Video games are hard to make. Every year, there are dozens upon dozens of games put out that required the combined efforts of hundreds of people and millions of dollars to see through to completion and making all those moving parts work together is a herculean feat that demands respect. It’s a much different story in the indie space, where the rise of crowdfunding resources and proliferation of readily available development software has also made it easier than ever for a small team of talented developers to get together and make the game of their dreams (though it’s still a very difficult task!).
Like any creative medium, working on a game is a labor of love and even though it typically takes at least a few people to actually see a game through to completion, there have been some notable cases where only a single person has worked on a title from beginning to end. While not cinematic experiences in the vein of Uncharted or Call of Duty, it’s still beyond impressive that the following games were the brainchild of only one individual and not a whole team of people.
10. Cave Story
Originally released in 2004, Cave Story predates the indie boom by a few years but it’s a game that’s proven to have serious legs, having just been ported over to the Nintendo Switch earlier this year. Metroidvania games are a dime a dozen these days, but Cave Story predates many of them and the fact that it’s still arguably one of the best is quite impressive given its age … and the fact that it was created by just one person.
Daisuke Amaya spent five years working on Cave Story as a hobby and since there weren’t as many avenues for indie developers to release their games in 2004 as there are now, he initially self-published it on PC. The game went on to amass a considerable cult following, which led to Indie developer Nicalis stepping in and working with Amaya to port Cave Story to the Nintendo Wii and DS in 2010, where it gained even more popularity. Nowadays, Cave Story is considered a bona fide classic and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the very retro classics that inspired one dedicated gamer to make it in the first place!
Banished is a city-building strategy game developed by Shining Rock Software and released for PC in 2014. What you may not have realized is that Shining Rock Software is comprised of just one man — Luke Hodorwicz — who worked solo on the game for nearly three years. Heavily inspired by the Anno strategy game series, Banished allows players to grow and maintain a town economy, with the town’s citizens acting as a resource to be managed. While Banished only received mixed reviews from critics, it’s still an impressively-designed game from a systems standpoint and all the more so considering it was conceived and developed by one person.
8. Axiom Verge
A side-scrolling indie action title from the Metroidvania school of design, Axiom Verge started as a side project for Petroglyph Games engineer Tom Happ before morphing into a full-fledged obsession. Following the adventures of a scientist named Trace as he navigates an alien world, Axiom Verge borrows heavily from classic games in the side-scrolling genre such as Metroid, Contra, and Bionic Commando.
Working as sole developer, artist, and musician for the game, Happ first started working on Axiom Verge in March 2010 and later submitted the alpha build to the 2012 Dream Build Play challenge. After suffering a few delays, the full version of Axiom Verge finally saw the light of day in 2015, where it received critical praise for its engaging gameplay, level design, and balanced difficulty. An updated Multiverse Edition was released in August 2017.
7. Retro City Rampage
Designed as both an homage and spoof of retro games and ’80s and ’90s pop culture, Retro City Rampage is a top-down, open world action game originally released in 2012 by programmer Brian Provinciano. However, the real conceptualization of Retro City Rampage began a decade before than in 2002, when Provinciano set out to remake the then newly released Grand Theft Auto III in his spare time using a homemade Nintendo Entertainment System development kit. After adding characters and other locations from other games he had enjoyed as a child, Provinciano scrapped the GTA III remake idea and decided to make an original game.
While he designed the whole game himself, Provinciano did eventually bring in a pixel artist to help with the visual design, as well as three renowned video game composers to create chiptune songs for the soundtrack. In a surprise move, Provinciano actually self-published a limited number of physical copies of the game for PS4 and PS Vita, with the PS4 version in particular now listed as one of the rarest games on the console (though of course you could always just download it).
6. Thomas Was Alone
Though simplistic from a visual standpoint, Mike Bithell’s wonderful 2010 puzzle game Thomas Was Alone makes up for this with plucky charm and engaging puzzle gameplay. Originally released as a browser-based Flash game, Thomas Was Alone eventually made its way to pretty much every platform on the market.
