One Game, One Dev
Most independent games are made by groups of people, but every once in a while, someone makes an entire game by themselves. It won’t be easy, but you can do it with enough hard work, passion, and luck.
We’ve seen hundreds of independent games made by just one person over the years. Many of them are personal projects that were designed and built in a few weeks to satisfy a creative itch, meet a school requirement, or make a dream come true. But some developers take the extra time to make something that can compete with a triple-A title in terms of length, graphics, or cultural impact. This gallery shows off some of the best of these games.
We put these games in alphabetical order because there are so many different types and levels of popularity. A third of the games are like Metroid or Castlevania, while the rest range from survival horror to life simulator. Two of them never really end, but one of them can be done in five minutes. But all of these games have one thing in common: they were all made by just one person, with maybe a little help from their friends along the way.
What is your favourite game that only one person made? Tell us in the comments section below.
Axiom Verge, 2015 – Thomas Happy
Thomas Happ is the one who makes Axiom Verge. This Metroidvania game came out first for PS4, and then it came out for PC, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One, and Switch. Axiom Verge is a side-scrolling game that takes ideas from Metroid and Contra. Its main focus is on both exploring and fighting. The player takes on the role of Trace, a scientist who has to stop a crazy man from taking over an alien world. Trace’s attacks and his ability to move around the world get better as he finds items and power-ups.
Before working on Axiom Verge, Happ worked on many different kinds of video games, such as End of Nations and NFL Street. His work as a game designer started a long time before that, though. In 2004, he made an amazing remake of the original Metroid, which Happ calls “Orn.”
Axiom Verge was started by Happ in March 2010 as a side project. The game was supposed to come out in a year, but after it got a lot of attention, Happ put more time and effort into making it. As a result, Axiom Verge won’t be out for PC and Xbox 360 until 2013. After that, Happ put off the game again so he could fix the last few bugs. Even though he had a lot to do, Happ was the only person who worked on the game’s design, art, and music during its entire five-year development.
His hard work paid off, though, because when Axiom Verge came out, it was almost universally praised by critics. In our review of Axiom Verge, Peter Brown praises the mysterious sci-fi setting and the “seemingly endless number of abilities” the player can find. He then says that Axiom Verge “is better than the games that inspired it because it’s so creative and well-made.”
Braid, 2008 – Jonathan Blow
Jonathan Blow was the only person who made Braid at first. This puzzle platformer came out for PC for the first time in 2005. In the three years after that, webcomic artist David Hellman joined Blow. He finished the art for the version of Braid that most people played, which came out in 2008 for Xbox 360. Later, this version of Braid would also be available for PC and PS3.
Before Hellman finished the art for Braid, the independent game was already a masterpiece. Braid’s version from 2005 has the same worlds, puzzles, and story as the version from 2008. This is why it won the Independent Games Festival game design award at GDC 2006.
In Braid, players control Tim, a man who is looking for a princess who was taken by a monster. At the beginning of the game, it’s not clear why he’s trying to save her, but at the start of each world, the player gets small clues that slowly hint at Tim’s reasons. Each world Tim goes to changes the way time works in a different way, so the player has to learn new ways to solve a wide range of platforming problems.
The idea for the game came to Blow in December 2004, and he began working on it the following year. The first version of Braid was finished in December 2005. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Blow said that he then put more than $180,000 of his own money into further development, most of which went to pay Hellman.
It was money well spent, since Braid became one of the best games on Xbox Live Arcade and was praised by critics and sold well. Blow’s next game, The Witness, was paid for by the money he made from Braid. Braid’s popularity with the general public was the turning point for independent game development. Players suddenly wanted more games like Braid to play in between triple-A releases, and this led a whole new generation of creators to start looking at the indie scene as a reliable source of income. Most of the other games in this gallery probably wouldn’t exist without Braid.
Braid is a break down of the video game development trends that Blow saw. Blow made Braid because he thought most video games were too easy and gave players praise for even the smallest wins. He wanted Braid to make players rethink what it means to finish a level. It was a disagreement between him and Microsoft, which kept asking Blow to add in-game hints to help players. Blow wouldn’t move, and Braid is still a hard game that tests how creative a player is.
