[Have independent games finally "come of age"? Venture Arctic creator and indie veteran Andy Schatz looks at the recent history of the scene to examine why this decade is "defined by the rise of the casual game and the subsequent birth of the modern indie game."]

We always knew "indie" meant something. But no one could ever define what it was.

With the success of high-wattage Independent Games Festival winners, the divorce of the casual gaming market from the indie gaming market, and the continued commoditization of free-to-play flash games, the beast has finally emerged from the mud. It has become clear what indie games are.

How has indie games distribution evolved, and how has it shaped the content and helped to finally define what indie means as a genre of game? Let's discuss.

The 80s were defined by the golden age of computer games, the rise of the console, and the apex of the arcade. The 90s will probably be remembered best for the move to 3D. And it is becoming clear that the 2000s are defined by the rise of the casual game and the subsequent birth of the modern indie game.

What Blessed Road Hath Led Us Here? (2003-2007)

The first half of the decade saw the rise of the portals on the strength of sales from games like Diner Dash and Zuma in 2004. This opened up a digital distribution route for smaller games made by small "proto-indie" teams.

The fact that some of these small teams were making buckets of cash turned the heads of game industry execs and spurred many devs to quit their jobs working on AAA games to try to strike it rich working on smaller, more personal projects (see Last Day Of Work, makers of Virtual Villagers).

During these times, indie just meant "small and unfettered". A majority of the people making indie games were actually making casual games intended for distribution on portals like Yahoo Games, MSN, and the like.

From 2004 to 2007, two things began to happen:

1) So many people were trying to get into the game that production values (and thus costs) started going up.

2) Portals began to switch from finding games with hidden potential to spending their time and money on sure bets -- games in proven genres like Click-Management (Diner Dash) and Hidden Object (Mystery Case Files).

Then, portals like Big Fish Games started the price wars. Big Fish started offering "game passes" to customers, who would pay a subscription fee in order to pay a smaller amount, $7, per game purchased. Eventually, the other portals followed suit, most recently with Reflexive’s price drop across the board to less than $10 per game.

The Road Forks (2007-2008)

The next two years will be remembered as the high water-mark for indie games.

As the casual game market became inhospitable for indie developers, a few other big players saw the casual portals covered in cash and decided to open up their own distribution portals.

Like the earlier web portals, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, Valve, and others decided that there was a fortune to be made on the backs of indie developers. Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, PSN, iTunes, Facebook, and Steam all offered distribution routes for the indie devs who made games that no longer fit into the narrowing definition of "casual".

Like the golden age of the casual games, these new portals are still searching for a formula for success. Every time it seems that they have it figured out (XBLA with retro and casual games, WiiWare with their Nintendo back catalog), an indie game comes along to break the mold.

Titles like World of Goo, Castle Crashers, Audiosurf, Braid, Everyday Shooter, and fl0w have all broken rules, bended genres, and proven that in the entertainment world, there is still lots of money to be made with innovation.

There may be dark times ahead, though. Microsoft dropped the developer’s share of royalties in half on Xbox Live Arcade. After a very strong start with the iPhone store, games have been dropping in price dramatically, and the indie applications are slowly getting choked out by licensed brands.

New Allies

Luckily, indies have a new ally in their relationship with distribution portals -- the gaming press.

The lack of excitement about hardcore gaming has left the gaming press starving for content. Lo and behold, indies come along to save the day.

Sites like Kotaku and TIGSource have benefited hugely from the oddities coming out of the indie gaming world. And their attention has allowed indie devs to command more lucrative deals and even make money on direct sales.

Distribution is no longer the only key to success in the indie world; PR is the second avenue to indie success.

Is This the Promised Land?

If the quality and innovation of the content is defined by the distribution opportunities, we are currently hitting a high point in independent game development. The "core portals" such as Steam and XBLA are still experimenting, and smaller distribution avenues are opening up as well (see Kongregate and Newgrounds).

In 2006, indie games were lumped with serious games and casual games, because they all had one thing in common: they were less expensive to make than AAA games. But the changes in funding and distribution has split those markets from one another and helped define what indie games mean to the customer.

Gamers and customers now see indie games as the poetry, the short stories of the gaming world. They are different, they are thoughtful, and they make you appreciate nuance.

As 2D Boy's (World of Goo) Kyle Gabler said in his recent Global Game Jam keynote ,the best games made in game jams "introduce one new concept to gaming as fast and as clear as possible." This is largely true for all of indie games as well. The finalists in this year’s IGF competition also tend towards this concept.

Why is this important? Because in the past, indie games didn’t mean anything to customers. We, the developers, knew what it meant -- it was important to us because it meant that we were unfettered. But customers didn’t have expectations about what an indie game was.

Customers do have expectations now. Indie games are games that, by definition, don’t fit into any other box. They cost from $0 to $30. They are "cool" -- knowing about them is "cool."

Five years ago, the market looking for games that fit this description was very small. Today, it’s a viable market, and one that is likely to be resistant to overly oppressive distribution portals.

The Future of Indie Games

It is always true that every business-related article in any publication is wrong. It is the visionaries that find and exploit exceptions to the rules.

Take Grubby Games, for example -- they still manage to exploit the casual gaming market with My Tribe, while developing the ultra-indie, ultry-nerdy, web-based community game, Incredibots.

Indie games will change. But indie has finally emerged from its adolescence and found its own identity, unique from casual games. Indie games have come of age.

[Andy Schatz created the critically acclaimed indie titles Venture Arctic and Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa and is currently working on the next title in the ecosystem-sim series, Venture Dinosauria. You may also recognize him from the 2007 and 2008 IGF awards, which he hosted. Andy writes for his business and indie game devblog at www.pocketwatchgames.com/blog.]