Defining Indie

Wolfire Games has a new blog post that attempts to define what indie games are. Defining what “indie” means has been about as tough as defining what a “game” is. I’ve covered a few attempts here and here.

What people in general think “indie” means can affect how a new game is welcomed into the market. I know that a number of game developers worry that labeling their games as “indie” might negatively affect sales since people might associate “indie” with “low-budget” and “amateur”. On the other hand, other developers want people to associate their “indie” game with “innovation” and “creativity”.

Wolfire Games mentions Microsoft’s handling of their Live Arcade and Community Games sections. When the name of “Community Games”, which has generally been considered the home of poorer quality games, was changed to “Indie Games”, many developers balked at the idea of associating “indie” with “worse”.

After talking a bit about how various organizations have defined “indie”, Wolfire gives its definition: an indie game is one motivated by passion and designed by the people actively working on it.

And right away, I’m sure some of you are uncomfortable with that definition, too.

So if you make a game that seems to appeal to people willing to spend their money, and you work on it to improve the revenue, you fail the first part? Or what if you are just absurdly bad at the marketing and business aspects? Do you pass the first part?
And if you have a small company that actually separates the game designer from the programmer, it fails the second part?

I think that most people can agree that being indie means having full creative freedom over your work. I think if you look at Wolfire’s definition, it attempts to solve the problem of answering “Who is indie?” with “EA” or “Nintendo”. While EA technically has freedom in that no one tells EA what to do, EA is far removed from the actual development of a game, and any game they publish is presumably not being made without their influence somehow affecting it. On the other hand, Introversion, creators of Defcon and Darwinia, are able to exercise creative freedom without worrying about a publisher making feature requests or design changes. They sink or swim based on their own efforts.

What about a company like Valve? Most people try to claim that “indie” means you don’t have a publisher, but what if you ARE the publisher AND develop games? Well, how many levels of hierarchy are there? Does it impact the creative freedom of the developers of any individual game? Valve would also be considered too big by Wolfire’s definition. Portal was made by a group within Valve, which implies to me that full creative freedom by the hands-on developers was hampered.

Basically, if you’re big enough to have studios within your company, you’re not indie because each studio is beholden to some other part of the organization.

Perhaps a better way to define indie is to restate Wolfire’s attempt as: an indie game is one that involves full creative freedom for the people working directly on it.

Now it’s your turn to be uncomfortable with my attempt at a definition. Feel free to comment and poke holes in my definition. B-)

2 comments to Defining Indie

  • Well, from a commercial stand point you have to make creative decisions at times based on what sells, not on artistic purity. That means the creative freedom is at least in part beholden to business needs, even if it is the same person doing both the business planning and the coding. Thus, the only truly indie games by that definition are those where the business development and code development are done by the same person, and the number of people who are really good at both is extraordinarily small. Generally you’ll be a much better coder than businessman.

    So, your definition leads right back to “indie means the developer is moonlighting as a half-assed businessman, or the businessman is moonlighting as a half-assed developer”, which leads to “indie games are cheap and crappy”, which is, I presume, not where you wanted to end up. 🙂

    I take a somewhat more pragmatic and less idealistic approach: “Independent” creative industries — whether gaming, movies, music, etc. — are so named because they are “independent” of something. That something is the dominant players and business structure in that market, be it the MPAA, the RIAA, or EA. That is, “Indie” by definition is un-establishment (although not necessarily anti-establishment), out of the normal system, not part of “Them”. It is independent of “Them”, whoever Them happens to be.

    It’s by nature a libertarian, rebellious label. Whether you take that as a matter of pride or as an insult I leave as an exercise to the reader. 🙂

  • Thanks, Larry! Dan MacDonald had a post in which he basically said that any game that is meant for a commercial audience is by nature less indie simply because the design of the game is based on commercial appeal rather than what the game designer might otherwise want.

    If you agree with modern marketing thought, that the marketing starts before the product is made, then making games with both the business and creative aspects in mind is what people SHOULD be doing today.

    Your definition makes “indie” presume there is something to be independent from. I believe I’ve read a similar statement elsewhere, and of course a statement shooting it down. B-)