Cave Story, 2004 – Daisuke Amaya
Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya is the one who makes Cave Story. The game first came out on PC in 2004, and then it came out on PSP, Wii, and Nintendo DSi later on. In 2011, Cave Story+ came out for PC, and in 2017, it came out for Nintendo Switch. Cave Story 3D is a 3D version of the game that was made for the Nintendo 3DS. In the game, players take control of a character with no name and no memory. This character finds himself in the middle of a complicated plot on a floating island where rabbit-like creatures with minds live.
Amaya made Cave Story in his free time as a tribute to the games he played as a child. He coded, drew, designed, wrote, and composed every part of it. It took five years to make the game. Amaya worked on it while he was in college and after he got a full-time job. Then, when he was done, he gave Cave Story away for free. The game became very popular in Japan. Eventually, it was translated into English, and people started playing it in the West. Before Blow made indie development more popular as a paying job, players thought of an indie developer as someone who builds a game out of passion, not money.
The console and handheld versions of Cave Story cost money, but that hasn’t stopped people from playing it. People seemed glad to finally be able to help the company that made one of their favourite games. Cave Story is still remembered as one of the best Metroidvania games, and it has been praised by critics for how big it is and how interesting the story is.
Amaya talked for a long time at GDC about how he made Cave Story. He made the game bit by bit, starting with the music on the title screen and how the characters move. The main reason the game takes place in a series of caves that connect to each other is that Amaya originally built a bunch of enclosed spaces like the ones he remembered from Metroid and Castlevania. Amaya just went with these similarities and made more level design choices that were similar to those in Metroid. For example, the first level has two paths and an item on the first path that lets you explore the second path further. Amaya thought this was important for all Metroidvania games because it shows players that they can solve problems on their own without having to go through a bunch of tutorials.
Amaya’s way of making things didn’t work perfectly, of course. In an interview with The Independent Gaming Source, Amaya says that building the game piece by piece without having a strategy or plan for the whole thing led to problems that weren’t expected. By the time he realised that dedicated tools for editing maps and managing data would have been helpful, he was too far into making the game to go back without losing a lot of his work.
Dust: An Elysian Tail, 2012 – Dean Dodrill
Dean Dodrill is the one who is making Dust: An Elysian Tail. The game came out in August 2012 for Xbox 360, then in 2013 for PC, in 2014 for PS4, and in 2015 for mobile. There has been talk of a Switch version, but there is no release date yet. Dust: An Elysian Tail is set in a made-up world called Falana. Players take control of Dust, one of the anthropomorphic animals who lives there. Dust finds a sentient sword and its playful guardian, which sends him on a journey to stop a bad general.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is all designed and programmed by Dodrill. He didn’t write the music or give the characters their voices, but he did do all of the work. Dodrill told Polygon that he taught himself everything he knows about illustration and animation. He started working on An Elysian Tail as an independent animated film called Elysian Tail. Dodrill gave up on making a movie when he thought the story of Elysian Tail would work better as a video game. Instead, he focused on making games.
Dodrill told Ars Technica that at first, he thought the process would only take three months. In fact, Dodrill worked on the game for almost four years. Dodrill was stressed out by how much work he had to do. He tweeted close to the release date of An Elysian Tail that he was still working and had found the “perfect diet” for losing weight: making games. Dodrill also said on Twitter that in the last two months of working on An Elysian Tail, he lost 15 pounds and had to sit at a computer for 18 hours on some days to meet his deadline.
An Elysian Tail started out as a simple 2D platformer, but Dodrill added combat, RPG, and exploration elements that were inspired by games he played as a kid, like Metroid and Ys I and II. Critics weren’t big fans of the game’s combat, and in our review, we also said bad things about the voice acting and story. However, An Elysian Tail’s character art, animation, and backgrounds are almost universally praised.
Toby Fox came up with Undertale. There are a lot of RPGs out there, but Fox made one that is like nothing else. Even though he took ideas from a lot of old 16-bit RPGs, he still made Undertale its own thing, which led to a huge fan following. Right now, Fox is working on a project called Deltarune that seems to be a spiritual sequel, if not a real sequel, to the series.