In the game, players guide Thomas — a small, red rectangle — and his geometric buddies through a series of different levels. Bithell’s game easily could have ended up like any other one of the dozens of similar indie puzzle-platformers out there, but thanks to the wonderful narration provided by Danny Wallace, the game is dripping in personality. Bithell would go on to work with a 15-man team on his next game, Volume, but for Thomas Was Alone, he flew solo and succeeded.
5. RollerCoaster Tycoon
Originally released for Windows PC in 1999, RollerCoaster Tycoon was never a state-of-the-art game but it’s definitely the kind of project you’d associate with a sizable development team. As it turns out, RollerCoaster Tycoon was the equivalent of a big budget indie, as the amusement park simulator was all conceived by Scottish game developer Chris Sawyer (though he did have help from artist Simon Foster and composer Allister Brimble).
RollerCoaster Tycoon went on to be a roaring success for Hasbro Interactive, earning close to $180 million in sales, with $30 million alone going to Sawyer. Sawyer has stayed with the franchise off and on over the years, most recently working to port RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 to mobile platforms.
4. Dust: An Elysian Tale
Looking at Dust: An Elysian Tale, it’s hard to imagine that this beautiful 2012 action role-playing game is the work of just one person but it’s true. Although he did need to outsource the voice acting and music, professional illustrator Dean Dodrill did everything else on Dust, a game that was praised primarily for its striking artwork and fun RPG gameplay. Interestingly, Dodrill’s original vision for Dust was an animated film called Elysian Tale, but he shelved this after work on the game really started to ramp up.
It turns out that Dodrill severely underestimated how long it would take him to finish the game, as his initial estimate of three months ended up being three-and-a-half years. Dodrill cites games such as Metroid, Golden Axe, and YS I & II as being his chief inspiration and though the game was initially exclusive to Xbox 360, it eventually made its way to PC, PS4, and iOS.
One of the earliest games to kick off the modern indie revolution, the beautiful and challenging side-scrolling puzzle-platformer Braid was all the work of designer Jonathan Blow, who has become one of the most influential figures in the indie scene. Blow began work on Braid in 2005 and actually completed a version of the game the same year that featured the same number of worlds and puzzles as the final version. This early build of the game won the Independent Games Festival game design award at the 2006 Game Developer’s Conference.
Over the course of the next three years, Blow would spend $200,000 of his own money on development costs, which were used for living expenses and the hiring of David Hellman, who provided the game’s beautiful watercolor artwork. Nowadays, Braid is recognized as a modern classic and one of the best games of its generation, indie or otherwise. Not bad for a game designed by just one man.
Minecraft is a multi-billion dollar franchise and one of the most widely-played games on the planet, but it comes from surprisingly humble beginnings. Long before Microsoft stepped in and paid top dollar for the intellectual property, Minecraft was an imaginative sandbox game dreamed up by one man, Markus “Notch” Persson. The Swedish programmer built the original Alpha version in his spare time, being heavily inspired by other building games like Dwarf Fortress, Dungeon Keeper and Infiniminer.
Notch first released the first version of the game — which would later become known as the “Classic” version — to the public on May 17, 2009 through TIGSource forums and things quickly snowballed from there. Notch soon quit his job to work on Minecraft full-time and eventually set up a company, Mojang, with the money he had earned from sales, bringing on other team members in order to get the game to beta. So yes, Minecraft as it exists today is the of many different people, but the core game was envisioned by just one man.
In a way, it feels almost fitting that one of the most successful and influential games of all time should have very humble beginnings. It’s no secret that the original addictive puzzle game Tetris was developed in the Soviet Union by artificial intelligence researcher Alexey Pajitinov, who developed games as a hobby (in addition to Tetris, he also created one inspired by a popular board game called Pentominoes).
Although Pajitinov didn’t actually start earning royalties from his creation until 1996 when he and Henk Rogers formed The Tetris Company, the game spread like wildfire following its initial release in 1984 and has spawned many different variations over the years (the Game Boy version is often cited as one of the best). Pajitinov still makes games to this day, but none have come close to rivaling the success of Tetris, which is widely considered to be one of the best games ever made.