What Makes a Game Indie? – Our Interpretation

‘What is an indie game?’

It’s a question that has always been shrouded in mystery, mostly because no one within the medium of gaming can quite agree on a definitive separation between indie, AA, and AAA gaming. You would think that, much like the indie music scene, or the indie movie scene, we might have found a way to throw these labels around with confidence.

Yet we still see, with quite a shocking amount of consistency, that gaming award shows will have major productions backed by gaming’s biggest titans unfairly scooping up the ‘Best Indie’ award, snatching it from the clutches of arguably much more deserving teams of developers.

Equally, we will see games that have worked hard to shed their indie status, going from strength to strength, still plopped onto indie listicles, and publishers with more money than the entire independent gaming scene put together still clinging to their ‘plucky indie’ label. What we are getting at here is, that the lines can blur pretty easily in the world of indie gaming, and no one’s really taken it upon themselves to draw a line and say, ‘This is what an indie game is’.

Well, consider the burden lifted as I hoist it up onto my shoulders. After all, as someone who runs an indie-specific gaming website, you would think I would have the authority to do such a thing, and if you disagree, well, it’s the internet, that’s par for the course, isn’t it?

In this guide, we aim to showcase what we consider an indie game, outline all the factors that can change this status, touch on why there’s so much confusion around the matter, and, in turn, we will show you what Indie Game Culture is all about, and what content you can expect to find on our site.

So, without further delay, we aim to answer once and for all: what makes a game indie?

Discover the Enigmatic World of Hollow Knight | GOG

Immerse yourself in the hauntingly beautiful world of "Hollow Knight," where every step unveils secrets and challenges waiting to be conquered. With its captivating art style and intricate gameplay, embark on an epic journey filled with mystery, danger, and discovery unlike any other.

Check Price
We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.


For those who want their answers on a postcard, here is our concise definition of what we feel the term ‘indie game’ represents:

“An indie game is a project that is handled by a small team of no more than twenty-five employees. It’s a game that is made without the assistance or interference of large publishers and with minimal input from third parties. It is a game that is made with a modest budget, and it is a game that cannot be influenced by outside entities, never compromising on its initial creative vision unless the department leads deem it an appropriate move.”

When Did the Indie Gaming Scene Begin?

Indie Gaming Pre-2000 – The Indie Wild West

We open things up with a pretty tricky question, because there was a clear beginning of what we know to be the indie gaming scene today, yet in a lot of ways, indie gaming has always been a thing.

Looking back as far as the 90s, when PC and home consoles were pretty common things, there were plenty of game developers who were nothing more than Hobbyists, creating games that would, in their own right, be the first ever indie games, unless you want to consider the 1963 title SpaceWar! as the origin of Indies, which is a fair shout too.

spacewar videogame

When gaming was in its infancy, games were very cheap to produce, hence why we saw so many licensed movie tie-ins and bootleg knockoffs of successful titles. However, the line between indie cult hero and gaming goliath tended to revolve around factors like distribution and marketing.

elite videogame

Developers back then would use workarounds like mail-order distribution services, among other things, to get their games into the hands of players, but due to the lack of a distribution network, this meant that these games represented an underground collective of gaming’s finest hidden gems. Which, when you think about it, encaptures the spirit of indie gaming today. So games like Elite on the MS-DOS or Sundog Frozen Legacy represent the first wave of independent games.

sundog frozen legacy videogame
SunDog: Frozen Legacy

However, due to the infancy of the medium, this era of gaming isn’t all that well documented, meaning that it’s one of those ‘you had to be there’ moments in history, and this is perhaps why indie gaming for the majority of gamers is something that many will agree started in the mid-2000s at the earliest.

Indie Gaming Post 2010 – The Indie Gaming Boom

If you want to be really persnickety, you could make the argument that indie gaming as we know it today first began in 2004 with the release of Cave Story, a beloved Metroidvania self-published by Daisuke Amaya. However, I see this more as an anomaly or a ‘false start’ for the phenomenon, as the indie gaming scene wouldn’t really have a means of blossoming until the seventh generation of gaming, and the introduction of digital gaming releases.

While Sony and Nintendo really dragged their feet when it came to digital distribution, Steam, and Xbox both launched digital storefronts in 2005, giving players a means of purchasing non-physical games for the first time, and, in turn, giving a viable distribution channel to small development teams.

This gave indie developers the means of distribution and a way to market their games, but it would take a little while before we saw a healthy library of indie games start to take shape on any platform. So, for me, the beginning of the indie boom was in 2008, which was around the time that Xbox rebranded Xbox Live Arcade to Xbox Live Indie Games, which would focus less on ports of Xbox Classics and act as a spotlight for indie games of the moment.

By this point, Steam also had a dedicated indie category on its platform with a wealth of indie options.

