Indie games were used to flying under the radar and in many cases, they still do. But there are a lot of great, accessible platforms for indie games.
Since indie games have a smaller budget, they generally have a smaller voice when it comes to advertising. Many gamers stick to AAA $60 console titles and have never touched an indie game. But over the past several years, games with smaller budgets have grown in popularity and made a name for themselves. And lately, the indie studio has reached new heights due in large part to Steam, niche online marketplaces like itch.io, and Nintendo.
Historically, Nintendo has not been known for their contributions to the indie scene. Their philosophy before the release of the Switch had always been “first-party first.” Xbox beat the other consoles to the punch long ago when they began releasing indie games on the Microsoft Store. Bastion, one of the most popular indie games of all time, would never have reached such a wide audience if it hadn’t been published on Xbox 360.
Nintendo has always been known for great first-party titles, but in the past, they’ve never focused on indie titles. The Wii Shop had a notoriously bad user interface and slow loading times, and few bothered to purchase digital games at all. Additionally, the Wii’s unique control scheme and different hardware probably made it difficult for indie developers to port their game to the Wii.
But Nintendo recently turned around their philosophy, helping tons of indie developers get published on their platform. Nintendo has a new emphasis on digital purchases, awarding users eShop points every time they make a purchase. Also, the novelty of the Switch and its grab-and-go nature means that the console works great for indie games. Nintendo even spotlights indie games on their Nintendo Direct streams, showcasing any game they feel will have a chance of connecting with a good portion of their audience. Since Nintendo has made even their first-party games available for direct download from the eShop, the extra traffic means that users may often pick up a few indie games while they’re shopping for AAA titles. Nintendo’s new partnership with indie games has undoubtedly grown the indie scene a lot.
Personally, I find myself buying most of my indie games on the Switch (if they are available for the console, and many of them are). Since my laptop isn’t particularly powerful, I found that there were a lot of Steam games that I wasn’t able to play. For instance, I often ran into performance issues and slowdowns when I played Hollow Knight on PC, but when I downloaded the game for Switch, it ran beautifully. While I have to make hardware considerations when buying games for PC, I don’t have to worry about that when it comes to Switch. If it’s available on the eShop, obviously it will run on my Switch since every Switch has the same technical specs. And I don’t have to worry about my Xbox controller disconnecting from the USB drive, or any other compatibility issues.
Steam and itch.io
But you won’t find every indie game on the Switch. Steam is still the place to go if you want to play the latest indie game. They have a much, much larger library of games than Switch. But sometimes, Steam still doesn’t scratch the indie itch, especially if you’re looking for more obscure titles.
If you are looking for weirder (and sometimes more creative) games, itch.io is another great platform for indies. In fact, you’ll find a lot of games on there that you simply won’t find anywhere else. Because of itch.io’s nonexistent screening and general lack of compliance requirements, anyone can upload any kind of game to the website, so long as it doesn’t contain malicious code or violate their terms of service in any other way.
itch.io is also a great site for hosting and participating in game jams, where game-makers race against the clock to get a game out in a relatively short amount of time, be it 3 hours or 3 months. After participating in a game jam, you can upload your new game directly onto the site, where it can be easily accessed by others. itch.io creators can even sell their games, if they choose to do so. Players can pay for games using either Paypal or Stripe.
I played a very interesting indie game on itch.io over the winter break. A Christmas Story, made by jackspinoza, is a short game that revolves around three shepherds, who wake up and tell each other about their dreams. With each dream, the player controls a different “main character.” The game features a claymation and hand-drawn aesthetic, a wide range of original music, and a strange narrative. I would rather not say much more beyond that, as the game is, in my opinion, best experienced without much context or forewarning. You can purchase the game here for 1 GBP, or in USD, $1.32 (as of the writing of this article).
If you feel uncomfortable about playing a Christmas game slightly out of season, you can always try out one of jackspinoza’s other games. I can’t recommend any of them, as I haven’t played them yet, but he has released several games at this point, and some of them are sure to be as unique as A Christmas Game.
I’d encourage anyone to browse through itch.io’s marketplace and search for some hidden gems. Most of the games on the site are free to play. You might be surprised by the innovative game design ideas that you can find from the site’s creators. Or, if you’re interested in the idea of making video games, you could try out a game jam. The site features a calendar that lists every active game jam associated with the site, so it’s easy to find one and jump in.
Indie games are bigger than they’ve ever been before. If you’ve never played an indie game before, I’d encourage you to try one out, whether that be through Switch, Steam, or itch.io.