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August 22, 2012

What makes a game indie: a universal definition

I’ve been content to stand on the sidelines of the “what is indie” debate for a number of years now, satisfied that whatever the outcome, it wouldn’t really matter.

I no longer think that. When a multi-million-dollar game with a team of nearly 50, created with the backing of a major publisher, can get into an “indie” bundle with nothing more than a collective shrug of indifference, the indie community is in deep trouble. This article is an attempt to address a root cause of the problem.

“Indie” is not beyond hope

There is power in a definition. The indie community has had ample opportunity over the years to define itself, to shape its own boundaries. But at some point, it seems we all just gave up on reaching a common, workable definition of “indie.”

Earlier this year, certain games journalists essentially declared the term dead, or at least so incoherent that it doesn’t matter anymore. This process heated up with a Eurogamer article quoting numerous developers providing largely incompatible definitions of “indie,” then came to a head shortly thereafter with Nathan Grayson’s announcement that “the word ‘indie’ has become effectively meaningless.” And now, the carrion birds are circling.

The problem is, “indie” isn’t actually dead. Not just yet. Take the Grayson piece, for instance. He seems to confuse denotation with connotation:

Indie is cool. Indie is hip. Indie is smart, chic, and sexy. Indie isn’t pretty, but it gets the job done. Indie is down-to-earth, the work of tireless blue collar DIY craftsmanship. Indie is pretentious, a haven for over-inflated egos and introspection with all the depth of a sun-dried puddle. Indie is big on head-in-the-clouds dreaming, but it crashes and burns in terms of execution. Indie is mechanically sublime – not a wasted input or animation. Indie is the future. Indie is stuck in the past.

That’s 100% connotation there; it has nothing to do with the core meaning of the word. If I were to say, “Michael Bay movies are stupid; Michael Bay movies are exciting; Michael Bay movies are well-produced; Michael Bay movies are trash,” at no point am I actually defining what Michael Bay movies are. To the contrary, I’m just saying random things about them, throwing out a word salad of tangential associations.

People can have different opinions about the category “indie games” without disagreeing on what indie fundamentally is. As we’ll see below, a significant chunk of the definitions indie developers have advocated for are merely connotative, and pose no obstacle to coming up with a definition that has some actual substance.

Toward a good definition

Everyone has an opinion on what “indie” means; contrary to what the articles above seem to suggest, however, not all of those opinions are equally valid.

We define words for practical reasons: to be able to easily categorize things with similar qualities, and to delineate the boundaries of those categories. Defining a word is not an opportunity to be a special snowflake, or to show just how badly you want to get rid of the star-off machine. Definitions have to make useful distinctions, or else they serve no purpose.

Developers seem to have a hard time understanding the collective nature of this enterprise. We’re a group used to coding, where we sit by ourselves and name variables day in and day out. Ultimately, what we call the variables doesn’t really matter, so long as we can remember what they do. They’re just placeholders for a fixed, largely arbitrary meaning that we define on a whim according to our individual needs.

So perhaps it isn’t surprising that every developer seems to have their own, self-serving definition of “indie.” Developers with little money insist that it means “a poor developer living on Ramen noodles”; developers who work with publishers insist on a definition that conveniently leaves out “independent of publishers.” It’s time to demolish these transparently flawed definitions and move toward something that benefits the community as a whole.

What Indie Isn’t

In the interests of helping narrow the field a bit, let’s reject some of the untenable definitions people have been bandying about.

6) “An indie game is a game made with a small budget.”

This is perhaps the least objectionable of the bunch, but I’d argue that it still fails as a proper definition. To begin with, it confuses connotation with denotation. Many–if not most–indie games have a small budget, it’s true, but that’s a consequence of eschewing the financial support of publishers. It’s a symptom of being independent, in other words, not the root cause.

Let’s try a simple thought experiment: Bob and Jim are friends. Bob is an artist and designer; Jim is a programmer. They decide to take their meager savings and make a game together. They work seven days a week, living off the cheapest food they can and avoiding any semblance of a social life. They use free tools and royalty-free sounds and music. Even then, they are barely scraping by. In the midst of development, Jim wins the lottery! They continue developing the game between the two of them using the exact same methods as before, but now can pay themselves enough money to eat well and occasionally go out with friends.

Question: did their game suddenly stop being indie when they got that influx of cash? Definitionally, the answer has to be “no”: their development process didn’t change. The game continued on its previous trajectory. If the answer were “yes,” then we’d have to be prepared to jettison every game that has a successful Kickstarter out the indie airlock.

Now, don’t get me wrong: a big budget can certainly impact the way in which a game is developed. “Can”–it doesn’t have to. Budget size is, at best, a factor to be considered; as the core definition of indie, however, it is a red herring.

5) “An indie game is any game made by an indie developer, and an indie developer is any developer that is independently owned and operated.”

This definition has two parts and a world of problems. For one thing, it’s massively over-inclusive. Infinity Ward, for example, wasn’t owned by Activision until after it shipped Call of Duty back in 2003. Under this definition, Infinity Ward was an indie studio back when it developed CoD because it was independently owned and operated, thereby making Call of Duty an indie game.

