On The Power And The Diminishing Returns Of “Indie”

By Lewie Procter on March 8th, 2013 at 12:00 pm.


Something is happening. I’ve noticed it, you may have noticed it, and it’s probably no surprise to anyone who’s ever bought an “indie” record. The corporations with a finger in this delicious pie we call the games industry have been watching what’s happened, too. They’ve been watching the achievements of the likes of Jonathan Blow, 2Dboy, Notch/Mojang and other countless successful indie developers. Now, they’re changing the way the operate. And that is in turn changing how indies operate. Indie gaming will never be the same again. Is this a bad thing?

We talked to Double Fine, Positech, Klei and others to find out.

Consider the corporation. When its motivation is to maximise shareholder wealth, you’ll be watching what’s happening in the wider marketplace around you, and adapting your business to operate in whatever areas are likely to generate the significant income. For a long time in the games industry, this had been big games made by huge teams and backed up with a large marketing spend from publishers with cosy relationships with the various market gatekeepers, and everything else dwindled. That’s no longer the case. We can chalk it up to a trend towards democratising distribution, promotion, funding and tools of production, as well as, perhaps, broadening of approaches in attempting to meet customers tastes and expectations, as well as the natural maturing of a market over time. Now games made with an independent aesthetic, low budget, limited scope and esoteric attitudes are making big bucks, too.

This notion of what the indie aesthetic, budget, scope and attitudes is changing. And that has ramifications for the development industry as a whole.

We’ve already seen major publishers try to co-opt the term “indie” for marketing purposes. There’s EA’s infamous “Indie Bundle” (now renamed to “Niche Gamer Bundle” after the PR fallout), and recently launched “100% Indie” label (in partnership with Samsung). Microsoft, too, recently released an “Indie Pack” sold through Amazon, full of games they’d partially funded in exchange for, amongst other things, platform exclusivity.

But it’s not just about branding. We’ve also seen examples of larger developers empowering their staff to pursue passion projects internally, such as Bohemia allowing DayZ’s developer Rocket to switch his role from working on their other projects to working full time on what was simply a mod. Or there’s the success of Geometry Wars, which was born out of Stephen Cakebread toying around with the input test app originally built whilst developing Project Gotham Racing. Or Lionhead backing Mark Healey’s Rag Doll Kung Fu back in the early days of Steam.

2012 seems like a watershed year for these changes. It was the year of medium sized developers going publisher independent. It was the year of Kickstarter. It was the year when everyone took up arms with Unity, UDK and a range of other tools to make gaming independent.

This is all making it an interesting time for players, but it’s also led to some semantic blurring of the term “indie” in the context of game development. Could the end of the indie revolution simply be that the term ends up being meaningless? Could its success have destroyed it?

Let’s be in no doubt: indie has been a banner, a logo, a beacon of light. It has been the moniker of the most important movement in game development in two decades. But it seems the tsunami is losing moment, and blending with the development seas beyond. We are losing something.


Let’s take a recent example, Surgeon Simulator 2013. It’s an awesome game, made by some clearly talented individuals, but I can’t see any definition of “indie” that could possibly apply to it. Yes, it was made by a small team at a game jam. Yes, it’s clearly a creative and innovative smaller game, and not at all the kind of idea a marketing department would come up with. But it is a property of Bossa Studios, made by a team of Bossa employees, on company time. Bossa is owned by television production company Shine Group, which is in turn a division of News Corporation.

It’s not the case that Rupert Murdoch sent down a command to Bossa from his Iron Throne to say “Send a team of plucky designers to a game jam so they can come up with a whimsical game that will take the internet by storm, and we can market it as if it’s an indie game”. But the implication that this is far, far from what was meant by “indie” still remains. I asked Bossa’s Henrique Olifiers how come they ended up sending a team to the Global Game Jam. He said this:

Bossa Studios takes pride in maintaining a creative and open environment for everyone. We encourage all team members from every department to create concepts, put them forward and, for the winning concepts, the reward is to see them being prototyped. We’ve got new prototypes being created all the time. We all play the prototypes and then follow a simple rule: if they are fun, we continue working on them and see where it takes us. GGJ is really just an extension of this philosophy – but in a much wider scale.

Game Jams are one of the places where the lines blur. Anyone can partake in them – indie or AAA – and so it’s where the methodology of indie can bleed into the mainstream. Experimentalism. Rapid prototyping. Those in charge of Bossa decided that it’s effective management and use of their development resources to encourage and support a team of their staff to attend a game jam, knowing that at worse they’ll blow off some steam and make good contacts whilst publicly representing the company, and at best potentially come up with something that will directly generate wealth for their becowled corporate backers.

But does that make the resulting products “indie”? Not in my mind. Not when the result is produced and sold by a large company. This, however, hasn’t stopped the indie press from covering it, and doing so as an indie game. It’s got coverage from indiegames.com, indiegamemag, and yes even on this very website in Porpentine’s excellent Live Free, Play Hard column.

As far as I can see, the SS2k13 developers never misrepresented themselves, or made false claims about their ties to the Lizard King, but they don’t appear to have stepped in to correct any of the journalists writing about their game either. Of course, if you’re making a game, it’s your job to get people to hear about it so they can maybe play it, and if you’re writing about games it’s your job to give your readers interesting and relevant information, not necessarily to investigate all the corporate ties of everyone involved in a game. So it’s understandable.


