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18 Feb 2015

What Makes An Indie Game Great?

It is a pretty open-ended question isn’t it? What I believe makes an indie game (or any video game for that matter) great could differ from what you think makes a great game. We all have our priorities when it comes to gaming. What you want out of a game could differ from what I want, your best friend wants, and so on. The reason behind today’s post however is to discover for ourselves what makes an indie game great to the masses. My definition of what makes indie games and any other type of game awesome can be found below. If you have a differing opinion, please, let us know in the comments below!

It begins with gameplay

Gameplay is the most important aspect of any indie game. It has been this way since Pong was released way back in the early 1970s. Heck, it is the core aspect of the first text adventure game Adventure. Gameplay has always been the foundation on which video games are built on, and this will always be the case. After all, if your indie game is not fun to play than what in the heck is the point?

Functional UI

With great gameplay comes the need for a functional UI. It is important that in order for players to enjoy a game, they have to be able to actually use it in order to enjoy it. We have all seen instances of great games being hampered by poor UI decisions; and those games usually go on to become lost in the bowels of time.

I would even argue to say that the best games also have the simplest UI. I understand how prideful players can be whenever they learn to master a difficult game that has a very confusing UI. Hey, I love strategy games that forced me to micromanage every aspect of the game is much as the next person, but that does not mean the UI needs to be confusing as to segregate certain types of players. A UI needs to be so simple to use that if someone wants to take the time to learn how to play a game – no matter how complex it may be – they can do so without having to deal with a UI that also has a steep learning curve. It is just good practice.


Story used to be an afterthought among developers; but nowadays, we often see instances in which the story comes first and the gameplay is second (when it should be the other way around). The core fundamentals of what make a video game great really has not changed a lot in 40 years, but one thing that has changed is that story is absolutely mandatory to make most games great (puzzle games can get away with not having the story; and honestly, they probably should not have one). Story became mandatory sometime in the last 20 – 25 years, and players now expect to be connected emotionally to every game they play.

The story could be something as simple as Diner Dash. Because Flo wants to upgrade her diner and become a better waitress in the process, players have a reason to care about what is going on in the game. You want Flo to succeed because her success equals your success. You see the connection that is being made? It is a story that could not be simpler, but it is there. Craft a story within your indie game, and give players a reason to care about what is happening on their screen.


Just as important is addictiveness. You have to give players a reason to keep coming back to play the game, and you can do this by ensuring the gameplay begs the player to come back for more. The daily quests in Hearthstone are a perfect example. Just when you think you’re done playing for a few days, you realize that you have some unfinished quests to complete in the game which will give you extra gold for more cards. The game is a double whammy: it hooks you with the promise that if you finish certain quests, you’ll earn more gold; once you start playing, it is difficult not to get addicted all over again.

Visuals that won’t turn players off

Anybody that says they don’t care about graphics is lying. Everyone has a certain graphics standard that, if crossed, will immediately turn off the player and cause them to become uninterested. Ugly visuals are ugly visuals no matter how you try to spin it. Besides, if the point of a game is to get sucked into a game and escape from reality for a few moments, ugly visuals are going to constantly take you out of that mindset.

Audio that doesn’t stand out

I am a firm believer that if audio is used appropriately most people will never recognize how good it is. That may sound a little funny, but I believe that the best audio makes any game come to life in a way that it makes the world feel natural. That isn’t to say that your indie game should not have a compelling soundtrack – far from it. Rather, I’m talking about the audio that blends in with the game as a whole.

Half-Life 2 is one of my go-to examples of this. Everyone always complements the gameplay, the visuals, the story, and so on. But what isn’t celebrated nearly as much is the audio of the game. The next chance you get to play Half-Life 2, take a moment to listen closely to the sound effects and musical scores in the game. Every piece of audio – from the way the floating cameras move to the way enemy helicopters fly overhead – it all feel so natural! The audio of the game is just as impressive is everything else about Half-Life 2, and because it takes a second for us to listen closely and appreciate it, the audio is doing exactly what it needs to be doing.

Controls that seem natural

The controls of the game are also vital to how great it is. If someone cannot control the game appropriately, then what is the point? There is no reason why a game should ever have poor controls, yet we see it all the time. This can be difficult to nail, so playtest appropriately to find out which controls is the most appealing to players.

A package that feels complete

This is the most abstract item in this list, but I feel like it needs to be mentioned. The best games take all of these items, put them into one complete package, and makes the game feel whole. Bouncing back to Half-Life 2 for a second, nobody ever only celebrates the visuals or the gameplay. Rather, they celebrate the entire package. Sure, you hear people talk about how great every component of the game was, but in the end, what makes Half-Life 2 awesome is that it’s Half-Life 2.

What makes Hotline Miami great is not just the visuals, the acid trip storyline, the awesome gameplay, or even the stellar soundtrack. It’s the whole of all the parts. Again, what makes Hotline Miami great is that it’s Hotline Miami.

By bringing all of the components of what makes a great game together, players won’t just discuss the gameplay or your story; far from it. They will talk about what a great experience it was because everything came together and created a complete package. When you pull that off, you know you have created something truly special .

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