Opinion: Why ‘Indie’ Has Become A Bad Word

By Nathan Grayson on May 3rd, 2012 at 11:00 am.

Yes, this is a thing.

So EA has its own indie bundle now. Yes, I’m aware that hardly makes any sense. At the very least, each game is part of the EA Partners program, which means the devs do, in fact, own their IPs – not EA. That said, it’s all a bit silly, right? Especially in the past year or so, EA’s once again become synonymous with gaming’s fe-fi-fo-fumming, goose-that-lays-golden-eggs-milking corporate side. It is, to be frank, the near-comically polar opposite of the indie “scene.” Clearly, though, EA’s trying to evoke a certain reaction by co-opting that word. But that, in itself, strikes me as problematic, because gaming’s least gentle giant is right: “indie” has a connotation now, and it’s very much coloring the expectations of gamers and indie developers alike. To be a developer of independent games and to be “indie” are now two entirely different things.

Indie is cool. Indie is hip. Indie is smart, chic, and sexy. Indie isn’t pretty, but it gets the job done. Indie is down-to-earth, the work of tireless blue collar DIY craftsmanship. Indie is pretentious, a haven for over-inflated egos and introspection with all the depth of a sun-dried puddle. Indie is big on head-in-the-clouds dreaming, but it crashes and burns in terms of execution. Indie is mechanically sublime – not a wasted input or animation. Indie is the future. Indie is stuck in the past.

You probably noticed that most of the sentences in that paragraph were completely at odds with each other, and there’s a good reason for that: independent development’s swollen into a massive tidal wave of a movement, but its moving parts are hardly in sync. Independent developers of all shapes and sizes craft an equally diverse range of games. For instance, Lone Survivor is a game about zombies from an independent developer. But so is Left 4 Dead.

Oh, and here’s a fun one: Minecraft. It started off as a one-man show, a blocky, retro-chic “indie” poster child. Now, though, Mojang’s made up of nearly 30 people, and Notch hasn’t touched Minecraft in months. And then there are newly Kickstarter-empowered developers like Double Fine and inXile, who plan to bring triple-A polish and development procedures to projects on which they – and no one else – cracks the whip, for once.

There are, obviously, countless other examples I could provide here, but the point remains the same: the word “indie” has become effectively meaningless.

In essence, it’s a relic. Perhaps it held meaning once, but now it’s a rusty reminder of bygone times. Problem is, unlike most ancient objects, it’s far from six feet under. So basically, it’s the cursed reanimated mummy of the gaming world, poisoning expectations with its festering touch and probably going on to eventually get a spin-off starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. We use it constantly, and it’s created a plethora of negative, oftentimes limiting connotations.

Foremost, there are the cries of pretension. If you’re an indie developer, you must cry ones and zeroes and bleed chunky red pixels. Every action performed in your game – whether it’s reading bits of cryptic dialog or punching a man until a fully cooked chicken pops out – has to be some form of symbolism. You’ve got to be the next Braid, basically – even if you really, really don’t want to be. That goes double if you’re any sort of platformer. And, as a result, a handful of gamers will write off your game simply on the basis of “Pfft, I liked it better when it was called ‘Braid.’ What pretentious garbage” – all the while drowning out any protests to the contrary.

But it works both ways. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten about “indie” platformers with time-bending elements or similar puzzle elements, more or less with the implication that “you guys like this stuff, right? Right?!” Same goes for retro-inspired pixel art, minimalistic (and, as a result, oftentimes clumsily told) stories, and of course, indie-scene-related in-jokes. Don’t get me wrong: these things can be used to great effect in the right hands, but there’s an expanding train of me-toos, and it’s picking up far too much steam.

And yet, for every “indie” detractor, there’s an overzealous holier-than-thou indie ultra-purist. If it’s not indie, they suggest, it’s a “lower” form of entertainment. Did you enjoy yesterday’s Black Ops 2 trailer? Did you think it looked like big, loud, dumb fun? Do you dream of riding a robo-horse into the sunset and then blowing up the sun? Well then, you’re clearly a moron. You don’t “get” smart games, and works of real substance are lost on you. Go back to playing Madden and drinking beer from cans, you disgusting pig mongrel. It’s an amazing shame, too. With a small but vocal contingent of indie fans like that, is it any wonder so many potential players write the “scene” off as pretentious?

Ultimately, then, “indie” – once a term that stood for freedom of expression and unbridled experimental spirit – has now become a ponderous yoke. In many ways, it limits developers and players alike just as much as labels like “triple-A,” “first-person shooter,” and “Zynga employee.” And yet, all of those designations (yes, even the last one) hold an incredibly small amount of water. I mean, what’s Reset? Is it indie? Triple-A? It’s also first-person, but certainly not a shooter. And it uses the term “co-op,” even though it’s strictly single-player. So then, what could we possibly call it?

A game. That’s the answer. Or hell, we can just call it Reset. And if it ends up being an engaging, enjoyable experience, then I’ll say it’s succeeded, regardless of which expectations it does and doesn’t manage to live up to. So yeah, EA’s tossing around the term “indie,” but who really cares, so long as the games themselves are worth your time and money? Intention and execution speak volumes. Words like “indie,” meanwhile, are just that: words.

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157 Comments »

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  1. rockman29 says:

    Hahaha, as soon as I saw this on Steam I thought ‘Indie? Hmmmmm…..’

    I’m just going to stick to any games, wherever they come from, as long as I like them. That’s ultimately the policy we have to go for. I’m not interested in the politics or semantics of gaming. I’ll let the big publishers and indie blowhards settle that one. I just want to play good games.