But…

I asked Henrique whether he thinks Surgeon Simulator 2013 is an indie game, and if not, whether they considered correcting media that referred to it as such, he said:

That the guys decided to brand it Bossa was their call, not a studio directive. They made the game in 48 hours over a weekend and put it up on a website for people to enjoy and comment on – and we are happy to see the team members getting credit for it. Bossa Studios exists because of the incredible talent we have here and our mission is to nurture that talent.

Surgeon Simulator 2013 was recently successfully Greenlit on Steam, and Bossa tell me that they’re going to be making a formal announcement for their future plans for it very soon. It sounds like the devs who worked on it have been able to turn a project they initiated because they thought it would be fun into their day job. And can we really begrudge that? Even if it does seem to blur the “indie” label beyond recognition?

Another studio that’s spawned new ideas under game jam conditions is Double Fine, arguably the poster-child for transitioning from a publisher dependant model to self-publishing. When asked to what extent their shift in strategy was inspired by emerging trends in independent development, Double Fine’s Greg Rice said this:

A lot actually! We’ve been really inspired by the way smaller studios have been able self-publish their own games and deliver on a unique vision because of that. That’s something we are really excited about with our Kickstarter funded game, and hopefully with even more Double Fine published titles in the future.

And he went to to talk about empowering the Double Fine staff to pitch their passion projects, and to see how it benefits the studio as a whole:

That’s one of the really exciting things about Amnesia Fortnight. It gives people at the studio a chance to make the games they’ve always been dreaming of, and also allows people to try out new positions in the company. It’s a really creatively energizing time at the company that always results in interesting new ideas. I’d definitely recommend it for other studios!

We then, of course, asked about whether Mr Rice thought the blurring between “indie” and “not indie” was problematic.

Yeah, those kind of semantics are always weird. I think it’s just a spirit that certain studios embody, but ultimately I’m not sure it really matters. Cool games are cool games regardless of the classification they get.

There’s a precedent for the term “indie” being diluted over time, of course. The music industry isn’t entirely like the games industry in its relationship with “indie”, but there are similarities. Way back when, before my time, an indie band was one signed to an independent record label, or one that eschewed record labels altogether. These days, many of the most successful “indie bands” are on labels like Sony, EMI, Universal and Warner, with releases accompanied by huge marketing campaigns, payola arrangements with music channels and radio stations, and international stadium tours. If you enter a highstreet music retailer, they’ll try to tell you that “independent” is a narrowly defined collections of sounds produced by narrowly defined groups of people.

But guess what? The highstreet music retailers are dying. Dying because they’ve allowed themselves to become irrelevant in the eyes of many of their consumers and many of the creators they need to matter to. The labels are going to have to fight to survive too, if they want to keep their heads above water. The challenge of selling music without any record label contract was hard in the past, but it’s pretty damn easy today, and it’s only going to get easier.

Thrift Shop is the second ever independently released song to hit number one on the US singles chart, and it’s charted all around the globe. We’ve come a long way since Radiohead’s self released In Rainbows, in a relatively short time. Sure, we’re not going to see a situation where there are no record labels any more, but musicians around the world are surely going to be wondering if they could pull off a successful self-releasing career. Record labels are going to have to do more and more to justify their fees and complicated contracts, perhaps even reducing their fees and simplifying their contracts. Shifting infrastructures are putting more power into the hands of the creators, and the users stand to benefit too. Creators get to release their work on their terms, with complete creative control, and users get a more direct connection to the artists, and a far greater proportion of their money goes to the creators, instead of the suits.

Just as music pre-dated the record industry, video games pre-date game publishers. In both fields, there’s been long periods where the major corporations had near-absolute controls of the market for creators output, but creators and consumers seem to only tolerate that for so long. We’re way past the point where you need someone else’s permission to make a game, or even to buy a game, and the barriers to market are getting lower each day.

Publishers might be only truly interested in making money, but if that means they are willing to take risks funding development of games that they expect people will want to buy, why would developers turn that down? And why would any gamers begrudge developers taking their money? I asked Klei Entertainment’s Jamie Cheng whether the games they’ve made would have been possible without their partnerships with the EA (Shank) and Microsoft (Mark of the Ninja):

I’m certain Shank would’ve made it’s way out one way or another, but I’m not so sure about Mark of Ninja. We have tons of prototypes or ideas that we’ve shelved over the years. The scope of Ninja was probably too big for us to self-publish at the time. I like to think that we’re strong enough creatively that we don’t sacrifice the quality whether we self-publish or partner.

He went on to talk about how control of a project is shared between a small developer like Klei and their monolithic corporate partners:

While we’re always happy to listen to input, both from our partners and our fans, we make absolutely certain that we have control over the direction and the IP of the games we make. I think that’s crucial when a developer is trying to break new ground. Being strong in your conviction of what the game should be as the developer is a necessary (but not sufficient!) condition to creating a compelling experience. There was one project where we didn’t do this, and allowed ourselves to bend to the wind of criticism. The result was a bland game that thankfully eventually got cancelled.

In terms of pricing and marketing, in general that’s a collaborative effort, but more and more we are handling community management and marketing internally.

My question, then is whether this relationship disqualifies Klei from being an indie studio? Are their games they’ve partnered with publishers on not “indie” games? Should they get to attach their work to that banner?

It’s a semantic minefield, but here’s Cheng’s take on it:

We absolutely identify ourselves as independent. We choose which games we decide to make, with whom, and on which platform. In terms of how to classify the games, however you would like to semantically define an “independent game”, I can say we made the creative and implementation decisions independently, and work in that spirit from start to finish.

