137 million dollars for GTA 5, more than 1000 developers for Red Dead Redemption 2… And yet, there is not always a need for colossal means to develop outstanding games, the proof with this selection.
And the hypothetical colossal budget of Grand Theft Auto VI talking about is that we have entered an era where video games are more and more expensive. And yet, it doesn’t always take millions of euros or an army of employees to develop a game. even a few exceptions. Small games with little budget or developed by a handful of men and women (if not just one), have managed to make their way to the highest peaks of the video game world, even becoming references for some . Here is a selection of 10 unpretentious games that have nevertheless become essential video games.
- 10 big games with a low budget and/or developed by a small team
- Baba Is You
- Hollow Knight
- Papers, please !
- Stardew Valley
- The Binding of Isaac
10 big games with a low budget and/or developed by a small team
Baba Is You
At first glance, Baba is You didn’t have much of a hit. Besides, he wasn’t really meant to be one. It was during a game jam that a student embarked on the development of this puzzle-game. With the help of a friend, Arvi Hemp Teikari therefore begins to explore an innovative and yet extremely simple concept: manipulating the rules of the game by playing with words. The graphics are sketchy, the development costs little money and Hempuli is almost the only one working on the project. But the concept is so effective that the game quickly becomes a phenomenon (price, critical success, independent reference). It even inspired activists from France Insoumise, who, during the French presidential election of 2022, developed a similar game: LAECestTOI.
In the early 2000s, the indie game industry was not as booming as it is today. The market is indeed dominated by large publishers who leave little chance of success for small developers who would like to go solo. But a turning point occurs towards the end of the 2000s, and in particular thanks to a man: Jonathan Blow. After going through big companies, he embarked on the development of a game that would become a real pillar of the independent market, profoundly changing the functioning of the entire video game industry: Braid. They are only a handful to have worked on it and only 200,000 dollars will be necessary for its development. In a way, this platformer showed that it was possible to get by with little means.
You most certainly know
Celeste. This independent game, as full-bodied as it is rich in meaning, has established itself as a must-have for platformers and speedrunners. MBut did you know that the initial game, then on PICO-8, took only four days to be developed by two characters, namely Noel Berry and Maddy Thorson? It was once again during a game jam that the magic happened. The game then offered 30 levels specifically designed for fans of speedrunning and/or challenges based on good reflexes. Little by little, but always with a small team, Celeste developed to become longer and more advanced, but never leaving its initial objective in mind and its rudimentary aspect (pixel art, old-fashioned platformer…). Add to that an almost therapeutic message and you get an unassuming game that has become a staple in the gaming and speedrunning world.
If today Hollow Knight : Silksong is eagerly awaited, is that its predecessor made an impression. And yet, Ari Gibson and William Pellen had no such ambitions in mind when they signed up for the Ludum Dare in 2013 (game jam). The result is Hungry Knight, a prototype that is not necessarily very convincing, but which provides a basis for what will become Hollow Knight : a mysterious knight and insects to kill. To put their project in place, the two companions are launching a Kickstarter campaign with a fairly low goal for the development of a game: $35,000. Finally, $57,000 will be collected, which remains very little considering the quality (both artistic and in terms of gameplay) and the lifespan of Hollow Knight.
We are at the end of the 2000s. Markus Notch Persson is then a developer with a head full of ideas. In his free time, he develops some of them. Thus was born RubyDung, a base construction and defense game. In 2009, Infiniminer was released, a game in which you have to mine resources in a world made of cubes. Persson is inspired by it and thus develops RubyDung, adding more RPG elements to it: he has just created Minecraft. Shared on developer sites, the title is very rudimentary. And yet, word of mouth is having an effect and Minecraft is reaching a large audience (several million players while it is still in early access). The rest, you know it. Many updates have seen the light of day, the community around the game has continued to grow and Minecraft has become the best-selling game of all time. Not bad for a one man project!
Papers, please !
Do you know Lucas Pope? From modding to the offices of Naughty Dog for the Uncharted saga, the young American quickly rose through the ranks of the video game world. However, he will give up this place in this fashionable studio to focus, with his wife Keiko Ishizaka, on what really makes him vibrate: small experimental games. They know that the latter are not intended to reach a large audience, but take pleasure in developing Helsing’s Fire, The Republia Times or even Mightier. And yet, Papers, Please released in 2013 and it is the consecration. All in pixels, the game offers simple, even repetitive gameplay. But behind that lies a chilling dystopia and moral dilemmas that lend depth to the title. Today, almost everyone knows Papers, Please, an unpretentious title (just like Return of the Work Dinn Besides).
Nothing predestined Stardew Valley to global success. Truth be told, it wasn’t even really designed to be marketed. When Eric Barone, then just graduated, realizes that it will be difficult to find a job in video games, he decides to become an usher in a theater in Seattle. At the same time, he chooses to train to develop games, in order to improve his skills and have a better chance of realizing his dream. He thus embarked on the development of a title inspired by the Harvest Moon saga but also including elements seen in Animal Crossing, Minecraft or Terraria: Stardew Valley. Gradually, he begins to consider making his title a real game, and not just a training tool. This is how in 2016, Stardew Valley was born. Developed by one man (gameplay, story, visuals, music…), it quickly became a hit and has now sold more than 20 million copies.
At one time, we developed video games to show the capabilities of this or that computer. This is what Alexey Pajitnov was responsible for doing in the 80s. But now, he has another goal in mind: to make people happy. With this in mind, he began to develop more advanced, more fun games, mostly puzzle game. But it was in 1984 that he came up with the idea of a title that would really entertain and even obsess players, over several generations: Tetris. Once again, the principle is simple, the graphics not really very sophisticated, but the concept hits the mark and will even deeply mark the entire video game industry. Even today, Tetris is a must and everyone has already heard of it. And yet, this game developed by a Russian computer engineer had no other claim than that of wanting to please people.
The Binding of Isaac
Edmund McMillen’s name is probably familiar to you. This independent developer notably brought us the famous Super Meat Boy, a real reference today. The game has indeed been a critical and commercial success, which has also allowed its creator to take a few liberties. The sales of Super Meat Boy allow him to embark on the development of riskier projects, less meaningful for the general public. And this is particularly the case of The Binding of Isaac. Born from a game jam in which McMillen participated with Florian Himsl, the title offers a confusing story to say the least. Criticism of religion, child abuse, a strange penchant for defecation… On paper, The Binding of Isaac has nothing to please the general public. And yet, its gameplay and atmosphere (developed in just 3 months) make a place for themselves in the hearts of gamers. So much so that today the game is considered a benchmark in the roguelite genre.
32 months, $51,124 and only one man… Here’s what it took to bring one of the most iconic and beloved indie games to life: Undertale. Much like The Binding of Isaac, the title offers a rather goofy story that is, at first glance, aimed at a niche audience. Add to that a pixel art style that’s akin to hundreds of other games, and you’ve got an Undertale that was unlikely to ever find success. But that was without taking into account the mastery of its creator, Toby Fox. Fourth wall broken, game that cheats, moving story, quirky characters, new mechanics… Undertale is as surprising as it is good. Add to that the desire to remain independent at all costs and you understand why Toby Fox took nearly three years to lay this totally unexpected little nugget for us.