The Golden Age of Indie Games

A casual search in Duck Duck Go shows that articles about “the golden age of indie games” have been written in the years 2009, 2015, 2017, and 2021. There seems to be some broad consensus that the golden age of indie games was somewhere in the last twenty years, but where is it actually? Is it happening right now? Did it stop right before Braid came out? Is the framing of this completely wrong and it's actually the British bedroom coder era?

For me, I think the answer is 2004-2014. It encompasses early casual games and Flash stuff, "downloadable games", early RPG Maker stuff, and then getting into more prestigious stuff (deserved prestige or otherwise) like _Braid_ and _Minecraft_ and _Fez_. 2004 is also the year of _Cave Story_, which I feel an obligation to include. I would characterize this period as having some new, interesting ideas, but primarily being riffs on old ideas. The metroidvania came back in this space; _Untitled Story_ and _Knytt_, as well as the obligatory _Cave Story_ are what come to mind for me. The beat 'em up has a comeback with Castle Crashers at this time (note the link back to Flash).

Interestingly, 2d platformers come back in the AAA space (_New Super Mario Bros_.) at the same time as they were being riffed on in the indie space (what the heck was the name of that game with the little star man and a bluegrass soundtrack? I can never remember that darn game. Also there was _VVVVVV_ and _Super Meat Boy_ I guess.)

In 2015 we get Undertale, and in 2016 we get Stardew, and I think those two represent a pretty significant sea change, so I'm cutting off my golden age at 2014.

There's definitely some rose-tinting, some misremembering, and some revision going on here, but this is about memory as well as history.

What do you think? What was the golden age of indie games? What are some of your highlights from that golden age? Don't say there's no golden age because that's no fun. Feel free to nominate silver and bronze ages, though.

I think I'm tempted to agree with your 2004-2014 timeline for all the reasons you describe, but upon further reflection I think we might be in one right now.

It's about as easy to deploy to the web as it was in peak flash territory, and probably about as easy to develop. Newgrounds remains a pretty well populated place for modern indie web games, same with Itch. Tools for deploying for older hardware targets only keep getting more powerful and easy to use (GBSTudio, SGDK) and can _also_ be deployed to web. All three major consoles have a very high indie presence on them. Any way I slice it, there are more good indie games in more places right now then there have ever been.

The other angle to approach this from is the ease of being an indie game dev and not going broke, and I have no idea when that era was at its peak. That one probably isn't happening right now.

I‘m not enthusiastic about naming one specific time in history as the singular golden age of indie games; feels like a pretty loaded question!! But I will say that we haven’t seen anything close to the true creative and artistic potential of the indie dev community.

I feel like much of the indie scene today is still digesting and working through this trend of "remember this game you liked on the SNES/PSX? We're making it again, except with auto-save, particle effects, and a story about grief!". We have explored like 0.0000001% of the space of "fun and interesting game design", and indie devs are still trying too hard (IMO) to make their games fit audiences' expectations of what a video game "should be" based on the stuff the industry has been doing since the 90s.

I want to play more games that feel like strange extraterrestrial artifacts. That's what I strive for in my games. I have faith that this will catch on - when that happens, I'll probably refer to it as a "golden age"

edit: my post sounds like I hate indie games. I love them! I think they're leading the game industry in innovation and art. But I think they can push even harder!

Another thought: indie games are getting bigger and bigger budgets, and are starting to stretch the definitions of what it means to be “indie”, etc. With those budgets comes risk aversion, which is precisely the thing that makes often makes AAA games so boring. We gotta keep highlighting and talking about the really really small games that do something new if we want to ensure that the indie scene continues to drive industry-wide innovation.