Tere is less ambiguity with latest title, Don’t Starve, which they are self-publishing. I asked him why they decided to self-publish Don’t Starve, and how that’s impacted the game:

Don’t Starve is our own little pet project that we wanted to experiment with, and self-publishing made the most sense for that purpose. Self-publishing allowed us to do basically whatever we felt was the right thing to do, at any moment, without worrying whether it would cause pain to our partners. I think the result is that the game is doing all sorts of things we’d never do traditionally — early access, constant updates, extremely open development, etc. We love it, though we also think this sort of development works especially well with a procedural survival game like Don’t Starve. I’m not sure early access would have worked nearly as well for a game like Ninja.

That seems smart to say that the correct strategy is going to depend largely on the game, and the circumstances of the developers making them. Independent developers self-publishing their own games can spawn creative and disruptive ways of developing and releasing games, that savvy publishers will react to. Indie, then, might simply be a matter of context.

But what might a genuine indie old-timer make of all this? Positech Games’s Cliff ‘Cliffski’ Harris has been releasing games independently since way back in the 20th century. Asked whether he thought the independent scene is growing up now that successful devs are making megabucks, and corporations are trying to get involved, he said:

It is growing up in the sense that it is seen as legitimate now, both by corporations and by customers. Gamers are prepared to give indie games a go now, without being dismissive of them, and also portals and publishers can no longer afford to look down their noses at indies, offer them bad terms or refuse to deal with them. That has shifted power slightly towards the indie developers. I think, With a few exceptions the money flowing into some parts of indie gaming hasn’t really changed the people who do it. The same people are still just as passionate and the games are just as cool, the only change is the more successful developers drive nicer cars now.

So have things actually changed much for independent developers over the last decade?

Definitely, in that the ceiling for potential success as an indie is now much higher, mainly due to minecraft, plus it’s now a viable career path, rather than before when it was mostly hobbyists, or people who had fled the AAA industry, Many devs now have never known anything but indie life, which is very new.

But it’s not all roses, as Harris explained:

One not so good change is that the extent to which an indie could be self sufficient outside of sales through the big portals has actually decreased. Indie gaming is only indie now in that it is free from publisher control, but the independence of large corporations has not really changed. Very few indies now actually sell their own product, it’s now the norm to give a cut to someone else to do that for you. Even Kickstarter takes a cut. Another big change is just the sheer number of developers, and platforms. It used to be a tiny niche thing done mostly on PC, where everybody knew each other. Not any more.

Asked whether there’s a risk that things like EA’s “Indie Bundle” have a diluting effect on the indie label, he said:

Not at all. That was widely laughed at. People know the difference between a developer like me, and EA. No amount of ‘indiewashing’ will ever stick for companies that have corporate jets. Indie is like pornography, it’s hard to specify what it is, but you know it when you see it.

And finally, does he still identify as indie?

Yes! More so than most. I work alone, from home, and am 100% self-funded. I make exactly the games I want to make, and say exactly what I like. I’m not as financially independent of third parties as I would like, but I can’t complain. I’ve always disliked the way ‘indie’ was assumed to be ‘starving-indie’ or ‘hobbyist’. That was never the case, and I’m glad everyone realises that now.

My take away from all this? Mega-corporations have learned from the indie revolution. Indies are now learning from the mega-corporations. This is a victory, not something to be upset about, even if it does mean the era of “indie” as we knew it might be disappearing. We’ve gone from EA telling Edmund McMillen to come work for them when he wants to get “serious” about games in 2004, to EA asking Edmund McMillen to please come and be a consultant for them in 2011. That’s an improvement.

If I were running a large studio, I’d want a policy for handling interesting side-projects created by staff, dedicating company resources to any promising looking projects, with a fair revenue share model to reward the individual putting the hard work in. I’d be encouraging staff to attend Game Jams whilst on the payroll. Some of the most successful indie games have been from teams that quit day jobs at big studios to make their dream game. Why not make keeping the day job and making the dream game the more attractive option.

If I were in charge of deciding which games to fund at any publisher, I’d want to be looking at pitches from Dennaton, Klei Entertainment and thatgamecompany, and I’d always be on the lookout for the rising stars of tomorrow, ready to offer them support on their terms, not mine. Anything else is at best going to result in missed opportunities, and at worst be part of a gradual decline into irrelevancy.

If I were a gamer, firstly I’d rejoice that we’re living in a time with such a rich array of games of all shapes and sizes available to me. Then I’d be glad I don’t need a publisher to be on board to be able to be a patron to developers working on projects that are interesting to me, but publishing powerhouses are there to share resources with talented indie developers. Should we begrudge talented developers from not wanting to starve whilst making what they love if there is a funding deal on the table?

As for “indie”? Well, it’ll stick around. I think we should find an unambiguous definition of it and stick to it. But maybe Cliff is right. Maybe it is like defining pornography, or – less salaciously – like defining games generally: we know it when we see it.

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83 Comments »

  1. Jason Moyer says:

    Whether or not a game/film/album/etc is branded “indie” is a lot less important to me than whether it’s good or not. As long as the options to create/publish games through completely independent means still exist, and I think you could argue that those options are greater than they’ve ever been, then great.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Pretty much. It’s barely more meaningful or relevant than “is it art?”, since the definition’s been stretched wider than that well-known landmark, the Goat Sea.

