Awesome games made entirely by one person

It takes over 500 people to make Call of Duty. It's about the same for Destiny. It took a staff of 300 to put together The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Grand Theft Auto V? Over 1,000.

In other words, making video games is hard work, and it usually takes lots of work from many, many dedicated individuals to get the software from the development studio to your consoles and PCs. Even many indie games have bigger teams than you'd expect. Toby Fox might've been the main guy behind Undertale, but he had help from Temmie Chang, who produced a bunch of art for the game. Spelunky features contributions from a number of people not named Derek Yu.

It's rare to find one person who can program, create art, and compose music, and who has a flair for game design. It's even rarer to find someone who has all of those talents as well as the time and drive to put them all together. The fact that the following games exist at all is incredible. That they happen to be some of the best games ever made? That's nothing short of miraculous.

Venturing into Stardew Valley unassisted

Think about how much time you've spent in Stardew Valley tending to your crops, taking care of your animals, battling creatures in caves, and trying to woo the villager of your dreams. Now double it. That number still isn't close to the hundreds of hours that Eric "ConcernedApe" Barone spent making the award-winning farming simulator from scratch. During Stardew Valley's development, Barone estimated that he spent about 10 hours a day, seven days a week working on the game — and unlike other game developers who suffer under "crunch," Barone did it all by choice.

After all, making the ultimate farming game is a big undertaking, and given Stardew Valley's scope, we'd expect nothing less. When Barone started development at the tender age of 24, he set out to make a better version of one of his favorite titles. "My idea with Stardew Valley was to address the problems I had with Harvest Moon," Barone says. That meant adding modern systems like quests and crafting, and producing everything from the code to the art on his own.

It was time well-spent. After a four-year development period, Stardew Valley finally launched in 2016. A year later, it'd brought in over $30 million, toppling juggernauts like Call of Duty. After two years, Barone had sold over three and a half million copies of the game, and became a bona fide game industry rock star. "I knew that I was still a nobody," the developer says. "The only way I could change that was to work super hard."

Mission accomplished.

Stamping passports is a solitary job in Papers, Please

Paperwork shouldn't be exciting. Lucas Pope, the man behind Papers, Please, knows this very well. "It's hard to describe the game and make it sound fun," he tells the BBC, and he's absolutely right.

Papers, Please is fun, though. It's also full of sly satire, an entire cast of sad and sympathetic characters, and moral decisions as agonizing as anything you'll find in Mass Effect or The Witcher 3. In the game, it's your job as a border agent to make sure that the right people come into the country — and, more importantly, that the wrong ones stay out. You can use your minor position of power to spark a revolution, or you can focus on low-key invasions of privacy and stamping as many passports as possible to make sure that your family remains safe and well-fed.

Working solo on a small project is a big change for Pope, who previously worked on the high-octane shooter Uncharted alongside 200 other people, but a welcome one. In the '90s, Pope was still a teenager and some friends tried to launch an indie game development company, but didn't find financial success. Now, Pope says, things are better for single-person dev teams like himself. "You had to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in printing discs and putting them in boxes and shipping them to Walmart," he says. "You needed a publisher." These days, if you want to sell something like Papers, Please, it's a lot easier. Just upload the game to the internet and you're ready to go.

Unaccompanied and Unturned

You don't need a giant team of developers to make a hit game. In fact, you don't even need to be finished with high school — at least, not if you're Nelson Sexton, who started developing the DayZ-inspired zombie survival game Unturned when he was a mere 16 years old.

Unturned borrows a lot from DayZ, and if you've played that game, you probably know what to expect: zombies have overrun the world, and you and other players need to scrounge for food and supplies to craft weapons, prepare meals, and live to fight another day. Other than that, anything goes. Unturned looks crude (it started on Roblox and still carries hints of that title's style), but the underlying game is much deeper than it looks. Oh, and by the way, Unturned is free and has been downloaded over 24 million times, making it one of the all-time most popular games on Steam.

Sexton credits a lot of that popularity to the steady stream of new content that he's cranked out since the game debuted. In Unturned's first two years, Sexton updated the game over 150 times. Since Sexton is the only one working on Unturned, he can create whatever he wants. It took him a week to add helicopters and airplanes to the game. Weapon attachments, like silencers, took an afternoon. Suggestions from fans often become features in the game, too, helping build the community. "The main thing I enjoy about Unturned is seeing the feedback," Sexton says, and he's delighted by the fan-made modifications that people have created for it. "It's a special feeling," Sexton says.

