Avellone, Vlambeer, Introversion Talk Meaning Of ‘Indie’

Let’s try this again. Earlier this week, I posted the audio from a spur-the-moment indie megachat I put together during Rezzed, but its audio quality ended up a casualty of the fact that everyone at Rezzed never stops screaming. Never. The agony of existence. It is terrifying.

So as a (probably much better) alternative, I’ll be posting a transcription over the next few days. If I did it all in one go, the page would strike the bottom of the Internet and rupture its core (and, you know, take a billion years to read), so here’s part one. In it, Obsidian‘s Chris Avellone, Dreamfall‘s Ragnar Tornquist, Introversion‘s Chris Delay, Vlambeer‘s Rami Ismail, and Redshirt‘s Mitu Khandaker discuss the evolution of the “indie” scene in the gaming industry, the gulf between triple-A and smaller-scale development, and the way Kickstarter-empowered no-longer-triple-A developers like Obsidian and Red Thread are starting to bridge it.

RPS: To begin, indie is word that gets thrown around a lot in the gaming industry, but for each of you, what does it actually mean?

Tornquist: Independent? I don’t know, yet. I haven’t gotten that far. The most important thing for me is being able to show the game without worrying what anyone else is going to say afterwards. Being able to show broken builds and work in progress to people. That, right now, is the best thing about being indie.

Avellone: For me, it means the only people you really answer to are yourselves and the players.

It has nothing to do with team size. It has nothing to do with money.

Delay: Yeah, I’ll agree with that. The cool thing about indie is being able to have total control over what games you work on, when you release them, and all of that. But I think it’s developed another meaning as well, which is something to do with the idea of very small teams. There’s a lot of disagreement about that.

Tornquist: Yeah, absolutely. I would vehemently disagree about that.

[Everyone laughs]

Ismail: It’s interesting, because my perspective… You guys obviously have some background in the gaming industry before all of this. I just started being an indie studio, doing an indie studio. For me it has nothing to do with size or independence, because I just don’t know another way of making video games. For me, the core of indie is more about community and working with the people that you make your games for, but also working with other developers in a really open, sharing way. We do a lot for the community and the community does a lot for us. For me, that’s the thing I think about when I say “indie.”

It has nothing to do with team size. It has nothing to do with money. At some point I think it has nothing to do with working with partners, whether they’re a publisher or whatever. I think it’s about this weird sort of thing that’s there, where there are all sorts of people making things that I run into everywhere. I run into Chris [Avellone] at pretty much every event. I run into the Prison Architect guys every now and then. I haven’t run into either [Ragnar or Mitu] yet, but… It all feels really open and friendly. It doesn’t feel like a competition. It feels like a cooperation of all these people doing video games.

Delay: I think what you described there, though, is just the games industry.

Ismail: I know, but there’s this weird thing where… This is a really visible thing, in the indie scene.

Tornquist: You don’t just run into the developers of Call of Duty or Battlefield. They’re isolated, in a way. They’re brought out to do PR. I’ve worked on games like that. You don’t go to everything. You go where you’re supposed to go and meet who you’re supposed to meet and do the presentations where you’re supposed to be at. You don’t have the…

Avellone: They’re very targeted events.

Tornquist: Exactly.

Avellone: With very few variables… There are certain things that you’re never familiar with. Nathan, I’m sure you can’t ever feel those talking points being brought out again and again and again.

RPS: No, never. Every interview’s a snowflake. [laughter]

Avellone: Such a special snowflake.

Ismail: I would agree, though, that we’re friends with a lot of triple-A developers as well. It’s not as if the triple-A developer community is closed. It’s just that they’re not allowed to be that way publicly. And they have a lot of responsibilities. They have responsibilities toward shareholders.

Avellone: I think it goes back to who you’re answering to. The indie scene, I feel, is very much about… The community of developers is a different point to make. But it’s mostly you developing the game with your teammates. You work it out with them. But ideally it’s all about entertaining the player and making sure they’re having a good time. There’s really nobody else involved in that.

That sense of community and everyone wanting to help out… I think that’s what’s great about the indie community. I feel like you guys are more willing to share and help out with things and share experiences. In the traditional publisher model, I feel like there’s that paranoia. You can’t let any secrets get out. We can’t share any technology.

