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Independents’ Day: What Is Indie?

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This feature was originally published in PC Gamer early last Summer – I republish it here, slightly revised and updated, as it’s a few of the indie names we’ve mentioned often on RPS – 2D Boy, Solium Infernum’s Vic Davis, Edmund McMillen… – talking about what drives, defines and binds the independent development community, and why it’s on such a roll at the moment. It’s also a love letter to a form of gaming and imagineering only the PC can offer.

What is indie? It’s a term so overused, in everything from music to movies to comics and, of course, games that it’s almost lost its meaning. “Independent” is the untruncated form, of course – but, by that token, Valve are indie. Is that a term that can sit comfortably around a multi-million dollar studio that juggles multiple franchises at once? Or is indie more of a statement, a specific state and ethos, where profit and success play second fiddle to the unfettered creativity?
Whatever it really means, one thing is overwhelmingly clear – the PC is the home of indie gaming. From hyper-violent Flash shooters on Newgrounds, to experimental fare like the Path that stretches the very definition of ‘game’, and everything in between, you’re hard-pushed to stumble aimlessly across the internet without finding some delightful obscurity. And yet, even the folk making these games don’t agree on an all-encompassing definition.

2D Boy’s Ron Carmel (creators of World of Goo), for instance, sums it up thusly: “I think that when a developer, be it an individual or a team, values design over profit, they produce an indie game. In theory, you could have a team of 50 people create an indie game, but in reality, if a company needs to pay salaries to 50 people they most likely are very careful with budgeting and scheduling and design might need to take a back seat a lot of the time. One exception to this rule is Valve. They have fairly large teams and release nothing but gems. I wouldn’t say Valve is an indie studio, but I think they embody the spirit. If it isn’t awesome, they won’t release it.”

However, Dylan Fitterer, the brain behind surprise smash-hit Audiosurf, believes it’s about scale rather than intent: “It just means games made on the cheap. I kind of don’t like that because many games can come under that definition and not be interesting at all. I’d rather think of indie games as those made through experimentation that tightly focus on a new concept. It seems to work out though because inexpensive games need to make their mark somehow. It won’t be with hordes of content or amazing polish, so it has to be with new gameplay.”

Edmund McMillen, one of the crazily inventive madmen behind Independent Games Festival grand prize-winner Gish, and currently working on Super Meat Boy and No Quarter, has a different take still: “Well, to me an indie game would be a self funded video game with a small team of 2-3 people where the designer(s) have complete control over the project in every aspect. I guess indie gaming would be the scene of people who are into playing those games.”

Vic Davis, aka CrypticComet, and responsible for perhaps our favourite turn-based strategy game of 2007, Armageddon Empires, and our favourite turn-based strategy game of 2009, Solium Infernum, has a more esoteric definition: “Indie means freedom pure and simple. It’s the freedom to be your own boss and chart your own course. It’s exhilarating frankly to have almost no constraints on you besides the consequences of failure. It’s the freedom the internet provides to cut out the middle man and own the customer yourself. It means that you can take risks that the big developers can’t afford to take. Indie to me means that you grab your surf board and ride the “Long Tail” as far as it will take you.”

Differing takes they may be, but a common belief shines through: freedom and control are more important than commerciality. McMillen is a stand-out example of that. This is, after all, a man who infamously devised a game called C*nt, a shmup centered around attacking monsterised, anthropromorphised ladyparts – purely because he could. “Indie development is still kinda all over the place – everyone has a different definition of what being indie means and what they believe indie games should focus on. We all seem to have very different goals, but I’d like to think we all have an understanding of what advantages we have over the mainstream being indie and use them. Basically I think we all try and take big risks when it comes to innovation, content and theme that a mainstream studio wouldn’t ever be ok with getting behind.”

Which brings up the issue of who that “we” is. Clearly, indie developers are scattered all over the world, but specific communities have sprung up. Perhaps the most interesting is the US fraternity that McMillen is a part of – also comprising folks like 2D Boy, hyper-profilic one-man experimental developer Cactus and designer/blogger Derek Yu (involved with indie faves Aquaria and Spelunky). Were you to visit, say, the Independent Games Festival at GDC, you’d find a lot of these guys hanging out together.

