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What is Indie?

What is Indie?

Defining the genre

Leena van Deventer asks “How do we define an indie game?”

I LOVE when you’re hanging around minding your own business and out of nowhere you’re ambushed by an interesting discussion that insists you poke and prod at it until you’ve sufficiently explored every nook and cranny it’s got. I had such an ambush today, when I asked my twitter brethren what their favourite indie game of 2010 was. A few game titles were thrown in the ring before debate quickly turned to semantical definition of the term ‘indie’. What is an indie game? What are The Rules™ when applying this monicker? Some interesting points came to light, some people finding it quite easy to apply a definition and a set of attributes a game must or must not have in order to call itself an independent game. Some acknowledged varying shades of grey in the interpretation. I personally go from moments of clarity to utter confusion. Usually followed by despair, exasperation and some sort of delicious biscuit.

It seems to be a common exposition that indie games have a “feel” about them. That “indie” is a philosophical term applied to games that embrace unique and original gameplay mechanics or are otherwise avant-garde and innovative. That they push the envelope and do things never-before-seen. That the only thing driving the game’s development is the creator’s passion and love for it in it’s own creative capacity – the notion that the game is merely a means of artistic expression for the deviser. This is obviously a minefield in terms of a quantifiable means for definition due to its subjective nature – what I consider artsy and what someone else considers artsy are two different things. I may feel like a certain gameplay mechanic is unique and fresh, and another gamer may remember a game that has featured something almost identical. It’s not a clean cut set of rules by which to decree what is indie and what is not, and not all independently-made games bring something new to the table.

Developers developers developers developers developers…

The term “self-published” has been thrown around a bit as one of The Rules™ in my observations, and I think it’s a delicate one. As is “self-funded”. I appreciate the notion of the one-man-band, many great indie games are made this way (dare I say a majority) – but I think it’s quite limiting to say that all indie games must be self-published by that one-man of one-man-band fame, in his backyard. What if that developer finished his game and started looking around for a way to publish/distribute his game, Microsoft found it and threw a bunch of money at it and whacked it up on XBLA with their backing. Does that lone developer then need to hand in his indie pass? I think when it comes to publishing an indie game it all comes down to when the publisher became involved. If the publisher is involved at conception, has a say in any way shape or form in it’s development, or commissioned the work – it’s clearly not independent. However that doesn’t mean you must self-publish. It just means being able to hire the publisher to do what it is supposed to do, get its hands off the development and just ship/promote/distribute your product. “I’m the developer, I’ll develop, I’ll call you when I go gold”.

So does it come down to being entirely creator-funded then? Being set up with venture capital by someone hoping to get some return on their investment is for all intents and purposes, not independent. Nor is undertaking already-licensed intellectual property. But what about angel investors? Government grants? Uncle Pete who you were telling about your game at that BBQ last week who wants to throw a few grand at it because he thinks it’s neat? All money isn’t bad, it’s just the money that implies a hand in creative control.


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    Nice article. “Indie” is definitely one of those terms defined by sufficient conditions rather than necessary ones, other than the need to maintain some quality of being independent in some way.

  • Fantastic Leena, really great article that stayed wonderfully away from derogatory terms and really looked at the heart of indie. Well done.

  • Interesting article. I enjoyed reading it. That’s probably why I wrote a long response.

    A clearer definition of terms is needed, as is a move away from using “indie” as a genre. As you say, independent is a business model. Saying that it is isn’t strange – it’s a simple fact. Independent game development is game development with support from a major publisher. As in music, as in video games. The confusion comes from the fact that indie games have a greater degree of freedom as they aren’t necessarily working towards a profit margin and people have come to believe that an indie game *must* or *should* use that freedom. Independent development doesn’t have a particular ethos – its just had one applied to it. There are better ways to describe games that tread from the mainstream norm.

    For example, “Mak[ing] a conscious decision to operate with a level of freedom from outside influences that helps insure purity of your creative vision” isn’t indie. That’s simply following your own vision. Yes, indie developers tend to do that more, but that doesn’t make doing that “indie”. Indie is a business model in the strictest, most literal sense – it’s the make-up of your business. It’s not an ideal, or a state-of-being. Getting that confused is what leads to issues over what indie “is”. We have a lot of words in the English language. We should really start using them.

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