The world of independent video games, or 'indie games' as they are popularly called, exploded in the second half of the 2000s. New technologies, including faster processing and easier Internet distribution, allowed independent game designers to create better games and to get them into the hands of more players. However, indie games are far from new. The earliest video games were all independently designed, simply because there was no video game industry at that time.
What is an Indie Game?
Although there are no strict rules defining what qualifies as an indie game and what doesn't, generally mainstream (non-indie) video games are produced and distributed by large video game companies like Electronic Arts or Rockstar Games. Multiple companies are often involved in the production of a single video game. One firm might be responsible for the design of the game, another for the technical production of the game, and yet another for the marketing and distribution of the game. This means that for mainstream video games, hundreds or even thousands of people could be involved in the production of a single game. Whatever else is meant by the term 'indie', it's clear that an indie game can't be produced by hundreds of people. Individuals or small teams of designers and programmers are responsible for indie games.
Pong and Beyond
One of the first video games, Pong, was created by a single individual working for Atari. The designer, Allan Alcorn, made the game as part of his training at Atari. Although Atari went on to become a well-known company, Pong might qualify as one of the very first indie games.
Indie games have come a long way since Pong. One of the biggest differences has to do with distribution. In the early days, video game distribution was limited to arcade machines and console cassettes. Most gamers didn't have the capacity to copy console cassettes like the ones uses in old Atari machines, so game distribution was tightly controlled by companies who produced games. The advent of PC gaming changed all that. During the 80s and early 90s, personal computer owners could play games stored on floppy disks. Floppy disks were easy to copy and redistribute, so gamers could easily share games with one another. This led to the concept of 'shareware'.
A shareware game could be played for free with certain restrictions. Sometimes only the first few levels of a game were available as shareware. A gamer who wanted to continue playing the game beyond the end of the shareware demo could contact the game distributor to purchase the full version. The ease of sharing games on floppy disks was a boon for independent game designers, because it allowed for broader word-of-mouth distribution.
Internet Game Distribution
Today, indie game designers can reach millions of potential gamers through the Internet. During the second half of the 2000s, the Internet turned indie games into a global sensation. With Internet distribution and even online gameplay easily accessible by individuals and small firms, indie games were able to achieve a level of financial success that was previously unheard of for small scale projects. Some notable examples of financially successful indie games include Minecraft and World of Goo. Other indie game designers elect to release their games for free. One example is Cave Story, which was released by the designer in 2004. Later, Cave Story was adapted for consoles and made into a commercial product, but the original released preserved the sharing spirit of the indie game world.
Finding the Best Indie Games
Independent gaming shows no signs of slowing down. As with anything that becomes popular, however, quality tends to vary. These days almost anyone can create a simple game and distribute it over the Internet, which means that there are a lot of sub-par games out there. Luckily, the explosion of indie games has brought with it an explosion of indie game reviewers and blogs, so anyone interested in the latest indie releases can find more than a few recommendations.