“I personally talk to all the hipsters in our little scene,” says McMillen. “I think it’s important as an artist to have an understanding of where everyone’s coming from. I’ve recently realized that the most valuable thing you can have in life is perspective, and that’s something you cant make up in your head without personal experience or a good understanding on how others view and understand things. It’s very inspiring to talk to other artists about their work. It’s a huge motivator to see others doing what I’m doing, it’s very validating to talk to someone with your same interests and bounce ideas back and forth, that’s probably why I enjoy working with so many different people.” That’s a profound difference between indie and mainstream gaming – ad-hoc communities coming up with a constant torrent of absurd and wonderful new ideas and egging each other on, as opposed to offices of desk jockeys slaving away a contracted project.

“I do feel like there’s a shared current we’re all drifting on” says Ron Carmel, “and there’s a sense of togetherness in being the underdogs of the game industry. Maybe one day we’ll overthrow EA and ActiBlizzard and a new generation of underdogs will come to kick our butts into extinction. That would make me happy. I recently found out that when EA started out, they were all about treating the game developer as an artist and giving them photo credit on the box, much like musicians being promoted as the stars by record companies. Goes to show you, everything has a half-life, and eventually, everything turns to lead.”

The other half of 2D Boy, Kyle Gabler supports the idea of a close-knit indie community. “: Almost all the indie developers seem to know each other, brought together by sites like TIGsource, indiegames, and the common desire to suffer together and hopefully make good stuff without cash. It’s like in the end of Speed when Keanu tells Sandra that they might just like each other because horrible situations bring people together. I got to go to Sweden last week to hang with some of the scary talented Swedish indie kids, and luckily our common indie goals and understandings to grow curly mustaches translates across all languages, races, and cultures.”

Still, while it’s tempting to think there’s this New Brat Pack of independent developers who hang out at all the right parties, indie is much, much bigger than that, made of very different people with very different attitudes and lifestyles. Take Vic Davis, who unlike the scattergun approach of a McMillen or Cactus, works solo on huge projects, far away from that US scene. “I honestly can’t imagine something like that. Hip is not a word that you would ever associate with me. I’m actually the closest you will get to anti-hip. I mean come on, I play war games, board games, still read comic books (they’re graphic novels!) and love to make Star Wars references even though I thought the last 3 films were pretty bad. Besides like somebody famous once said, I would never join a club that would have me as a member.”

Something else that differs from indie dev to indie dev is their ultimate intentions from their career, but what is shared is a love of making games. “Audiosurf has been selling really well and that’s been awesome,” says Dylan Fitterer, “but I’m not sure that kind of success is a useful goal. I was always happy to build Audiosurf even if nobody ever bought it.”

Edmund McMillen hasn’t yet enjoyed that kind of success, hence the upcoming Wii release of Super Meat Boy – but he doesn’t want to abandon his regular esoteric output. “At this point in my life I need to prove my worth and at least attempt to take a crack at a mainstream release. If I want to continue to make whatever I want, sadly, I need money to do so. Bringing my work to the mainstream might be the best way to fund my more ambitious and risky projects.

2D Boy, meanwhile, want to stay the hell away from the mainstream. “We both realize working for large enormo-cash studios would be a bad idea,” reckons Kyle Gabler, who was also partially responsible for the recently-revived Experimental Gameplay Project – itself the origin of World of Goo predecessor Tower of Goo, and which was instrumental in revealing indie to a larger audience. Gabler took a job at Maxis after the success of the EGP, but left soon after to found 2D Boy. “Limited resources have always forced us and other indie developers to be more creative, and to think really hard about everything that goes into a game. If we had “money” and “people” propping us up, we’d probably make a 3d platformer, and your guy has muscles, and angry face, and lots of angry polygons.” No interest in escalating the scale and scope of your games then? “No way,” says Ron Carmel, “that would be the kiss of death. The reason indie games can do well is because we DON’T try to compete with the big boys. We need to play a different game in order to win.”

“There’s always pressure to try and one-up yourself,” adds Gabler, “which might be smart to ignore. In the near future, we’re on a quest to return to our roots, and make some little toys Experimental Gameplay style that are small and fun, that have no ambition of being big and slick. We’ll post them online if they aren’t too horrible.”

