Home > Special > How Do You Define an Indie, and What Does That Even Mean?

How Do You Define an Indie, and What Does That Even Mean?

Indie Fortress is a site completely dedicated to the promotion of the indie gaming scene, but how do you determine whether or not a game is qualified to be considered an indie title? What is it about these games and their developers that makes them so different from more traditional game studios, and why do they get attached to that increasingly popular buzzword, the indie? What does being an indie developer even mean?

The scene has really blossomed over these past few years, almost to the point where it’s in it’s own little market. The uniquely affordable bundles are one aspect of that, but to be honest, even without the bundles, many indie titles are already significantly less expensive than your average retail game from a ‘AAA’ studio. Oftentimes, the product is inarguably more creative than anything you’d get out of one of those big name studios as well. My personal gaming time is dominated nearly exclusively by these games that we brand as “indies,” but what does that really mean? Is an indie developer defined by how large the team is? What about funding, does it matter where their money comes from? If so, what about studios like Supergiant Games, who developed Bastion all on their own dime, then once it was finished had it published by Warner Bros? Does that final act of seeking assistance from a big name publisher somehow strip Bastion of the right to be called an indie game?

It’s an interesting question, whether or not a game can lose it’s status as an indie title. Indie developers are, by definition, independent, so let’s assume that any developer who receives assistance from an outside source, is no longer indie. It may not even need to have been picked up by a pubisher, maybe simply getting special advertisement from an outside source will do it. Take Castle Crashers for instance, a game that was funded 100% by it’s developer, The Behemoth, who took a lot of risks, and made a lot of sacrifices to do so. By our definition of autonomous funding, they’re unquestionably indie, right? What about afterwards though, once the game was finished? Castle Crashers has enjoyed an undeniably generous ad campaign from Microsoft, starting with it’s initial spotlight in the Summer of Arcade promotional event in 2008. Microsoft put some good money behind pushing The Behemoth’s game, so by our current definition, would we now disqualify Castle Crashers as an indie venture?

In my opinion, absolutely not. Microsoft may have played a role in the game’s success thanks to it’s strong marketing assistance, but they had absolutely nothing to do with the game during development. A project is considered independent because all design choices are handled by the team that’s developing it, with no controlling interests, and it’s that development process that defines the game as indie. Having absolute freedom in the design of your game is the most important factor when determining this, but if you’ve received funding or assistance from a big name publisher like Microsoft, there’s a good chance that they’ll feel entitled to having some kind of say in certain decisions concerning your project. To maintain absolute control over the title and ensure it is creatively genuine, indie games cannot accept influence from big name publishers, and money is influence.

Following this logic we could come to the conclusion that money is what defines an indie game. Having money buys you freedom, so as long as it’s all self-funded, the freedom stays with the developer. Alternately, the moment a publisher throws their funding in to the ring, they have just purchased a portion of that freedom, and the project is no longer the sole creation and property of the developer. They are no longer independent. It’s an interesting trade-off to me because the developer remains the same, but their status has changed completely. The only difference between an indie developer and a ‘AAA’ developer is that one receives outside funding, and the other does not. The sole factor in determining the difference between these two, is money.

Is that it then? A developer is defined as indie based on their financial situation? Well, maybe it’s not that simple. What happens when an indie studio makes enough cash to become self-sufficient? If a studio earns a certain amount of cash, do we cease considering them an indie developer? Let’s use the obvious example of Mojang here. Minecraft was originally just a side project, and Mojang was a tiny, completely unknown entity in the gaming community. Looking at them now, they’ve generated massive piles of money, are currently working on two new games, and their figurehead Notch has even offered to fund the creation of Psychonauts 2, a game that creator Tim Schafer has stated would cost at least $13 million to make. That’s not even a game they’d be developing, so in a way, if this deal actually goes down, you might consider Mojang a publisher at this point. Looking at it like this I have to ask, do we still consider these guys indie? Some may look at their roots in Minecraft and argue yes, but is it that simple? Once they’ve acquired the cash and start paying other developers to make games, how are they different from the Activisions and EAs of the world?

