What Makes a Game Indie? — Our Take

What Makes a Game Indie?

‘What exactly is an indie game?’

Well, you know, it’s a question that’s been swirling around in the gaming world for quite a while. The thing is, nobody can seem to nail down a rock-solid distinction between indie, AA, and AAA gaming. It’s kind of like the gaming community can’t quite agree on what these labels mean. You’d think, just like in the indie music or indie movie scene, we’d have these labels down pat by now, right?

So, what’s the deal here? It seems like in the world of indie gaming, the lines can get blurrier than a foggy morning. No one’s stepped up to draw a clear line in the sand and say, “This is what an indie game is.”

It’s kind of like a heavy burden, but someone’s gotta carry it, and guess who’s raising her hand? Yep, that’s me, proudly running an indie-focused gaming website. You’d think I’ve got the authority to finally set the record straight, right? But, hey, we’re on the internet, and if there’s one thing we know, it’s that people always have their opinions, and disagreements are like, well, par for the course, aren’t they?

Now, it’s time to lay it all out for you. In this guide, we’re on a mission to unveil what we believe defines an indie game. We’ll walk you through the factors that can flip the switch on that indie status, and we’ll dive into why there’s so much fog surrounding this topic. Plus, we’re here to give you an inside look at Indie Game Co.

Hold onto your controllers, because it’s time to settle the score. Without any more waiting, we’re diving headfirst into the ultimate question: what exactly makes a game indie?


Alright, no need to read a novel – we’ve got a quick and snappy definition of what we think the term ‘indie game’ really means:

An indie game is a project taken on by a small team of no more than twenty-five talented folks. It’s a game crafted without the bigwig publishers poking their noses in and with as little outside interference as possible. This game is born with a modest budget, and it’s like a creative fortress, standing strong and unswayed by external forces. The initial vision? That’s the North Star guiding the way, unless the department leads give the nod for change.

When Did the Indie Gaming Scene Begin?

So, you might be wondering, when did this whole indie gaming scene kick-off? Well, let’s take a little trip back in time.

Indie Gaming Pre-2000 – The Indie Wild West

You know, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher because the start of what we now call the indie gaming scene is a bit like finding the needle in a haystack. But in many ways, indie gaming has been around forever, even if it didn’t have that shiny label. If we take a stroll down memory lane to the ’90s, back when PCs and home consoles were starting to become household staples, you’d find loads of game developers who were basically hobbyists. They were churning out games that, in their own unique way, were the pioneers of what we’d now call indie games. But if you really want to rewind, some folks even throw it back to 1963 with a game called SpaceWar! as the granddaddy of all things indie.

In the early days of gaming, it was a whole different ballgame. Games were pretty affordable to make, and that’s why we had a ton of those licensed movie tie-ins and not-so-legal knockoffs of the hits. But what really set the indie darlings apart from the gaming giants was often stuff like distribution and marketing.


Back in those days, developers had to get pretty creative to get their games out there. They’d resort to stuff like mail-order distribution services and all sorts of workarounds. But because there wasn’t a widespread distribution network, these games became like hidden gems in an underground world of gaming. It’s pretty wild how that spirit of indie gaming back then kinda mirrors what we see today.

So, think about classics like Elite on MS-DOS or Sundog Frozen Legacy – those were the pioneers of the indie gaming wave. They blazed the trail, and we’re still feeling their influence today.

SunDog: Frozen Legacy
SunDog: Frozen Legacy

The early days of gaming, despite being incredibly important, are like a bit of a historical mystery. It’s one of those “you had to be there” moments, and that’s probably why for most gamers, the indie gaming scene is seen as starting no earlier than the mid-2000s. It’s when things got a bit more documented and recognizable for the broader gaming community.