In case that doesn’t give you pause, here are some other studios that are independently owned and operated: Ubisoft, Epic, Valve, and Bethesda. These companies are so big that they publish other studios’ games, own the distribution platforms other studios use to publish games, and/or flat-out own other studios. Calling them indie is like calling Exxon Mobil Corp. a gas station.

There are still more problems with this definition. Regardless of whether “independently owned and operated” is a sufficient criterion for indie (it isn’t), one cannot consistently, sensibly determine whether a game is indie by reference to its studio. Many independently-owned studios take different tacks with each game. One game might be a contract job for a publisher or another studio, while the next game might be their own independent work.

Suppose for a moment that Fictitious Studios–an independently owned and operated game developer–takes on a job from EA creating a first-person shooter. The game is called Modern Duty: Call of Warface: The Gunnining. It’s derivative tripe, sure, but they need to keep the lights on and the air conditioners running. EA gives Fictitious millions of dollars, Fictitious hires a huge team, and they begin to build the game under EA’s close supervision.

EA Marketing interferes constantly during development. Game mechanics are cut to add new graphical flourishes; whole sections of the game have to be remade every few weeks to add in cut scenes at EA’s whim. Finally, the exhausted studio launches the game. They’re not happy with it, but that job allowed them to survive while they plan their next project: a platformer with a time/physics gimmick and black silhouette graphics, with a central metaphor about the alienation of man in modern society.

Two questions: (1) Is this studio indie? (2) If so, does that make Modern Duty: Call of Warface: The Gunnining indie? If you answered “yes” to both of these questions, congratulate yourself: you just killed indie games.

4) “An indie game is a game where the IP is owned by a developer that is independently owned and operated.”

This has all of the same problems as the definition above it. Name a huge, multi-million dollar developer, and I’ll show you a developer that is independently owned and operated, with ownership of its own IP. Ubisoft, Epic, Valve, and Bethesda–all of them are indie under this definition. This definition is worse than useless.

3) “An indie game is a game that innovates.”

This definition provides a great example of confusing connotation with denotation. It mistakes a thing commonly ascribed to indie games with the definition of indie games themselves. Michael Bay movies are frequently loud and shallow; however, “loud and shallow movies” is not the definition of “Michael Bay movies.” Likewise, though many high profile indie titles are known for innovating, “innovative games” is not the definition of “indie games.”

This definition is also much too vague, or else too overinclusive. Every game ever created that wasn’t just a straightforward clone of something else did something different. Whether or not that difference was “innovation” is entirely subjective, and not a firm foundation for defining a category of games.

Finally, this definition is ahistorical: it completely casts aside any pretense of maintaining a connection to the word’s origins in “independent.” Given the source for this particular definition, I also feel obliged to point out that the omission of “independence” seems a touch self serving.

2) “An indie game is a game that was made with love.”

This definition, too, suffers from a variety of problems. It suffers from the same ahistorical problem as the definition above, as well as the fact that it’s really really vague. Made with “love”? Could you imagine having to determine whether a game gets into the IGF or Indiecade based on that standard? We could guess at what “love” means here, perhaps, but the fact that we have to guess at all is clearly a problem.

Even worse, this definition sets forth a standard that is completely unverifiable. It depends entirely upon the motives of the creators. How, exactly, does one determine whether a game was “made with love”? Must we sit down and interview the members of every team that develops a game and ask them? What if only 50% of the team says “yes”? What is the threshold for determining that a team possessed sufficient “love” while creating the game?

The best case I can make for this definition is that it means “the developers put a lot of time and care into developing the game,” but this puts us in an ugly position. Either everything is indie, or we have to go around assuming–without any real evidence–that certain developers who poured months or years of their lives into developing a game didn’t really care about what they were doing that whole time. That’s a pretty nasty assumption to make, no matter how you feel about a game.

In short, this definition is a muddled mess that could never be put to any practical use. It’s impossible for me to imagine that the people who say things like this are really trying to think of something practical and workable–it seems they’re just offering a sound bite that they think will sound good in the gaming press. Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing that any self-respecting games journalist would treat an answer like this as a serious contender for the meaning of “indie game” in the first place.

1) “An indie game is a game that has the indie spirit.”

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard this one, despite the fact that it is probably the worst definition of a word ever offered in recorded human history.

Everyone, please listen up for a second here, because I am about to invoke a general principle that applies in all situations, not just with the word “indie”: you cannot define a word using that same word in the definition. Suppose I were to tell you that I bought a brand new Thingymazoozle. “What is a Thingymazoozle?” you might inquire. Suppose that I were to reply, “A Thingymazoozle is a thing with the spirit of Thingymazoozle.” You might rightly wonder if I had sustained some kind of traumatic brain injury.

Saying that indie games are “games with the indie spirit” is about as helpful as saying that a Thingymazoozle is “a thing with the spirit of Thingymazoozle.” It doesn’t actually mean anything, because you haven’t yet defined the word you’re using as the crux of the definition. You’re just spitting the same word back at the person. Stop it.