    • Focksbot says:

      I agree with this, and I’m surprised this article never got to the point I thought it was building to – which is that if the concept of ‘indie’ is eroded to the point where it just represents a style or feel, and if the corporations find a way of getting their fingers into every pie, then eventually we could be back to square one as far as quality gaming goes.

      What I mean by that is we could have a mid-tier of games that are branded ‘indie’, are successfully marketed and sold to the present indie audience, but are as tightly controlled and lacking in originality as the top-tier mainstream games. Real innovation gets crowded out again, as hundreds of projects bankrolled by big companies scream ever more loudly for your attention. That ‘amazing’ concept you heard about on Kickstarter? You heard about it because someone paid for the fluff articles to be written and used your personal data to target you and your friends with the right links. And it’s only going to be as original and innovative as the guy with the deep pockets lets it be, which is not very – superficial stylishness masking a traditional set-up.

      It’s like the fear that eventually corporations will figure out how to game the entire internet, and you simply won’t be able to go anywhere, do anything, support anything online that isn’t pre-vetted. You might *think* you’ve found some cool, independent little website but what you don’t realise is that you were drawn into it by manufactured word-of-mouth and expensive SEO optimisation, while the genuinely plucky, unfunded sites remain unnoticed, or are blocked, or can’t afford to pay some fee which speeds up the data transfer from their hosting, and so on.

      It’s nice to believe that somehow, real genius will flourish in whatever the circumstances, but it’s practical to remember that there’s an army of people out there whose job is to work out how to turn any transaction between two people, or one person and a tiny team, into a safe revenue stream for them. And big money is *always* conservative – destructively so.

    • Grape Flavor says:

      Yeah, I really hope people don’t start feeling like we need to get into a bunch of silly hipster handwringing about whether indie gaming is “mainstream” enough that the cool kids have to hate it now.

      How about this: as long as “true indies” are still able to do their thing uninhibited, who the heck cares whether games with the indie spirit are made by established publishers? The more the merrier – if independent developers have inspired publishers to branch out and make more interesting games, it’s good for gaming.

      If anybody wants to start judging the value of a game by delving into the intricacies of the finances behind it, to see if any scary corporate money has contaminated its indie purity with the evil taint of capitalism, you go on ahead. I’ll be right here judging games by their quality and not giving a toss who paid to make it.

  2. bar10dr says:

    For me a indie game is a game made by individuals who are not burdened by a big publisher.

    • Ninja Foodstuff says:

      But there’s always going to be some overlap. Look at films, where Spielberg famously declared himself the biggest independent filmmaker.

      • SurprisedMan says:

        Sure, there’ll always be overlap but that’s okay. Doesn’t stop the term from being meaningful. People only get themselves into knots when they start worrying about all the exceptions to the rule. But you can play that game with any word. Like… table:

        A flat surface you can put things on? Nope, could be a bed.
        Okay, designed for putting things on, and sitting at. What about a bird table?
        Okay, that’s not flat, so… Um…

        Point is, we all get what a table is without having to look too closely at what it means. So there’s no need for watertight definitions for words to be meaningful.

      • Vorphalack says:

        Speilburg was probably right about that, being in the enviable situation of having complete creative control whilst simultaneously having access to the best studios available and fighting off investors with a stick. I think that is the most important element of being an Indie, having control of your own product. The scale is irrelevant as long as the money mans don’t lean on the creative mans and taint the product.

      • Urthman says:

        If Spielberg makes a bad movie, it’s not because someone was forcing him to compromise his vision to make the movie more marketable.

        Mojang and Valve are indie game studios, to my mind.

    • The Random One says:

      Define “burdened”.

  3. Premium User Badge Screwie says:

    Off-topic, but what is that painting in the header image called?

  4. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    Fantastic article Lewie

  5. Premium User Badge Lambchops says:

    ” but ultimately I’m not sure it really matters. Cool games are cool games regardless of the classification they get.”

    I want to give Greg Rice a high five. He’s spot on with that.

    Also steering away from the “what is indie?” side of the article, which is to my eyes a tedious waste of time and on to the ruminations about publishing vs self publishing, I think the article misses out discussing the middle ground as it takes the assumption of publisher to mean massive corporations like EA. It misses out the likes of, to throw an example from the top of my head, Paradox. In amongst releasing their own stuff they also publish projects that align well with their niche (albeit of varying quality at times). If we’re playing the “music industry analogy” game from the article I’d say that these publishers are akin to labels like Chemikal Underground (http://www.chemikal.co.uk/) who, while initially existing to self release, use their expertise to promote artists that they genuinely love. The artists do their own thing but still can gain something over self publishing by having someone who gives a shit about them handling distribution, promotion and so on.

    EDIT: Of course these types of publishers have their risks too. They can be incompetently run – I’m sure some people will remember the debacle that was Gamecock (the name really should have been warning enough!).

    Plus you’ve got the likes of Nicalis (who probably don’t have a music industry analogy) who handle ports and ensure that games can reach as wide an audience as possible.

  6. jellydonut says:

    I don’t really care because ‘indie’ seems to mean ‘artsy game that is only interesting to 10 people in the world’ most of the time.

    I’m very sorry for going against the RPS canon here but I have yet to see one that isn’t some artsy concept or a rehash of 90s sidescrollers out of nostalgia or something.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      I think this opinion was almost valid (but not quite) about fifteen years ago.

    • Premium User Badge Lambchops says:

      Audiosurf.

      There’s one. I could list more but that’s a waste of time when one example is all that is needed for a rebuttal in this case!