Ismail: It is our strength, as a community. We’re sharing and open. We talk to each other about the things we do, the experiences we have. It’s the only way that a one- or two-person team can survive in a world of huge studios and publishers.

Avellone: [To Mitu] One-person team. I am totally impressed.

Khandaker: To me… My background is similar to yours, Rami. I didn’t work in another game company before going indie. I just started making games. So for me, creative control is part of it. Also, being indie just means that I’m by myself in a little room and don’t see other humans. [laughter]

RPS: Is that where the community aspect of it comes in, though?

Khandaker: Absolutely. That’s why knowing other indies is so valuable. Admittedly, my situation is a little bit different, because I’ve got another indie developer, Positech Games, publishing the game I’m currently working on.

Delay: A publisher!

RPS: Traitor!

Khandaker: But an indie publisher! So a non-evil publisher.

Avellone: But you developed the game concept first, and then they were interested and they came to you?

Khandaker: Yeah, I pitched the game to them

Tornquist: A one-woman indie with a publisher, and we’ve got a huge team, so we can…

Delay: Indie is variety, isn’t it? There’s variety in all things. Valve’s an indie. They don’t have publishing contracts. They publish all their own stuff on their own network. Why don’t they call it that?

Ismail: I think in the end it’s also if you want to identify as indie. I’ve never heard Valve call themselves indie. At this point Notch has basically said that he doesn’t think of himself as indie. I’m not gonna say, “No, you’re indie! Dude, listen to me, you’re indie!”

Avellone: So what is the difference?

Delay: I don’t know.

Avellone: You’re like Socrates. I’ve got the questions… [laughter]

Tornquist: I think we’re not going to be talking about indie [as a distinction] for much longer. At some point in the future we’ll be game developers. That distinction is very concrete now because it’s a movement, right? As this grows bigger and the lines are blurred around what more people do… You guys are crossing that line all the time. You can say that you’re straddling both sides of the fence, but that’s what more and more people are going to do.

Ismail: It’s interesting, because if you look at indie as a thing, it started in around 2008, with the ascent of the indie developer. It kept growing, both in size but also in public perception. We’ve had IGF since, what…?

Delay: Oh, ages. Steam started shipping indie games in 2005. Xbox had a big explosion of indie around 2007 and 2008.

Ismail: Then what happened, obviously, is that as it started growing, more people started being interested in this. Indie has made this weird sort of professionalization, where it went from being people who make video games on small forums, making games in like three hours and throwing them out there as little experiments, and sort of like this… It’s almost super-experimental. “We just want to make games. We don’t want it to have anything to do with money.” Money was a dirty word. “Money, no, we don’t do money. We do games.”

In the last two years, you’ve seen this amazing movement, in which the indie developers that were young back then – the kids from those days that were making those experiments – and also the generation that I’m part of started to realize that at some point you kind of do need money. We started to professionalize a bit. You can see that.

Delay: Some of the richest game developers are in the indie scene. [laughs]

Ismail: It’s funny, because that’s a development that happened in, what, the last five years? Before that, that wasn’t true. Everybody knows the story of Cave Story, which is an amazing game, and what did it make until a few years ago? It made nothing. But it’s interesting for me that somebody like Jonatan Söderström, who was one of those experimental types, would make 150 games in a year, and then two years ago he decided, “I could use food.” [laughter] And he sat down and made Hotline Miami.

Delay: He could make 150 games in one year? That’s like one every two days.

Ismail: He would make games in an hour.

Avellone: Can I get some personal history on that? Like, did he purposefully make Hotline Miami just for the sake of [doing something bigger]?

Ismail: He met somebody that could focus him. And then together they worked on it.

Avellone: So he got a producer. I know I’m using a dirty word, but…

Ismail: Honestly, what he got was… He met this guy called Dennis Wedin. It’s basically the same story that Vlambeer has, where JW was the creative, chaotic mind, and then he met me. Jonatan and Dennis are sort of a similar story.

Avellone: So he acted as a funnel and a channel for, “Let’s focus on this idea first. I like what you’re doing here, but before you worry about all of this stuff, let’s go down this route, get that developed, see how that feels.”

Ismail: Yeah, we just fight over stuff. [laughter]

Avellone: But you finished it. That’s the most important aspect of management. That’s good.

