What Are Indie Games? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]

Indie gaming has been around since the beginning of time. In fact, all of the familiar gaming devs and companies you know (and hated) were indie once. With the video game resurgence in the late 80s, these companies made great games of that era and with platforms like the gaming giants Nintendo, SEGA, Sony, Microsoft and Steam, these game development companies grew to become this generation’s leaders in the gaming industry. Someone has to start somewhere and start at the right time, right?

But why indie gaming became a household name just recently? And before we get ahead of ourselves, what are indie games? How are they different from mainstream games? Honey’s Anime is going to shed some light on this topic by first defining the term, and then list a few pillars that make an indie game, an indie. So let’s dive deep and explain What are Indie Games!

What are Indie Games?

Remember those silly flash games with stick figures where you shoot enemies or downright weird games with simple controls back at Newgrounds? Those are indie games. Go make an RPG using RPGMaker, or grab a free Unity Engine dev kit and put your creation on Steam, and viola, you just made an indie game!

An indie game is a self-published video game developed by an individual or a small team of people with a low budget that is often crowdfunded and with no financial backing from a publisher — an entity that provides marketing and funding. Some are just various individuals coming together to form a dev team just for one game and then disband. And unlike mainstream games with high marketing budgets, indie game exposure is often spread by word-of-mouth.

However, there are some indie games that sought the help of a publisher to market, advertise and distribute their game to various platforms like Steam, PSN, Xbox LIVE, etc. These games remain indie for as long as there are no interference and pressure from the publisher.

What Are the Key Differences Between Indie Games and Mainstream Games?

There are many elements that differentiate indie games from mainstream or Triple-A games. It could be the size of the budget, the experience of the dev team, or even the look and feel of the game. Though it’s simple to pit an indie game against a Triple-A game and play the antonyms game by picking the opposite things, here are the two key differences.

1.) Creative freedom with no pressure from a publisher or other entity

Mainstream games are like Hollywood movies: making them costs a lot of money and they must copy any recent successful trend in order to sell. When Call of Duty IV Modern Warfare came out, it was very popular and successful with fast-paced action, fluid controls—especially on consoles—and a thrilling cinematic experience. Ever since other games like Battlefield 3 and Medal of Honor Warfighter tried to emulate Call of Duty’s success—some of them failed, some succeeded enough to warrant a sequel. And when open-world games became popular thanks to Grand Theft Auto 4, and the Elder Scroll series, other gaming companies make their own versions like Saints Row the Third or FarCry 3.

These copy-paste games flooded the market and due to the expensive nature of developing high profile games, these companies are reluctant to try out new genres or make something unique. They need a blockbuster and it must be profitable. What company who would want to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on a game that won’t appeal to the mass market?

Indie developers, on the other hand, have no such pressure, so they prioritize showing their vision and design to their target audience first and foremost. With such freedom they can create niche games for a niche audience for platformers, puzzlers, survival, visual novels, horror or even walking simulators—game type revolves around moving through a series of stages devoid of combat, but rich in storytelling. Some of this vision may be controversial like extreme violence, dabbling on political issues, themes of heinous crimes, depicting mental issues, or even tackling some historical events. That is not to say mainstream devs and publishers don’t do these, but it’s often rare for them to take on niche markets and expect an acceptable return on investment.

Under the wing of a publisher, devs are forced to compromise on the game design, and with a tight schedule. Want to make a horror game about paintings, or even a cute platformer about a boy with a gun, or maybe make a game about a mental disorder? Nuh-uh, go make a first-person shooter with gritty gunmetal grey graphics and make it more cinematic like Call of Duty because kids love those!

Cave Story+

  • System/Platform: PC, Linux, Mac, Nintendo Switch
  • Publisher: Nicalis
  • Developer: Nicalis
  • Release Dates: November 22, 2011

Cave Story+ is a 2D action shooter, platformer, adventure game, where you control an amnesiac boy who wakes up in a world filled with creatures called the Mimigas, who became violent after ingesting mysterious red flowers growing in the area. Soon, the nameless boy discovers that a mad scientist is hellbent on searching for a magical artifact and use it for war. Run, jump, shoot, fly, and explore your way through a massive action-adventure reminiscent of classic 8 and 16-bit games. Take control and learn the origins of this world’s power to stop the delusional villain and save the Mimiga!

Considered to many as the godfather of indie games, Cave Story jump-started the indie gaming boom in the 2000s. Created by one man during his free time over the course of five years, indie developer Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya has inspired people to create their own games with his creation that is a complete package, has multiple endings, a touching story and is fun to play. And the best part is, the original Cave Story was free to download and word of it spread through the gaming community. With the success of Pixel’s game, it has been ported to many platforms as the remastered Cave Story+. Cave Story is a shining example of a game made out of love, blood, sweat, and tears. Had Pixel pitched his idea to a gaming company, they might have forced him to work at demanding schedules or even booted out of development because he was still studying programming in college.

Cave Story Trailer

2.) Manageable budget means cheaper priced games

If you got the talent in programming, have a game in mind and have the passion for it, you make a game without spending millions of dollars. Indie games are usually made by a very small team in their free time. Eventually, they may rent an office space, buy more equipment, pay a licensing fee for a game engine, but these expenses are within their budget. “Manageable”, as in the devs won’t end up selling their livers, kidneys, and children. *ahem* And since development costs are low, prices for indie games are low. A typical mainstream game will cost you 60 USD on launch day, and in comparison, a typical indie game will cost you 5-30 USD.

Another factor that makes indie games cheaper is the lack of a publisher support. When an indie studio partners with a publisher for marketing and funds, the devs will adjust the prices of their game higher so that they’ll get a return on investment for all that money spent on marketing and other publisher fees.


