Indie Games: The Power of Passion and Community

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Indie games are seeing a huge resurgence in recent years, even making a believer out of me, someone who only touched AAA titles up until now. Until I began working in the gaming industry, I didn’t understand just what indie games brought to the table or even all that an indie game could really be. The one thing I have learned, though, is that they can’t do it all on their own. They need a community.

Often you think of simple side-scrollers or 8-bit graphics when the word “indie” is involved, but when you think about it, last year’s Stray was an indie title, and it almost took away Game of the Year at The Game Awards. Better yet, Hades by Supergiant Games not only won CGMagazine’s Game of the Year 2020, but it took away numerous other awards, including multiple BAFTAs. 

In the last year, I went from praying for the next installment of The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age to naming Cult of the Lamb my GOTY. That got me diving into other indies I may not have given a chance before. Stardew Valley is, of course, a favourite, but I also fell in love with Cat Cafe Manager, Let’s Build a Zoo and, more recently, Wytchwood. Dead Cells just launched Return to Castlevania with impressive scores, and it doesn’t look like the indie games industry is planning to slow down anytime soon. 

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Wytchwood – Whitethorn Games

With this newfound love of indie titles, heading into PAX East and GDC, I wanted to dig deeper into just what goes into building an indie game, the advantages and disadvantages indie developers face, and just what publishers are looking for when they dive into the indie game industry.

Leading up to GDC and PAX East, I was given the opportunity to speak to three indie studios—Naraven Games, Surprised Turtle Studios and SIRO Games—and SwissGames, an initiative that brings attention to the Swiss games industry through coverage at home and abroad. Speaking to different studios as well as a program meant to provide aid and guidance to smaller studios, gave me a wide scope of what happens behind the scenes.

“Leading up to GDC and PAX East, I was given the opportunity to speak to three indie studios—Naraven Games, Surprised Turtle Studios and SIRO Games—and SwissGames…”

Speaking to the Head of International Platforms at SwissGames/Pro Helvetia, Oliver Miescher,  he was able to explain a bit more about the initiative, “SwissGames is initiated by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, which is supporting Swiss game studios financially (work grants), with coaching & mentoring (skill development, including with the SwissGames Showcase) and international activities (such as bringing SwissGames delegations to the most important markets in the world).”

With such a dedicated program involved with gaming, I learned that the industry in Switzerland specifically is booming, “There are over 130 game studios in Switzerland. In 2018 the turnover was over 150 million (Swiss francs).” Initiatives like SwissGames are what make this possible. Primarily working with smaller studios between two and 15 people, they work to promote these games and studios by “…visiting events such as Gamescom, GDC, Nordic Game Conference and Game Connection America and Europe.”

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Don’t Be Estranger – Naraven Games

Now all of that is outstanding, but to get there, these indie developers need to put in the work. With studios like Naraven Games—promoting Don’t Be Estranger— made up primarily of professionals from the film industry, Game Writer and Studio Lead Julia Jean noted how their studio focuses heavily on the narrative, trusting other work to publishers, “We make fairly compact, premium narrative games, so all the work goes into trying our best to make the most endearing experience possible and we trust the publisher with all the QA, porting, localization, distribution and the communication work.”

Surprised Turtle Studios, currently promoting Seven Dwarfs: Legends Untold, begins their focus on a demo, “…developing a strong demo is a key part of the initial process. We try to build a prototype of our game that shows the core experience and leaves people excited for more.” said Co-Founder & Systems Engineering, Carl Friess. 

“…it is really a blend of business and creativity that drive an indie game forward…”

Friess also noted that the game industry is still a business, even if it’s our passion, “When developing a game concept, it’s critical to spend a lot of time understanding what people like, what is missing in the market and most importantly what can sell. Although we would all like to believe that making an awesome game is enough, when looking for a publisher, predicted sales figures can be more important than gameplay details.”

SIRO Games’—promoting Wéko the Mask Gatherer—Lead Programmer Simon Da Silva and Art Director Robin Haefeli commented that it is really a blend of business and creativity that drive an indie game forward when describing the process,

“Developing a game as an independent studio is not an easy task. First of all, you have to find a game idea that will appeal to a majority of players. At the same time, the visuals and the story of the game must be interesting enough for future players to get interested immediately. After several months of development and experimentation, it is important to create a prototype demo to present to potential publishers.”