Ismail: We tried to sort of figure out a way to make the projects that are worthwhile into something. That’s what Vlambeer is, that’s what Dennaton is. I think that’s an interesting development in indie. You see a lot of people making this jump from making little experimental things to taking those experimental things and exploring them all the way.

RPS: It’s interesting to see where it came from, too, because games are one of the only mediums that I can think of that started as a commercial enterprise. From very early on, it was about making money. I think the other side of indie, at least as we know it, is as a counterculture. And so initially, those people making games that were free, they were doing it because, “No, I don’t want to be one of those guys asking for money.” Basically taking a stand against conventional wisdom, a portion of gaming’s DNA.

Tornquist: It’s not a virtue anymore. The indie scene is self-calibrating. In the beginning, I think you’re right, but there’s an evolution there from being that counterculture – “We’re going to go in the face of big publishers and triple-A and do something creative and different.” Now it’s maturing into… It’s okay to make money. We celebrate the people who do. And that’s fine.

Khandaker: It’s not also the only answer, right? It’s okay to still be as counterculture as you want to be.

Tornquist: But people aren’t saying things like, “Oh, they’re sellouts, because they’re massive successes.” It’s celebrated.

Ismail: You’re all sellouts as far as I’m concerned. [laughter]

Delay: Actually, back in 2006, we got that. People said that we weren’t indie anymore because we’d signed a deal with Valve. Which is hilarious, because now Steam is the place for the indie scene. Back then we were like number two, I think. Darwinia was number two. So it was really early on. “You shouldn’t be in the IGF! You aren’t indie!”

Khandaker: I think maybe I just take exception to thinking of it as an evolution into trying to go down a commercial route with indie. It’s not that that is a natural place for it to go. I think it’s more about it opening up. Don’t get me wrong – personally I’m making Redshirt as a commercial endeavor, and I’m lucky enough that I have an indie publisher and I’ve been able to do that. But for plenty of people, indie is a really important space in which to be able to do it as [creative expression].

Ismail: The motivations are also an interesting thing, because there are indies making games just because they need to survive. There are indies making games because they want to make the game. There are indies making games as a political or social statement. Here, we’ve got games about shooting airplanes on one end. We’ve got games about running prisons. We’ve got games about being afraid about being stood up for a date on the other end. There’s this amazing spectrum.

Avellone: I just think that when you take the economics… I don’t know if it’s necessarily a stigma, but when I hear about someone doing a game for a political reason, I feel there’s a different motivation going on there that’s not quite as stigmatized. And also, if you’re just doing a game because there’s a game concept you wanted to do, that feels like… If you happen to generate money while you’re doing that, if you can survive and keep doing that, that seems to me…

Delay: But in the triple-A industry, they’re not doing it. They’re not exploring the possibilities of [developing for other reasons]. They look and they say, “You know what’s really popular? First-person shooters.”

Ismail: The economics of that are really simple. It costs millions and millions of dollars to make a game like that.

Avellone: And the worst part is, it’s not even the actual development costs. The development costs, $20 or $30 million, are insane – and that’s on the small end – but then there’s the marketing budget, which is just fucking insane. Audio and QA, oh my fucking god. That’s more money than I could ever dream of seeing in several lifetimes.

Ismail: So that’s the thing. They cannot take a risk.

Avellone: No, they have to be established franchises. Game mechanics we’re comfortable with.

Ismail: Of course, we’re right at the start of a new console generation right now. You’re seeing some new IPs, but all of those… They’re “new,” some are fresh, but if you look at them, they’re still within the space that we’re comfortable with.

Avellone: They have familiar elements. “Oh, that’s kind of like that game.”

RPS: But that kind of brings us to the main reason I selected each of you specifically. Chris and Ragnar, you’re both examples of people with long histories in triple-A who’ve made the jump into indie development. Your games straddle the line, too. The production values and team sizes definitely aren’t as “indie” as some.

Ismail: Triple-indie.

Tornquist: Triple-I? [laughter]

RPS: Triple-I sounds like an Apple product, so maybe not that.

Avellone: Yeah, triple-indie. The triple-indie forum… [more laughs]

RPS: So you guys shrunk down to do smaller productions that are more creatively oriented via Kickstarter. Does part of that come from the fact that you couldn’t explore a lot of the things that you wanted to in triple-A?

