Independents’ Days: 22 Indie Game Developers Driving the DIY Video Gaming Boom
The best-selling video game of all time is an indie. The second-best-selling video game ever is arguably an indie one, too. That’s not to conflate return with value, but it illustrates an undeniable fact: even in this era of AAA-studio supremacy, a truly inspired independent vision always has the potential to emerge, thrive and — in exceptional cases — even dominate the gaming landscape.
That potential has never been stronger than it is right now, as we’re in the midst of an indie-gaming boom that stretches back at least a decade or so.
“Since 2008 the big publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision have been focusing their efforts more and more on their big gaming franchises, leaving room for more and more original games from the indie sector,” Stephanie Barish, founder and CEO of indie-game festival IndieCade, told the New York Film Academy.
10 Indie Game Developers to Know
- Blendo Games
- Ben Esposito
- Edmund McMillen
- Extremely OK Games
- The Fullbright Company
- Heart Machine
- Mobius Digital
- Studio MDHR
- Thekla, Inc.
That sector has blossomed with everything from self-consciously retro counterprogramming (see the ongoing platformer revival) to bleeding-edge (if divisive) subversions of traditional gameplay — i.e. walking simulators. The effect is often a deep sense of community among players and, for game inventors, an ever greater sense of personal identification. As Fez designer Phil Fish said in the memorable documentary Indie Game: The Movie, “It’s not just a game. I’m so closely attached to it that this is my identity.”
Below are 22 notable North American independent game developers that foster that type of intimate connection. It’s not an exhaustive list, by any means, but what we hope is a reasonably representative cross-section. (Incidentally, the top-selling video games are Minecraft and Tetris.)
Location: North America
What it does: Askiisoft’s breakthrough title, the indie megahit Katana Zero, bears some familiar indiesphere tics, including 80s fetishism, stylized violence aplenty and a borderline obsessive work ethic on the part of its developer. “There were an innumerable amount of days that I woke up, worked, went to sleep and that was it,” founder Justin Stander told Forbes. But it all coalesced and certainly paid off; the studio, which also released the acclaimed flash game Tower of Heaven in 2009, is now part of the independent vanguard.
What it does: The lore surrounding Eric Barone’s indie phenom, Stardew Valley, is nearly as compelling as the game itself. Barone (aka ConcernedApe) labored daily for four-and-a-half years on the game, his very first, and made it entirely solo — music, animation, programming, everything. The result — part farming sim (he was inspired by the long-running Harvest Moon series), part dating sim, and driven by a sweetly sentimental back-to-nature vibe — was an improbable juggernaut, or as GQ dubbed it, “the unlikeliest independent-video-game triumph since Minecraft.”
Location: Culver City, Calif.
What it does: Prominent indie developer Brendon Chung launched Blendo in 2009, shortly after his previous employer, Pandemic Studios, was gobbled up by powerhouse Electronic Arts. Since then, it has launched notable indie titles such as Flotilla, Atom Zombie Smasher and — perhaps best of all — Quadrilateral Cowboy, a charmingly analog-styled hacker simulation with a prominent meta streak that won the grand prize at the 2017 Independent Games Festival.
Location: Los Angeles and Chicago
What it does: The three-man Cardboard Computer’s sole project, the acclaimed Kentucky Route Zero series, is an epic point-and-click adventure steeped in Southern Gothic atmosphere and an eerie otherworldliness. (The developers, who started the series as School of the Art Institute of Chicago students, have cited David Lynch and Flannery O’Connor as influences.) As the team preps the final installment and a console version, fans can expect more of their hallmark approach in the future: “non-violent, human-centered, experimental.”
Location: Salado, Texas
What it does: Like Victorian dolls and Teletubbies, the Rock-afire Explosion animatronic band at Chuck E. Cheese was intended to be cute, but was actually pretty horrifying. Cawthon spun indie-game gold from that truth with the much-loved, long-running Five Nights at Freddy’s horror franchise, which, in the first several installments, posits the player as a security guard fending off ShowBiz Pizza-style robot critters gone maniacal. Five years after the first game’s debut, Freddy’s has spawned book adaptations, memes galore and at least two film knockoffs — with no signs of slowing.
