Independence, Money, and Great Games

Joe Indie referred to Dan McDonald’s Sustaining Independence at Game Tunnel. Previously, McDonald had written on the topic of independence, stating that financial pursuits necessarily makes a developer less independent. His latest article continues this line of thinking:

An independent developer that wishes to sustain their independence must pursue their own interests in game design and development and give them preeminence over their interests in business and profit.

At first I was inclined to disagree. How can you expect all people to starve for their art? Can’t people be considered indie while simultaneously earning an income from their work?

Of course, how you define an indie is important. Many would argue that indie simply means you are not financially dependent on a publisher or other entity. If you extrapolate this definition, technically most people who call themselves “indie” are in fact financially dependent on their customers.

What is your goal? Are you simply trying to make money? If so, game development is just one of many activities to achieve those goals. “The pursuit of money is inherently an ambition devoid of any value or meaning. If the only value one derives from an activity is monetary, then the activity itself is of very little consequence.” You could replace game development with database programming or bartending or painting or blogging, and in the end you’ll still have your money. What’s game development to you other than a job? Whether it is for someone else or for yourself, its a job, and creative control is in some way not completely yours. Change something about your game for the sake of pleasing the customer, and you’ve given up some control over the direction of your game development.

McDonald’s indie, on the other hand, would have a goal of perfecting his/her craft. Game development for the sake of game development. Making games to learn how to make better games.

A lot of business gurus will tell you that to be successful, you have to realize that making money is not only good, but it is the main goal. It makes sense. How can you hope to make a living from your business if you don’t accept the idea that you should be making a living from it? You can’t make a million dollars until you accept that it is a possibility. Most people don’t think they can. Some people do. Who is more likely to actually make the money? The purpose of a business is to make money.

The purpose of an indie, on the other hand, is to be independent. An indie experiments with making great games. An indie can make money, of course, but making money was never the main goal. His/Her overriding goal was never about making more money so much as making better games.

Are the business and the indie in perpetual conflict? How can an indie survive? If trying to make money taints the notion of independence, are all indies doomed to working odd jobs or doing other things to make a living? Are most indie’s forced to relegate game development to a hobby? I’d like to say no. Making better games, you will undoubtedly hit upon something that other people also like. Making better games, you will create a world that other people believe in enough to pay money for the right to participate in it.

Is it wrong to try to make money from your game? No. I also don’t think that the general definition of “indie” will change to exclude those developers who make games on their own for the purposes of making a living. Is it possible that a game created for the purpose of making money can also be a great game? Perhaps, but if your main goal is to make great games, wouldn’t you be more likely to actually make one? And if the game is truly great, won’t a lot of other people want to play it?

5 comments to Independence, Money, and Great Games

  • Personally I feel “indie” or “independant” means creative freedom. Freedom to make your own choices. To pick the game you want to make. It has much less with what motivates the choice rather than the fact it is a choice.

    In retail games a programmer or artist or whatever is working for the company they work for making art or games for someone else, doing what someone else wants. Sure there’s always crossover. I may like what i’m working on, but never-the-less it’s usually someone else’s vision. Or it’s usually driven by money.

    Now you can personally be driven by money, but you’re still an indie because you can make the choice to make the money or make the choice to pursue a unique vision.

    You can also work for a big company and work on your own game designs or ideas, however this wouldn’t be indie because the publisher has the ultimate creative control. Can they market it, is there a market for it, etc — it’s just they’re trusting you to deliver even though it’s your own design. But in the end it’s the money that matters to the company and not to you.

    I don’t really understand what problems people have with this concept. If someone else is dictating what you do in anyway it’s not independant, if you’re able to make the choice between risking your career on some strange “yellow” game or the latest bejeweled clone then that’s creative freedom, that’s independence.

    So doing what your customers like isn’t non-indie because ultimately you have the last word. If you want to completely offend them or if you want to totally suck up to them it’s your choice, you’re independent, do what YOU want.

  • Good points, Keith! To me, “indie” means never having to say you’re sorry to anyone except your customers. No venture capitalist, no publisher, no third-party with creative control. I don’t believe that your customers are a special case of a third-party.

    That said, I think McDonald has a good argument. If you do make a change, yes it was your choice, but ultimately if you are making the choice for your customers, then they have some amount of control over the creative process. Making a great game for the sake of making it should still result in a game that the customers would want to play.

    My question is: how do you define a “great” game? Is it your own personal definition or are your customers allowed to chime in? I think that Nethack is a great game, but someone unfamiliar with computers, and probably Unix specifically, would find it unintuitive and confusing. My friend hates real-time strategy games because they apparently give him too much choice. He prefers mission-based games: give him an objective and he’ll do it. Clearly he would think Starcraft is not a great game while singing the praises of Starlancer. It goes beyond different preferences in game types, of course.

    It’s subjective. You might think your work is great, but your customers might disagree. Do you keep your opinion and work on more games that you like even if the world hates them? Do you change your mind and start working on things that your customers would also appreciate? Have you really lost your indie-ness if you do so?

  • My answer to your last question is an emphatic “NO”. Reason being that you have the choice to do it. You can totally play to the customer and do something you hate, but since you made the choice to do it then that’s indie, or you can make some piece of work that’s understandable only to you. (Like you said Nethack specifically for computer people and even more specifically to unix minded people) you can choose that if you wish.

    You only lose your “indie-ness” when someone else is calling the shots, and I would extend that to a company. Even if you’re working on your own design for a company, that’s not independant, because they believe you’ll make money for them, otherwise they’d find someone else to use.

    Keith

  • I have to agree with Keith here….

    Dan’s been on a kick to equate “indie” with “creative” for some time… something about not liking the definition of the word independent and wishing it meant something else. Fact is, “indie” is short for independent, and independent already HAS a definition. If one wanted to use it in the sense of “independent from any known source”, or “independent from influence”, then perhaps a new word is in order. By itself, independence does not speak whatsoever to creative merit…

    Some of the most creative games I’ve played were under the heavy thumb of a publisher’s creative constraints (publishers can be creative too! Imagine!), and much of the work coming from those who are independent of any financial burden or publisher lacks severely in the creative department. We can be indie despite (even) cloning… I am indie, GBGames is indie, Keith is indie, and Dan is indie. If we want to talk about the creativity or passion or disregard of financial stability, we’ll need more words than that one to differentiate us, methinks.

  • […] 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. […]

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