Also on that note, if money and self-reliance dictate whether or not a studio is considered indie, then does Valve now fall under that category? Valve is a mammoth presence in the gaming industry, and you can be damn sure that they don’t require any help funding their projects. As far as their games go, they are the sole controlling interests, and so by our definition of “self-funding = freedom; freedom = indie,” Valve would be an indie developer, right? They’re completely independent from any sources that would seek to control them, so why doesn’t anybody treat them like an indie studio? What factor are we looking for that revokes their right to be called an indie developer? I know in my mind, I consider it to be the fact that they’re too big. They’ve made too much money, and are simply too big to be considered indie. That’s the thought process that brought me to that conclusion, but how does that even work? Why do I think that, and how is it in any way reasonable?

Maybe it’s not. Maybe companies like Valve and Mojang really are indie studios, and we’re all just being stubborn about what that term actually means, which really begs the question, what does it mean? Many of us who applaud and promote the indie gaming scene do so because they create really interesting games and market them in ways that more traditional publishers would never dare to. I personally advocate the indie gaming scene because being independent gives a developer the freedom to create whatever they want, and that freedom has brought about some truly inspiring creations over the years. So with that, it seems reasonable to conclude that being an indie developer means having absolute creative freedom to take your projects and steer them in whatever direction you like.

Looking at the topics we’ve just covered, an important central theme to point out is that of creative freedom. I’ve heard people argue over many theories as to what defines an indie studio, such as the size of the team, the style of their games, the manner in which they’re advertised, and where they get their funding, but in the end these are all absolutely trivial. It doesn’t matter how large the team is, it doesn’t matter what their project looks like, and after the game is made, who cares how they get it advertised? The important factor to look at here is that these studios had 100% control of their projects, from start to finish, and every decision was their own. The creative process was executed independent of any outside interests.

We claim that a developer is no longer considered indie if their game is being published by a big name company, because involvement from investors usually means the developers will need to work around the requirements and concerns of outside parties, and that in turn compromises the integrity of their original ideas. I understand and agree with this notion. We also have it in our heads that big-time companies such as Valve cannot be considered indie, but honestly, that idea just feels like it’s feeding in to the whole “underground” marketing angle that we’ve been seeing in the industry. People like to support the underdogs, the unknowns, the up and comers, and that’s fantastic, but that doesn’t mean they own the rights to the term “indie.” It’s a bit of a grey area, seeing as how we have no way of knowing just how much freedom the developers at a company like Valve really enjoy, but as far as I can tell, they’re self-sufficient, and they make their games the way they envision them, and that sounds like an indie project to me.

I guess to wrap things up I’d like to say that, while money certainly helps to achieve the freedom and independence that we associate with these indie teams, it does not define them. To determine whether or not a developer is indie, you need to look at how much control they had over their work. If when all is said and done the game they create is the product of their own decisions, without any meddling from controlling interests, then you can safely conclude that they are an indie developer, and they made an indie game. Being an indie developer means creating something on your own grounds, by your own rules.

[Author’s note: Clearly everything in this article is just one guy’s opinion. Many people hold a variety of differing opinions as to what exactly qualifies a game as indie, and I’m not claiming that my thoughts are the end-all, be-all definition to go by. If you have a contradicting opinion, feel free to dispute me! I’m willing to admit when I’m wrong, so if you have some good points to bring up, I’d love to hear them!]

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  1. February 17, 2012 at 9:58 am

    According to Strong Bad:

    Humor aside, I think there will never be a settled definition – the two strongest camps seem to be those advocating a strict functional definition based off of what the word “independent” implies, versus those who see it as adherence to the norms of the tribe.

    So on the first hand, you’ve got people looking for a necessary and sufficient definition. On the other hand, you’ve got various similarly labeled groups that identify insiders and outsiders by association.

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