Cryptic Comet’s Vid Davis feels similarly: “If anything I plan on mastering my tendency to slide into massive “scope creep” and tighten up my games. Armageddon Empires and my next game Solium Infernum are really massive undertakings for a one man team like me. I outsource the art and music but the design, coding and project management is a huge burden. AE had over 250 thousand lines of code without comments. Solium Infernum is already larger and I’m still working on the AI. The combined development time is going to be over 5 years. But in my opinion it’s the design that is going to sell my games. I make a real effort to offer artwork, illustrations and music that enhance the experience but in the end the goal is to stimulate the player’s brain. It’s the “one more turn” feeling that you have to evoke.”

Which brings up one of the other major issues around indie games: how do you let me people know about your game if you don’t have the promotional clout of a major publisher behind you? Well, ideally the internet does the work for you. “We did OK with just word of mouth.”, says Ron Carmel. “ We sold about 3,000 copies of the game as pre-orders and sales on our website have done really well for us and still bring in a good amount. But there have been three promotional events that were huge for us. One was Nintendo of America sending an email to everyone who has their Wii only saying “Hey, check out World of Goo!”. Another was the 75% off sale we had on Steam. And most recently, the MacHeist bundle. Each of those generated massive, massive sales and without them we would probably have sold about half the number of copies that we did.”

Edmund McMillen, meanwhile, tends to put in a bit more promotional elbow grease himself, but in characteristically oddball ways. “I try my best at promoting my work in anyway I can. Honestly I don’t know how important it is.. I just do it because it’s fun. Like that Hitler meat boy ad [see below] – of course I put it out because I knew people would pick up on it.. and being indie what other options do i have for self promotion? I have no money.. so how do I get an ad for my game out to the masses? I simply say if you don’t like the game you’re like Hitler and tada -people post our ad on their websites. Now at this point I have no idea if this will help sales – but I did it for the same reasons I make games, to entertain myself.”

Dylan Fitterer also relies on third-party promotion. “Audiosurf was spreading way beyond my expectations before it was on Steam, but then being featured there gave it a big multiplier. It’s a little fuzzy though because Steam brings extra value to games – not just exposure. For example, it’s usually not Steam that first exposes games to me, but I do prefer to buy them there. Also, it’s gotten hard to tell what to call third-party promotion. Online media coverage and online word of mouth are both blogs.” Cough. Which in turn feed major websites and magazines – and eventually good folk like you get to hear about these incredible little games.

Vic Davis has a slightly different approach. “It’s not that hard to stand out at all if you decide to seek out your own niche. If you want to make an iPhone or casual match 3/hidden object game then good luck with that. In my case, the space that I am competing in is like one of those old west ghost towns. Ten years ago there was a booming turn based strategy game genre. Today not so much. Turn based strategy games don’t fit the blockbuster business model with the arguable exception of the Civ franchise. My games are pretty complex and geeky though so my niche is even more restricted. But that’s my selling point and a way to stand out in the crowd. I’m going for the demographic that will read the manual eventually even if they are the type of player who first likes to sit down and just start clicking buttons.”

So, it’s simply an absurdly exciting and diverse time for the PC at the moment, and it’s the number one reason why the endless doomsaying about the PC’s future as a gaming platform is 100% wrong. But what brought about this new era of independent game-making? “I think people have grown bored of being force fed the same old shit from the same old people over the years,” opines McMillen. “My wife is an indie artist in the plush art scene and its having a similar boom these days as well. We live in a world where everyone has access to everything, at this point when you want to see a movie you have about 15 ways of doing so with a few clicks of a mouse. In a world where anyone can tap into the flood of mainstream crap with a click of the mouse people are desperate for something new, something fresh and exciting. Do you want to spend 50 bucks on the next WW2 shooter? Or do you want to play a game where you control a bloody chunk of meat? The indie scene has something to offer that the mainstream will never have, it has heart and for the most part its honest pure and untainted by money. Out of everything i think those are the qualities that bring people in.” Clearly, it also has developers capable of incredibly inspiring words.

