often prefer to fund remakes of and sequels to successful works on the basis that they are less likely to lose money. Certainly it is interesting to consider how many Videogames which originated new forms were created in an academic environment in the absence of commercial pressures (Adventure [1975] [see Adventures] and MUD [1978-1980] [see Online Worlds]), independently developed by teams who experienced difficulty in finding a publisher (Elite [1984] and Sim City [1989] [see God Games]) or were unpopular projects which received limited support from their publishers since they were thought likely to fail commercially (Civilization [1991] [see 4X Games] and Ultima Online [1997] [see Online Worlds]). It is conceivable that, had these games not been made and inspired commercially successful forms, similar projects would not be created or published by major companies today, meaning that they would be developed independently or not at all. [NT]

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