The state of indie gaming

When is an indie not an indie? We investigate

Charging money for a embedded flash-based animation seemed crazy at the time. Flash Indies would eventually benefit from the advertising-derived monies sent out by Kongregate, Miniclip and other portals but these were a temporary aberration, for instance, Indie developer friends have told me that Miniclip now charges as much as $60,000 for developers to host their games.

So the next big step for Indies was the advent of Steam. Before this, independent developers hardly existed - the few who did lived hand-to-mouth doing contract work and rarely kept hold of the rights to their games. Many promising independent studios folded or were absorbed by larger companies.

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Endless Space

In the UK, Rare, Bullfrog, Sports Interactive, The Creative Assembly and many more sold out to the big publishers. Steam, Valve's experimental self-publishing method, had its adoption driven by the much-hyped Half-Life 2, so that it was widespread when that game released.

The first third-party game on it was the primitive Rag Doll Kung Fu in 2005, sold for the then-cheap price of $10. This game was so successful that its developers, then working at EA-subsidiary Lionhead, could afford to leave and form Media Molecule, creators of the multi-million selling Little Big Planet.

Steam has been a haven for Indie development ever since. Though Valve takes a substantial cut of the cost of a game - reportedly as much as 70 per cent - it's never demanded IP rights and the wideness of the service's spread and the limited number of new titles on it, has meant that a good game can make money quickly.

"Steam decided they were going to be open to Indies," recalls Introversion's Chris Delay. "Things could have easily gone the other way." The final ingredient in Indie's success was the popularity and openness of the iPhone and iPad market. Early games like Paper Toss were as primitive as Rag Doll Kung Fu, but as the hardware got more powerful and the dev tools got better so did the games. More and more developers were attracted, which trickled back into PC.

iOS also introduced something else - new ways of making money. The extreme competition for the top places on the iTunes marketplace meant that prices got driven lower and lower. Developers slowly moved to a free model, where they gave away limited versions of their games. This meant that players could play a game and then decide whether they liked it - which they often did. Apple helped out by allowing in-application purchases, so even the free games could make money.

Growing pains

gratuitous space battles

So that's how the Indie market got to today. But that's also the seed of some of its problems. Valve's lackadaisical, egalitarian nature made Steam attractive to Indies - but has also made it harder to get onto over the last couple of years, as Valve simply couldn't cope with the number of submissions it gets - especially as there wasn't a clear submissions policy or route, beyond knowing someone at Valve.

"It's certainly a lot harder than it used to be," says Size Five Games' Dan Marshall. "Several key games every year catch the imagination and rise to the top of the Indie Darling tree; the rest just survive or die… You send them your game and then hear nothing back while they sift through the billions of games they presumably get sent every day."

Similarly, the iOS market allowed all sorts of developers to become Indies. However, it has also driven prices down for games in general, as developers flooded to the platform in a something akin to a gold rush.

"Saturation is a huge worry," says Andrew Smith of Spilt Milk Studios, "but on the flipside never before has the games tech and the delivery platforms been so mature."