What it does: Like fellow indie sensation Hotline Miami, the breakout offering from NYU Game Center alum Cuzillo, Ape Out, is a bird’s-eye-view beat-’em-up action game, drenched in sanguinary stylization. But the style is quite something: action that’s intricately wedded to free-jazz rhythms; bold, high-contrast color design, often likened to Saul Bass’ minimalist title sequences and posters; and a clever approach to procedural generation.
What it does: This emerging indie studio so far has two titles to its name, both released by famed indie publisher Devolver Digital: Gato Roboto, a side-scrolling bauble of the so-called metroidvania stripe, with a mech suit-armored, rocket-blasting cat named Kiki as hero; and Devolver Bootleg, a hilarious compilation of eight intentionally junky ripoffs of Devolver favorites. Nothing revolutionary, just the indie spirit at its pretense-free best.
Location: Providence, R.I.
What it does: Founded by two veterans of Harmonix, the developer behind Rock Band and Guitar Hero, Drool breathed new life into those artifacts’ so-called rhythm-action framework with their acclaimed debut, Thumper. The concept sounds simple — avoid obstacles as your bug-like avatar careens down a track — but the effect is delightfully overwhelming. (Perhaps not surprisingly, half of Drool is Brian Gibson, bassist for — also delightfully overwhelming — noise-rock duo Lightning Bolt.)
Location: Culver City, Calif.
What it does: This well-known solo developer’s resume includes level design and prototyping for acclaimed indie Giant Sparrow and a game created in collaboration with candy-colored chiptune progenitors Anamanaguchi. His most celebrated work is his most recent, Donut County, a Katamari-esque puzzler that thrived despite suffering a high-profile cloning. Esposito also co-founded indie-developer collective Glitch City, where fellow notables Rachel Sala and the aforementioned Chung set up shop.
Extremely OK Games
Location: Vancouver, BC
What it does: Old-school platform games have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, largely thanks to the indiesphere. Matt Thorson’s Matt Makes Games studio was responsible for two of the most beloved throwback side-scrollers that emerged in the revival: TowerFall and (especially) Celeste. The studio rebranded to Extremely OK Games in 2019 and is working on an as-yet-untitled project.
The Fullbright Company
Location: Portland, Ore.
What it does: Few gaming genres have ignited so much divisiveness and prompted so many think pieces as the so-called “walking simulator” — and no game developer has done more to cement its stature than Fullbright. The premise of the company’s Gone Home is not unlike a traditional detective game — why have the protagonist’s parents gone missing? — but it sublimates traditional tension-building in favor of leisurely, self-paced environmental exploration and character-driven themes, namely young queer alienation. The follow-up, Tacoma, was designed by Cibele mastermind Nina Freeman, who the Guardian once dubbed “the punk poet of gaming” for her frank, character-driven approach.
Location: Los Angeles
What it does: One of the great indie-breakout stories of the decade, Heart Machine launched with Hyper Light Drifter, a Zelda-inspired quest RPG that connected with audiences for its 2D/8-bit throwback aesthetic, minimal-synth soundtrack (by Disasterpiece, who also scored cult-favorite horror flick It Follows) and tragic metaphorical depth — the game was partly inspired by developer Alex Preston’s serious chronic health issues. A sophomore effort, Solar Ash Kingdom, will be released by noted indie-centric publisher Annapurna Interactive.
Location: Santa Cruz
What it does: The tireless McMillan has numerous independent titles to his name. Along with The Binding of Isaac, the most notable is Super Meat Boy, which helped to ignite the indie platform boom and whose development was memorably chronicled in Indie Game: The Movie. He recently dropped The Legend of Bum-bo, a characteristically mildly scatological roguelike and Binding prequel.