Teetering by himself on the Axiom Verge

On the surface, Axiom Verge looks like a Super Metroid clone. It isn't. Yes, Axiom Verge follows a standard "Metroidvania" pattern — its players must explore a continuous world while collecting new items that let them reach previously inaccessible areas — but developer Tom Happ doesn't cite Metroid as a major inspiration. A Metroidvania, he says, is just a side-scrolling action-adventure game, and Blaster Master and Bionic Commando were bigger influences anyway. Even though Axiom and Super Metroid are part of the same genre, Happ says, "I think there are far more differences than similarities."

If anyone would know, it's Happ. He spent about five years as Axiom Verge's sole developer, which started as a side project before slowly consuming Happ's life. "It's basically the only thing that I do," he told Nintendo Life in 2016. And he does it all. Happ created every single character sprite, background tile, and line of dialogue that appears in Axiom Verge. He even created the game's haunting soundtrack, which ended up being so popular that it got its own vinyl release in 2015.

So, why a Metroidvania? It was a largely practical decision: Happ likes making art for this type of game the most. Happ considered making Axiom Verge a more traditional 16-bit RPG, but was wary, of spending so much time "making menus or drawing walls and doors facing four different directions" as the rest of the game. He decided to go the side-scrolling route instead. That's the kind of decision you can make when you work alone — and in Happ's case, it paid off beautifully.

Spelunking solo with Cave Story

Before the indie game boom began in 2008 with the arrival of titles like Braid, World of Goo, and Castle Crashers, Cave Story was already there. In 2004, an independent game called Doukutsu Monotagari arrived on the internet. It was an instant and massive success. Critics loved it, fans dug it so much that they translated the game into English, and retrospective reviews compare it to masterpieces like Super Mario Bros. That's not light praise.

The man who made Cave Story, however, is much more mysterious. Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya made games before Cave Story, but he wasn't a full-time designer. During the five years that he spent developing Cave Story, Pixel attended college, and later worked an office job. He handled household chores, shared childcare duties. He only worked on Cave Story at night, and took breaks to make other, smaller games. After all, when you're working by yourself, you can set your own deadlines.

In fact, Pixel says, he didn't even have a plan when he started working on Cave Story. He started by composing the theme song and improvised from there. "If I decide on something beforehand, I'm never able to realize it as I imagined," Pixel says. Instead, he just makes it up as he goes. Despite Pixel's ad-hoc approach to game development, Cave Story hangs together just fine — oh, and did we mention that it's totally free? That's right: not only is Cave Story is one of the best side scrollers ever made, it won't cost you a dime.

Doing the Geometry Dash by yourself

It'd be impossible for a single person to create a game with as much content as, say, Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V, or The Witcher 3. So, instead of doing it everything on his own, Robert Topala took a different approach: while making his mobile platformer Geometry Dash, Topala added a level editor. In other words, Topala lets the players create content for him.

80 million downloads and well over 500,000 user-made levels later, that was clearly the right decision. When Topala first made the game, he wasn't a professional programmer, and he didn't have the marketing arm of a major studio backing him up. Geometry Dash's success is all due to the fans, who helped the game spread via word of mouth. According to Topala, the level editor both keeps players engaged and also gives them a sense of ownership over Geometry Dash, and that's been key to building a dedicated audience and keeping the game near the top of the iOS app charts. "What stands out to me most about Geometry Dash's success is the community that it's attracted," Topala says. "It's honestly as much their game as it is mine."

Of course, respect is a two-way street, and Topala knows that he owes a lot to the players. That's why he strives to prioritize them over all else. In an article on Gamasutra, Topala advises would-be developers to "focus on pleasing your users, not monetizing them." Treat your customers like real people, Topala says, and they'll pay you back by letting you quit your job and become a full-time indie developer. Hey, it worked for him

The Touhou Project's one-man media empire

The Touhou Project is one of the most popular and prolific indie game franchises in Japan — so far, the series has received 16 main installments since Highly Responsive to Prayers hit the NEC PC-98 in 1996, not counting numerous spin-offs  — but it's much, much more than a collection of bullet-hell shooters. Oh, sure, series creator ZUN is a master at transforming computer screens into psychedelic mishmash of colors, enemies, and obstacles, but Touhou transcends the games. It's an entire media franchise — and it's one driven almost entirely by fans.