    • Premium User Badge Durkonkell says:

      Really? You haven’t heard of Minecraft? It’s hardly ‘artsy’. To give a somewhat less obvious example, Gratuitous Space Battles is a game about assembling space battle fleets and sending them after enemy space battle fleets. Surely only art students could appreciate such a thing!

      • Giuseppe says:

        I was thinking of the same two games when I read the comment. Neither of them is particularly “artsy”, nor do they harken back to a specific time in video game history. At least not to me.

        • Shuck says:

          One could argue that Minecraft’s low-fi graphics are a reference to low-poly ’90s graphics. And that’s true for all “indie” games in the sense that any game not being made with a AAA budget and TressFX character hair (or whatever the latest graphical development is) is graphically akin to games of a less graphically advanced/less expensive development era.
          But it would be very stupid to define games that way, much less to dismiss games simply because they lack cutting-edge graphics.

    • Giuseppe says:

      I used to think along the same lines until I realized I was missing out on a whole bunch of fantastic games. It’s one of the reasons I think “indie”, as a defining term for a game, can be detrimental: it’s hard to actually define a game by it and it makes many people think that it’s supposed to somehow be too pretentious, or too nostalgic.

      • Acorino says:

        well, whose fault is that? maybe people should be less ignorant!

        • Giuseppe says:

          It’s no one’s “fault”. “Indie” is a poor choice for a word to describe a work, but we’re stuck with it.

      • MarcP says:

        I look at it this way: a good game doesn’t need to be presented as indie, it stands on its own merits. If the developers feel the need to claim indie cred, to talk about themselves more than they talk about the game, it doesn’t give me confidence about their game.

    • Lanfranc says:

      In no particular order: FTL. The Blackwell series. Democracy. Terraria. Gemini Rue. Super Hexagon. Mount and Blade. The Sam and Max series. Upcoming games such as Maia or Limit Theory. Etc. etc.

      Edit: And Dwarf Fortress! By Armok, how could I forget Dwarf Fortress!

      • solidsquid says:

        Grimrock was an indie game too

        • Premium User Badge frymaster says:

          Surely the Orange Box also counts? It’s self published on Steam; the “published by EA” bit for the physical copies is genuinely only published by, not funded by.

      • Hahaha says:

        Gemini rue? the game published by wadjet eye games.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      I would consider Natural Selection 2 to be an indie game (please correct me if there are corporate connections)

      Now this game has some features which could be considered “old school” but that is simply because they aren’t around in modern AAA games… things like private servers released to users, extreme moddability, no persistent characters, smallish development team.

      But just look at some screenshots and tell me that looks “indie” to you.

    • KDR_11k says:

      A fun case is Dragon Commander: Larian figured out that they could just skip the whole publisher nonsense and directly deal with the distributors to get their game on shelves so the game is technically independent.

  7. Giuseppe says:

    After the first few paragraphs, I was wondering where the comparison to music would come in :)

    To me the term ”indie” has grown devoid of meaning in music. In games it still works, but it’s quite possible that the same will happen, with ”indie” becoming a less and less well defined type of game. In the end it doesn’t matter.

    As long as fewer AAA titles made “by the numbers” get released and more truly creative, but also well polished small(er) titles come to life, especially games made by people that don’t think of their customers as potential thieves whose rights need to be restricted and controlled, I’ll be happy.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      Yeah the industry won in the music field. No one gets excited about an indie album released for free like they would a game of comparable quality.

      I guess it makes sense that games will head into the same territory, but for some reason it seems like the industry Titans either aren’t as clever as their musical counterparts, or (shudder to think it) just not as evil.

      As a musician I’d love to get exposure the way McPixel did utilizing Pirate Bay. It’s probably possible, but I think people are more likely to download and play a short game and talk about it online than a short album. Then again I frequent gaming sites and never read music-fan sites.

      • Berzee says:

        I know very little about music-related careers, but I gather that one notable difference is that as a musician, you can make money from performances as well as from sales, yes? So there’s that one advantage (if you consider it an advantage) over making games. =)

        • Sparkasaurusmex says:

          This is absolutely true, but a full tip jar from a gig at the bar isn’t worth as much to me as a lot of listeners via Pirate Bay.

          I suppose there is a distinction between musician and performer. Most musical performers are obviously musicians, but not all musicians are performers. As a performer I am a bass player and that’s about the only instrument I’m adept enough at to play live on stage. But as a musician I can write and record with many instruments and the songs are my original compositions. I cannot play them live, as it would require eight arms and godly coordination, but I can record them and master them and make MP3s or FLAC and package them up…and then sometimes try to show them to people who listen only to humor me.

          I have to imagine if I could make a little game of similar quality I could get at least 100 people to play it. I wonder if that is simply something that would happen now, but in the future, if “indie games” comes to mean anything like “indie music” perhaps my little game would go largely ignored like my little albums.

      • Vorphalack says:

        I think it’s important to note that there are far more record labels than there are games publishers when comparing the music business to gaming. Additionally there are more record labels who are willing to back niche genres of music where there are few comparisons in gaming. It’s like there is a small-to-medium sized hole in games industry publishing that no one seems to be able to viably fill. I don’t think it’s completely correct to say that the music industry won with regards to publisher free indie music, because there are more small labels that support niche or promising bands within the industry.

        • Sparkasaurusmex says:

          Salient point about the genre publishers. You’re right, music has some publishers who are willing to settle for decent sales instead of always increasing sales while it seems gaming lacks these middle types.

