Erin Robinson was working as a research assistant in a psychology lab, when one day her supervisor called her into his office. “It’s clear to me that there’s something else you’d rather be doing,” he said. All she would talk about, it seemed, were video games she made in her spare time. “I guess you’re right,” she said. She packed up and went home, and has been a game designer ever since.
An indie game designer, that is–Robinson doesn’t work for Electronic Arts, or some major studio; she designs her games from home. As the mainstream video game industry has grown into a multi-billion-dollar juggernaut, a much smaller cottage industry has flourished in its shadow. Indie games are made cheaply by small teams or individual auteurs, and they tend to be high-concept, deeply felt works available free or cheaply online.
Robinson labored away for years, releasing her first games as freeware to gain an audience. (She hires others to do the coding, but does all the design, conceptualization, and artwork herself.) She has since climbed to the higher echelons of indie gaming; her latest offering, Puzzle Bots, recently took away top honors at the Penny Arcade Expo, a semi-annual gaming festival. The game can be downloaded for $4.99 (PC-only, she’s afraid) at Steam, an online store developed by the game company Valve. Robinson is delighted that today she can actually make a living doing what she enjoys.
She recently taught the concept of indie gaming in a game design class at Columbia College. “The idea is to make a small experimental game, something that hasn’t been attempted before,” she explains of the course. So a student might say, ‘OK, I want to make a game about loss.'”
The notion of a “game about loss” might seem alien to those who only play the mega-shooters released by major studios. Not so in the world of indie games. Robinson points to the game Passage, a brief, pixelated work in which all the gamer does is march from left to right, as a man ages and finally dies. The game became a small Internet sensation in 2008, leading to a development deal for a new game with Nintendo (though that ultimately fell through).
Will indie gaming enter the mainstream? “We’ve had our success stories,” says Robinson, pointing to Jonathan Blow, whose indie, Braid, became a critical and commercial hit on XBox Live Arcade. When it was joined with a few other indie games in something called the Humble Indie Bundle online, the “humble” bundle fetched $1.8 million. But ultimately, says Robinson, crossing into the mainstream is not her concern. “My goal is just to make good games.”