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Wéko the Mask Gatherer – SIRO Games

The problem is, no one really knows just how well a title will do, regardless of whether it comes from an indie developer or a AAA dev. For instance, Stardew Valley was made by one person, Eric Barone, and was published by Chucklefish and has sold over 20 million copies as of last year. Dark Souls III, developed by FromSoftware and published by Bandai Namco, was released the same year, had 200+ people working on it and sold half that.

Now, did anyone know a sim game made by a single person would make its way into millions of homes? Absolutely not. Did they know that it would be so popular that it would be ported to almost every platform available? Nope. And that seems to be the general consensus from other indie developers as well, “We released our first game Backfirewall_ just a couple of weeks ago and had virtually no idea how it was going to perform,” said Naraven Games’ Julia Jean.

The formula for a good indie seems to be a close-knit team that pays great attention to what the community has to say between playtesting, beta releases and even social media. Friess told us, “Engaging with the community and trying to collect feedback from players can also help judge how people will respond to a game,” and also went on to note, “Indie games that can compete with AAA titles are rare, but honest comparisons to other competing indie games often provide the best estimations of how well games in a certain genre will do when they launch.”

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Seven Dwarfs: Legends Untold – Surprised Turtle Studios

So, what do AAA studios have that indie devs do not? Funding, for one. Naraven Games and SIRO Games noted a lack of resources, funding and visibility holding indie developers back. In Switzerland, this is where SwissGames and Pro Helvetia come into the fold, 

“The national market is not large enough for studios to fully develop. There is a strong dependence on exporting and gaining recognition beyond our borders, which is a challenge, especially for smaller and younger studios. That’s where our work begins. Pro Helvetia has been the main contact and support system over the last 10 years. The rise of a Swiss game cluster would not have been possible without the support from different universities, which have helped to educate and keep talented game developers in Switzerland.”

Though resources and exposure might be the Achilles’ heel of the indie games industry, creativity and freedom are the heart and soul of it. SIRO Games commented, “As indie developers, we have the advantage of being able to create and experiment with innovative ideas that might not be feasible for a large AAA studio. We also have greater control over the development process and the final product, which can lead to a more personal and fulfilling experience.”

Surprised Turtle Studios agreed, saying, “Indie developers are often in a unique position of being able to try new and crazy ideas that larger productions could not afford to try because so much is at stake and so many people need to follow a common vision.” 

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It was clear when talking to these three studios as well as SwissGames, that the indie industry shows no signs of slowing down. When asked, “What is one thing you want people to take away about indie development or indie games in general?” here is what they had to say:

“Indie developers are dependent on their community, and spreading the word about games you like is the best way to support us. We love putting new and exciting ideas into reality, and community feedback is an important tool for understanding which ideas work and which don’t. Feedback is always welcome, and indie developers love to hear from their players. The agility of indie studios also means that if you suggest an idea you’d like to see in their game, the developers might just include it.”

Co-Founder & Systems Engineering of Surprised Turtle Studios, Carl Friess, 

“… they offer a unique opportunity for creative expression and experimentation. Making games as an indie developer can be incredibly fun and rewarding, as we have the freedom to take risks and create something truly original…Overall, we want people to understand that indie games are not just smaller versions of AAA titles but rather a unique and vibrant part of the gaming industry that should be celebrated and appreciated.”

Lead Programmer at SIRO Games, Simon Da Silva 
Art Director at SIRO Games, Robin Haefeli

“…it’s a challenging but rewarding journey. Indie developers often have limited resources and face numerous obstacles, but they have the freedom to pursue their own creative vision and take risks that larger studios may not. This can lead to innovative and unique games that may not have been created otherwise.”

Game writer and studio lead at Naraven Games, Julia Jean

“I am, again and again, blown away by the enormous artistic and creative potential of indie development and indie games in general. With their artistic freedom and flexibility, indie game developers are creating future trends and defining what games will look like in the future. If younger generations of (Swiss) studios and more senior studios manage to learn from each other in constant exchange, I am confident that we will see more success stories in the months and years to come, not only in Switzerland.”

Head of International Platforms, SwissGames / Pro Helvetia, Oliver Miescher
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Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania – Motion Twin

Indie video games are a labour of love—a real passion project from those involved. Though the risks can be high, these developers put all they have into their games. As players, it’s our job to help push the medium forward through social interaction and feedback. Indie games not only have dedicated fanbases but also form true communities between developers and players, something you might be hard-pressed to find in your current AAA titles.

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