      • Giuseppe says:

        The greatest problem with the word ”indie” is that it’s generally pretty meaningless in itself. It tells you nothing about the quality of the work; it tells you nothing about the genre the work is in. It’s just a term that’s applied to works that stick to a relatively undefined “creed” of creativeness and independence.

        Also, this word is increasingly used in association to works which actually do not stick to that “creed”, they’re just industrially made to resemble those ambiguously defined indie works. What’s worse, the word, in the minds of quite many, can also evoke images of amateurism, or pretentiousness. This applies to music, it often applies to film, and it increasingly applies to games. These days it seems that everyone and their mother is rushing to be labeled as “indie”.

        Now I admit I also use this term, but I’m not all that happy with it.

  8. Paul C says:

    There’s a distinction to be drawn between “indie” as a genre – almost a philosophical approach to how and why games are made and their presentation, not to mention their niche appeal – and “independent” as a business model.

    • Chris D says:

      That seems like a useful distinction. I believe I will steal it.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      Yeah I think if you want to mix independent developers and published developers that is a good distinction: WHY are you making this game? The indie’s in the why.

  9. frightlever says:

    Helluva article!

    Also, Kerberos made Sword of the Stars: The Pit which had an indie roguelike aesthetic, and was self-published so… that’d be an indie game from a traditionally publisher-funded developer, right?

    I’ve been saying for a while that for sheer ROI, AAA games don’t make sense but the spreading waistlines of game development are down to human nature and the intrinsic need to Empire-build. Or free canteens. One or other.

  10. LetSam says:

    Maybe games should co-opt the term “creator owned” from comics. If the game (or studio making it) is owned by a publisher and not the people making it, it wouldn’t be creator owned, obviously.

    • frightlever says:

      That’s not a half bad idea, except we’re getting mired in buzz words as it is. Comics don’t really have the same problems… you know what, they do. Hmm. Yeah, your parallel is spot-on.

      Who is the Alan Moore of comics?

  11. princec says:

    I bought a Porsche the other day.

    Fucking Porsche! Yeah. Living the dream baby.

    • Premium User Badge tigerfort says:

      What scale? (Are we talking matchbox, or one of those 1/12 jobs with opening doors and realistic engine detail?)

    • solidsquid says:

      Thought Matchbox stopped making those in favour of Ferrari

      edit: Damn, beat me to it

  12. Hoaxfish says:

    Video games always has a bit of an issue with definitions. How many RPGs are actually action shooters, or fighters. How many games are just visual novels. How many indies are actually indie, how many AAAs are worth it.

    Looking at the recent award ceremonies, there are a bunch of different approaches. Do you count “download” games as different from “proper” games (even if you ignore digital download services like Steam). Does console exclusivity mean anything. A number of awards for “best game” went to smaller productions like Journey and The Walking Dead.

    You could just ignore everything and have “best game” (which used to be a simple matter of most money/biggest marketting).

    I wonder if we can’t take something from sports, and simply have “weight divisions” base on the amount of money spent on each game, production approaches, etc. “Best A-Budget Game”, “Best AAA-budget game”, “Best one-man game”… of course you could still have an overall “Best Game” like we have “Sportsman of the Year”. Though I suspect it would fall foul of companies not wanting to publicly discuss their budgets, or faking budget/etc to get into a different category (i.e. spending more than a category is for, but pretending you didn’t for the “spent” advantage).

    • The Random One says:

      We would need such leagues if small games WEREN’T winning some of those awards. But they are, so they can obviously go toe-to-toe with the big ones. To separate them would just restrict them to semantic ghettos, just like the Oscars do with non-American movies.

    • WrenBoy says:

      I have never understood the confusion over what is and isnt an RPG.

      Real RPGs are games in the style of Baldurs Gate 2, the worlds first ever RPG. Fake wannabe click-fest action RPGs like the entire Wizardry series are fooling noone.

  13. alex_v says:

    Excellent article, really enjoyed it.

    I do wonder about the merits of asking developers where the boundaries lie though, because I really don’t feel it’s their place to decide. Ask any triple A developer and I’m sure they’d talk about their independent spirit and autonomy.

    I think the term indie still has a huge value to us, as we try to understand the spirit in which a title has been developed. And that’s the important thing.

    • Premium User Badge RobF says:

      You’re right but it is useful for finding out where their biases lie, that assists others in being able to pinpoint things with more authority.

  14. Feferuco says:

    I disagree on that part that it isn’t the duty of journalists to find out where the game came from.

  15. H-Hour says:

    I enjoy RPS and appreciate these features, which is why I feel like mentioning my criticisms of this piece. I felt it didn’t really have a lot to say about it’s topic, and this was primarily because it focused on representational issues around the question “what is ‘indie’”, rather than the substantial questions regarding how the “indie” trend has changed the industry. I don’t really care if a major publisher tries to brand their work “indie” or if an independent developer chooses to work with a major publisher. This is useful background information. But I’m more interested in the question of how this trend called “indie” changes the quality and nature of the games we have available. It was that side of the issue — and particularly the “diminishing returns” mentioned in the headline — that I felt was missing from this piece.

    Are “indie” games getting worse? Is the “indie” market too saturated now? How will publisher-involvement change the games we get?

  16. JademusSreg says:

    Gonna side with young Wittgenstein here and circumvent arguments over definitions, as there’s no use getting tangled up in it. It’s like people arguing over “what is a game” or “that is/isn’t dubstep”; it’s all just symbols invested with meaning initially inferred from the scope of the experience of the individual from which emerges a consensus independent of any articulation of that meaning.