Tornquist: Yes. Absolutely. I think that… We’ve both been in sort of traditional game development, the publisher-developer model, for a long time. I’m speaking for you now, Chris, as I usually do. [laughter]

Avellone: That’s fine, I’m fine with that. I mean, if I could choose anyone to speak for me…

Tornquist: Well, but I mean… I have experience. I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of freedom. I think you have too, in the past, even with our sort of traditional model, being able to make the games that we wanted to make. But that ended. It’s an economic situation where the publisher has to make more and more safe bets. It used to be less like that, but now it’s to the point where it gets in the way.

Avellone: I think the most memorable products that I’ve seen studios make are ones that were under the radar, but still in a larger studio. For example, Fallout wasn’t being carefully watched at Interplay. They pay attention to what’s going on – “Oh, it’s a GURPS project. Oh, now it’s the Fallout project.” – but it didn’t get as much attention as some of the other ones. They did a lot of stuff that was under the radar. Then, eventually, when it erupted, it had all these new concepts about it, but it was because it wasn’t being watched or controlled quite so much. I think sometimes that’s not such a bad place to be.

Planescape was very much the same way. “Baldur’s Gate is coming out. There’s some Planescape thing too, but screw that.” It was a fantastic situation to be in. Ideally, being out on our own, talking directly to the players – “Is this the kind of RPG you’d like to see? Let’s discuss the mechanics. Let’s discuss the narrative” – that stuff is a lot more freeing and liberating, without having some other person to answer to, who may not understand all those different mechanics, and they have a different model for how they want it released or how they feel things should be. Eventually you have to answer to the players no matter what, when you make a game. I would much rather make a smaller, more focused game, dealing just with the players.

Delay: It’s been interesting to me, always. The film industry has somehow gotten around this problem. They have equivalent things going on, but they do manage to produce massive blockbuster films which are not just another assembly-line.

Ismail: Well, if you listen to the people in the movie industry, they would not agree with you. I’ve been reading a lot of interviews lately about a lot of big studio executives saying, “This model is unsustainable. We’re all going to crash and burn.”

Delay: Some of these problems exist, but the movie industry is not trapped in the same way, the same as triple-A video games.

Tornquist: There are a lot of really creative movies, and perhaps not daring, but at least they’re trying to do something more than simply deliver a product. There are a lot of products, but there are a lot of exciting ventures as well.

Delay: Yeah, exactly. It seems like taking largely unknown directors and giving them things like Batman. That’s a huge budget, and they have so much confidence in this one guy that they let him…

Tornquist: Part of it is how established that system is and how controlled the process is. Yes, they can allow that creative freedom, because everything else is so set in stone, the way they work. I think our industry hasn’t matured enough for that, maybe.

Delay: Yeah. The idea is that there’s always a director and a producer, two different roles. The director’s there to dream and keep the vision together.

Tornquist: And the producer’s there to fire the director if things aren’t working out. [laughter]

Check back soon for part two, in which we discuss comparisons to Hollywood, potential unfairness when larger developers like Obsidian use Kickstarter, why Steam Greenlight really needs improvement, and responsibility to fans. 


  1. AlwaysRight says:

    The recording was probably salvageable, run it through an expander gate to get rid of the noise then compress it to level out the peaks, sort out the stereo image then ‘hard-knee’ it to get the volume maxed, save it as a better file type (not aiff) and Bobsyauncle!

    Might do that for you when I get home (if the miniature defecating dictator allows me the time).

    • lowprices says:

      That’s a terrible thing to call your wife/husband/partner.

      • Stochastic says:

        I can’t tell if you were being sarcastic or not, but I think he was referring to his infant child.

        • lowprices says:


          But seriously, sarcasm can be hard to detect in writing, but I refuse to add emoticons to denote I’m joking on arbitrary moral grounds.

    • buzzfocus07 says:

      my best friend’s mother makes $70/hour on the internet. She has been unemployed for eight months but last month her pay check was $19460 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on this web site WEP6.COM

      • Cloudiest Nights says:

        Your mom’s an indie developer?! That’s insane…

  2. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    Great! I tried to listen to the interview when you first posted it, but I couldn’t understand half of what was said, and after ten minutes I just gave up.

