Making ‘indie’ video games gets trickier as industry evolves

Video game developer Ben Esposito’s first big breakthrough was a whimsical game called Donut County, which featured a raccoon that dropped small objects, and then whole neighborhoods, into an ever-expanding hole in the ground.

His latest, Neon White, is a campy twist on the first-person shooter genre, where you dash through the sky at breakneck speed to stop a demon invasion. Drawn in an anime style and with a romantic subplot, it was nominated for Best Indie and Best Action Game at the Thursday Game Awards, an Oscar-like event for the video game industry.

Every year, a few tiny and independent video game development studios, like Esposito’s Angel Matrix, compete with the big leagues by developing successful games that achieve commercial success, or at least receive critical acclaim. Even one of the most popular games in the world, Minecraft, was started by an independent game developer in Sweden who later sold their studio to Microsoft for $2.5 billion.

“I have really odd tastes,” said Esposito, 33. “When I’m picking stuff, it’s about finding that rare intersection of something that’s unconventional and interesting to me, but when presented properly, it could be financially.” be successful.”

How long these “indie” studios can thrive is up for debate as the gaming industry undergoes increasing consolidation – symbolized by Xbox maker Microsoft’s upcoming $69 billion acquisition of gaming giant Activision Blizzard, which is based on the Awaiting approval from US and European regulators.

Esposito, the game’s co-creator and director, and his wife, co-creator Geneva Hodgson, have worked from their home near Los Angeles for the past three years to oversee development on Neon White. At the height of production, about five people were working full-time on the game. Add friends, contractors, and freelancers, and it was still fewer than 20 people touching the product, Esposito said.

And while there’s no recipe for turning an offbeat idea into a blockbuster that can be found on a family’s computers, phones, or PlayStation, Xbox, or Nintendo Switch, there are plenty of indie studios that have managed to garner an audience build for their games.

Several were unveiled at Thursday’s Game Awards event in Los Angeles. These include the French-produced summer hit Stray, about a cute cat navigating the back streets of a post-apocalyptic city; another game about a cult led by a possessed lamb; and the retro-looking Vampire Survivors, who pit their hero against a constant stream of monsters.

But as the industry continues to consolidate, some developers, including Esposito, fear a golden age of high-quality indie games may be threatened as a smaller group of distributors make decisions about what gets funded.

“When it comes to bigger budgets, that’s a challenge because the industry feels like it’s shrinking a bit,” he said. “Studios are being bought up. Talent gets focused in certain areas and then budgets change.”

Games that Esposito says have mid-range budgets in the $2 million range — neither cheap to make nor as expensive as the big studio franchises — could be marginalized.

“I think we’re seeing these types of mid-budget games gradually disappear,” he said. “I find that really sad because that’s the kind of budget that I think can produce really interesting, weird, risky, but well-executed projects, and I think Neon White is one of those.”

Both Stray and Neon White have benefited from the support of art-house publisher Annapurna Interactive, the games division of the film studio behind films like Her and American Hustle. In the case of Neon White, this allowed Esposito’s team to improve the game by hiring professional voice actors.

“It’s always a very risky proposition to do an independent video game,” said Stray producer Swann Martin-Raget. The tools for making games are becoming more accessible, and so many studios are making them that it “can be really difficult to get people’s attention,” he said.

Stray garnered a lot of attention this summer with his cinematic images of a realistic-looking tabby cat hopping around a city beset by robots and other dangers. The manufacturer was BlueTwelve Studio, a small team of developers in the southern French city of Montpellier, some of whom previously worked at the nearby offices of major games publisher Ubisoft.

In a sign of his budding success, Stray takes on big-budget blockbusters like Bandai Namco’s Elden Ring and Sony’s God of War Ragnarök for the prestigious Game of the Year award on Thursday.

Games analyst Steve Bailey of London-based market research firm Omdia said it’s difficult to define what classifies a game as indie.

It used to mean, “You have a small team, they do everything themselves and they release it without a publisher and they don’t care about success. That was part of the original indie spirit.” Now sometimes it describes everything that doesn’t come from big studios that make the most famous games.

“So it could even be someone who has a publishing company, actually some pretty big studios and budgets that could be in the tens of millions of dollars that’s still classified as indie,” Bailey said.

Bailey said there is no question that gamers today can choose from a rich and diverse collection of games on consoles and from popular web-based gaming platforms like Steam or Epic.

“There’s this interesting balancing act that’s happening that the possibilities are now greater than ever before,” Bailey said for independent developers. “But the competition itself is absolutely massive.”

In the near term, the consolidation could be good for independent developers as companies like Microsoft strive to offer the widest possible selection of games to entice people to buy a monthly subscription-based service like Xbox Game Pass.

In the longer term, there’s more uncertainty as to whether the gaming market will look more like streaming movie services like Netflix, which can allocate budgets and contracts based on past viewership, Bailey said.

“In the future, when Xbox focuses on profitability instead of expansion and acquisition, there could be a power shift,” he said. “Indies might have a harder time getting a foothold on subscription platforms. It’s great for the people who are there and can be part of that wave, but it might be more difficult for those who aren’t.”


Ben Esposito, co-creator and game director of Neon White poses for a photo in Glendale, Calif. Monday, December 5, 2022. Neon White is nominated for “Best Indie” at Thursday’s Game Awards, the video game industry’s Oscars . (AP Photo/Jae C Hong)


Neon White co-creator and game director Ben Esposito, left, and co-creator Geneva Hodgson pose for photos in Glendale, Calif. Monday, December 5, 2022. Neon White is at Thursday’s Game Awards for ‘Best Indie” nominated. the Oscars of the video game industry. (AP Photo/Jae C Hong)


Neon White co-creator and game director Ben Esposito poses for a photo in Glendale, California Monday, December 5, 2022. Neon White is nominated for “Best Indie” at Thursday’s Game Awards, the video game industry’s Oscars. (AP Photo/Jae C Hong)


This image provided by Annapurna Interactive shows a frame from the video game Neon White, a combative twist on the first-person shooter genre that sees you hurtling through the sky at breakneck speed to stop a demon invasion. Drawn in anime style and with a romantic subplot, it will be nominated for “Best Indie” at the Game Awards, an Oscar-like event for the video game industry, on Thursday, December 8, 2022. (Annapurna Interactive via AP)