Video Games Made by a Single Developer
In a time where video games are often made by hundreds of people in teams scattered around the world, it’s good to see that there is still a place for indie titles made by a single developer.
1. Five Nights at Freddy’s
The cultural explosion that Five Nights at Freddy’s caused when it release in 2014 was astounding. Like Angry Birds, shelves in big box stores around the world filled up with FNAF merchandise, much of it geared for kids too young to play it. In fact, YouTuber Markiplier’s most watched video (with 72 million and counting) is about Five Nights at Freddy’s.
In Five Nights at Freddy’s, the creepiness of Chuck E. Cheese-style animatronics is brought to life by simple yet unrelenting AI. In addition, the whole game is based around avoiding the most dreaded horror trope– the “jump scare”! In FNAF’s case, this moment signals your death and ends the game, leaving you to start night one all over again.
2. Minecraft – Video Games Made by a Single Developer
In 2009, Markus “Notch” Persson unveiled what came to be known as the “classic” version of his legendary game. I won’t bother describing Minecraft to you, We all know what Notch’s solo-developer masterpiece is. We all know that its perennial popularity is justified by its LEGO-like simplicity. But, did you know that Notch outbid Jay Z and Beyoncé on a 40 million dollar Beverly Hills Mansion?
After selling his creation to Microsoft for 2.5 billion dollars, I guess Notch had a few bucks lying around.
3. Prince of Persia (1989)
Even today, the animations of both the player character and the enemies look surprisingly fluid and realistic in the original Prince of Persia. Jordan Mechner developed the game way back in 1989 for the Apple II, and employed a technique known as “rotoscoping” to bring the characters to life. Rotoscoping is when animators trace over real film footage frame by frame.
In an interview with Next Generation magazine in 1997 Mechner explains that “when we made that decision with Prince of Persia, I wasn’t thinking about being cutting edge – we did it essentially because I’m not that good at drawing or animation, and it was the only way I could think of to get lifelike movement.”
The animations of this platformer adventure are not the only things that make it special. The verticality of the levels, the classic prisoner to prince story, and the epic swordfights (instead of projectile firing enemies) all work to make Prince of Persia an amazing game.
4. Dust: An Elysian Tail
Action-adventure platformers like Dust: An Elysian Tail often require far more resources than a single developer can provide. But, After 3 and a half years of work, a former Jazz Jackrabbit animator was able to pull it off in 2012.
It’s no surprise that Dean Dodrill’s Elysian Tal became an exemplary indie game. The setting is beautifully detailed, the combat is rewarding, and the story is captivating– all without the help of massive amounts of money and influence.
5. Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy
One of the best things about self-developed/published games is that they don’t have to be designed to turn a huge profit. Sometimes they can just be designed just for “a certain kind of person,” with the intention “to hurt them”.
Getting over it was inspired by the revitalization of “hard” games brought on (in part) by the SoulsBorne titles, along with the actual gameplay of “Sexy Hiking”. What resulted in 2017 was a game that for most people is a lot more fun to watch than it is to play.
Developed by the lone Bennett Foddy (former bassist for Cut Copy), Getting over it is a simple game in which a shirtless man in a metal cauldron attempts to climb a mountain of objects with a sledgehammer. The only mechanics are simple swinging and gripping with the hammer, and the climb gets progressively more difficult.
There are no checkpoints, no saves, and Foddy provides narration at certain moments consisting of philosophical teachings on how hard the game is, and why it’s ok you suck so bad.
Getting Over It has garnered YouTubers and streamers hundreds of millions of views, and seems to be a great example of gaming “schadenfreude” (joy derived from other’s misery). Before you go saying that the game is stupidly difficult and not worth playing, watch this speedrunner beat it in under 2 minutes. All it takes is a little practice.
6. Axiom Verge – Video Games Made by a Single Developer
Axiom Verge is a side-scrolling action adventure game in which you play as a scientist who, after an explosion in his laboratory, awakens to an alien world reminiscent of H.G. Geiger. Where you are, and how you get home is what you need to figure out by adventuring through a labyrinth of biomechanoid levels.
Like so many titles on this list, Axiom Verge is a work of passion inspired by one developer’s love for specific games/gaming era. It originally started as a side project for developer Tom Happ, who completed the game in 2015 after five years of work. Axiom Verge is an ode to the golden age of Metroidvania, that uses the benefits of modern technology to create a more developed version of its influences.
7. Papers, Please
Papers, Please was created entirely by Lucas Pope, who formerly worked for Naughty Dog. The game is a politically-charged puzzle adventure that pokes fun at the bureaucratic process of government. Nevermind that though, your job as an immigration inspector is to keep your head down and keep your country safe– even if this means turning away a starving child.
A discrepancy their credentials is a discrepancy in their credentials after all! Hey, you have to do your job! And you have to feed your own starving family too!
Papers, Please is a game that’ll make you want to pull out your copy of 1984 again (if you’re not already currently reading it…).