  2. DarkGoeie says:

    “Did you think it looked like big, loud, dumb fun? Do you dream of riding a robo-horse into the sunset and then blowing up the sun?”

    OH MY GOD YES! I want to blow up the sun!

    “Well then, you’re clearly a moron.”

    Oh. :( Can we make that into a indie game then?

  3. D3xter says:

    “Did you enjoy yesterday’s Black Ops 2 trailer? Did you think it looked like big, loud, dumb fun? Do you dream of riding a robo-horse into the sunset and then blowing up the sun? Well then, you’re clearly a moron. You don’t “get” smart games, and works of real substance are lost on you. Go back to playing Madden and drinking beer from cans, you disgusting pig mongrel.”
    Well, you’re at least right on with that part, Call of Duty is literally all that is wrong with gaming in one package right there…

    Btw.: http://www.develop-online.net/news/40685/Notch-EA-methodically-destroying-gaming

  4. L. Boom says:

    Whatever your opinion on whether “indie-ness” is being co-opted in a larger sense, the really sad thing about this post and its comments thread is the lack of acknowledgement of the developers involved. You know, the independent, self-owned developers trying to get their games out to as wide an audience as possible without compromising what they see as a valuable freedom from external influences.

    From trapdoorinc.com (Warp developer):

    We are an independent game developer

    Trapdoor opened in 2008 with a simple mission: create a studio where you work on the games you want to make.

    We believe that a game studio should be collaborative, not corporate; creative, not compromising.

    Trapdoor is a place where inspired people work together to make great things. We’re small, scrappy, and passionate about crafting games with unique personality and distinctive style.

    Wow, what a bunch of corporate shills! Let’s boycott them for having the temerity to hire a company to handle distribution of their game!

    Just because people think Origin is a bit shit doesn’t mean they should be tarred for their loose association with EA. It’s an “indie” bundle because the games were made by independent developers – I think we’re still a long way off from this label being as nebulous as Mr. Grayson claims it to be.

  5. GSGregory says:

    What about triple a titles? Your saying indie has lost its meaning but so has triple A as these days games launch with many many bugs with often the only thing being polished being the graphics rather than the gameplay. I like indie games more atm because usually they are created by people who want to make a game that they want to play. They listen to and respond to the community and try to make sure the game heads towards bug free. Now of course there are exceptions to everything but these days I find more and more “indie” games I would rather play than the big release titles.

  6. InternetBatman says:

    I really think Indie means financed, developed, and distributed independently of a publisher. It is absolutely critical that a term like this exists to help inform consumers.

    Also, it’s pretty easy to recognize the distinctions. If it just means developed by a studio not owned by a publisher then New Vegas is indie. If it means a developer working on an IP not owned by a publisher then Stacking is indie. I feel it’s pretty easy to argue that those two are not indie.

  7. RegisteredUser says:

    Indie has for a large part become fairly synonymous for me for: No DRM, flexible or cheap(or at least not ridiculous) pricing, ongoing support, actual contact with the community, actual love and involvement with the product being made rather than a purely financial/stock holder happyness incentive.
    This is usually due to / only possible because of the “independent from a publisher’s pressure” bit of the “indie” tag/meaning.

    And so far, this has held pretty well for the corners of Indiedom I’ve poked around in and/or financed.

    And for those that feel like they need to mimick the big boys in terms of pricing or DRM(because, really, surely nobody could be THAT honest to just support what they really like if/when they can), they can just go sod right off again.

    As for this EA shtick or other transparent attempts to just “ride along” or hope that something positive colors off: You are not fooling anyone. EA and Ubi are still dicks.

  8. Reefpirate says:

    The ‘indie’ games that I’ve always enjoyed the most haven’t been the arthouse, low-budget punk rock scenester things, although I’ve enjoyed a couple of those. I prefer the productions that are more games and less fashion statement: Soldak’s games, Dungeons of Dredmore, Global Agenda, Stardock, etc. ‘Indie’ games with some meat on their bones with depth and longevity are where the real cool indie games are, not just another platformer with a weird puzzley twist.

    But I do like the gist of this article, that you can’t really classify indie games and it is somewhat futile to try. A game is a game, and a game either sucks or it doesn’t regardless of who made it or how much money they spent on it.

  9. Radiant says:

    Here’s an idea.

    I don’t give a flying fuck about a game’s credentials I just want to know if it’s something I’d be interested in playing.

    Later you can corfumbulate over word definitions.

  10. Nexcoyotlcoatl says:

    Strong Bad had something similar to say about movies

    http://www.homestarrunner.com/sbemail203.html

  11. jonfitt says:

    We should go back to the older term bedroom coder.
    When you make enough money to operate outside of someone’s house you’ve graduated and you’re then just a games company.

  12. Obc says:

    The meaning of Indie has also changed in the music buisness. while it once stood for self produced music its now a genre of its own. and to be honest i quite like it this new way. a lot of people back in the day thought it was absurd and thought the word has lost its meaning. but the new meaning has opened so many new levels. i like “indie” stuff. Indie Pop like Jezabel or Stars, Indie Rock like Los Campesinos!, or Indie Punk like the latest Johnny Foreigner. the new meaning also helps to catogerize older records from bands like Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine.

    Changing the meaning of a word is often not what people want. but once the transition is complete it might not be a bad thing at all.

    (though i still despise what the meaning of the genre “dubstep” has turned into)

  13. LoveIsGood says:

    These are Indie games though, what’s your problem? Why did you not say this when Valve was doing its indie bundles? A company run by a billionaire that nets the millions Valve does should no longer be considered indie. They publish with main stream publishers as well so they are not really an indie company. Don’t call out EA on this when you left Valve alone when it did the same thing.