  3. lowprices says:

    Even amongst all the great looking games and the talk of exciting times for indies and so forth, my favourite part of Rezzed has been the deep affection Ragnar Tornquist and Chris Avellone have shown for each other in the panels. Somebody needs to get them to collaborate on a game, or at least kiss each other where we can all watch.

    • AlwaysRight says:

      I would be interested in both of these eventualities.

    • Dezmiatu says:

      From the various Rezzed talks, it seems like all the developers have respect and affection for each other, except when it involves Dean Hall and his pinpoint focus on his own game. Or maybe I’m reading too much into my own annoyance with Dean Hall.

      • nindustrial says:

        He’s doing great work, but I definitely got that from him too.

      • Josh W says:

        He’ll be better when he finishes it. I notice that once developers have one or two games under their belt, and journalists and people have played it and are saying things that they’ve been trying to say for a while, just reading them from the game, they start to chill out a lot and start talking about other people’s games again, unless they get sucked into some heavy production/studio running job and start going “I don’t have time to play games any more”.

        I imagine it’s like wanting to finish your sentence, except that sentence is 4 years long.

  4. zain3000 says:

    Thanks for posting the transcript… I much prefer reading interviews to hearing them. Not that I mind Tourquist’s dulect tones, mind you.

  5. Paul.Power says:

    The part about making money reminds me of something Terry Pratchett said once about what every true writer craves: a lot of readers and a big cheque. That idea of producing games that have popular appeal (by being enjoyable and entertaining) but without being cynical or exploitative, insulting the intelligence of the player is a worthy goal that many indies already follow and should continue to follow.

  6. joshg says:

    RPS: It’s interesting to see where it came from, too, because games are one of the only mediums that I can think of that started as a commercial enterprise.

    Pretty sure that’s not true, if you look back far enough. The very first games were things developed by people borrowing extra time on mainframes late at night when no one was getting Real Work done. eg. Spacewar, Adventure. These things came before the arcade Pacmans and Atari home systems.

    • Shuck says:

      Yeah, the (arguably) first video game, made in 1947, may have had commercial intentions in mind, since it was patented, but there were a good few years before anyone was producing anything intended for sale. Also: film. That was commercialized from the start.
      link to en.wikipedia.org

  7. Premium User Badge

    Earl-Grey says:

    Shame about the audio quality, I like hearing the titterings of the hivemind nodes.
    Hey, Hivemind, How about reviving the Rock Paper Sexcast?
    It’ll be different without Kieron or Quinns, but I’m sure it would be delightfull.

  8. arccos says:

    Meanwhile, Game Informer’s July issue has an opinion piece from Alex Hutchinson, creative director for Ubisoft Montreal. He’s almost whining about how indie doesn’t really exist, large developers are just as progressive and innovative as indie developers, and iterative power fantasy sequels are the most important segment of the games industry. All in the same breath!

    I thought he was writing it somehow ironically, at first, but I don’t think that’s case. It’s also ironic that someone who worked on a game about the American War for Independence doesn’t seem to understand what “independent” means.

  9. ffordesoon says:

    “Yeah, exactly. It seems like taking largely unknown directors and giving them things like Batman. That’s a huge budget, and they have so much confidence in this one guy that they let him…”

    The interesting thing about that point is that I don’t think movie studios have “confidence” in people like Christopher Nolan or Joss Whedon. I mean, they did, obviously, but the interesting thing to me is that the profit margins of blockbuster movies have stabilized to the point where executives feel comfortable risking a chunk of change on names that aren’t as bankable (or, to be fair, as expensive), but might turn out a more creatively interesting product. Some executive had the bright idea that blockbuster movies are always going to make a certain amount of money anyway, so why not give them to more interesting filmmakers?

    Which actually puts those filmmakers in a similar place to the one Avellone mentioned the game industry was in during the 90s, where the executives front the money and then kind of stop interfering until the thing is done.

    That’s an overly simplistic reading, obviously – Hollywood is still essentialy conservative about this stuff. But there is no way in the world Michel Gondry would’ve been handed The Green Hornet ten years ago. Say what you will about the result, but it simply wouldn’t have happened a decade ago.

    • jrodman says:

      Maybe I’m misunderstanding all of this, but I read it as Hollywood is more aware of the risks of recurring mediocre product. Than the games industry.