What it does: The emergence of so-called digital collectible card games — think the video-gaming of Magic: The Gathering-style physical card games — coincided with the indie boom, even if it was largely kicked off by a AAA subsidiary, namely Blizzard Entertainment, with Hearthstone. But it was an indie upstart that arguably achieved the finest iteration of the genre, MegaCrit’s popular 2017 deck-builder Slay the Spire.
What it does: Founded by Heroes actor Masi Oka, this indie developer broke through in 2019, after it welcomed then-USC Games grad student Alex Beachum and mid-wifed his Outer Wilds to critical and popular acclaim. The open-world, sci-fi RPG riffs on the time-as-a-skipping-record conceit of Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow — the player must figure out why the sun keeps blowing up every 22 minutes. It’s an immersive play that upends expectations. And if you care to engage the subtext, it’s also a sly critique of unfettered capitalism and climate denial.
Location: Los Angeles
What it does: Mossmouth serves as homebase studio for Derek Yu, who helped develop indie standouts Aquaria, Eternal Daughter and the modern classic Spelunky — one of the most notable indie titles of the last decade. It even inspired its own dedicated podcast, featuring plenty of marquee names in indie game design. A Spelunky sequel is currently in the works.
Night School Studio
Location: Glendale, Calif.
What it does: This two-person studio specializes in dialogue-driven games. Its debut, the critical hit Oxenfree, combines a graphic-adventure mystery hunt with coming-of-age teen-movie aesthetics. (The hero, Alex, was based in part on Freaks & Geeks star Lindsay Weir.) It followed up with Afterparty, an epic centered around college students who must drink their way out of hell — and one that notably expanded the dialogue framework by allowing players to semi-customize replies.
Location: North America
What it does: Mega Man meets Steamboat Willie in MDHR’s standout debut, Cuphead. Currently being adapted for a Netflix cartoon, the game blends classic run-and-gun, boss-showdown-focused platforming with beautiful 1930s-style animation and a jaunty jazz-and-ragtime soundtrack. The gameplay is notoriously challenging — “laughably hard,” as one Forbes contributor wrote — but it’s also rewarding as well as a ton of fun. An expansion is due in 2020.
What it does: Like Yacht Club and Shovel Knight, Subset built its modern-classic breakthrough, FTL: Faster Than Light, thanks to an early indie-game Kickstarter success (netting $200,000 from 10,000 pledgers). The Star Trek-indebted spacecraft saga casts the player as captain, faced with one issue after another, and is notoriously difficult to conquer. (The game is “designed to be winnable only about 10 percent of the time by seasoned players,” according to the New York Times.) Subset followed up in 2018 with the also-celebrated Into the Breach.
Location: Los Angeles
What it does: Few studios have done more to advance the cause of video games as art than Thatgamecompany. That was most notably the case with its 2012 watershed Journey, an engagingly downbeat, visually stunning game that promotes cooperation between anonymous players as they traverse a sweeping desertscape. “In terms of the emotional range of interactivity, games are very biased towards younger men,” CEO Jenova Chen recently told the L.A. Times. “So when I started the company, our mission was to create more emotions that a game can communicate.” Journey was produced by prominent indie evangelist Robin Hunicke, who teaches game design at UC Santa Cruz and went on to co-found the excellent Funomena studio.
Location: San Francisco
What it does: Thekla is headed up by indie-gaming icon Jonathan Blow, the man responsible for what the A.V. Club once dubbed “the definitive indie game,” Braid, an endlessly inventive spin on the classic 2D platformer that drew as much inspiration from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities as it did from Mario. Blow, who also co-founded the Indie Fund incubator, famously poured all of Braid’s profits into The Witness, a walking sim famed for its striking visuals and incredibly difficult puzzles.
What it does: Patrick Smith, aka Vectorpark, has been making quirky browser and app games for nearly 20 years — if games is even the right word. Metamorphabet, for instance, is a kid-focused interactive alphabet book for iPads (the “A” sprouts antlers, then ambles around), and Sandcastles is a wistful in-browser distraction in which your designs (summoned by simply clicking and dragging) inevitably wash away with the tide. Regardless of age range or game genre, expect liberal doses of bemused wonderment.