See, while The Touhou Project's shoot 'em up gameplay is fun, it's the ever-growing cast that really make the franchise shine, and fans have taken their shared love of ZUN's quirky characters to the extreme. In addition to the official Touhou titles, there are tons of doujin, or fan games, that expand on the game's world and star its characters. Look, and you can find fan-made Touhou Project fighting games, a Castlevania-inspired spin-off, an animated series, and an annual convention dedicated to all things Touhou. ZUN even claims that, given how passionate and dedicated, he prefers fan translations over official ones.

It's all pretty amazing, and ZUN has no plans to slow down any time soon. In an interview in S.M.G Szczepaniak's The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, Zun says that he quit his regular job at Taito to work on Touhou full time, and calls the series "my life's work." Still, even though ZUN can crank out a game in four months, that doesn't mean that it's easy. When an interviewer asks ZUN if he ever thought about quitting, the developer quips, "All the time."

Lode Running alone

Lode Runner wasn't supposed to be a solo project. In the summer of 1982, when Douglas E. Smith was still in college, he and a friend decided to fill the time working at their university's mostly-abandoned computer lab by developing a game. Two weeks in, however, Smith's buddy backed out. Smith continued working anyway, and thus, one of the very best puzzle-platformers ever made was born.

It's not just Lode Runner's dig-and-run gameplay and quirky artificial "intelligence" that make it so important. It's the way that Lode Runner's simple elements can be reconfigured to create all kinds of new challenges, and that the game originally shipped with a level editor that transformed players into creators. That's been a fundamental part of the Lode Runner experience since the very beginning. While Smith was working on Lode Runner, students at the University of Washington could hop into the computer lab to try it out. "It became kind of a cult thing," Smith says. "Part of the appeal was that people would design levels, and I'd try to add new features."

Sadly, Smith passed away in 2014, but 35 years after its debut Lode Runner is still going strong. There's a version of Lode Runner on practically every platform imaginable, and while the graphics have gotten a few upgrades over the years, the general premise remains the same. Smith got things right the first time around. Why mess with perfection?

Balance of Power proves that it's lonely at the top

Chris Crawford was already a big name in the gaming community when he made Balance of Power, the 1985 strategy game that many consider to be the best political game ever made. His 1981 Atari game, Eastern Front (1941) wowed fans with both its depth and accessibility — Byte Magazine called it "the first fun war game for people who hate war games" — and he was so well-known among players that his name was used as a selling point for Legionnaire.

But even a celebrity like Crawford couldn't survive the video game industry crash of '83 and '84, and just a few years later, Crawford found himself without a job. Instead of looking for other work, he decided to go freelance, and opted to give up wargames in favor of something new. Drawing on his past as "a child of the '60s," Crawford decided to make "a game about the prevention of war, a game about peace." In Balance of Power, which debuted on then-new Macintosh computers, the goal isn't to decimate the enemy. You simply need to get to the end of the game without starting a nuclear war. If you know anything about Cold War history, you know that that's easier said than done.

While some critics, including Ender's Game author Orson Scott Card, dismissed Balance of Power as propaganda, everyone else was appropriately impressed. Global politics is complicated, and to see its nuances modeled so effectively and efficiently is impressive. That Balance of Power was made by one person? That's flat-out amazing.

If nobody's around, can Five Nights at Freddy's hear you scream?

Look, we know you're sick of Five Nights at Freddy's. We are too. Ever since the first FNaF game came out in 2014, the franchise has been slowly expanding. Now, it's got not one but two spin-off novels, with a third apparently on the way. You can buy Freddy's Funko Pops and t-shirts. Five Nights at Freddy's is the best-selling brand that McFarlane Toys has ever been associated with, while FNaF YouTube videos are a genre all of their own.

So, yeah, it's kind of a lot, but don't let burnout hide the fact that the first Five Nights at Freddy's is a legitimately fun and scary game. Developer Scott Cawthon might've gotten his start making family-friendly Christian games, but after one of his projects flopped (critics complained that the main character "looked like a scary animatronic animal"), Cawthon says that he "snapped." He thought, "I bet I can make something a lot scarier than that." Four months later, Cawthon unleashed Five Nights at Freddy's on the world.

Keeping the Five Nights at Freddy's team small means that Cawthon can keep the franchise's momentum alive by quickly cranking out content. In fact, the developer is so prolific that FNaF currently holds the Guiness World Record for the most sequels released in a single year. Not every Freddy's game is a solo project — recent installments feature contributions from voice actors and music from composer Leon Riskin. Still, Cawthon remains the franchise's heart and soul, and is still hard at work on the series, despite trollish comments to the contrary.