      That’s a scary thought.

      • Shuck says:

        Hollywood has had a much longer time to figure out ways of avoiding risk, and has elaborate structures in place to do so. (And yet, they’re still often quite bad at it.) The game industry is becoming increasingly risky as development costs relative to audience size increase due to improvements in hardware. (Whereas technological improvements in the film industry – besides sound and color – have led to lowered costs.)

        • jrodman says:

          Which is interesting, because they could definitely have led to lowered costs for games as well, but they haven’t.

          • Nixitur says:

            Yes, the costs of getting the same level of fidelity decreases, but the costs of getting the best possible fidelity increases.
            Processing power and thus the limits of technology increase exponentially and I’m guessing the decrease of costs just can’t keep up.

    • Shuck says:

      “risking a chunk of change on names that aren’t as bankable”
      By “names” you mean the directors? Because with a couple exceptions, directors don’t sell movie tickets, actors do. And those movies had bankable actors. It’s enough that the directors just seem to know what they’re doing, as movie making, especially big-budget movie making, has a strict process by which every element is scrutinized before production even begins. Sometimes, if a director has proven their commercial worth and/or if the producer believes in them, they’ll be given some leeway (I imagine Joss Whedon has a lot more freedom on the Avengers sequel), but normally everything is checked at every stage to make sure it adheres to the right formulas and appeals to audiences in the right ways. (Audience testing helps with that.) Blockbusters still represent too much of a financial risk to take real chances, even though the profit margins are better than with games.

      “it simply wouldn’t have happened a decade ago.”
      Oh, but it did. There was another green superhero movie directed by an art-house director called Hulk. And this is just after a wacky b-horror movie director was given the “Lord of the Rings” franchise and a pile of money.

      • ffordesoon says:

        Fair points. As I said, I was absolutely oversimplifying things.

        In re “bankable” names: you’re right, actors are far more bankable. Poor choice of words. “Established” might have been better.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      “But there is no way in the world Michel Gondry would’ve been handed The Green Hornet ten years ago. Say what you will about the result, but it simply wouldn’t have happened a decade ago.”

      The Wachowski brothers got to make The Matrix (1999) based on the strength of Bound.

      • jrodman says:

        “The Wachowski brothers got to make The Matrix (1999) based on the strength of Bound.”

        And how I wish they hadn’t been engaged in that enterprise for the next N years.

  10. Mario Figueiredo says:

    The indie industry is becoming too self-aware for my taste. The moniker was actually created by the market to define a subset of the gaming industry, and yet today we hear more indie developers talking about what means to be an indie than we do gamers, journalists or any studious person; The only three kinds of people I would trust an opinion on the matter.

    This to me seems to indicate being an indie has become too cool of a thing that eventually motivates self-affirmation. I’m an indie!

    With all the respect I have for the names in this discussion, I think at some point we stopped being objective in the need for a definition and started becoming romantically involved with the word. By we, I mean both the industry, journalists and gamers. And that emotional involvement is ruining any hopes of indie retaining any meaning in the future.

    The fact that an “independent film” is an easily recognized thing that doesn’t require truckloads of BS about it is ironic, considering the fact this first part of the discussion ends with parallels to the movie industry illustrating how immature the video games industry still is.

    An independent developer is a developer that doesn’t report to anyone during the whole creative process. There’s nothing romantic about it. No higher purpose, no secret sauce worth debating over and over and over again in self-congratulatory tones that permeate what is quickly starting to become a yellow journalism filled news media.

    • Baines says:

      Yes, “indie” in video games has come to mean a vague group of people defined by feeling, with no real consensus.

      In the megachat, Delay points out that Ismail’s two paragraph definition of “indie” is just describing the games industry in general.

      Something else I notice is that the megachatters focus on commercial indie. They may be doing it in defense of selling their own games, but their definition of indie seems to really start with commercial indie. Thinking about it, what is considered the “indie scene” by many seems to really be defined by commercial indie. Cave Story might get a passing mention by people, but almost always the focus is on commercial games. Decades of innovative free games don’t matter. It is Braid that gets the credit as the father of the “indie game scene”. Commercial games like Aquaria and Gish got early notice. Now it is games like Minecraft and Fez. Free games are increasingly excluded even from consideration. They just aren’t part of the definition of “indie game” any more.