Sometimes it seems like indie games by small-scale developers are a new phenomenon, spurred on by the age of smartphones, self-publishing, Kickstarter and encouraging successes like the mighty Minecraft. But that couldn't be further from the case – video games started out in bedrooms decades ago, and while publishers like EA and Ubisoft have budgets in the tens of millions, a large portion of the development sector has arguably never left the garage. Join us as we chart a course through gaming's chequered past to show how under-the-radar developers have always been an integral part of the industry – then have your say in the comments!
The 1980s – The Bedroom Era
When Atari brought about the 1983 video game crash with its terrible business management, it left a void which would be filled by bedroom coders working on platforms which weren't originally intended to run games. Armed with micro computers of the period – such as the Apple II, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum – these wide-eyed youngsters created some of the most daring and original titles the industry has ever seen; there were no rules, so they wrote them. These are just a few of them:
Akalabeth: World of Doom (Apple II)
Programmed in BASIC by fresh-faced Richard Garriott, Akalabeth: World of Doom is recognised as one of the very first RPG titles. Created when Garriott was still living with his parents, the game was originally sold in plastic zip-lock bags before it gained more widespread publication in 1980. Garriott would go on to form Origin Systems and his famous RPG series Ultima is considered to be a spiritual successor to Akalabeth. Such was his success that Garriott later became one of the world’s first space tourists.
Prince of Persia (Apple II)
Jordan Mechner had his first game – the martial arts simulation Karateka – published when he was still an undergraduate, but it is the Prince of Persia series which brought him global fame. The original game was groundbreaking in its use of rotoscoped graphics for fluid, realistic movement. Mechner used his brother to animate the smooth, lithe motions of the titular character, and despite the amazing commercial success of the game (it was ported to practically every gaming platform of the period), he joined New York University's film department before working on the 1993 sequel – indie developers are clearly creative free spirits.
Mystery House (Apple II)
Mystery House was the debut adventure from Roberta and Ken Williams – the husband and wife team behind Sierra On-Line – and one of the first graphical adventure titles ever made. Like Richard Garriott's Akalabeth, Mystery House was originally sold via small stores in zip-lock bags with photocopied instructions, but would go on to retail 10,000 copies in 1980 – an incredible feat for the time, given the fledgling nature of its creators.
The 1990s – Shareware Takes Over
By the time the '90s arrived, home computers such as the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga were on the wane, and Sega and Nintendo's newfound dominance meant that small-scale developers had a harder time getting noticed. The growing PC market – driven forward by business and the need for professionals to have a powerful computer at home – opened up opportunities for indie coders, with the concept of "shareware" coming into being. With this, developers offered the first portion of their game for free, with the full experience coming only when you shelled out your cash. This method of distribution allowed companies such as id Software (of Quake fame) and Epic (Gears of War) to become the giants they are today.
Following on from the success of Wolfenstein 3D, id Software created Doom, arguably the most influential first-person shooter ever made – it even got mentioned in an episode of the popular '90s sitcom Friends, for crying out loud. Distributed as shareware back in 1993 – with the first act being given away for free – it eventually sold over one million copies, and Doom has since become a wildly successful franchise.
Rise of the Triad (PC)
Released a year after Doom hit the market and turned the first-person shooter into the hottest genre around, Apogee's Rise of the Triad was seen as the next big step forward for the genre. Levels were larger in vertical terms, and you could carry two handguns for the true "John Woo" experience. The game's multiplayer mode was notable for pioneering such elements as deathmatches and team-based combat, and like Doom, it was a shareware release.
Jazz Jackrabbit (PC)
One of the first action platform titles to be developed specifically for personal computers, Jazz Jackrabbit was inspired by the likes of Mega Man and Sonic the Hedgehog, and was co-designed by Cliff Bleszinski, who would later create Gears of War at Epic Games. The game was divided into episodes, with the opening segment being freely distributed as shareware. Most of the game was apparently coded in the home of Bleszinski's mother, but its success would push the young coder onto bigger and better things.
The 2000s – Indie Gaming Comes To Consoles
With the arrival of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 came Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network – two digital storefronts which lowered the barrier of entry for many small to medium-sized software houses. Microsoft in particular was keen to push this aspect of its machine, spearheading an indie revival off the back of unique titles such as Braid and Limbo. These low-cost downloads were initially seen as an appetiser for players to digest in-between "real" games, but they sowed the seeds of the current indie market, which arguably showcases titles which garner as much attention as Triple A blockbusters from the likes of Activision and EA.
Jonathan Blow's painfully beautiful platform puzzler remains one of the highlights of Xbox Live Arcade, on which it was until very recently an exclusive release. On the surface it feels like an esoteric Super Mario, but the addition of a time-shifting ability – not to mention some mind-bending puzzles – elevates it to the status of a modern classic.
Minecraft is an indie hit turned global phenomenon and has been downloaded more than 35 million times since its launch on the PC in 2009. Half sandbox construction sim, half survival epic, Mojang's game now challenges the likes of Super Mario and Angry Birds when it comes to popularity with younger players; this is arguably the biggest indie hit of recent memory.
Another Xbox Live Arcade exclusive, Limbo is a surprisingly macabre 2D platformer which takes inspiration from Film Noir and features some particularly gruesome deaths. It won several awards and has since been released on other formats, netting developer Playdead some serious financial rewards – the XBLA version generated $7.5 million in revenue alone.
The 2010s – The Crowdfunded Revolution
The single biggest event in indie gaming today has to be the advent of crowdfunding. Sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have allowed bedroom coders to once again become an integral part of the industry – just like they were back in the '80s, when it all began. Indie developers can now fund their ventures not with capital from aggressive and profit-obsessed publishers, but from their own fanbase. Self-publishing was once considered a pipedream, but it now very much a reality – and we're seeing some amazing results.
Hyper Light Drifter (Various)
Pulling together elements from The Legend of Zelda and Diablo, Hyper Light Drifter is a 2D fantasy experience like no other, and it's coming to a wide range of formats later this year. Creator Alex Preston only wanted to raise $27,000 in order to begin production, but such was the captivating nature of his vision that the Kickstarter campaign ended at over $645,000.
Chaos Reborn (PC)
Recently Kickstarted by veteran UK coder Julian Gollop – the man behind the original XCOM – Chaos Reborn is a reboot of one of his earliest successes, Chaos. This arena-based take on the turn-based strategy genre can already count Bioshock creator Ken Levine as one of its fans – he lent his support to Gollop's crowdfunding campaign by appearing in promotional videos.
Kingdom Come (PC)
Warhorse Studios may be a new company, but that didn't prevent it from raising almost $2 million when it ran a Kickstarter for Kingdom Come: Deliverance, best described as "Game of Thrones without the dragons". Warhorse aim to mix "the freedom of Skyrim, the storytelling of The Witcher, the setting of Mount and Blade and the tough combat of Dark Souls" into a single package. We can’t wait.
What was your favourite era for indie games? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!