Of course, there are practical reasons for the boom too. “I think it’s a combination of chance and opportunity” says Ron Carmel. “The opportunity is digital distribution. The chance is that 2008 was a huge year for indies. It saw a whole bunch of indie hits like Audiosurf, Braid, Eden, World of Goo, and Castle Crashers. Most of these games have been years in the making, it’s just chance that they all came out in the same year. So I’m guessing that this boom is smaller than people think. I don’t expect 2009 to be as big a year for indies as 2008, but I do think that there’s a growth trend in the indie scene, more people are entering the game industry by simply making games instead of getting game jobs. You can see that by following the number of submissions to the IGF over the years.”

Dylan Fitterer, meanwhile, points out another possible cause: “I see a lot of players asking how games run on netbooks rather than wondering which GPU features they have. Hardware advances and content quality have gotten less interesting. Content improvements don’t play to the strengths of gaming the way interactivity improvements do.” He’s right, you know. With almost any indie game, your PC’s specs are pretty much irrelevant. With a PC in every home, a flood of it-just-works games are inevitably going to pick up traction.

Guys like Dylan, like 2D Boy, Edmund McMillen and Vic Davis are changing PC gaming as we know it – evolving into something new and endlessly diverse, made from love and wonder rather than commerce. And yet, at the same time we’re going backwards – this a bigger, bolder return to the way home computers once were, when tiny teams free of publisher interference were releasing some new slice of crazy wonder every week. The PC is the only free format, and thank heavens these guys – and the many thousands of other independent developers – are making the best of that for us.

Developers featured in this article:

Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler, 2D Boy


World of Goo is their only game to date, but what an opening salvo it was. You should also check out Kyle Gabler’s Experiment Gameplay Project, in which the participants had to make a new game every 10 weeks. Sadly a lot of the creations from its original run are long-gone, but it’s now up and running again, with monthly competitions that have yielded some spectacular/spectacularly weird minigames.
More info


Edmund McMillen


Working with a vast array of collaborators, Edmund’s super prolific. Try everything from the experimental art of Coil to the bio-horror of C*nt or Spew to the sublime puzzle-platforming of Gish to the deeply personal, dreamlike Aether. Better yet, give the guy some money and order A Cry For Help, a CD containing 10 years of his splendid, inventive, offensive, charming work.
More info


Dylan Fitterer, InvisibleHandlebar


The muso-delighting MP3-playing racing/puzzle game Audiosurf is his only commercial work so far (which he continues to update and expand on a regular basic), but he’s got a host of smaller games behind him. Check out his 7-day Prototype games on his website, with titles including Sofa King Cool, Travis Must Die and Gothic Blocks.
More info

Vic Davis, Cryptic Comet


Post-apocalyptic strategy/trading card game (and RPS fave) Armageddon Empires was his first game as such, and in the last couple of months he’s been wowing PC gamers with the epic follow-up, Solium Infernum – which casts you as an archfiend trying to win control of Hell. You may have noticed Kieron mentioning it once or twice. Before that, he came up with a series of interactive tour guide programs know as TravelBrains. Oh, and he was also in the army. Don’t mess.
More info


Leaders of the pack: other indie superstars to watch

Jonatan ‘Cactus‘ Soderstrom is a whirlwind of games ideas, having put out more quickly-made, often highly surreal curious than you’ve had hot dinners. The Mondo Nation series is a good place to start, but pick and choose others from the many insane wonders at his site.

Cliff Harris of Positech is former Lionhead developer gone solo, and he’s now earning a crust from the splendid life-simulators Kudos and Kudos 2, political management epics Democracy and Democracy 2, and the upcoming, frankly /brilliantly/ titled Gratuitous Spaceship Battles. More at www.positech.co.uk

For something a little different, there’s one of the old guard of indie gaming, Derek Smart. He’s well-known for his outrageous levels of internet ire, and also for ridiculously ambitious projects such as the Battlecruiser series and the omni-battle title All Aspect Warfare.

Derek Yu is both designer and journalist – when he’s not revealing endless indie wonders to the world over at tigsource.com, he’s worked on two of the best indie games of the last few years, Spelunky and Aquaria.

Johnathon Blow is one of the most fascinating men in the entire games industry, and he most impressively put his money where his mouth was with the beautiful, moving Braid. He’s also created a bunch of highly experimental prototype games.

Petri Purho is best-know for his award-winning Crayon Physics games, but before that, he used to make a game a month. There are 23 of those available here.

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