With the rise of the mobile platform for gaming (iOS, smart phones, tablet PCs, etc.), the independent game developers have gotten a boost in popularity. For something that started among the PC hobbyists, it has become almost mainstream in the last few years.
Games like Angry Birds become smash hits in a few days. Digital download platforms, like Steam or Xbox Live, have increased their offering of indie games. Multimillionaire publishers are no more the sole masters of the gaming world.
Most indie games are in the casual category: platformers, puzzles games, short adventure games,
flash games, etc. Although, there are some exceptions that make use of all the bells and whistles in game engines. Like published games, indies can be really good or really bad, and some also become cult hits in certain circles. Although, one thing is certain: indie games offer the chance to see truly unique gameplay and designs among gaming. Indie developers don’t fear to innovate or try new things, unlike money-backed studios.
Unfortunately, unlike money-backed studios, indies games suffer from lack of visibility. The developers who made them, usually a single person, don’t have the money and contacts to have publicity campaigns and ads plastered everywhere. The trendy indie games have mostly gained their popularity from third-party blog reviews, word of mouth, and showing up on sale on sites like Steam and Gamersgate. Some have become big hits, like Angry Birds, on smart phones and Mount & Blade or Minecraft on the PC. Indie games also have a dedicated festival, magazine, and many blogs. Some also show up in the Humble Indie Bundle, a charity game sale that raises money for the EFF and Child’s Play charity. Humble Bundle has allowed me to find quite a few interesting indie games in the last few years.
Another problem that strikes indie games is cost development. Most of them are made at a loss, and the people who made them never see their money back. Some developers now ask for donations to support their games in exchange for access to alpha/beta versions. Others simply never see release because their creator(s) had to find another job to eat every day; but in some cases, it helps a developer to find a job at a big game studio. This actually happened to an ex-coworker of mine, who left his job to go make an indie game and then found himself a job at Ubisoft after his game was released. I also know that the opposite happens: some game developers leave their current big studio job and go make indie games in the comfort of their house. They will never be able to bring life to their ideas elsewhere.
As for money, most games don’t make much. Unless a game becomes really popular, losses are to be expected. Also, online digital stores, where most of the indie games are sold, usually use a percentage-based system to decided how much goes to the game maker in the case of a sale. It’s good when a game costs over $20, but when it’s on sale for $4, not a lot goes back to the developer. At least now there is the Indie Fund project to help indie developers.
Despite all these money problems, indie games have never been so popular, and I really encourage gamers to support them. They are the last place where we can see experimentation in gaming, and some of those indie games are simply unique and worth playing.