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Game Developer's 2023 wrap-up: Indie developers name their unsung heroes of the year

Noted indie developers like Quinn K, Cosmo D, Taylor McCue and more name their "unsung heroes" of 2023.

Joel Couture, Contributor

December 22, 2023

6 Min Read
A small character looks on determinedly over a red stage backdrop
image via Feverdream Johnny

Game development is filled with thousands of talented, inspiring, and caring individuals who fuel the creation of the beloved games we play. Despite how indispensable many of these creators are, many can toil away without awards or recognition from the greater community.

To that end, Game Developer spoke with several of the developers we interviewed over the course of 2023 to ask them about some unsung heroes in game development who deserve more attention and praise. These are their answers.

Quinn K (An Outcry)

small character standing on table in park

I nominate Feverdream Johnny as an unsung hero in game development.

Johnny is an immeasurably skilled and versatile programmer, 3D modeler, and game designer from Florida, and while his recent game Orbo's Odyssey—his first on Steam—has been well received, I feel he deserves far more credit than he's so far received.

Johnny's been making games for the good part of eight years, being completely self-taught, with more than five finished games on his itch.io page. Right from my first encounter with him, he has repeatedly shown himself to take games—no matter how idiosyncratic, superficially ugly, or naive—at their own merits.

The sheer number of projects from the likes of the Haunted PS1 community and elsewhere that Johnny has had a hand in, often swooping in to save them from a broken launch, grows larger by the day. Oftentimes, he is uncredited for his efforts, which is part of why I want to call special attention to him.

He is, additionally, a deeply analytical individual whose strength in expressing ideas, steadfast moral compass, and love for the obscure make his non-fiction blog posts an intriguing look into the landscape of the micro-indie scene, his personal projects' place in them, and the vaporware of yore we share so much more DNA with than we realize.

What has recently most impressed me watching Johnny exist among game developers is how determinedly he lowers the ladder for new talent to climb up to our level, where others raise it out of arm’s reach. Being self-absorbed rather than helpful is the easiest thing in the world to be, and encouraging and uplifting new creators the way Johnny has been takes a willingness to reflect and empathize that a lot of people in the indie community are too lazy or afraid to take on board.

For every line of code he writes for a struggling project, for every positive review with words of encouragement he’s put on a new developers’ game, for all the times he’s playtested for and encouraged those whose work has been met with derision elsewhere, Johnny is an important pillar of the micro-indie community, and deserves much more love than he gets.

NPCKC (A Year of Springs)

character speaking in foreground

Kotaro Dendaira is an inspiration to me for his work in narrative games, in particular 1f y0u're a gh0st ca11 me here! He stretches the limits of what is possible in visual novels and approaches stories in ways that are entirely unique to him while also working with incredible teams on a multitude of different projects. He advocates for other creators by always sharing their work and boosting them, and the dev community is a brighter and friendlier place for having him in it!

Taylor McCue (He Fucked the Girl Out of Me)

character speaking in foreground with a forest backdrop

I would like to nominate Caroline Delbert and TangledVirus. Working with Caroline Delbert and TangledVirus on the Queer Games Bundle has been one of the greatest honors of my life.

TangledVirus—It was a warm Florida summer night when I learned what kind of person TangledVirus was. We had to moderate over 450 itch.io projects before we finalized the Queer Games Bundle. TangledVirus, at the time, was homeless and she still found the time to help us moderate games even if she had to take breaks to move between shelters. Under horribly brutal conditions, she not only continued to make games, but she also helped others to make games and survive as game developers.

When I asked her how she could be so willing to help others despite everything she was going through she told me: "... I thought on how shit life was being to me and I saw the Queer Games Bundle as a way to help others that were in the same situation."

Caroline Delbert—There are a lot of game developers who are only focused on their own work. Self promotion is common, but promoting the works of small scale bedroom game developers is rare. In 2022, Caroline Delbert interviewed about 60 game developers about their work in the queer games bundle. For many of them, it was their first interview. One year later, she joined the Queer Games Bundle as an organizer and eventually co-head organizer of the bundle. Behind the scenes, she worked on organizing streamers, doing PR, and managing the social media accounts at times when I just physically and mentally couldn't.

A lot of work goes into making a bundle before it even releases. Without her, I would've struggled, but thanks to her tireless work the bundle was able to run smoothly another year.

There were many others within the Queer Games Bundle who I feel are unsung heroes who I cannot fit in due to the scope of this article. Their names are Toni Catino, Nathalie, Cade Peterson, BaiYu, Rose, Len Predko, Hyacinth Nil, Nilson Carroll, and Xiri. Thanks to their work, hundreds of queer people have been able to access funding to survive and continue to make art.

Sarah Nothway (I Was a Teenage Exocolonist)

a goose grabbing a radio while a character in garden garb chases after

I'd like to nominate Em Halberstadt, and by extension all sound designers like her, whose work goes too often unnoticed behind the scenes but makes all of our games special. Em is the ethereal ambiance of I Was a Teenage Exocolonist, the lively footsteps of Night in the Woods. She is the honk of Untitled Goose Game. Honk. Honk, honk.

Cosmo D (Betrayal at Club Low)

A purple 2d game screenshot with Godot logo

To me, the unsung heroes of gamedev are the team working on maintaining the Godot engine. I switched over a year ago after finishing Betrayal at Club Low. The Godot engine is proof that open source can bring positive, empowering tools to anyone. The software is lightweight, but its power grows with every update. Given the turbulence in the industry, the Godot team continues to make all the right moves. Thanks to hard work and dedication, every new milestone wins over the curious, the doubters and the skeptics. 

I myself look forward to introducing my next project as a Godot-engine game. I hope it shows that a new chapter in what's possible in game development, at least on a certain scale, has arrived.

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