  • System/Platform: PC, Xbox One
  • Publisher: Studio MDHR
  • Developer: Studio MDHR
  • Release Dates: September 29, 2017

Cuphead and Mugman had the mistake of losing in a casino owned by the Devil himself. The titular characters begged the Devil to not take their souls, so the two become contract collectors and must take the souls of debtors that is hiding in this strange and cartoon world. Can Cuphead and Mugman get away from the Devil’s clutches or will their heads end up as his new addition to his devilish tea set?

Developed by the Moldenhauer brothers, Cuphead’s development started in 2010, but the idea of the game and a prototype actually started in 2000. Sadly things didn’t go anywhere for they lack the tools. Things began to move in 2010 after they got a hit of inspiration from the success of the indie game Super Meat Boy, a game that was also created by two guys. The brothers went to hire more people to create Studio MDHR, and it took them seven years to program the game and painstakingly animate Cuphead, Mugman, every enemy, every movable object and every boss by hand, so they could capture that 1930’s cartoon style of shaky cell animation, and bizarre imagery.

The result is a one-of-a-kind game that you have never seen before with an art style that reminds you of the old days of black and white cartoon animation, complemented with authentic jazz music. Cuphead is more than style—the gameplay is very solid that reminds you of classic shoot ‘em games like Contra and other bullet hell shooters. And the game only cost 20 bucks!

Did Cuphead succeed? The game sold over 1 million copies over the course of 2 weeks. For an indie studio, 1 million sales is an achievement and the developers certainly became instant millionaires. Success like this doesn’t happen frequently and if an indie studio failed, they can lick their wounds and try again. Compared that to mainstream games where certain publishers kill off game developers because the games they made didn’t sell 5 million copies and earned billions of dollars. *ahem*Visceral Games shut down by Electronic Arts*ahem*

Cuphead Trailer

The Rise to Prominence

As mentioned before, indie games have been around since the dawn of mankind and the mainstream devs were indie devs once. Also, there are some indie devs are part of one huge team of other devs to work on big games like sweatshops. And these indie devs do this to gain experience or be given the chance to lead develop a game the head developer or publisher want. Ever wondered why Rockstar Studios have many branches? It’s sort of like that.

In the 90s, a new studio must have the financial muscle to put their games on Nintendo, SEGA and Sony platforms, and follow their strict guidelines and fees. Or license their games to a publisher and let them do the red tape, in exchange for fees. There was nothing else a small dev could do at the time until the arrival of digital distribution like Steam and easy to access tools online like the popular Unity Engine arrived in the mid-2000s. Distributing games online cuts off the publisher middleman, thus lowering the development cost and no more troubles spending more money on distributing physical copies to stores.

The Unity Engine is technically free to use, so developers can experiment and put out prototype games before committing to further development. The flexibility and accessibility of the Unity Engine have made it the most popular game engine for indie devs. But to be fair, the more powerful Unreal Engine 4 is also indie dev friendly.

Indie Gaming is a Culture

Mainstream games are getting expensive to make mainly because of competition with other mainstream games. Developers and publishers hire popular actors to voice the characters, playtesters, additional people to divide the workload, make deals with companies to mass produce game discs, pour money to marketing to give their games exposure, and so on. And despite having a massive budget and hundreds of people, strict deadlines and pressure from executives force mainstream developers to cut corners, ending up with broken and buggy games at launch.

There’s also the problem of corporate greed by forcing games to include microtransactions and paid loot boxes with randomized content. Now, microtransactions in and of itself isn’t a bad thing and it’s common in mobile gaming, but the difference is, these mobile games are free to play while mainstream games aren’t. Back in the day, costumes and weapons were unlockables to reward players for figuring out a secret or beating the game at hard difficulty. Now, these costumes and weapons are only obtainable if you pay additional money on top of the 60 USD you just spent buying the game. Want easy fatalities in Mortal Kombat X? Pay a small fee!

Games that look the same, feel the same, specifically crafted to appeal to the mass market, but filled with bugs, cutting game content for paid DLCs or pre-order bonuses, laggy multiplayer servers, intrusive DRM, microtransactions in full-priced games, and unethical anti-consumer practices are part of a culture called the Triple-A Culture.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Indie Culture. It’s everything opposite of Triple-A Culture and it’s a culture that is badly needed right now. What we have described above is the nature of Indie Culture and there has to be an equilibrium, a yin and yang balance, or otherwise, the mainstream giants will take over and gamers will be forced to consume the same games only but in different candy wraps.

That is not to say indie gaming is a true saint. Indies have bad to horrible games ranging from countless half-baked clones of popular games like Minecraft, games that use stolen assets from other games, and there are some devs that engage in unethical practices like having relationships with the gaming journalists to get high review scores, or shut down rival developers with stinging hit piece articles, or shame the very gaming community by labeling them something that they’re not. But for the gaming experience and everything else though, indies have a lot to offer with little anti-consumerism and is lesser of the two evils.

Final Thoughts

And that concludes our definition of Indie Games. For everyone else, indie games are those cheap games from unknown developers with pixel art graphics or have 2D graphics. On a surface level, that is true, but if you dig deep, you’ll notice that indie games are more than that.

What we presented only tells a part of what indie gaming is, and once you understand more about this culture, the more you’ll understand how important it is to the gaming industry as a whole.

Shovel-Knight-Specter-of-Torment-game-700x394 What Are Indie Games? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]


Author: Antoine Rizal

I've been an anime fan for as long as I can remember. Actually, anime is very much a part of me now for I have extended my reach beyond just watching them. I am a fansubber for more than 8 years now and contributed a lot to the anime community. Me and my group has translated shows, manga, drama CDs and doujinshi. Right now I'm learning Japanese so I can better serve the community and read interesting stuff about the Japanese culture as well.

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