Indie Gaming Post 2010 – The Indie Gaming Boom

Some folks might say that indie gaming, as we understand it today, got its first taste of the spotlight in 2004 with the release of Cave Story – a Metroidvania gem self-published by Daisuke Amaya. But, to be a little persnickety, that could be seen as more of an anomaly or a ‘false start,’ because the real indie gaming scene didn’t have the chance to truly flourish until the seventh generation of gaming rolled around and digital game releases became a thing.

Sony and Nintendo were a bit slow to hop on the digital distribution train, but Steam and Xbox? They were ahead of the game. In 2005, they rolled out their digital storefronts, which was a game-changer. This meant players could get their hands on non-physical games for the very first time, and it gave a real platform for small development teams to make their mark.

Having a means of distribution and marketing was a game-changer for indie developers, but it did take some time for the library of indie games to really start blossoming on any platform. So, for many of us, the indie gaming boom got its engines revving around 2008. It was roughly the time when Xbox made a smart move, rebranding Xbox Live Arcade to Xbox Live Indie Games. This change put the spotlight on the indie games of the moment, instead of just focusing on ports of old Xbox classics.

It wasn’t just Xbox making strides. Steam was right there too, creating a dedicated indie category on its platform. It was like a treasure trove of indie games just waiting to be discovered by players all over the world.

With the right infrastructure in place, we got to witness the birth of a whole new era in gaming. Games like LIMBO, Braid, Super Meat Boy, Fez, Dear Esther, and so many others burst onto the scene. They were the first wave of remarkable, standout indies, and they left a mark on our screens and our hearts. It was like a big bang that birthed the indie gaming scene we cherish today.If you want to get a close-up view of this incredible moment in gaming history, you should definitely check out “Indie Game: The Movie.” It gives you an inside look at the making of Fez, Braid, and Super Meat Boy. It’s like a time capsule of that pivotal period in the world of indie gaming.

Indie Game: The Movie
Indie Game: The Movie

The Tiers of Game Development

Now that we’ve wrapped up our mini history lesson, let’s dive into what these various tiers of development actually mean and explore the kinds of games that typically fall into each category. So here’s the lowdown:


Indie games, in a nutshell, are those gems cooked up by small, passionate teams who don’t have big budgets or corporate bigwigs poking their noses into every corner of development. It’s all about creative freedom!

You’ve got a group of enthusiasts who wear multiple hats. One’s the art guru, someone else’s the game tester, there’s a wordsmith, a designer, and a sound sorceress. They’re a bit like a close-knit family working together to make magic happen. But guess what? In some crazy scenarios, you might even find a lone wolf—a one-person army—handling everything from art to coding. It’s a wild ride in the indie game world!

Now, let’s talk about some indie game rockstars and their creations that scream “indie” from a mile away. Check out these names:

  1. Stardew Valley by Concerned Ape – You’re basically farming your way to bliss in this cozy indie wonderland.
  2. Undertale by Toby Fox – It’s not just a game; it’s a whole emotional rollercoaster wrapped in pixel art.
  3. The Binding of Isaac by Edmund McMillen – Enter the bizarre world of Isaac and his freaky foes.
  4. Fez by Phil Fish – Dive into a dimension-bending adventure that’s a pixel-perfect indie marvel.
  5. Celeste by Maddy Makes Games – Scaling mountains, both metaphorically and literally, in this heartfelt indie masterpiece.

These games and their creators are like indie royalty, setting the stage for unique and unforgettable gaming experiences.


Cuphead (2017)
Cuphead (2017)

Next up, we’ve got AA games, sitting in that game development limbo. They’re not quite indie because of the publisher’s involvement and a slightly larger team, but they’re not swimming in resources like those AAA giants.

Now, let’s check out some prime examples of those awesome AA games and the creative minds behind them:

  1. Hades by Supermassive Games – Prepare for a thrilling underworld adventure.
  2. It Takes Two by Hazelight Studios & EA – A whimsical journey of two unlikely allies.
  3. Little Nightmares by Tarsier Studios & Bandai Namco – Enter a spooky, mysterious world filled with puzzles.
  4. Psychonauts 2 by Double Fine Productions – Dive into a zany and mind-bending adventure.
  5. Overcooked by Team 17 – Cook up chaos in the kitchen with your friends.

