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2009: The Year of The Indie Developer?

A few days ago I went out to lunch with some friends and they brought up an interesting thought: Will 2009 be the year of the indie developer?

I loved the sound of that! I’ve been an indie developer for a year and a half, and I’m seeing more and more people taking tha route. I think indie development is necessary for a healthy game development industry. Where else are people going to try weird ideas, experimental development techniques, an commercially unproven designs? I think it’s a sign of maturity that we’re seeing a need filled by independent development next to the Maddens and Worlds of Warcraft and other chart-toppers.

I think 2008 will go down as the year that indie games made it to the big time: Braid, Schizoid, and World of Goo are just the top of the iceberg. It showed that it was possible to become an indie developer and make a living from it. 2009 has to be the year that indie development really explodes, right? The trend is certainly there. I’m constantly hearing about people or even whole teams leaving large development houses and starting their own, small companies. These developers are not trying to become the next EA, but they want to keep things small, creative, and, above all, fun.

If the only path for indie game development were downloadable console games on XBLA and PSN, the future wouldn’t look so bright. I used to be really excited about those platforms, but the restrictive zeal of Microsoft and Sony, the dingy royalty deal on XBLA, plus the high-development costs required for most games in those platforms, makes them very difficult to develop for and make any money from them. More and more, I’m hearing of donwloadable console titles with budgets around a million dollars. A million dollars!! That’s “just” a tad bit out of my indie pocket range.

Fortunately there are other paths. We have the usual PC market, which seems to be on its way to being abandoned by the major players but leaves a void for indies. Some guys seem to be doing well there, especially if you consider the Mac and Linux markets in addition to Windows.

Then there’s Nintendo’s WiiWare, which seems surprisingly much more open than the Xbox360 or PS3. I don’t have any friends who are personally developing for WiiWare, but I hear the barriers of access are not insurmountable. I’d love to see some sales numbers though. Nintendo certainly has the name to attract players and developers. Maybe they need to open up their DS development a bit too. Bob would like that for sure!

And then we have our last, best hope for indie game development: The iPhone [1].

The iPhone seems to hit all the right marks: Hardware advanced enough that you can develop really interesting and good-looking games, yet simple enough that one or two people can create a top title. Very open (the SDK and tools are available for free to anyone!!) but with a very clear distribution channel.

Given the low prices of games (between $0.99 and $10) on the iPhone, not only is it possible to make great games with a team of two people, but actually having larger teams can make development much less profitable. I can’t imagine how EA or Maxis are making any money from their iPhone games if they put even just 10 or 20 people to work on them for a few months.

In order for indies to succeed in the app store, it’s important that we get enough visibility. Right now, the big money is on the top lists that Apple publishes which are unfortunately out of reach for most of us. A trend I’ve noticed lately is that big publishers are starting to elbow out indies out of the Top Ten charts. I hope that’s not a trend that continues much further.

I’m glad to see that the app store has related links when you browse a product, and also a variety of independent web sites that are appearing trying to sort the iWheat from the iChaff. It’s a start, but we need more initiatives along those lines. In the meanwhile, support your indie iPhone developers. Or at least go out of your way to learn a bit more about them. If you haven’t seen it already, check out the New Year’s App Blowout Sale and pick up Sneezies, Up There, and Mouse House. All three totally adorable, very polished games.

Happy New Year 2009 to everybody! I’m sure this year will bring a lot of surprises and interesting developments.

[1]Yes, I shamelessly stole that line from my favorite sci-fi show.

  • Totally Agree! World of Goo in particular was a massive success. Both my parents independently sent me newspaper articles about Ron and Kyle. The word is getting out that it is possible not only to be a viable indie, but to outsell even the big boys. It will be interesting to see what effect this has in 2009. I do know that this year’s IGF is going to be the most competitive ever. 😉

  • “Where else are people going to try weird ideas, experimental development techniques, an commercially unproven designs?”

    this statement may be true for most indie game developers, I do believe however, that it doesn’t really apply to everyone, specifically the weird ideas and experimental development bit (that’s only my opinion though, may be wrong).

    There may be two classes of indie developers, 1. those who have money for experimentation OR have a lot of knowledge and experience (they know the “game”). 2. Aspiring game developers who can’t/don’t follow the traditional path to game development (http://lostgarden.com/2008/12/fishing-girl-prototype-results.html). They don’t really have room for experimentation if they want to make a living, Instead we see that these folks like to play safe, you can find a lot of hidden-objects, fishing, snow ball, tetris, labyrinth genre games (and most of these clones are coming from unknown people (myself included)) on AppStore.


    MI

    P.S: If what I said above is wrong, I didn’t say any of it 😉

  • Muhammad, You’re right of course. Not every indie developer wants/needs to try new ideas and ground-breaking designs. A lot of them simply do indie development for the joy of it, the freedom, and begin able to do things exactly the way they want.

    But a healthy indie community allows for all that experimentation as well, which eventually ends up affecting the mainstream community. Even if you’re trying to make a living, it’s much easier to make an experiment out of a 2-month project by yourself than a 3-year project with 200 people. And sometimes, those experiments end up being revolutionary and you hit the jackpot.

    And yes, Jeff, I can’t wait to see this years IGF. It’s always a great experience, but this year is going to be great!

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  • Joe

    I too believe that Indie developers have been given a few amazing avenues. The Apple App Store is definitely a great avenue. Another, you did not mention, is Xbox Community Games; it is in a similar in vein to the Apple App Store (though approval comes from the XNA community and not Microsoft).

    Games like CarneyVale (nominated for IGF’09 Seumas McNally Grand Prize), Blow, Weapon of Choice are a few great examples of innovative and fun Xbox Community Games.