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Breaking the Mold: Innovative Ideas from Indie Devs

From original stories to new gameplay mechanics, independent studios are leading the charge when taking risks in their video games.

Garrett Ettinger

Unlike their big-budget counterparts, indie games are usually labors of love of a few small creators that sometimes take years or even decades to complete. Take, for example, the smash indie hit Dwarf Fortress.

Created by The Adams brothers, what started as an ASCII game became one of the most complex and in-depth city-builders ever, selling over 600,000 copies. The game fleshes out unique emotions and backgrounds for each NPC and provides a rich history and personality for thousands of procedurally generated in-game entities, going far beyond any game before it.

The spirit of innovation remains alive and well among indie developers. We reached out to several indie devs to see what they are working on and to better understand what drives that innovative spirit. 

Sludge Life 2 Has No Quests or Missions

Sludge Life 2, released on June 27, 2023, is a game developed by Terri Vellmann and Doseone and published by Devolver Digital. A follow-up to the indie hit Sludge Life, the title follows a tagger named Ghost as he goes on a mission to find the rapper Big Mud. Rather than go along with popular trends with quest markers and missions, Sludge Life 2 relishes in discovery and gives players little, if no, direction on what to do in the game. 


This leads to further exploration -- and instead of skipping dialogue, players need to pay attention to uncover new items and scenarios in the uniquely bizarre world they've crafted. While this sort of thing might have been prevalent in RPGs of the past, it's been noticeably absent from recent games. 

"I think often the surprise is gone,” Vellmann explains. “You check off the boxes and everything goes as expected. Going with a more open-ended approach can leave the player feeling lost at first, which is a big risk a lot of developers don't want to take."

A prevalent trend of modern games is to make them as easy as possible to not upset the player base, especially as AAA developers invest millions of dollars into their development. A game like Sludge Life 2 takes those sorts of risks, which is a departure from other titles.

Vellmann adds: "For us that's an opportunity to make something that feels fresh and interesting, which is what I think resonated with fans. In the end, we really work with what feels right to us, even if it goes against what would be traditionally the right way to do things."

In a world filled with titles that take themselves too seriously, being able to smoke a few cigs and spray paint a few walls while discovering more about a colorful, eccentric world is an amazing change of pace that I appreciate and something I hope future titles pick up on. 

Sludge Life 2 is now available on Steam

Experimenting with Card Game Mechanics

Collectible Card Games (CCGs) are a popular game genre for independent developers, as they are often less graphically demanding and have a lower barrier to entry to create. But while the genre has been around in both table-top and digital variations for decades, it doesn't mean that indie developers are just rehashing the same old tropes. 

Indie games Across the Obelisk and Slay the Spire, two highly-rated games by both critics and users alike, are praised for their innovation. Blending CCG with roguelite dungeon-crawler elements, both games successfully blend genres resulting in solid titles that other developers have borrowed from. 

Image: Mega Crit Games

In this spirit, some of the independent devs I spoke with are following suit and blending or modifying deck builders with other popular game types. This is the case with the indie title set to release in 2024 called Drakontias by a small indie studio out of Vancouver, Canada, called Spark Machine.

"Drakonias redefines the text-based RPG landscape by integrating elements of 90s gamebooks with a rich, choice-based narrative, strategic card battles, and open-world exploration.” says Leo Sanders, the game’s Lead Developer. “It immerses players into the Realm of Aldunia, where every choice they make shapes their destiny," Sanders explains.

While we have seen dungeon-crawler card games, we haven't seen one that blends a 90s aesthetic with an open world, showing that there is still space in a crowded industry to innovate – or at least set yourself apart from the pack. The game is scheduled for release in 2024 on Steam and mobile devices and will be SteamDeck compatible. 

Another CCG, Zero Division, has a planned Steam release date for 2023. Set in a cyberpunk world, Zero Division ditches prevalent card-game mechanics, opting for a more stripped-down strategy with fewer cards on the board. While most card games focus on being able to fine-tune and build an expansive deck, Zero Divison restricts your options to a more limited pool, redefining how you approach the game and adding another layer of strategy, even for veteran CCG players. 

"Zero Division aims to shift the skill expression in the game away from building a powerful deck, and more towards piloting the deck you've built.” says Ming, a developer working on Zero Division. Ming explains, “It's inspired by collectible card games, such as Magic: the Gathering and Artifact - and in particular, limited and draft formats.”

Image: Robot Cat Limited

While this small change may seem inconsequential to casual players, CCG enthusiasts will have a new experience that may challenge them when the game releases later this year. 

A ton of other card-game developers reached out to me (too many to list here) that are tweaking or changing the typical format, and I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a lot of these elements eventually make their way to AAA card-game releases in the future. 

Innovation in Storytelling and Presentation

It's not only game mechanics that indie devs are innovating. As with the games mentioned above, sometimes the innovation is derived from the storytelling, characters, or world aesthetic. While more popular, highly-funded games attempt to replicate stories in pop culture or copy tried-and-true narratives, indie developers can sometimes lead the charge when it comes to developing unique stories and characters. 

Home: A Story of Light, developed by a small indie studio called Think Picture Studios, tells a little-known story from history. What seems to be a pretty basic point-and-click game is actually an emotional tale about Grayson, a 12-year-old British boy and son of Joseph Swan, the inventor of the lightbulb. Set in the Victorian era, the story follows Grayson as he navigates the trials and tribulations of the time. 

"We started from a place of wanting to create a certain mood or atmosphere... And that led us to looking into the Victorian time period, light as invention, and Joseph Swan as a figure. He was someone even we hadn't heard of, and it led us down a rabbit hole of wanting to use part of his story as a backdrop for our protagonists,” says Ben Harding, the Lead Writer on the game. “So what may be unique about our inspiration is an aspect of history, and the invention of the bulb, that often gets overlooked," Harding explains.

Image: Think Picture Studios

Harding clarifies, "Granted, we use it as a springboard and have taken it further, adding alternate history aspects to the plot, but we still include some significant events from real history - they just look a bit different to how you'd expect!" 

One thing I learned from speaking to all these game creators is that there is a huge group of hungry and talented young creatives looking to make their mark on the gaming industry. Many are exploring mechanics, core gameplay features, and stories that aren't prevalent on the mainstream market, so there's really no telling what title will take off next. I’m just happy that there will be many options for gamers to enjoy in the coming years.

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Garrett Ettinger

Garrett is a writer and editor with over a decade of professional writing and editorial experience. For the past year, he has been the editor of Gamer Digest. He loves playing games in just about every genre and is a Master on the Starcraft 2 ranked ladder. You can find his musings on Twitter @GarroWrites.


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Small Running Title

Avenir Light is a clean and stylish font favored by designers. It's easy on the eyes and a great go-to font for titles, paragraphs & more.

Small Running Title

Small Running Title

Avenir Light is a clean and stylish font favored by designers. It's easy on the eyes and a great go-to font for titles, paragraphs & more.

Small Running Title

Small Running Title

Avenir Light is a clean and stylish font favored by designers. It's easy on the eyes and a great go-to font for titles, paragraphs & more.

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