    Personally, I can’t say “indie” influences my purchases much. If I make it about the label or identity, it’s that much less about the game.

    • InternetBatman says:

      So? If you take that philosophy than any definition based on consensus is inappropriate to the individual and we can never truly communicate. The frequency and complexity of our communication acts as strong proof against the validity of such an argument. To quote a far more direct author, “You don’t have to eat the whole turd to know it’s not a crabcake.”

      • JademusSreg says:

        Haha, naw. We require common points of reference to communicate, not consensus or definitions or whatever. The definition is the articulation of a symbol’s meaning, a meaning inferred from experience, including inferred consensus through interaction with others referring to the symbol. This does not at all make communication impossible, only more or less coherent relative to common points of reference.

        But perhaps it was unfair of me to say arguments or discussions over definitions are useless. The participants in such discussions share their own points of reference through the process of articulating and unpacking the symbol’s meaning, enabling them an opportunity at building a new consensus to make future discussions more coherent.

        It would then be more accurate to say I, personally, don’t give a shit about defining “indie”. =D

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      That seems like a lot of big words to say it’s pointless to use big words if you want to have a point

    • Rao Dao Zao says:

      But without arguments over definitions, how can two people know if they’re even talking about the same thing? If I can’t define “indie” narrowly enough that there’s a common understanding, we might actually agree but think we disagree because we’re talking at cross purposes.

      • frightlever says:

        Wrong! People don’t need to disagree to communicate.

        See what I did there?

        • Chris D says:

          Oh! You just invalidated your own point by disagreeing thus cleverly making the opposite argument about disagreement being necessary but then by sneakily agreeing with him you then invalidate that point too therefore….

          No. No I have absolutely no idea what you just did.

  17. InternetBatman says:

    Indie will be watered down, just like alternative was before it, and bohemian was long before that. Then a new term will arise in its place. Publishers see the good-will that a group has generated, appropriate the term, and then strip-mine it like they do with everything else. The group of people has not changed, but as more are added and more leave the term they use for themselves changes. Hell, Zoey Deschanel’s mother was on Twin Peaks.

    It does influence my buying patterns, not terribly so, but I prefer to support independent development. I think it influences more than just me too, can you imagine the reaction to a publisher driven kickstarter (which will probably happen until it becomes the norm)?

  18. SuperNashwanPower says:

    Isn’t most people’s dream to become rich doing something you love? To maximise profit from any endeavour, the tendency is to drift towards the market model. The indie will always drift to the mainstream. It starts as new and unknown, it makes money, it becomes formulised, it gets old. Indie should mean innovation and risk, unfettered by business limitation. It’s only because big studios need to play safe that these die.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      I don’t know but I think a lot of people assume that “most” people want money, when really it’s probably that “a lot” of people want money. Maybe that doesn’t mean “most.”

      Honestly I think artists (a lot of them, probably not most?) are more interested in exposure and validation than money. Of course validation often comes in the form of little, valuable pieces of paper.

    • InternetBatman says:

      It really isn’t. Economists have found that the rate at which money motivates people is incredibly differential.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc

      In fact, they’ve found that even in business individual actors are not profit maximizers, most people do enough work to get people of their back.

    • solidsquid says:

      I think it’s more earn a living doing what you love, it’s just that “getting rich” makes it easier to continue with this and more easily deal with the risks than if you were to earn just enough to keep going

  19. onsamyj says:

    Only problem I have is then it used as a genre. Like it means something in that context. “Well, it’s RPG but with racing and indie-elements”. What?!

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      This is exactly what happened in the music industry and it is because Publishers don’t have anything they can call “Indie” because…well they’re the opposite of indie. BUT they figured it out.

      If Indie can mean game mechanics or elements than you will see indie genre games from EA and Activision.

      • Josh W says:

        That is actually really really clever…

        Is the indie-ness of indies inherently valuable? Perhaps, but it’s also like an engine pushing out intermediate values, like creativity or a certain kind of feel.

        If you can find your own engine that is not actually about that, but still produces those things we love about independent games, then you can incorporate it’s advantages without having to give up money holder control and disinterested profit maximisation. You can shave the surface off, the outside results, and generate something similar with your own core in the middle.

        But the closer those values lie to the source of creative independence itself, the more corporations have to shift themselves, and change the way that money holders control things, and perhaps limit it. So in other words, the more we love “indie”ness in itself, the more “indie” corporations have to become to imitate it.

  20. MOKKA says:

    I don’t like any kind of branding, be it ‘Indie’ or ‘AAA’ as it tends to be associated with certain attributes and therefore runs at risk in becomming more important that the piece of works it’s associated with.

    Stuff like this also leads to the formation of groups who then think that they have a right to determine which ‘thing’ qualifies as being worthy to be recognized and which does not.

    All these things in the end are just artificial constriction not only towards creators as they somehow get locked down into a certain niche, but also towards consumers who might miss something truly amazing just because they became too narrow minded.

  21. Kamos says:

    To me, digital distribution and the “indie movement” that has grown with it are important because from 2000 to 2007, there were literally only one or two games I wanted to play being released per year. It was depressing. I used to visit the “Home of the Underdogs” during that time to check if there were any DOS-era gems I hadn’t played yet.

    My main concern, then, is that the next generation of gamers will grow up not understanding that variety and innovation in games should never be taken for granted; that if things were as AAA publishers wanted, all games would be cover-based manshooters with regenerating health.