With this infrastructure in place, we would see the first wave of remarkable, standout indies grace our screens, such as LIMBO, Braid, Super Meat Boy, Fez, Dear Esther, and many more. This was the big bang that created the indie gaming scene we know and love today.

Oh, and if you want to watch this moment in gaming history in microcosm, you could check out Indie Game: The Movie, which followed the development of Fez, Braid, and Super Meat Boy.

indie game the movie
Indie Game: The Movie

The Tiers of Game Development

With that brief history lesson done and dusted, we should probably discuss what the different tiers of development mean, and what games tend to represent these tiers. Here’s a quick rundown:


panning stardew valley
Stardew Valley

By definition, indie games are titles that are created by small teams, with small budgets and without the presence of any corporate oversight during development that will impact the final product. These games can be created with small teams who oversee various aspects of the project, such as art direction, testing, writing, designing, sound design, etc. However, in some extreme scenarios, you will regularly see indie games produced by one person, acting as a Swiss army knife of game development.

Here is a list of games and developers that we would see as undeniably indie:


hades indie game

Then we have AA games, which represent game development limbo. Games that aren’t quite indie projects because of the role of the publisher, and the size of the team, for example. But equally, a game that doesn’t have the same resources as a gaming behemoth like a AAA developer. Here are some games and developers that we would say fit the category of AA development:

  • Hades (Supermassive Games)
  • It Takes Two (Hazelight Studios & EA)
  • Little Nightmares (Tazier Studios & Bandai Namco)
  • Psychonauts 2 (Double Fine Productions)
  • Overcooked (Team 17)


gta 5

Then we have the AAA gaming scene, which essentially represents the multi-million dollar productions and all the household names in development working on them. These developers have staff in the hundreds for each project, they have practically unlimited resources, and they have the capacity to work on multiple big-name projects at once. You can probably name a few AAA projects on your own without my help, but for the sake of clarity, here are some AAA games and devs below:

  • Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar Games)
  • The Last of Us (Naughty Dog)
  • Marvel’s Spiderman (Insomniac Games)
  • Portal (Valve)
  • Dark Souls (From Software)

The Characteristics of an Indie Game

Now that you understand the tiers of development, it’s now time to give you the tools to identify an indie game purely based on its characteristics. This isn’t a surefire way to tell if a game is a certified indie, as many AAA developers like to lean into the charm of indie gaming and masquerade as plucky little titles; however, with the help of the list of characteristics below, you’ll stand a better chance of separating your Dead Cells from your Dark Souls, and your Outer Wilds from your Outer Worlds.

Small Teams

I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule as to what quantifies a ‘small team’ when developing an indie, but we can certainly offer a ballpark figure. We would say that at the top end of the scale, an indie project should really have no more than twenty-five members of staff. At the top end of the scale, to justify this many members of staff, the game in question would probably need to have a strong Kickstarter campaign, or receive seed funding from a non-publisher third party.

The recent indie Sabotage Studios hit Sea of Stars is a prime example of this. However, generally, indie development teams tend to have, at maximum, one or two representatives for each core role in the development process.

sea of stars videogame
Sea of Stars

This usually means sound designers, artists, creative leads, producers, localization leads, QA leads, designers, and marketing. There can be more roles needed, depending on the specificity of the project in question, but if the project’s team is in excess of thirty members of staff, it’s quite hard to argue that the project is an indie game, and probably fits better in the AA category.

Resources Available Informing Design

When it comes to indie game development, the fact that these teams do not have access to the resources that AAA studios do tends to inform the design decisions made throughout development. This can take many forms. For example, most indie games cannot shoot for photo-realism when it comes to visuals, which often means that indie devs lean into more reserved art styles like pixel art, and this can translate to sound design with the use of SNES-style chiptune soundtracks, for example.

Generally, due to lower budgets, these games will tend to focus on the more important areas of their game, often tactically neglecting certain aspects that won’t pull down the overall quality of the game. Whereas with AAA development, the goal is to make each and every aspect of the game as refined as possible, or face the wrath of the gaming community.

Made with Love

The secret ingredient when it comes to making an indie game tends to be love. AAA developers tend to make developmental decisions based on potential sales figures, monetization, and future growth through DLC and sequels.

However, when it comes to indie games, the factor that will ultimately sway all developmental decisions will be whether said decisions marry together nicely with the team’s vision for the game. Indie projects tend to be passion-led projects, where the fans of the game are catered for, the authenticity of the project is maintained at all costs, and the finer details are largely adhered to.

The best example would be Stardew Valley. Could you ever picture a money-hungry publisher ever releasing years’ worth of expansions and updates for free? Of course not. Yet Eric Barone’s love for his farming sim masterpiece, and his appreciation for the fans that helped him on his way to success have led to this consistent update stream. 

