When you walk into a room full of indie devs, you can never quite be sure what you’re going to find. Indie is such an incredibly diverse field that I’m frequently shocked it’s considered a single genre that people consider “cohesive” — outside of a comparatively small budget and creative team, I often struggle to find things that every indie game has in common.

When I headed to the first ever Google Play Indie Games Festival in San Francisco, I had no idea what to expect. But the minute I walked in, I felt like I’d just entered into a realm dominated by the most cutting-edge people in the gaming industry. What tech expos are to the scientific community, the Google Play Indie Games Festival is to games — a celebration of the emergent tech and most inventive minds the industry has to offer.

As I toured the festival, I met creators from all over the US — men and women, married couples, single folks, from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Some had traveled all the way from the East Coast; on the flipside, one guy I met lived in the apartment next door. It felt like I was dealing with a crowd of people who were ultimately very different from each other, whose drive to create independent games was the only thing that truly united them.

I quickly realized that there were no people better qualified to talk to me about the state of indie today: what it is, what draws people to it, and what makes it a genre of its own. And overwhelmingly, they could point to three major things that set them apart from other developers — and that set their games apart from any other products on the market.

Greg Batha watches as two festival-goers try out his game, Bit Bit Blocks.

Greg Batha watches as two festival-goers try out his game, Bit Bit Blocks.

Indie is for artists and innovators

One of the first things I learned was that many of the people I met had a background in the arts: some came from theater, others from music, film, animation, studio art, or graphic design.

Greg Batha, creator of Bit Bit Blocks, describes what he used to do as “interactive design and development.” “Before this I was making websites,” he told me. “I was doing interactive installations where I would do, like, projection maps that would use Kinect or some kind of technology to track people moving around it. For a while I was doing VJing professionally. If you’ve ever been to a big concert, all the projection stuff going on. I wrote a bunch of software to do, like, ‘music visualization,’ where I would mix it live with other things. Basically, the way I put it is anywhere that technology and art are colliding, I want to do that. I love using tech to make art.”

Not everyone had a background as “conventionally” artistic as Batha’s. At the insistence of his friend Eric, Chetan Surpur, the designer behind Orbit, quit his job as an AI researcher to pursue independent game development. Though his previous job was fun and interesting, he says games allow him to connect with people in a way research never did. “With AI research I was sitting in a corner working on theoretical stuff; this is real, this is happening, and I get to watch people play the game that I made. And that’s such a thrill, and it’s a communication with the player that I didn’t really get with research.”

FaunaFace’s Amar Chitimalli started out as a programmer, but always gravitated towards art in a way that was difficult to express in the AAA sphere. “I am a hardcore programmer, but deep inside I’m an artist. Gaming is my way to express programming and art design coming together. A game is a medium of art, I would say.”

This desire to use games to create art — and to explore them as an artistic medium — seems to be the driving force behind the spirit of innovation that is so intrinsically “indie.” Everywhere I looked, people were doing things with games that I’d never seen before. Near the front of the exhibition, Zhang Ye of Zing Games was showcasing Zombie Rollers, a zombie pinball game with RPG elements. The guys from Sacramento-based Skirmish Entertainment showed me a competitive bullet-hell/shoot-em-up style 2D platformer called End of the Mine. Chitimalli offered me a preview of Smash Wars, a mobile game designed to emulate the expensive sport of drone racing. Dan FitzGerald and Lisa Bromiel are the minds (and immense talent) behind the brilliant Dog Sled Saga, a game that combines team management and dog sled racing. Ascot Smith made the game I ended up voting for — Psychic, a “telepathic buddy cop” visual novel game starring a psychic detective and his (also psychic) cat.

Several veterans of the AAA industry told me that despite their financial limitations, they feel freer as indie developers; unconstrained by the objective to appeal to a mass market, to use traditional, proven techniques and narrative formulas. Navid Khonsari is the founder of iNK Stories, who made the game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, which I reviewed earlier this year. He used to work for Rockstar, and left to become a documentary filmmaker. But he came back to games, he says, when he realized the potential of interactive media to tell the same stories he wanted to as a filmmaker in even more powerful ways.

“I kind of came back and said, ‘There’s somebody who should be doing a mashup between these two things.’ Nobody had that. Being at Rockstar, controversy has never been an issue I’ve shied away from. So I said, ‘Y’know what, this is what I want to do.’ Thinking in the long term, imagine if we could start doing this with other historical moments, other current moments, and really provide a dialogue and understanding through experience. That’s the key. You can have understanding through viewing and understanding through reading — but games gives you understanding through experience, and it’s being underutilized.”

It isn’t that Khonsari dislikes the ‘average’ AAA gaming experience. “I love it,” he told me. “I’m gonna be playing everything that’s coming out this Christmas. But at the same time, it’s like, there’s so much more that can be explored, so many genres that we can tap into.”