These games are like the Goldilocks of the gaming world, offering experiences that are just right in terms of development size and resources.


The Last of Us
The Last of Us

And now, let’s enter the grand stage of gaming – the AAA scene. It’s where you’ll find those multi-million dollar masterpieces and all the big names in the industry working their magic. These developers aren’t playing around; they’ve got teams in the hundreds for each project, practically limitless resources, and the ability to juggle multiple major titles at once.

Of course, let’s not forget some of the big names in the AAA gaming world:

  1. Grand Theft Auto V by Rockstar Games – The iconic crime sandbox game that’s taken the world by storm.
  2. The Last of Us by Naughty Dog – A cinematic masterpiece that’ll pull at your heartstrings.
  3. Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac Games – Swing through the city as your friendly neighborhood Spidey!
  4. Portal by Valve – A mind-bending puzzle adventure with an unforgettable antagonist.
  5. Dark Souls by From Software – The series that’s known for its brutal difficulty and atmospheric world.

These are the crown jewels of the gaming industry, where blockbuster budgets and top-tier talent come together to create unforgettable gaming experiences.

The Characteristics of an Indie Game

Now that we’ve got the scoop on the tiers of game development, let’s arm you with the detective skills to spot an indie game based on its defining traits. Keep in mind, it’s not a bulletproof method because some AAA giants like to dress up as indie darlings, but these characteristics will certainly boost your chances of telling apart your Dead Cells from your Dark Souls and your Outer Wilds from your Outer Worlds.

Small Teams

There’s no strict rule for defining a “small team” in indie game development, but we can certainly provide a rough estimate. At the upper limit, an indie project should ideally involve no more than twenty-five team members. To justify having this many staff, the game usually needs solid financial backing, such as a successful Kickstarter campaign or funding from a non-publisher third party.I’m loving how indie games are really making a splash these days, and Sea of Stars by Sabotage Studios is a fantastic example! But here’s the thing about indie teams – they usually keep it pretty tight-knit. Most of them, like, have just one or two folks handling each major job in the game-making journey.

Sea of Stars
Sea of Stars

Indie teams are all about wearing different hats. You’ve got your sound designers, artists, creative leads, producers, localization wizards, quality assurance champions, designers, and the folks who make sure the game gets the attention it deserves – the marketing maestros.

Depending on the project, there might be a few more roles thrown into the mix. But, here’s the catch – if your team balloons to over thirty people, it’s kinda tough to call it an indie game. At that point, it’s more like an AA game, you know?

Resources Available Informing Design

Indie game development is a whole different ball game compared to those big-budget AAA studios. You see, we don’t have the deep pockets or resources they do, and that totally shapes how we make our games. We have to get creative in all sorts of ways. Take the visuals, for instance. We can’t always aim for those super fancy, realistic graphics you see in big games. Instead, we often embrace more modest art styles, like charming pixel art. It’s cute and it works for us. And don’t even get me started on the sound – we might rock some SNES-style chiptune soundtracks that just bring that extra dose of nostalgia and fun to our games.

In the world of gaming, you’ll find a little secret that indie games keep close to their hearts: they’ve got to get super creative with their budgets. They carefully choose where to put their money and concentrate on what’s super important, while leaving out some of the less important stuff. It’s like a clever strategy to make sure their game stays top-notch.

But, let’s talk about AAA games, they’re like the big shots of the gaming world. Their mission? To make sure every single detail in their game is super polished, from the tiniest nook to the tiniest cranny. If they miss even a speck, oh boy, the gaming community will let them know! It’s like a totally different game they’re playing.

Made with Love

You know, making your own indie game is a whole different world, isn’t it? The secret sauce here is all about love. While those big AAA developers, they’re all about sales, money, and planning for the future with DLCs and sequels. But us indie creators, we put our heart and soul into it. Love is our driving force.

