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On 'Hobbyists' vs. Indies - why I don't call myself 'Indie'

I share my thoughts on the overuse of the term 'Indie' and how many hobbyists and non-professionals class themselves as Indie, causing confusion with more established studios, generally with higher production values.

Martin Caine, Blogger

February 27, 2013

5 Min Read

[I share my thoughts on the overuse of the term 'Indie' and how many hobbyists and non-professionals class themselves as Indie, causing confusion with more established studios, generally with higher production values.]

I see hundreds of developers these days using the 'Indie' label and personally I feel they're creating confusion by grouping themselves with much more established studios with much higher production values. It's something I've been wanting to comment on for a while and here I'll state my personal opinion and I ask those reading to comment if you agree or disagree with what I have to say.

First of all, I personally consider myself to be a hobbyist. I have learnt to develop games in my free time (alongside having a full time day job (OK, I work in game development for TickTock Games but that's unrelated to my free time endeavours) and a larger than average family) and I work on my own games in whatever free time I can find.

The problem is the way in which the general public (and your gaming audience) percieve the word hobbyist. If you get told a hobbyist game developer has made an awesome new puzzle game it immediately sets expectations in your mind that it's made by some guy (sorry ladies but it's a sad fact that a VERY high percentage of game developers these days are men) in his spare time who might be a complete beginner (or on the other hand might be a vastly experienced game developer).

This is why I believe many other hobbyist developers use the 'Indie' label as it sounds a little more 'professional' and sets expectations a little higher (and potentially gets you more exposure). I'm also guilty of referring to myself (or rather Retroburn Game Studios) as being an 'Indie' too for this same reason. It's all about building a brand and managing expecations of your audience.

I'm totally fine with that but I do feel like there is a need for a sub-class of Indie or an entirely new classification for those who haven't yet made the switch to full time (which for me I think is the point where you jump from being a hobbyist to being an Indie (though technically if it's paying the bills you're a professional at that point, earning your living from developing games)).

A perfect example of this hobbyist-to-indie divide is an argument I was following on Twitter recently about the PS4 being inaccessible to 'Indies'. Many of my peers believe they should be allowed access to next-gen consoles, the problem is most of their games simply aren't good enough. 

It's something that no developer likes to hear but it's a fact that there are bad games out there, even in the AAA world of game development there are absolute flops which cost thousands or millions or pounds (I'm British) to develop and fail to see a return due to bad game design or a massive lack of marketing on launch.

Another example is the XBLA to XBLIG divide, there are a few duds on XBLA but overall those games are MUCH higher quality than the vast majority of XBLIG titles. I agree there are a handful of games on XBLIG that would be worthy of carrying the XBLA banner and I'm sure some of those guys are on Microsoft's radar for the next Xbox anyway.

XBLA is a very exclusive club though, Microsoft only release one or two titles each week and they control the entire process very closely. You're using their brand in your game as an officially licensed XBLA game and they want to ensure quality levels are at expected levels. It's also supposed to be fairly expensive to become an XBLA licensed developer.

PSN though is already Indie friendly! You can sign up and become a developer pretty easily, show Sony your great game that you want to release on PSN (or Minis) and get developing. Now comes the point where the hobbyists pipe up, to develop for PS3, Vita, or now PS4, you'll need a dev-kit. These aren't cheap but they're also not stupidly expensive.

The cost of a dev-kit will be made back from your first few thousand sales on PSN. You have to have faith in your game and believe that you'll make the money back post-release. I know many hobbyists (myself included) are working on virtually no budget, so laying down a considerable amount of money from your personal savings on your game that's still months away from release can be a little daunting but it's worth it, if your game is good enough!

This is one of the things that I think separates Indies from hobbyists. Indies can not risk failure, you're doing it to make money (it's a fact, we need money to afford to live the life we want) and you want your game to be a success, make back your investment and make some money for personal use and to fund future development.

Hobbyists can afford to fail, we generally have lower expectations because we're not relying on the income from the games and we've learnt to develop on a shoe-string budget already anyway. It'd be awesome if our games succeed and we make money from them to fund future game development but we'll continue to develop more games even if we only sell a few hundred copies.

So in my eyes you're only Indie if you're making money from your games and you're able to invest in the future of your games and your company as a result of that. If your games are making money you know there's a market for them and you're making something people are interested in playing. The vast majority of games on Apple's App Store and the likes of XBLIG I would say are made by hobbyists.

I won't go in to the 'top end' of the Indie scale. There are many studios out there, some with hundreds of employees who're still classed as being Indie due to not being controlled by a publisher or platform holder but I'm at the bottom end and I hope to be able to proudly call myself an Indie one day (without thinking to myself that I'm still a hobbyist).

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