To put it simply, without the presence of corporate figures breathing down the neck of developers and tweaking the project to suit their business-minded ideals, indie games have the freedom to cover topics often seen as ‘too risky’ by AAA devs, and more importantly, have the freedom to be the truest version of themselves come release day.

Using Early Access


Another common trait of an indie game is making use of Steam’s Early Access service. This is a service that allows players to invest in a game early in the developmental process, and, in doing so, allows them to play the game in its current stage of development.

This benefits the developer as they receive funding for their project through generating game sales early; plus, this service also acts as a means of player testing and QA, making it much easier to get a handle on player’s reactions to mechanics and design decisions, as well as iron out bugs that would be disastrous if the game were to fully release.

There are some examples of larger games using this service for the game reasons as stated above, with the recent Baldur’s Gate 3 serving as a prime example. However, this service, by and large, tends to be used primarily by indie developers. So, if the game is in early access, chances are the game is an indie project.

Longer Development Times

Lastly, a common trait of an indie-developed game is that the development cycle is much longer than a AAA project. With the small teams and limited resources, it means that indie devs need to work much harder than the AAA developers to get much less done. It might take indie devs five years to complete a game that only lasts five hours, whereas some major AAA publishers can churn out annual releases for some well-known properties with no real issues whatsoever.

Ultimately, this is a positive trait and one that AAA development could benefit from implementing itself, as these longer development times allow teams to polish and refine their projects, ensuring that the final project is the best possible version of the game.

The Outliers – A Cause for Confusion

Then, we have the outliers. The projects that have effectively forced our hand and made us create an entire guide detailing what an indie game is. There are some entities within the industry that people can’t seem to label with any consistency and a number of practices that make it quite hard to pin down the true nature of some developers. I bet you’re even more confused now. Well, let me explain:

Boutique Publishers

team 17

Firstly, we have the boutique publishers within the industry, which blur the lines between an indie project. Boutique publishers can take many forms, but generally, these are large publishing houses with a mass of resources, fantastic scouting and distribution networks, and enough capital to produce multiple games per year.

What makes them indie-specific is that these boutique publishers seek out lesser-known studios and projects that show promise, and strike deals to support and publish these games, which, in turn, nets them a cut of the profits and another game to add to their portfolio, helping to improve their reputation as a publisher.

These publishing houses are essentially very strong curators of indie game projects, and have a knack for sniffing out potential gems, and then seeing them through to fruition.

However, whether these games can be truly referred to as indies is up for debate, as these projects receive the financial backing of a major corporation, are given a package of resources and support networks that other developers simply will not have at their disposal, and the stress of publishing and marketing their game is taken away from them, allowing them to focus on development.

Here is a list of some prominent indie boutique publishers, and a handful of games that they have helped hit our screens:

Indies That Outgrew the Label


Next, we have the rare cases of indie games that undoubtedly began life as plucky little passion projects, but, along the way, have shed their indie status to become household names with millions or, in some cases, billions of dollars to throw around.

You may be wondering how this happens, and in most cases, it tends to be due to mainstream success followed by acquisition, but it could also be due to the continued success of the developer on multiple projects, the developer becoming a publishing house, or long term success through a game’s live service format. There are a lot of factors that can lead to Indies becoming too big to be labeled Indies anymore.

Here is a handful of indie games that are very hard to label as indies as of today, and the developers behind these projects:

  • Minecraft (Mojang Games) – Now owned by Microsoft
  • Rocket League (Psyonix Games) – Now owned By Epic
  • Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout (Mediatonic)
  • Five Nights at Freddy’s (Scott Cawthorn)

AAA’s with Indie Initiatives

It Takes Two
It Takes Two

Next, we have games that are labeled indies despite the fact that they are under the umbrella of some of the most well-known and prestigious publishing companies in the industry. How does that work, you ask? Well, it all happens through a little thing called an in-house indie initiative.

Major corporations will often create infrastructure within their company where they will set aside resources and overflow assets to create ‘indie games.’ This could be by sending off a small team of developers at a loose end to come up with something cool, or it could be by sourcing interesting up-and-coming indie titles, and then giving them the backing of a AAA publisher to get the job done.

It’s similar to the boutique publisher model, but taken to the nth degree, where resources are in abundance, marketing is handled with the same scope as a major release, and generally, the games created have all the polish of a AAA game, making them mainstream releases in all but name.

Here is a handful of games that I would through into this category:

  • It Takes Two (Hazelight Studios) – Published By EA
  • Stray (B12 Studios) – Backed and marketed heavily by Sony
  • Kena: Bridge of Spirits (Ember Labs) – Backed and marketed heavily by Sony
  • Hi-Fi Rush (Published by Bethesda Softworks)
  • No Man’s Sky (Hello Games) – Backed and marketed heavily by Sony

AA’s Masquerading as Indies

supermassive games

Then lastly, there is the collective of ‘indie games’ that see it as a positive to remain indies. This label comes with some benefits, such as lesser expectations, meaning when said companies exceed expectations of the general indie project, they receive plaudits that they perhaps wouldn’t if they weren’t seen as an indie company. It also allows them to compete in award categories against less complex, low-budget games, and effectively blow the smaller projects out of the water for more screen time.