8. The Beginner’s Guide
The Beginner’s Guide was developed by Davey Wreden, one of the two guys responsible for The Stanley Parable– which should tell you everything you need to know if you’ve played it.
Announced just 2 days before it was released in October of 2015, The Beginner’s Guide bares some similarities to The Stanley Parable. Wreden’s solo venture is also a game of interactive storytelling that’s surprisingly mind-bending and disturbing though it’s sheer simplicity.
In The Beginner’s Guide, the player enters the mind of a game developer by playing through their unfished games. Both you and the narrator (voiced by Wreden) meander through a labyrinth of half-developed works by the narrator’s mysterious friend “Coda”.
What you discover illuminates the inner workings of a game developer, and reveals secrets about Coda that both you and the narrator didn’t expect.
Before Ojiro Fumoto began development of 2014’s Downwell, he had recently graduated from the opera singing program at the Tokyo University of the Arts. Fumoto had created many games before Downwell, and after being inspired by his obsession with Spelunky, had decided to change directions in his life.
Downwell pushes two of Spelunky’s key features even further– namely: roguelike inspired gameplay, and sidescrolling action that heads downward instead of primarily left and right. The well in which you descend is procedurally generated, making each run-through after the player’s untimely death infinitely different. By completing levels you can upgrade your weapons to improve speed, ammo, and even health.
Fumoto is now working with Nintendo, so it will be interesting to see what he can create with that kind of funding. Perhaps an opera singing platformer in which…. eh.. probably not that.
10. Undertale – Video Games Made by a Single Developer
Toby Fox’s creation debuted in 2015, and he describes it as being an RPG. Yet, when you start playing, there are RPG features that are notably missing. There aren’t any fetch quests in Undertale, no griding, and no combat (if you want). Instead, the unique battle system Fox created allows you to “talk” your way out of altercations while completing bullet-hell style mini-games.
If you’re not familiar with Undertale, try keeping it that way and go into it totally blind. The 4th wall breaking humor that subverts commonly accepted gaming tropes, the colorful characters, and the odd fun of dating a skeleton will be that much more enjoyable if you do.
We’re sure you’ll be “filled with determination” when you start playing.
11. Stardew Valley
Stardew Valley exemplifies the passion required to solo-develop a game. Eric Barone originally began the 4-year project as an effort to produce a better version of a game he loved that he felt had lost its way: Harvest Moon. What he ended up delivering in 2016 was a farming sim with a huge amount of content, and crazy amounts of addictive appeal.
With a booming modding community and newly added multiplayer support, Eric Barone has single-handedly helped to revitalize the genre he cared so much about.
Dusk is not just a nod or a homage to 90s shooters, it’s an incredibly authentic continuation of where FPS games left of when hardware began to advance in the early 2000s. It’s hard to believe that Dusk was developed not only by one person, but also with the modern Unity game engine.
David Szymanski combined this retro aesthetic with a story reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and released it all at the end of 2018. Needless to say, this is a project we really loved.
Spelunky was first developed by Derek Yu in 2008 and was available for free (along with the source code) when it first released. The game was later enhanced when ported to consoles, and there’s a sequel that’s nearly finished, but the original game contained all of the salient creative genius that made the series successful.
Spelunky is a 2D retro platformer, like many other titles, but one of the many things that made it special was its early utilization of challenging roguelike elements. The enemy and treasure-filled caves you spelunk throughout are procedurally generated, so each playthrough is new and unexpected. And, as is typical with roguelike games, when you die you must start from the beginning again.
14. Tetris – Video Games Made by a Single Developer
Tetris’ solo developer Alexey Pajitnov first programmed this legendary game back in 1984, but he never received any royalties from his work until years later. Since he had created the game while working for the Soviet government, Pajitnov wasn’t able to receive his fair share of his ultra-popular creation until forming the U.S. based Tetris Company over a decade later.
Tetris is a game that we bet you’ve played at least once, regardless of your age. And, even after selling over 170 million copies, Tetris is still alive and well even today. For the competitive, battle royale-raised next generation, Tetris 99 is now available.
15. Cave Story
Cave Story was designed, illustrated, programmed, composed, and written all by Daisuke Amaya, a single developer, in his free time over a five year period. The game originally released in 2004, and still holds up after all these years in its recent port to the Nintendo Switch.
Like so many games on this list, Cave Story’s 2-D retro style was both a practical choice for the solo developer, and also an artistic decision inspired by Daisuke’s love of classic puzzle-platformers like Metroid.
Cave Story surpasses many of the elements that inspired the game in the first place. It serves as a sort of evolution of a bygone era, and yet another example of skilled and inspired gameplay alone making a title thoroughly enjoyable.
Five Nights at Freddy’s
In Five Nights at Freddy’s, the creepiness of Chuck E. Cheese-style animatronics is brought to life by simple yet unrelenting AI. In addition, the whole game is based around avoiding the most dreaded horror trope-- the “jump scare”! In FNAF’s case, this moment signals your death and ends the game, leaving you to start night one all over again.