But, you know, when we’re talking about indie games, what really guides all the choices we make is whether they fit perfectly with the vision we have for the game. Indie projects are usually a labor of love, where we always keep our fans in mind, we hold on to the heart and soul of the project no matter what, and we pay attention to all those little details.

Think about Stardew Valley for a moment. Could you ever see a money-hungry company giving out loads of updates for free? Nope, not really. But thanks to Eric Barone’s love for his awesome farming game and his appreciation for the fans who helped him succeed, we get all these cool updates without breaking the bank.

In a nutshell, indie games get to do something pretty special. They don’t have big corporate types hovering over them, trying to make the game fit their business agenda. This means indie games can tackle topics that big game companies might find “too risky.” And the best part? They get to be their most genuine selves when they’re finally released.

Using Early Access

Steam Early Access: 7 Days to Die
Steam Early Access: 7 Days to Die

Another thing you often see with indie games is they love using Steam’s Early Access service. It’s this cool thing where players can jump in and support a game while it’s still in the works. Plus, you get to play the game as it is, right in the middle of its development journey.

This is a win-win for developers. They can get some funding for their project by selling the game early, and it’s like having a bunch of players be their testers and quality assurance team. This way, they can figure out how players react to different game features and design choices and squash any nasty bugs before the full game launch.

Sure, you might spot a few big games giving Early Access a go, just like the recent Baldur’s Gate 3. But, the truth is, this service is mainly indie developers’ playground. So, if you come across a game in early access, you can pretty much bet that it’s an indie project.

Longer Development Times

Here’s another thing you’ll notice with indie games – they often take a lot more time to make compared to those big AAA projects. Because indie teams are small and have limited resources, they have to work extra hard to achieve their goals. It might take indie developers five years to create a game that only lasts five hours, while some of those major AAA companies can put out new games in popular series every year, like it’s no big deal.

This longer development time is actually a good thing, and it’s something AAA developers could learn from. It gives indie teams the chance to really perfect and improve their projects, making sure that the final game is the absolute best it can be.

The Oddballs – A Cause for Confusion

Now, let’s talk about the oddballs, the ones that have us scratching our heads, and basically led us to create a whole guide about what an indie game is. There are these quirky folks in the gaming world who are tough to label consistently, and they have practices that make it tricky to figure out what kind of developers they are. I’m sure you’re feeling even more puzzled, so let me break it down for you:

Boutique Publishers

Annapurna Interactive
Annapurna Interactive

Okay, let’s dive into the first group of enigmas – boutique publishers in the gaming world. These guys kind of mess with our indie game radar. Boutique publishers come in all shapes and sizes, but they’re typically big publishing companies with loads of resources, top-notch scouting and distribution networks, and the moolah to make several games each year.

What really makes these boutique publishers an indie vibe is that they go out there and find these smaller studios and projects that have real potential. They make deals to help and publish these games, which means they get a slice of the pie in terms of profits and another game to add to their collection. This, in turn, boosts their reputation as a publisher.

Think of these publishing houses as super-duper talent scouts for indie game projects. They’re like the pros at finding those hidden gems and making sure they shine brightly when they’re all done.

But here’s the twist – some folks debate if we can truly call these games “indie.” Why? Because these projects get a big financial boost from a major corporation, they get a fancy package of resources and support networks that most indie devs can only dream of, and they don’t have to sweat over publishing and marketing – they can put all their energy into making the game.

Let’s talk about some big names in the indie boutique publishing world and the cool games they’ve brought to our screens:

  • Team 17 (They’ve brought us Dredge, The Knight Witch, and Blasphemous 2)
  • Annapurna Interactive (You’ve probably heard of games like Journey, Stray, and Storyteller)
  • Devolver Digital (They’re the folks behind Cult of the Lamb, Minit, and Inscryption)
  • TinyBuild (They’ve given us Pathologic 2, Tinykin, and Hello Neighbor)

These publishers are like the backstage heroes making sure these awesome games get the spotlight they deserve.

