[In this Gamasutra opinion piece, originally published in the February 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine, EIC Brandon Sheffield takes a look at the definition of an indie developer, noting that the line between small teams and big-budget studios becomes blurrier by the day.
It feels as though the game industry is in constant flux these days, which is part of what makes this an exciting place to work. For a while, that change had a lot to do with growing pains. Some folks used to (or still do) lament bloating budgets, huge teams, and giant marketing budgets. We longed for the time of the bedroom programmer.
Then it started to happen—small teams like The Behemoth were making console games on their own. Tiny dev shop Introversion Software was releasing its own titles on PC. Back then, there was a lot of discussion about who was indie, who wasn’t, and what indie meant.
Could The Behemoth be indie while releasing games on console, using external distribution? Many said no, at the time. Indie games had to be smaller, more independent.
Later, along came Steam, the App stores, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and Xbox Live Indie Games. Suddenly anyone could self-publish (or essentially be “published” by the service itself).
Likewise, self-publishing on browsers or Flash portals has gained widespread acceptance. Newer business models such as free to play, pay for items, or the “pay what you want” model also allow greater flexibility than ever.
This framework supports a new breed of indies, much less reliant on outside income or big publishers for survival. Small companies are also more nimble, which makes it easier for them to adapt to (or innovate) new trends. By and large, innovation is the purview of independence these days.
There isn’t a massive talent bleed from the triple-A game houses to the indie market, but it has gotten to the point where the idea of the bedroom programmer isn't such a rarity.
It’s still exciting to see indie successes, but it’s no longer a surprise. While big companies are slashing profits or trying desperately to catch up to the social space, the one-man project Minecraft
has sold over a million copies, most at 9.95 Euros each.
developer Markus Persson didn’t even integrate any social features. Could he have? Yes, and it might have made his game a bigger success. But he didn't need to spend ages figuring out his social strategy before he could deploy his game. Had he delayed it in the interest of assessing market conditions and building a social brand first, it’s unlikely that he’d be where he is today.
Who’s Indie Now?
Those old debates about who is indie and who isn’t now seem a bit odd. What's the difference between The Behemoth releasing Castle Crashers
on XBLA, and Mommy’s Best Games releasing Shoot 1up
received support and some QA from Microsoft, but when it comes to code issues and updates, the dev team is responsible. Shoot 1up
was released on XBLIG with no help from anyone—but in the grander scheme, both games are essentially published by Microsoft’s platform.
Who then, is indie? People often refer to Jon Blow and his seminal game Braid
as indie—is Blow more indie than The Behemoth because his team is smaller? Both Braid
and Castle Crashers
live on the same service. Does “indie” have a staff size limit? If so, what is it?
team began as one man, and is now seven, with aims to get larger. Did that team cease to be indie, as its only game now reaches beta? How about Team Meat—that’s pretty much just Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes with a bit of help. But their game has sold like gangbusters on XBLA proper—does this tarnish their indie cred?
Some refer to the indie spirit as a defining factor. There, Jon Blow fits the mold. He’s making unusual games for unusual people, with a spirit that often flies in the face of the traditional industry.
Where does ThatGameCompany come in, then? That team comes at games from a decidedly different direction, espousing ideals of experimentation with genre and development practice. But with a three-game Sony-funded deal, is it harder to call them indie?
A Rose By Any Other Name
Our terms and designations are failing us. We distinguish between types of games in order to help categorize our jobs, describe what we like, and as badges of honor.
The term "indie" is most often a drive for authenticity, which is a nebulous and subjective term. That's likely why it's so consistently debated. Perhaps it’s best to define “indie” as any company that’s independently funded, but that leaves a lot of triple-A developers eligible as well.
But why not? It’s clear that the lines between “indies” and triple-A studios are getting very blurry. Where does one end and the other begin, if they’re all operating in a very similar sphere? Facebook games are tiny, and often made by small groups of people, but I can’t foresee anyone calling them indie.
Then there are the IGF Awards. Minecraft
is nominated for several awards there—but it’s also nominated in the main Choice Awards competition. Is this a conflict? In the current game climate, I dare say it isn’t. Nowadays, one can be indie and compete with the “big boys”—especially when the big boys are looking to you for their next idea.
The term “indie” has lost its meaning as the scope of games has expanded. Maybe we need new terms—or maybe they're now irrelevant. What’s clear is that the opportunity for making games is wider than ever before, and indie or not, that can only mean good things.