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Levels of Independent Development, does your game match up?

"Indie" development seems to follow vague notions and aspirations. In this article, we discuss the different levels of independent game development, from creative control, down to the tech, and attempt to refine the definition of 'independent developer'

Slade Villena, Blogger

June 6, 2010

7 Min Read

It seems that everyone wants to carry the badge of "Indie".  

Whatever the hell that means.

First off, it's not an attitude.  It's not a clique.  It's not tight jeans, nor messenger bags, nor having to transport yourself on a technically-ridiculous bike, and having less than 3% body fat.  It's not your "style" neither.

(I mention the above because a lot of indie-poseurs seem to tie the hipster apocalypse with independent gaming as well......) 

Independent Development (I like to spell it out), at its core is an expressive process.  It is ambivalent, if not agnostic, to aesthetics, to style, and any personal machinations.  Style and aesthetics are products of the process, but not themselves the core.

The "Independent Game Developer" amplifies the core value of complete and absolute creative expression through game development, or at least strives for that ideal.  

Anything that impedes this expression on part of the artists, programmers and designers, should be washed away, kicked to the gutter, or mitigated through external means.  

I propose that games that carry the "independent" label must practice the following criterion. We live in this vacuous design space, with no terms or philosophies to guide us.  Its time that we set the terms straight. 

Why write this article?  I'm sick of developers tossing around the definition of "Indie", and come up with all these vague aspirations, presumptuous assertions, having to challenge them on such empty arguments about style and attitude, and more importantly, I'm sick of this turning into some sort of hipster-like clique.  I would like to open this debate, and get down to defining the terms and conditions that mark a game, and its developers, as 'Independent'; having the process itself being the fundamental quality, ignoring everything else that does not matter.


Creative Independence

If you, the game developer/s, have control over all creative content, narrative style, aesthetics, and have the freedom to express any of the above in your game, than you are creatively independent. This means you do not answer to "editorial control"; where people who are not directly involved in producing the game have a right to edit any piece of content.

So, does a game having a "Lead Designer" count as editorial oversight? Yes. However, if the lead designer is also part of the development process, and actually produces assets or code for the game, than that still follows this tier. 


Independence through Ownership

You, the game developer, own the intellectual property.  There are no if-ands-buts to this.  If a game is "sold" to another establishment, who has not partaken in the actual development of the game, than the game loses its sense of ownership to its developer.  "Selling" or trading or exchanging certain rights to distribution might count for this.  I'm not a lawyer, so a proper definition of independence through ownership must be defined in depth, by someone who knows law, before we can explore this further.

From my purview, as part of the expressive process, ownership assures the tier of creative independence, well after the game is made.

(Addition from Danny Day) : "The sole decision to *continue* development rests with you and your immediate team." 


Financial/Resource Independence

This one is going to hurt.  Does the Indie-Fund, illustrated by its "holders", offer an avenue for financial independence?  From their talk, they implied that they wanted no IP control nor IP ownership, in any way, shape nor form.  Instead, they wanted to offer resources that help a game grow with its developers.

In my opinion, that is the definition of financial independence.  The game itself, in its core development is supported through external means.  The agents distributing the resources, in this case, the Indie-Fund, do not want a direct hand in developing the game, and invest by confidence.  This also practices a non-editorial form of support.

Or, you can fund the game yourself.  Day-job => paycheck => hack game.

This also means your resources do not affect any authorial control.  The providers of the resource are there to support the games financial needs, without exercising any authority over the creative process at all.  I think that is a fair assessment for this tier. 


Technological Independence

I'd like to start by stating I am not a "tech elitist", even though I come from a game engines background.  Nor am I a tech evangelist. ( Although I think C and LiSP should rule the world of game engines....)

Anyway, this tier requires the game developers to practice the same creative independence in the technologies they use to make the game.  Example, building a game engine from the ground up, using API's that do not provide a complete game framework. 

Most "indie" driven games do not fit this tier. 

Why is technological independence important?  Similar to financial independence, the games technologies must not impede in the creation and development of the game.  This also means that every piece of code pumping through the game, has meaning and has a direct role in the game itself.  This requires developers to streamline their designs.

When technology starts dictating the grounds and terms and impedes in the creative process, than the technology itself is controlling your development.

Similarly, when a game developer has no knowledge of "whats going on under the hood", it blinds them to opportunities that they might miss.

As an example, a game development team from UCSC has encountered a technological hurdle that they can't really traverse.  Team Kubiniu has been using the free-version of Unity3D, and would like to develop more algorithms that are not really included as part of the SDK.  However, much of the source is closed to them, and they cannot access or modify the engine itself, which then subtracts from their capabilities. 

Does this mean that all flash games are no longer indie games?  Absolutely not.  It just means they are technologically dependent on Adobe, and are at their mercy.

(Added 9:23 AM June 7) The more I think about XNA, the more muddled XNA seems when it comes to technological independence.  It acts like a wrapper for the most part.  The core features "under the hood" are not expressed to the developer, without the developer performing feats of coding pyrotechnics. Example, my comrade in arms, Matvei Stefarov, developed a game in the XNA framework, but was not satisfied with the 3d model/mesh loader.  He ended up having to extend the library and its feature on his own.

Because of that, I believe XNA still gives the avenue for technological independence, since it is only a framework, abstracting most of the low-level code interacting with drivers and the operating system.


Historical Context, Noteworthy Cases

A while back (2009), I think a bunch of "indie" developers tossed a huge hissy-fit when PixelJunk Eden, developed by Q-Games, was allowed to enter the finals at the IGF.  I'm not sure about the core details, but I think the crew at Q-Games followed every tier mentioned in this article.  Can anyone provide more context about this?  (Hint Hint, Mr. IGF Chairman.  I think I asked a similar question to Simon Carless at PAX 2009, but I can't remember all the details he mentioned about the PixelJunk debacle) 


So why the tiers of independence?  I wanted them to be agnostic to all the fluff.  There are many games that practice forms of independence I mentioned above, but do not follow all of them.  Flash games are a prime example of this; its easy to develop, but you can't really work under the hood.  In that case, Flash games can be independent in everything else, but technologically, the team is dependent on an external authority. It's not fair to exclude them from the tiers of independence that they do practice.

And also under these terms, which we can refine, we allow games from the established studios to fit the definition of an independently developed game.  Just because they have all the money in the world, that doesn't really discount them from this kind of development process.


(Edit request from Luis Guimarães "Ok, overwrite Blizzard with Valve and everything is fixed") 

So, if in any case, Blizzard Valve follows all these tiers, would we count them as truly independent developers?  I think we should. 


I welcome discussion from the community.  This is not meant as a flame.  We can toss out all these machinations of cliquishness, aesthetics, and substitute them with meaningful definitions of expressive processing instead.  This list is much more of a draft, and not a constitution.... (yet.)

That way, we can know what is truly an independent game, and why. 

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