Indie gaming may have exploded over the last two decades, but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to make a truly great game. After all, making an enjoyable indie requires far more than the access to game engines and some knowledge in game design—it takes artistry, teamwork and oh so much persistence. Let’s take a closer look at the special sauce of indies, spotlighting some of gaming’s favourite indie darlings.
1. Unique Art – A Short Hike
Visuals are incredibly important in gaming. Not only are they only what you’re going to be looking at for the game’s entire playtime, but they are often people’s first point of contact with the game—through box art, stills or trailers.
Because of this, many successful indies hit on specific art styles to help them stand out from the crowd. Whether that be the beautifully rendered sprites of Gris or the excellent shaders of A Short Hike and Sable.
A Short Hike is a prime example of how unique art doesn’t necessarily have to be the most complex; it can be cute, simple or nostalgic while still catching the eye of new players.
2. Innovative (and focused) gameplay – Florence
Feature creep—the snowballing of more and more game features as production goes on—is something which plagues every crevice of the gaming industry. Whether we’re talking about unimaginably massive games like Skyrim or relatively small indies developers always run the risk of letting their ideas get the better of them, resulting in feature creep.
This is why most successful indie games you’ll play are incredibly focused.
From Hotline Miami to The Stanley Parable to Monument Valley, these games home in on a single core game mechanic and explore it in full. This provides room for the mechanic to shine, without sub-par elements creeping in at the fringes of the experience.
Take Florence for example. Telling the tender story of a relationship coming together and falling apart, Florence focuses on simple touchscreen interactions to tell the story in innovative ways without ever adding any bloat.
3. A Fresh Angle – Hotline Miami
Hitting on a new aesthetic is something that every artist wants to do. But, of course, it’s far easier said than done. That said, indie gaming has plenty of titles where developers have done just that and resultantly gone on to influence countless games to come.
Hotline Miami is potentially the best example of this. If you’ve ever played it, you’ll recall its psychedelic, trance music, pixelated graphics, animal imagery, over-the-top gore, punishing difficulty, instant restarts and that sweet winning gratification. But if you’ve never played it, you’ve most certainly felt its legacy in the gaming landscape since 2012.
Interestingly, though, a good portion of Hotline Miami’s aesthetic choices were pieced together from notable influences such as the 2011 film Drive and David Lynch films. Offering up a great way of finding a fresh gaming angle—go looking for it in other art!
4. Niche Audiences – Blade and Sorcery
Indie games are not for everyone—it’s kind of in the name. That’s why indies tend to do best when they appeal to a niche sector of the gaming community. Whether that be those looking for a challenge (Hotline Miami), those looking for a scare (FNAF), those interested in meta narratives (Undertale) or those looking for industrial beats and rhythm violence (Thumper).
Indies which have niches, often capture the hearts and minds of that niche. Blade and Sorcery is a prime example of this. The VR medieval fighting sandbox offers ultra-violent action for the already niche VR market but does so with such confidence that those who have been looking for such an experience become immediately hooked on its insanity.
5. An Experience People Want to Share – Firewatch
Whenever you experience something unique, powerful or memorable, you’re going to want to share it. This is true for the vast majority of us. Meaning that if we play a game we love, we’re going to share it with everyone. Trust me, I am still raving about The Beginner’s Guide to almost every gamer I meet, and this is years after my first playthrough.
Cultivating this style of reaction from gamers is obviously easier said than done, but you definitely want your game to spark this type of feeling in gamers. Beyond simply being outstanding, you can create a sense of shareability by doubling down on any of the aforementioned aspects of great indie games.
Beyond user-generated sharing, you’ll also want a fair bit of marketing. But don’t take that the wrong way; you don’t need to run ads on Facebook or buy up a billboard. Marketing today is totally different and can be done through YouTube, Spotify, TikTok trends and much more. So, get creative and start building a community.
Before diving into making the next indie sensation, you should do some research by playing through the backlog of awesome indie games we have been blessed with over the last few decades. And be sure to take notes!