Indies That Outgrew the Label

Fall Guys
Fall Guys

And then there are these rare birds – indie games that definitely started as these little passion projects, but somewhere along the way, they outgrew their indie label and became big shots, known in households worldwide, with tons of cash to burn.

So, you’re probably curious about how this whole transformation happens, right?

Well, it often begins with a game hitting it big in the mainstream and getting snatched up. But it can also be because the developer keeps scoring with one successful project after another, or they turn into their own little publishing empire. Sometimes, it’s all about long-term success through a game’s live service format. There are tons of ways for indies to grow beyond their indie roots.

Here are some indie games that have become so big it’s hard to call them indies today, along with their developers:

  • Minecraft (Mojang Games) – Microsoft now owns it.
  • Rocket League (Psyonix Games) – Epic Games acquired them.
  • Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout (Mediatonic) – They’ve hit the big time.
  • Five Nights at Freddy’s (Scott Cawthorn) – It’s become a massive franchise.

These games have gone from underdogs to big dogs in the gaming world.

AAA’s with Indie Initiatives

No Man’s Sky
No Man’s Sky

Now, let’s talk about games that get called indies even though they’re tucked under the wings of major, fancy-pants publishing companies. How’s that even possible, you wonder? Well, it’s all thanks to this nifty trick called an in-house indie initiative.

These big-shot publishers create little indie havens inside their colossal empires, where creative freedom thrives, and unique, smaller games can blossom. It’s like having a cozy indie nook in a grand mansion.

Big companies, like the ones we see all around us, sometimes like to have a little fun too. They’ll put some of their extra resources and assets into making these cool ‘indie games.’ Sometimes they’ll gather a small group of creative folks who are looking for something exciting to do. Other times, they might find some awesome indie games that are just starting out and give them a boost by joining forces with a big, fancy publisher to make them even better.

Think of it as the boutique publisher model, but cranked up to the max! Here, we’ve got plenty of resources, marketing that’s as grand as a blockbuster movie, and games that are so well-done they’re basically big hits, even if we don’t officially call them that.

Here’s a bunch of games that fit right into this fancy category:

  1. “It Takes Two” (Hazelight Studios) – EA is the fairy godmother here, making it all happen.
  2. “Stray” (B12 Studios) – Sony’s like the biggest cheerleader, backing and promoting it like no other.
  3. “Kena: Bridge of Spirits” (Ember Labs) – Sony’s got its back too, putting the spotlight on it.
  4. “Hi-Fi Rush” – Published by the cool folks at Bethesda Softworks.
  5. “No Man’s Sky” (Hello Games) – Sony’s giving it some serious love and attention, making it shine.

AA’s Masquerading as Indies

Supermassive Games
Supermassive Games

And then, there’s this cool bunch of ‘indie games’ that proudly wear their indie badge. It’s like a superpower, really! They love it because it comes with perks. For one, people don’t expect too much, so when these companies knock it out of the park, they get all the love and praise they deserve. They also get to compete in award categories against simpler, low-budget games and totally steal the show. It’s like being the shining star in a room full of smaller lights!

In the end, being indie means you’re under a bit less of a spotlight. Sure, it might mean fewer folks checking out your stuff at first, but it’s like being a big fish in a cozy little pond. You get to do your thing without everyone poking and prodding.

A lot of these companies are like indie pros who have outgrown the label but are in no rush to join the big leagues. They’re like the cool kids in their own indie club. Here are a few that totally fit the bill:

  • Supermassive Games (Known for Hades, Transistor, and Pyre)
  • Team 17 (The genius behind Overcooked and Killer Frequency)
  • Team Cherry (The awesome creators of Hollow Knight)

These guys know how to rock the indie scene and make it look effortless.