In fact, most indie developers I spoke to didn’t have anything against AAA. “I’m not against working in those kind of places,” Ascot Smith, creator of Psychic, told me. “I think there’s a ton of innovative, great content — like I love the stuff that comes out of Naughty Dog and Supermassive. But I think I have content that I want to make on my own. Y’know, I feel like it’s my background as an artist — I’m kind of compelled to make work that is… I have to put a stamp on it, even though I do enjoy other AAA content as well.”

“AAA games are great, y’know, graphics-wise, gameplay-wise,” said Zing Games’ Zhang Ye. “But, y’know, there are certain genres that they do very well, and a lot of blockbuster games, they’re of those genres. If you want to do more innovations — sometimes you feel like, ‘What if I don’t want to do that genre?’, even though it can sell a lot of money. I think a lot of people, they have the console game experience, and after many years, they maybe take a break and try something new, and try something fun.”

Overall, that desire to ‘try something new,’ with a renewed focus on art and fun instead of money is one of the things that’s led developers to associate indie with unadulterated creative freedom.

Numbers designate each developer in the showcase, as attendees demo games and cast their votes.

Numbers designate each developer in the showcase, as attendees demo games and cast their votes.

Indie is DIY (for better or worse)

All that freedom to create lends itself to the hugely innovative and diverse roster we see in the indie games genre. But there are definite drawbacks to having a small team without a lot of resources. For one thing, you’re going to have to make everything yourself. Obviously, that includes story and art assets — for most independent developers, the ‘art team’ for a project consists of one person, as does the ‘design team’.

Dan FitzGerald and Lisa Bromiel are a young couple from Chicago, and jumped headfirst into indie game development a few years ago, when they began work on their game Dog Sled Saga. “Everyone says start small,” FitzGerald said, “and I knew that that was good advice, but this was what excited me and what I actually wanted to work on, and I knew we were biting off more than we could chew, but I was like, ‘It’s this, or maybe lose motivation.’”

FitzGerald writes and codes Dog Sled Saga, while Bromiel provides the art and visual design. On top of fulfilling those more traditional game development roles, FitzGerald found that he even needed to create his own tools in order to design the game he wanted. Although they started out using Unity, FitzGerald was soon designing his own menu editors, and other tools. Overall, it was something he recommends to other developers. “Spending time to make a tool that will make making the game easier — it’s hard to put that into words.”

“It was really important for me,” Bromiel added. Until they started making their own tools last year, she says, she and FitzGerald would waste a lot of time and assets trying to use the tools they already had on a version of the product that they would inevitably end up scrapping.

Wasted time can be a big problem for indie developers. Many subsist off part time or freelance work adjacent to their game-making duties, which can be creatively and physically taxing. Many work entirely without compensation until their products are finished, which makes it difficult to hire help with parts of the game-making process they know little about. The only thing they can offer to would-be partners is exposure, and a cut of future profits that may or may not exist.

Outside of the creative and financial obstacles, when I asked about the challenges central to independent development, most people had the same answer: “marketing.” And it’s no surprise why. After all, indie games don’t get to just compete with other indies — they also have to compete with huge AAA-backed titles with much bigger budgets and dedicated marketing teams.

“You still have to go to the same store,” Amar Chitimalli told me. “You don’t have a separate store for indies. Indies are the ones that are coming up with new designs and new ideas. Look at Steam; there’s like a section for indie games, and the entire space is dominated by marketing companies.”

Eric Hamel is one of the designers behind Worthing and Moncrieff’s A Matter of Murder. When I mentioned Chitimalli’s comment to him, he agreed that when it comes to indie development, marketing is one of the biggest challenges devs face.

“Our team is two,” he told me. “The two of us did everything on this project, and it doesn’t leave a lot of bandwidth for other stuff. Marketing is a real, real challenge. And resources.”

In indie development, the problem of limited resources becomes twofold — for games with only one or two developers (like A Matter of Murder, Dog Sled Saga, and Bit Bit Blocks), splitting time between the tasks necessary to both create and market a game often comes at a cost. “When I come to events like this, or whenever I do any promotional stuff — like, I’m not working on the game right now,” Batha explained. “No code or art or anything is happening on the game because now I’m in marketing mode. And even though, like I said, I’m a jack-of-all trades, I could make the game by myself — I don’t know marketing, I don’t know business. I mean, I do now because I’ve had to learn, but coming into this, I knew more than most people about making a game by myself, but I still couldn’t know everything.”

But, like the age-old adage, necessity is the mother of invention. “Sometimes limitations allow for the greatest creativity,” said Khonsari. Hamel agreed. “You kind of have to embrace your limitations, as part of the team. And if you do that, it makes it a stronger experience.” In lieu of outside help, many developers told me they’d simply taught themselves how to fulfill a multitude of different roles, or, like FitzGerald and Bromiel, had designed their own tools to help them work. The constraints of working with a small budget and single, or even two-man teams, are the motivators behind much of the innovation indie is so well-known for.

