Independent games are no longer a niche market. It’s easier than ever to spread the word about your favorite indie games thanks to social media, and the ease of buying them through Steam makes distribution better for fans and developers alike. Increased availability and more people talking means some games receive attention that rivals that of AAA games.
Though this list is by no means exhaustive, here are five of the biggest independent game companies making games right now.
Team Meat is the team behind Super Meat Boy, 2010’s smash success about a cube-shaped hunk of meat trying to save his girlfriend, Bandage Girl. The game is known for its difficulty, but praised for its ability to test the player’s limits without making them feel cheated. What’s unique about the game is that it clearly isn’t meant to hold the player’s hand—it’s a tough, unforgiving platformer more like old school arcade games than many modern AAA games. That’s one of the reasons for its success; it doesn’t have to dumb down gameplay because the intended audience is people who enjoy the challenge and ultimate adrenaline rush felt after a hundred unsuccessful meat splatters on a buzz saw. Super Meat Boy wasn’t the end for Team Meat—they’re currently at work on Super Meat Boy: Forever, a follow-up in development for smartphones, tablets, and PC.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is thatgamecompany, best known for games that prioritize aesthetics, music, and atmosphere over hardcore gameplay. The studio attracted a fair amount of attention for Flower in 2009, in which the player controls the wind to spread flower petals to dead grass to life. The game was praised for its attempt to evoke emotions in the player; rather than emphasizing difficulty or combat, Flower tries to instill the player with a sense of peace and happiness. Journey is their biggest claim to fame, boasting several game of the year awards and many other honors.
Like Flower, it relies heavily on atmosphere as the player explores a desert landscape, sometimes accompanied by other online players, with no written interaction. Though the game has a story, it’s left entirely up to the player to interpret the pictogram-style artwork scattered throughout the game. In 2014, Journey became the first video game in history with a Grammy-nominated soundtrack. Though thatgamecompany’s games aren’t to everyone’s taste, they’re known for pushing against our ideas of what games are and that, ultimately, is what makes them memorable.
Double Fine Productions
Founded in 2000 by game dev legend Tim Schafer, Double Fine Productions has been churning out inventive and unique games beginning with 2005’s Psychonauts, which was widely praised for its humor and visuals. Thanks to the studio’s Amnesia Fortnights, in which the team drops what they’ve been working on and split into groups to work on new projects for two weeks, Double Fine has kept putting out fun and imaginative games like Brütal Legend, Costume Quest, and Broken Age. The studio has relied heavily on crowdfunding to accomplish their goals, and set records at the time for the funding raised for Broken Age, the second part of which is due out this year.
Telltale Games is known for producing licensed adaptations of some of the most popular pop culture phenomena of the moment. Their adaptations of The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Borderlands have received a lot of praise for telling complex stories that force the player to make tough decisions with few positive options. They’re gritty, dark, and often cynical, but players love the feel of being decision makers in some of their favorite stories.
Though not all of Telltale Games’ work has been successful (earlier licensed work like some CSI games and Jurassic Park received generally negative reviews), the studio’s newer work keeps audiences coming back. And, with the recent announcement of Telltale’s Minecraft: Story Mode, which will bring the studio’s storytelling abilities to the sandbox arena of Minecraft, they’re sure to keep people talking.
At this point, Mojang can hardly be called an independent studio. There are Minecraft diamond swords at Hot Topic, Minecraft books at Target, and the whole company was recently purchased by Microsoft for a whopping $2.5 billion dollars. So what is it doing on this list? Easy: Minecraft is one of the best-selling games of all time with over 60 million copies sold over all platforms, and it was developed by one small studio with less than fifty employees.
Minecraft received wide praise upon its release for the freedom of its open world, the encouragement of creative expression, and the complexity of its crafting system. It’s a unique experience, and it’s no wonder that the game achieved such a shocking state of popularity despite its small team. Though not every indie developer will achieve Mojang’s state of success, the studio proves that it doesn’t take a big-shot backer to succeed—it takes invention, creativity, and a little bit of luck.
Who are your favorite indie devs? What do you think separates the big names from the little ones?