That would be another kind of golden age for me - if there were a healthy scene of tiny but batshit insane games that were getting strong press coverage. Basically, a proactive indie beat for the press, instead of the reactive one we have today where the only indie games getting coverage are the ones that have already gone viral through blind luck

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@“Mnemogenic”#p140366 I’m cutting off my golden age at 2014

I think this is a good cutoff point for the interval you're describing although imo it's more of an "early years" than a golden age. What distinguishes that run with _Cave Story_, Fez, Braid, Minecraft, etc vs what came after was that this was when the existence of indie games was most novel. 2014 also marks microsoft's purchase of mojang, then as you say the mainstream successes of undertale and stardew and the onset of Gen Z which did not marvel at the existence of indie games like the gen x-ers on the 1UP show did, because they came up in a media landscape when indies were "normal"

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@“giogadi”#p140381 feels like a pretty loaded question!!

I do my best to load up my questions when I can.

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@“yeso”#p140384 I think this is a good cutoff point for the interval you’re describing although imo it’s more of an “early years” than a golden age.

Good point! When I wrote this, I was thinking about the comic book "Golden Age" as much as a general golden age of great innovation and prosperity. I was thinking about it in the sense that it was the time that 'indie games' built an identity for themselves. When they stopped being other things and started being indie games**. Although, on reflection, I think I undermined my own idea, since my examples are basically churched up mario and quake.

There's also that other 2014 event (gamergate) that probably had a pretty big impact on indie games, but I don't know that story.

**in a Game Developer article on this topic, it described indie games as "games that, by definition, don't fit into any other box. They cost from 0 to 30 dollars. They are 'cool' -- knowing about them is 'cool'." Which I like; indie games should be cool, and indie games that aren't cool should be called something else.

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@“Mnemogenic”#p140366 what the heck was the name of that game with the little star man and a bluegrass soundtrack?

[Runman](https://tomsennett.itch.io/runman-race-around-the-world)

Yeah, the 2014 cutoff also captures Papers, Please and Hotline Miami which sets up Devolver. I remember the press going nuts over indiepocalypse (indie game bubble) after that tho I might just remember that strongly cause it was around the time I got a job in games and I was sweating it.

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@“seasons”#p140403 Runman

Yes! Thank you!

I feel like there could be a sister thread about when the indiepocalypse happened. I feel like I've been seeing articles about it for years.

Adding to the 2004-2014 timeline.

I feel like Spelunky (2008) had a pretty big impact as well — I remember being really impressed by the idea of a procedurally generated level and the replayability it offered. Not sure if this reintroduced / popularized the genre, but rogue-lite seemed like a pretty popular approach for a lot of indie games for awhile.

I can absolutely tell you that from a game dev perspective, the golden age of indie games was essentially the

“XBLA era.” So around 2004-2010. You could reliably make decent money on a game if it was good. XBLA and Steam were both new, and people were looking for alternatives to the bigger budget games. There was only one geometry wars, instead of like 50 per day.

It was the golden age because there just wasn't that much competition. Imagine if braid came out for the first time in 2023. It would probably get about 50 steam reviews and that would be it. World of Goo? Gish? These games made millions but would sink like a stone today if they weren't already famous. Imagine trying to sell Sword and Sworcery on iphone, as a stand alone game you pay for! That whole model is basically gone.

It was just such a different time, and you could even get away with doing some experimental stuff and get a little notice (Liz Ryerson talks about this a lot).

Now in terms of quality of games, I'd say we're probably in the golden age now. indie games are better than ever, to where the lines are really getting blurred between indie and professional. I mean what is dave the diver? that's an "indie" game made within Nexon, with Nexon's resources. And you get your devolvers where people don't even know who developed the game anymore, and games like Inscryption and Loop Hero are "devolver games."

so those are my two timelines - the era where you could make money on it vs the era where the good games are really good.

@“exodus”#p140418 How do we combine the two timelines?

@“RubySunrise”#p140437 Every member of the Insert Credit forums simultaneously quits their jobs and becomes a full time Indie Game Talker Abouter

I have an alternate thesis to present: the “golden age” for independent games was during the Shareware era, approx 1987 - 1993. I think the capstone on this window is the release of Doom, potentially non-inclusive.