The Allowances We Make

Now, before we say our goodbyes, there are some unique corners of the gaming world that might not scream “indie” to traditionalists, but we like to keep our readers in the loop. These are the times when we bend the rules a little and call something “indie,” or at least “indie adjacent.”

It’s all about expanding our horizons and exploring the amazing diversity in the gaming universe. We’ve got a soft spot for these unconventional gems!

Retro Games

Retro Games
Retro Games

At IGC, we’ve got a soft spot for retro games. They might not fit the indie mold in the typical sense, but there’s a treasure trove of old-school classics made by smaller studios. Back in the day, game development was a whole different ballgame. Except for a handful of big shots, most developers were just scraping by.

So, we give these games an honorary indie badge. They might’ve needed a big-name publisher to make it happen, but it was an era where without some support, making games would’ve been impossible.

That said, we should note that not all retro games get that special ‘indie-retro’ tag. For some clarity on the matter, here are some retro gems that we’d consider indies, even if they didn’t quite have the title:

  • “Ico” (Team Ico) – An absolute classic.
  • “The Suffering” (Surreal Software) – A hidden gem of the past.
  • “Okami” (Clover Studios) – A masterpiece that deserves recognition.
  • “Fahrenheit” (Quantic Dream) – A unique experience.
  • “Summoner” (Volition) – A game that stands the test of time.
  • “Fatal Frame” (Koei) – A spine-tingling adventure.
  • “Dark Cloud” (Level-5) – A true retro treasure.

These games might not be labeled as indie, but they’ve got that indie spirit that we cherish.

VR Games

Garden of the Sea
Garden of the Sea

VR is hailed as both ‘the future of gaming’ and a medium that’s still taking its baby steps. What this means is that, except for some big-name VR champs like Half-Life Alyx and Horizon: Call of the Mountain, most VR games can easily don the indie hat.

Now, the rules might change if VR becomes more popular than traditional gaming, but for now, we see VR as a cool branch of the indie family, even if it’s a bit of a specialist area in the gaming community.

Here are a few VR titles that we would say showcase the most ‘indie-orientated’ side of the medium to date:

  • Garden of the Sea
  • A Fisherman’s Tale
  • Demeo
  • Job Simulator
  • Tentacular
  • Moss

Fan-Made Games

We’re all about celebrating games made by fans. To us, these games are indie at heart, even if they started with a big AAA game as the inspiration. They might be mods that bloom into something indie and fantastic. Or they could be quirky game jam creations that end up launching the next indie sensation.

Here are some fan-made projects that we’d proudly call indies:

  • Pokemon ROM Hacks – Fans taking the Pokemon world in exciting new directions.
  • Black Mesa – A labor of love that reimagined a classic.
  • Goldeneye: Source – Keeping the classic Goldeneye experience alive and kicking.
  • AM2R – A shining example of fan-driven game development.

These projects show the magic that can happen when fans put their hearts into gaming.

Defining a Sub-culture

Well, it’s about time we wrap things up and get to the heart of what an indie game really is. After all this talk, I’m sure you’re eager for a straightforward definition, and I’m here to give it my best shot. But here’s the thing, the gaming world keeps changing the rules, often favoring the big players. So, our take might not stay true forever, but for now, let me share what an indie game means to me:

An indie game is like a little family project, handled by a tiny team of up to twenty-five talented folks. It’s a game that’s crafted without the big shots, those giant publishers, poking their noses in or third parties meddling too much. It’s a game born from modest pockets, a true labor of love, and it won’t let anyone else mess with its creative vision unless the team leads agree it’s the right move.

In simple words, indie games are the underdogs of the gaming world – clever, scrappy, bursting with passion, and they stay true to their creative souls. That’s exactly what we seek out at Indie Game Culture when we decide to showcase an indie, AA, or retro title.

I hope this has helped shed some light on the indie game scene for you. Now that you’ve got a clearer picture, why not stick around and explore all the awesome indie gaming content we’ve got in store? Who needs those big AAA games, anyway?

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