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The indie explosion that’s been going on for 30 years (give or take)

The indie development scene is older, and weirder, than most people think

A trio of pixelated people, lined up and facing to the right MIT Press

This article is an excerpt from Jesper Juul’s book Handmade Pixels, available now from MIT Press.

Is independent game development new? Wasn’t there a home computer game revolution in the early 1980s, in which developers would create wildly original games and distribute them on floppy disks (Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 400/800) or tapes (ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64), effectively being independent games at the time?

Developer Bennett Foddy has made this exact argument and has described independent games as constantly present throughout video game history. From the present vantage point, games like the 1984 E. M. Forster and Shakespeare-derived Deus Ex Machina touch on many contemporary ideas of independence: made by a small team, expressing cultural independence by referring to established culture and existential themes.

This game came on two cassette tapes, one containing the program and one with a soundtrack for the game to be played in synchronization with (the length of a full game session thus defined by the length of the tape). Yet though games such as this were experimental and often financially independent, they were not conceived as “independent” or promoted as an alternative to any mainstream: they defined the mainstream.

Mel Croucher developed the very experimental Deus Ex Machina with the assumption that such a game would become the mainstream, that “by the mid-1980s all cutting-edge computer games would be like interactive movies.”

Independent Games 1961–1998?

The 1961 Spacewar!, made on a PDP-1 computer at MIT, is often described as the first video game. It was obviously noncommercial, given that no commercial video game industry existed at the time. In historian Laine Nooney’s words, at this point there was nothing to be independent from.

But since the 1970s, there has always been a more or less well-defined center of financially strong developers or publishers and a periphery of smaller, often transient hobbyist developers that work on smaller budgets and who at different times are able or unable to distribute their games to a broader audience.

The image below shows Bernie De Koven and Jaron Lanier’s 1982 game Alien Garden, in which players must tend to alien plants and figure out their behaviors. When I interviewed him in 2017, De Koven described the early 1980s as a time of “few criteria for determining what could be a successful video game” yet also thought of the game as a “chance to challenge a lot of the preconceptions about what a game has to be.”

The nonviolent theme taps directly into some of the discussions we will find twenty-five years later, and the game promotes ideas of cultural independence. I say this with the knowledge that we must beware of reading the present day into the past: the accompanying booklet gives no indication that Alien Garden is anything but a “game,” explaining just the methods for playing.

At this early stage in video games, cultural independence was slightly different from today: there was a sense of mainstream conventions, but De Koven also describes working in an open field of creative freedom, especially on home computers. The goal was not to provide an alternative to a mainstream so much as, like with Deus Ex Machina, to move video games in a new direction.

A look at Alien Garden, an early non-violent game, compromised of simple shapes
Alien Garden: A nonviolent game about tending an alien garden.
De Koven and Lanier via MIT Press

Bernie De Koven was a pioneer in physical and communal games, including the New Games movement. When I interviewed him in 2017, Bernie De Koven talked about the experience of sheer possibility in early video game development:

When I first started doing video games, it was wonderful because it was so new and there were few criteria for determining what could be a successful video game. I had tremendous freedom. I could exercise my imagination endlessly, which for me was a great source of fun. It was kind of like a trip, like some kind of psychedelic experience just to sit there with my eyes closed and imagine all these interactions taking place on the screen. Alien Garden was one such experience. It gave me a chance to challenge a lot of the preconceptions about what a game has to be. Alien Garden was a game where there was no violence and there really wasn’t any enemy. All the difficulties were those that you chose yourself.

Similarly, the text-only adventures games of the 1980s such as those by Infocom were often promoted as the thinking person’s alternative to action-focused games.

A famous 1983 advertisement for Infocom extolls the text-based nature of their games: “We draw our graphics from the limitless imagery of your imagination—a technology so powerful, it makes any picture that’s ever come out of a screen look like graffiti by comparison. . . . Step up to Infocom. All words. No graffiti.”

Clearly, graphics were for children, and Infocom’s games were for educated adults. Text adventures died out as a commercial form in the early 1990s but live on to this day through a community of interactive fiction creators.

The Lure of the Arcade

But how did we get from the one-person development teams of the 1970s to the large budgets of contemporary video games?

A relatively unknown game industry crash can explain how we got to the present day: the crash of the UK game industry in 1990. During the 1980s, the UK game industry had been formed of a vibrant collection of smaller and larger developers, but at the end of the home computer era there was a gap: the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST failed to become as popular as the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 before them, and the PC still wasn’t widely installed.

Game consoles became the main venue for development, leading to the collapse of small creative developers in face of the prohibitive cost of developing for consoles: “If you’re going to spend several million pounds on manufacturing your games, you’re not going to do one on a whim.”

By the 1990s, the video game industry had become sufficiently entrenched that there was a distinct gulf between hobbyist developers and regular companies. This had come about in part due to growing budgets, and growing budgets had only become possible due to changes in game-development methods.

