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What Does it Mean to be an Indie Game Developer?

It’s never been a better time to be an indie game developer. With game stores like Steam and Epic Games hotter than ever, indie games are getting some massive exposure. 

While “indie” is a common term used to refer to a genre of video games, the exact definition is harder to pinpoint, as it has become highly subjective. However, if you or your team has developed a game on your own without a larger studio’s financial support, then there’s a good chance that you can update your LinkedIn bio to “Indie Game Developer.”

While the definition isn’t concrete, there are a few criteria that fit most indie games. For one, they are typically developed by a one-man show or a small team. They also lack the kind of budget and support a triple-A game would have. Finally, indie games are typically self-published due to the lack of funds and minimal support.

So what does an indie game really entail?

What are Indie Games?

There’s no concrete definition of what an indie game actually is. In order to explain what falls under the category of “indie”, it’s important to recognize that the word itself stands for independent. 

Keep in mind, however, that the form of independence that takes place can vary, so different people may subjectively choose to label your game as “indie” or not based on certain factors.  

But essentially, indie games are a category of games developed without the funding and support of a AAA gaming studio such as Activision or EA Games.

With all the different definitions floating around, it’s expected that different subcategories of the indie genre would exist. The most difficult one, however, is the one-man show game. Typically the video game would be developed by a small team, which would include a game designer, artist, programmer, sound engineer, tester, writer, and project manager, to name a few. However, some choose to be the sole person developing the game, fulfilling all of these roles on their own.

Besides taking an incredible amount of time, discipline, and skill, it’s also a financial investment to make a one-man show. However, the biggest challenge truly is the number of skills needed to create one game completely on your own.

A more popular way of developing indie games is through the use of a small studio and/or freelance help. This is more capital intensive, but having dedicated individuals assigned to different aspects of a project can really pay off.

Oftentimes small studios operate off a limited budget. This means that it can be incredibly important to watch your spending and be smart about where you put your money. Nevertheless, with a dedicated team, each part of the game can get the attention it deserves.

What Makes Indie Games Different from “Mainstream” Video Games?

Indie game developers are typically less motivated by money and more motivated by a passion for their craft, or for the creative process of developing a high-caliber video game. 

Many indie games are exceptional in terms of storytelling, animation, and are unique in their concepts. Indie game developers rely on originality for their success among gamers, and their primary goal is to create something just for the fun of creating it.

What is the Development Process of an Indie Game?

Since there are so many different interpretations of what an indie game is, it’s important to understand the different stages of development.

Step 1: Come Up With Your Video Game Idea

Before anything else, you need to think about what you want your game to look like and be about. This is the most basic step but requires most of the thinking. There are different options on how you can come up with your video game idea. 

You can:

  • Use a common game idea or trope and put your own spin on it
  • Incorporate new technology, art, or techniques into your game
  • Create a completely new and unique game from the ground up

What you choose ultimately doesn’t matter, as long as you’re not copying someone else’s work. Just make sure to put effort into each step of the game development process along the way. When developers take shortcuts, it’s easily noticed by gamers, and it’s definitely not appreciated.

Step 2: Write Up Your Game Concept

Your game concept, also known as your game documentation, can be compared to a business plan. Generally, it’s complete with a mission statement, vision, breakdown of the process, goals, and steps to success. Come up with a basic idea of what your game is about, what the story will look like, ideas for the art, how you want to make money with it, etc. 

Should you decide to hire others to help you with your game, like artists, etc. then this written concept will help communicate precisely what you’re looking for, and what you and your team will be collectively working on. Anyone who joins your team should be on the same page as you (figuratively), after reading your game concept.

Step 3:  Planning Out The Story And Characters

Next, it’s time to create a storyline and develop the characters. Some things to consider when developing your indie game characters are their backstories, how they relate to each other, what their unique character traits are (both skill-wise and appearance-wise), etc. 

For the story, it’s easiest to create a storyboard to showcase each step or “scene” of the story. Come up with a challenge the characters will be facing, then determine how you’ll help the gamer familiarize themselves in this new world. Is this world functioning the same way as ours, or is it a new universe with its own set of rules?

Part of planning out the story and characters is also writing the script, as well as character design. The dialogue is such a crucial hit or miss part of indie games for users that it’s critical to make sure it’s engaging and reflects the characters’ unique personalities.

Step 4: Putting It All Together

Now, it’s time to put it all together and, using software, bring the game to life. It’s important to also know the basic plan for your game, like whether it will use 2D or 3D animation or if it will be written on a game engine or framework? When choosing software to work on the different parts of a game, there are a few commonly used software tools to consider.

Game Engines

A game engine is integral to the success of any game because it’s the infrastructure everything is built on. Unity is a popular game engine and game development software used to create games like Wasteland 2 and Rust. It essentially operates as a one-stop shop for all things gaming-related. Not only will you find assets that are ready to use for your game, but if you need help brushing up on some of your skills, there are also online courses to help with that.

Animation and Rigging

Unless you plan on making a text-based game, 3D animation will be integral to your game as well. Software such as Maya helps bring your characters to life using 3D animation. Whether you need help with rigging, modeling, or shading your characters and environment, Maya will be helpful in guiding you throughout the process. 

Pixcap is another option if you’re looking for a quick and simple way to bring characters to life. Our mission is to provide a one-stop shop for users of different backgrounds and experiences. The animation industry has stagnated for too long and here at PixCap, we’d like to change that. For that reason, we’re looking to provide a library of assets and tools that both pro animators and indie game devs will be able to use.

Modeling

Breathing life into your characters and environment is more than just animation. It also requires modeling, skinning, and sculpting. That’s where tools like Zbrush can help out.

Zbrush helps with digital sculpting and painting. It’s an incredibly important part of the animation and design process, and is perfect for creating realistic environments and characters. In fact, it’s so good at what it does that it’s not only being used by video game developers, but also by other professionals in the jewelry industry, auto industry, and more. 

There are tons of other tools out there as well. Blender, Mixamo, Game Maker Studio, and more! Do a little shopping around before you get into your project and you can find some very helpful solutions.

Step 5: Publishing

There are many different ways to launch and publish your indie game. Some of these distribution platforms are free and require a hefty percentage of your profit, while others ask for an initial investment that you can earn back later. Some popular distribution platforms include:

  • Steam
  • Epic Games
  • Game Jolt
  • Itch.io
  • Gog
  • Humble Bundle
  • Kongregate

When choosing a distribution/publishing platform, consider how many games are being published there, and how many active users it has.

Concluding Thoughts

Creating a game from scratch is a quest, and, when done right, gamers greatly appreciate the effort it takes to develop the game. As much as this article may sound like it’s dissuading you from developing your own game, there are many reasons why indie games are absolutely needed and are in-demand. 

If you’re a gamer, who is frustrated by the 5,000 different games that have the same exact storyline or arc, then it’s time to introduce the world to a whole different one – one you have created. Good luck!

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