It also helps that companies like Google are beginning to create dedicated marketplaces for indie developers. Every creator I spoke with expressed gratitude to the Google design team for having been included in the festival. “It’s so awesome that Google is putting together this indie event,” Batha said. “Because stuff like that really helps us who don’t know what we’re doing when it comes to marketing games.”

Eric Hamel's "partner in crime," Marc Harpin, shows an attendee a demo of their game, A Matter of Murder.

Eric Hamel’s “partner in crime,” Marc Harpin, shows off A Matter of Murder to an attendee.

Indie is a community

Events like the Google Play Indie Festival also help promote the part of indie that often goes overlooked — it’s sense of community.

“The community for indie is amazing,” Batha told me. “We all have this sort of… automatic brethren thing going on with other indies. Like, ‘Oh, you’re indie too? Cool, I get you. Nice to meet you. We’re gonna hang out and help each other.’ That’s the thing, like, none of us are working on projects together, but we’re all there to help each other out. We’re all there to be moral support. If one person doesn’t know something, we’ll give each other a bunch of insight — I’ve given tons of feedback on my friends’ games on how to do UI design and stuff, because I’m very experienced with that, and someone’ll be like, ‘Oh, cool! I’ve made a couple games on Steam, I’ll tell you how that works!’ The community of indie is amazing.”

Batha’s also been to Indie Megabooth — he says previous Megaboothers often stay in contact, and email one another to share when their games have launched. Though he’d only just met most of the people at the Festival, he fully anticipated seeing them at other events. And that’s good, he says, because without being able to rely on that support, indie developers would be in trouble. Although none of them are working on the same products, it’s a relief to be able to count on the community — and it makes the development process feel a lot less lonely.

“We’re kind of like… Team No-Team,” Batha said.

Worthing and Moncrieff’s Eric Hamel found this moniker to be perfect. “Yes! That’s really good. I like that. My AAA experience has been pretty camaraderie-oriented as well, but it wasn’t in the same capacity.” How so? “My initial response would be that the [indie game] community, you’re not around so much as you are the people that you work with every day, like in an office setting. I don’t get to see all those people all the time. But at the indie meetups, we go. Which are hard to schedule sometimes. But we go.”

Like Batha, Hamel reported a good experience with other members of the indie community. The network of indie developers in his local Boston, he says, is a strong one. “It has a lot of really great, friendly people who are always willing to test your game and give you feedback and help when you’ve got problems,” he said. “One of my friends is the developer for Emily is Away — you’ve probably heard of that one — he helped me when I was having trouble. We’re on Steam now; before we were on Steam, I was having an obstacle with the Mac build and he was actually able to give me some tips on it, which was great.”

David Cai, one of the makers of Armor Blitz, was among one of the youngest developers I met at the Festival. He and his partner created Armor Blitz while they were still in college at the University of Michigan. How did they manage to create such a professional-looking game and finish their homework on time? Well, Cai says, they reached out to the community.

“We work with over 20 artists from around the world so far, who are designing and building out the characters. There’s a pretty big grapevine — a lot of the artists we’ve contacted have been through our own network and friends. We have two artists on our team as well that have produced about half of the characters. One of them is Tenmuki, she’s an extremely talented anime artist, and she knows a lot of people within the Deviantart community, and that’s helped us to get in contact with a lot of other people. Some of our artists are in Japan, Hungary, Hong Kong, Korea, South America — they’re from all over.”

And it isn’t just online that the indie community booms. Throughout the exhibition, I heard people talk about indie collectives based everywhere from Boston to LA to Chicago. When James Turnage-Perez formed Skirmish Entertainment in Sacramento — several hours from the tech-corridor of the Bay Area — he wasn’t sure what to expect. But they’ve been very lucky, he says; despite the distance from Silicon Valley, in Sacramento, like many other cities, indie developers abound.

“We’re in a very good location, and there aren’t very many indie companies around, so, we actually found this out… Being that there isn’t many game companies out there, there are a lot of people with a lot of amazing talent who were applying. And we’re excited, because we want to kind of be that starting point of bringing in more game companies, more tech companies into Sacramento.”

Wherever you live, chances are good that the indie community is nearby, vibrant and ready to seize the next creative opportunity that comes their way. And as I finished my walk around the Festival, I found myself extraordinarily glad to be a part of that community — and I’m glad you are too.

A huge shoutout to all the developers and representatives I met with at the Google Play Indie Games Festival: Joshua Cruz, James Turnage-Perez, Navid Khonsari, Greg Batha, Ascot Smith, Dan FitzGerald, Lisa Bromiel, Eric Hamel, David Cai, Chetan Surpur, Amar Chitimalli, and Zhang Ye. It was a pleasure to meet all of you. Thank you so much for your kindness, and your insight.

My sincere congratulations to Greg Batha and Chetan Surpur, whose games were selected as winners by the Google judges.

If you’d like to learn more about any of the games I wrote about in this article, please feel free to visit the full list of games exhibited at the Festival.