    Some people above have already mentioned that they don’t care as long as the game is good. However, if the indie “label” is used indiscriminately, it may happen that the average uninformed consumer will take two so-called “indie” games and measure one against another. Is it fair to compare the polish in game made by one guy in his basement to the polish in a publisher-funded “indie” game?

    The bar of expectations is undeniably set a bit lower when something is “indie”. Sometimes we do it consciously, sometimes we do it unconsciously. The same person that trashes a AAA game for having “dated graphics” will praise a game for its lo-fi graphics. The “faux indie” may end killing true indie off, just like a weed.

    • Shooop says:

      That last paragraph makes me want to stand up and applaud.

      That is my biggest issue with indie anything – just because a game’s not presented by overpaid sports stars and the sound of subwoofers fornicating doesn’t mean it should get free passes on its flaws.

      Take a short gander through Steam Greenlight – the vast majority of would-be games there are 16-bit or less sprite-based platformer throwbacks (followed closely by hidden object “adventure” games). You could go to a garage sale, pick up a SNES and Super Mario World for probably less than one of those games would sell for.

      At this rate we might as well start a movement to bring the Atari 2600 and all its games back into production instead because what I’m seeing from all this is even if it’s crap, it’ll be popular simply because it doesn’t have Activision or EA’s logo in the loading screen.

      • Kamos says:

        Indeed. A good game by EA is a good game, and a bad game by an indie dev is still a bad game. As consumers, we often guide ourselves by a reviewer’s opinions, but unfortunately, they are not really very pragmatic (not pointing fingers, and I think RPS generally does a good job with their WITs).

        The thing is, beneath an indie game’s simple graphics there may be a good game (even if it looks like a SNES game). However, if even games funded by a publisher are labeled “indie”, then people will start looking at “indier” games and think: “damn, this is ugly even by an indie game’s standards“, when it isn’t really fair to compare its polish to a game that was funded by a publisher.

      • Flavioli says:

        No no, I disagree. See, I like it when games have 16-bit graphics… not because of the nostalgia factor or any of that, but because it lets the developers focus on making a game with interesting ideas and mechanics. 16-bit graphics are very easy to make and maintain, allowing the developers to create the game they really want to create. I don’t mind setting the bar low on graphics as long as the game has something else that is truly special. That’s what’s great about indie… they can get a free pass on graphics so long as the game is good in other areas. AAA games do not have this advantage, and must go the extra mile since the bar is high enough that they also need to include additional fluff like full voice acting.

        To me, graphics in an indie game need to be at the very most just serviceable enough to allow me to enjoy the gameplay. If it has nice aesthetics, that’s certainly a plus, but definitely is not one of the things I look for when I buy an indie title. The only thing indie games should not get away with is trite and uninteresting gameplay.

  22. MentatYP says:

    It’s interesting you bring up Thrift Shop, since that song didn’t get to #1 through a completely indie route after all:
    http://m.npr.org/news/Business/171476473

    Artist power is so much better than it was just a decade ago, but let’s not kid ourselves by thinking they can do it all on their own now. The music industry machine is still as powerful as it ever was, and the same is true of the game publishing machine. Money = advertising = sales. I’m glad to see the power shifting back to developers with independent funding through Kickstarter and the like, but we’re a long way from getting an indie game to #1 on the charts without a lot of help.

  23. crinkles esq. says:

    This is not a new trend. Perhaps it’s a new trend in indie gaming, but this change was taking place in the film industry and music industry 20 years ago. Matador Records, the indie music label darling of the 1990′s (with a roster of indie bands such as Pavement, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Liz Phair, Belle & Sebastian, and Guided by Voices), became 49% owned by major label Capitol Records in 1996. There was a lot of furor at the time that these guys sold out, that their integrity was compromised. Ultimately, it was still business as usual (and eventually founder Gerard Cosloy bought back the company). In the film industry, when indie films started getting a lot of buzz in the 90′s with films like Pulp Fiction, the big film studios decided they wanted in on the action. They set up fake-indie subsidiary studios like Fox Searchlight to produce small-budget arthouse films like The Ice Storm, to varying success.

    But look, the bottom line is artists are being given creative freedom and getting paid to do it. That’s what it comes down to. To most artists, that’s more important than who is cutting the check or abstract, subjective concepts of integrity. And so I see Kickstarter as just a different way to accomplish this same goal.

    The difference I see with the big game studios trying to put out arthouse/niche games, in comparison to the big music labels and film studios, is that they don’t really understand the audience they’re trying to market to. They don’t understand that these gamers value different things, like single-player, no DRM, privacy, et al. And so ultimately I think it will be a failed strategy for them.

  24. walldad says:

    Maybe I’m being simplistic – but perhaps the term should just signify the business arrangement the game developer has with publishers? What I mean here more specifically is the degree of control publishers exert over the content and mechanics of the game, and also its promotion and marketing.

    This is pretty much the only consistently observable aspect of what the term signifies. It’s preferable to a discussion that inevitably devolves into an attempt to capture a vague aesthetic quality. It also puts all scenester posturing to bed.

    In other words, if publishers aren’t doing the bulk of the gatekeeping or “picking winners”, it’s indie. The definition paints a broad brush, to be sure, but it also makes the topic much more intelligible, not least to people who only know the term as a marketing buzzword.

    Ah, screw it. The only True Indie Game in Human History was Cave Story.

  25. Stan Lee Cube Rick says:

    Alternative. Organic. Internet. Indie.

    There will always be a frontier, physically or culturally, and it will always be exploited in time.