Nooney has examined how US developer Sierra On-Line, as part of the development of its 1984 adventure game Kings Quest, created the Adventure Game Interpreter—what we would now call a game engine — which allowed for a division of labor between programmers and game designers.

Where it had previously been the assumption that a game was necessarily created by one or two people, an engine essentially works as a software abstraction that allows game designers, graphics artists, programmers, and those in other roles to contribute to a game in parallel. This allowed video game teams to grow and thus budgets to keep rising.

An image of a simple-looking game showing a person in front of a pixel-art castle
King’s Quest was a pioneer in the use of a game engine, helping development teams to grow in size, with team members working in parallel.
Sierra On-Line via MIT Press

Shareware

The “shareware era” of the 1980s and 1990s was for a long time, as Brett Camper has argued, associated with hobbyists, but the successful 1992 Wolfenstein 3D and later the 1993 Doom used shareware as a straightforward commercial channel for distribution. Doom helped to create the first-person shooter genre, but where Alien Garden was trying to create a new culturally alternative video game less focused on violence, Doom’s developer, iD Software, was making a game more violent than mainstream games, as musician Trent Reznor described in a 2004 interview:

“It came at a very inopportune time. I’d just finished the Downward Spiral album, and our keyboard player at the time walked in with the shareware of Doom. That halted any sort of work. They put a game out that really catered to my tastes. It seemed politically incorrect and it seemed violent, and it seemed like a game that couldn’t have been made by a giant company. . . . That we-don’t-give-a-shit-attitude that’s one of the things that made it great.”

A closeup of a demo from Doom
Doom was a cultural alternative to the mainstream by being more violent, Doom was central to the popularity of first-person shooter games. It later came to represent everything wrong with the mainstream game industry.
id Software via MIT Press

This does have the hallmarks of cultural independence: reacting against a mainstream playing it safe, providing new kinds of content. But to make a game more violent than the mainstream is not the cultural independence that would be recognized during the coming decades. The story of iD was, like the story of early home computer games, also one in which developers would pose alongside the sports cars that the successful games had enabled them to buy.

Of course, it was only a few years before iD Software and especially first-person shooters came to represent the mainstream game industry and everything that was wrong with it. Shareware or not, the average budget of a video game continued to grow, continuing a movement away from hobbyist development. Shareware was waning by the end of the 1990s, making distribution more difficult for smaller game developers.

The Sergeant Pepper of CD-ROMs

The other alternative of the 1990s was the CD-ROM. Although CD-ROMs are on the face of it a storage medium, they began to be seen as a cultural medium. The 700 MB of data on a CD-ROM vastly surpassed previous storage media, yet a typical new PC in 1993 would have only 4 MB of RAM, meaning that software using the capacity of a CD-ROM couldn’t be in memory all at once and therefore had to load new data during use, often using the storage space for audio, images, or video—a type of design derided by Chris Crawford.

CD-ROMs thus had to be games, or experiences, of progression, leading the player through a series of predefined sets (often hallways and rooms), rather than games of emergence, in which game elements combine to create surprises.

A glowing Wired Magazine article about hit game Myst uses the subheader, “In Myst, brothers Rand and Robyn Miller have given us the first CD-ROM smash hit.” The article does use the word game, but this is a CD-ROM first and foremost. A game, yes, but a “game for adults.” To further distinguish Myst from arcade games, the manual states that “Myst is real. And like real life, you don’t die every five minutes. In fact you probably won’t die at all.”

A serene outdoor scene with a temple from Myst
Myst: The thinking person’s CD-ROM/game.
Cyan via MIT Press

“Creatively, it should do for CD-ROMs what the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’ did for rock’n’roll.” So it says on the package of Laurie Anderson’s 1995 Puppet Motel CD-ROM. CD-ROMs were seen as form of their own: not games, but something else. Other CD-ROMs included Peter Gabriel’s EVE, a multimedia experience of collages, associative shifts, and music — a collaboration with visual artists including Yayoi Kusama.

In the accompanying book, Peter Gabriel uses the terms interactive media and multimedia, but not game. This use of non-game terms was also the case for Puppet Motel and for the entire catalog of the Voyager company, described not as games, but as experiences, multimedia, interactive, and CD-ROMs.

Laurie Anderson’s Puppet Motel was an artist experience promoted as a “CD-ROM” rather than a “game.”
Voyager via MIT Press

Hence CD-ROMs spanned a range from alternative games (Myst) to alternatives to games (Puppet Motel, EVE), with ambivalence about whether they should be reactions to video games or something entirely unrelated. Certainly, many CD-ROMs were promoted with claims that would be repeated to assert the cultural independence of later games. Indeed, CD-ROMs had also been central to several attempts at reimagining video games, including the girl-oriented games of Brenda Laurel’s company Purple Moon.

Hence the point is not to decide whether these earlier games were independent, but to note that in this brief historical overview, the idea of providing an alternative to mainstream games gradually gained traction during the 1990s.

Jesper Juul’s book Handmade Pixels is available now from MIT Press.