Ultimately, with an indie label comes a lesser level of scrutiny, and while this can also mean fewer eyes on your product initially, it can be an effective way for companies to consistently be a big fish in a small pond.

Most companies that do this are experienced indie developers who have outgrown that label, but don’t feel it would benefit them to make that step up to the big time. Here is a list of developers that I would say fit the bill here:

  • Supermassive Games (Hades, Transistor, Pyre)
  • Team 17 (Overcooked, Killer Frequency)
  • Team Cherry (Hollow Knight)

The Allowances We Make

Then, before we sign off, there are some niche areas of gaming that perhaps some traditionalists would not consider ‘indie gaming.’ However, we like to keep our readers in the know, and these are some of the allowances that we make when it comes to labeling something as indie, or at the very least, ‘indie adjacent.’

Retro Games


We here at IGC will make allowances for a lot of retro games. These may not be indie games in the traditional sense, but there are a lot of hidden retro gems of yesteryear that were made by smaller studios, often without the backing of a major publisher.

Games back then were made at a time when, aside from a small list of major players, most developers didn’t have two pennies to rub together. So, for that reason, we deem these titles as honorary indie games. They may have had to rely on a big-name publisher at the time, but it was an era where, if they didn’t fork over a huge chunk of their sales revenue, they simply wouldn’t be able to make a game.

That being said, not all games earn the ‘indie-retro’ status. For some clarity on the matter, here are some retro games that we would consider indies in all but name:

  • Ico (Team Ico)
  • The Suffering (Surreal Software)
  • Okami (Clover Studios)
  • Fahrenheit (Quantic Dream)
  • Summoner (Volition)
  • Fatal Frame (Koei)
  • Dark Cloud (Level-5)

VR Games

garden of the sea
Garden of the Sea

We are living in an era where VR is both considered ‘the future of gaming’ and a medium that is still very much in its infancy. This essentially means that, aside from some standout VR titles with major backing like Half-Life Alyx or Horizon: Call of the Mountain, to name a few, pretty much all VR games could be considered indie games.

This may be subject to change if the medium ever becomes more popular than traditional gaming, but until then, we will view VR as an offshoot of the indie scene, albeit a very specialist area of the community.

Here are a few VR titles that we would say showcase the most ‘indie-orientated’ side of the medium to date:

  • Garden of the Sea
  • A Fisherman’s Tale
  • Demeo
  • Job Simulator
  • Tentacular
  • Moss

Fan-Made Games

black mesa

Then lastly, we would also say that all games that are created by fans are, by extension, indie games. These may be games made with AAA games serving as the foundation. They may be mods that suddenly blossom into indie games in their own right. Or they may be interesting game jam entries that serve as the catalyst for the next breakout indie success. These can come in many shapes and forms, but here is a quick list of some fan-made projects that we would see as indies in their own right:

  • Pokemon ROM Hacks
  • Black Mesa
  • Goldeneye: Source
  • AM2R

Defining a Sub-culture

I suppose it’s time for our final word now, and after all of this preamble, you probably just want a clear and succinct definition of what an indie game is, and I really do want to provide it for you, but the simple fact of the matter is that the industry keeps moving the goalposts, usually to the benefit of the bigger publishers. So, our take may not be one that stands the test of time, but regardless, this, to me, is what an indie game is:

“An indie game is a project that is handled by a small team of no more than twenty-five employees. It’s a game that is made without the assistance or interference of large publishers and with minimal input from third parties. It is a game that is made with a modest budget, and it is a game that cannot be influenced by outside entities, never compromising on its initial creative vision unless the department leads deem it an appropriate move.”

To put it simply, indie games are savvy, scrappy, passionate, creative, morally pure projects, and that is what we look for when we at Indie Game Culture want to cover an indie, AA, or retro title.

We hope that this has helped clear things up for you guys, and with this newfound clarity, why don’t you stick around and peruse all the indie gaming content we have to offer? AAA games, pah, who needs them!?

As always, thanks for reading Indie Game Culture, the home of the indie game!

Discover the Enigmatic World of Hollow Knight | GOG

Immerse yourself in the hauntingly beautiful world of "Hollow Knight," where every step unveils secrets and challenges waiting to be conquered. With its captivating art style and intricate gameplay, embark on an epic journey filled with mystery, danger, and discovery unlike any other.

Check Price
We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.

Continue reading:

The Best Indie Game Developers Of All Time

Most Wholesome Indie Games

Indie Game Sub-genres Explained

Find me
Latest posts by Callum Marshall (see all)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top