What Indie Is (Independent of Publishers)

So now that we’ve cast aside the most common unsatisfactory definitions, let’s lay a foundation for a definition that is actually useable by–and useful to–the game development community.

At the outset, indie absolutely has to indicate a game developed independent of any publisher intervention. This is how the term first originated, and it remains absolutely core to the concept of being an indie developer today. Publisher intervention is notorious for killing the creative and experimental spirit that we value in the indie community. (In case you’ve somehow managed to avoid catching wind of this fact, here are some examples to read about.)

Because these nasty effects on a developer’s creative process take place during the course of development, we’re mostly concerned about developer independence during the course of development. A publisher spontaneously coming in at the close of development to handle marketing and distribution in exchange for a cut of profits is largely inconsequential as far as its effect on a game’s artistic integrity, as the game is already done. Thus, the game completed while indie remains indie.

By that same token, if a game is created under a publisher’s thumb and the creators somehow regain exclusive control of the IP and development process after development is over, the game does not somehow transform into an indie game. Again, it’s the conditions during the course of development that impact the game’s final shape; that is the only time period in which a developer’s degree of artistic freedom impacts the game she creates, and thus, it is the only time period that matters for purposes of determining whether the resulting game is indie.

But what about post-release content? After all, Double Fine added some extra content to Psychonauts after they regained the IP. Does that transform the game from published to indie? I think the answer to this has to be “no.” After all, mods are almost exclusively the work of hobbyists and groups independent of publishers; if that sort of additional post-release content were sufficient to change a game’s definition, every major published game with mod support would turn “indie” shortly after release.

What Indie Is (Independent of Licensors)

It is generally thought that an indie game must employ intellectual property owned by the developer. This is primarily a business consideration when working with publishers, however, and is therefore not especially helpful to the definition, given that we’re already assuming no publisher relationship.

There is a related issue that’s worth talking about, though: IP licensing. When licensing a game’s IP from an external source, the IP owner will typically have the right to meddle in the game’s development as a condition of the license. As with obtaining funding from publishers, licensing external IP means ceding creative control to an outside party.

There is another reason I phrase this as “being independent of licensors” rather than “owning one’s own IP,” however. Developers sometimes choose to develop games based on IP in the public domain. For example, indie Cthulhu games abound despite the fact that the developers do not own (and cannot own) the Cthlhu Mythos IP. The key here is creative freedom, not IP ownership; thus, a game need only be free of IP license agreements to be indie.

What Indie Is (Small)

The size of a developer has to be a factor as well. If size were no object, then every massive publisher that develops its own in-house games with teams of hundreds and budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars would be indie. Gears of War 3 would be indie. Skyrim would be indie. The results are self-evidently absurd.

I stated above that budget is not determinative; that remains true. However, a huge budget is usually indicative of a huge number of full-time employees working on a game. Unlike budget, team size has an unavoidable impact on the way in which a game is developed. I quote from my previous article on this subject:

When you command a team with dozens (much less hundreds) of employees, you inevitably limit the amount of creative input each can realistically add to a game. The game becomes less a work of authorship, and more a product that each team member sees only a limited piece of.

Big team size also sabotages the system of direct give-and-take between developers and fans that indies are known for. Once a team grows past a certain size, there isn’t just one or two people required to implement ideas and listen to feedback anymore—there is a whole group of people who need to be coordinated, and by someone who probably doesn’t have time to interact with the community him or herself. Thus, the so-called “big indies” hire community managers, and the people actually developing the game vanish behind a veil of anonymity.

The key thing here is an intimacy of connection–of the developers to their game as a whole, and of the developers to the community of fans–that is lost along with the diffusion of responsibility inherent in a large team. The larger the team, the smaller a piece of the game any given team member is responsible for fashioning. The larger the team, the less authority each individual has to speak for the team, and the less capacity each member has to respond to feedback from the community.

I’m hesitant to put a solid number to this part of the definition; that task seems much better suited to people with access to empirical data about how the dynamics of game development change with increasing team size. For the sake of starting a discussion, however, let’s say that as a team reaches two dozen people, the participants lose their intimate connection to the game as a whole, and to the fans who follow it. (I’m willing to be convinced that a different cut-off point makes more sense; or alternatively, that a different way of approaching the size question works better than a strict numerical cut-off.)

Conclusion

We thus arrive at a workable, core definition of “indie game”:

A game that is both (a) developed to completion without any publisher or licensor interference, and (b) created by a single developer or a small team.

By adopting this process-focused definition, we tie “indie” to the material conditions that consistently permit games to be created with a degree of authorship and artistic integrity. This focus on material conditions during the course of development avoids the absurd results of highly formalistic definitions; and simultaneously, it allows us to sidestep the problems of inconsistency and vagueness that plague definitions dependent on the beholder’s subjective opinions or the developers’ perceived attitudes toward their own games.

There is a special reason why we use the word “indie”: it is a way for small, independent developers without ties to publishers to effectively market and distribute their games. It doesn’t matter how many developers publicly claim not to care whether a game is indie–that’s not the measure of the word’s value. The measure of its value is in the existence of XBLIG. It’s in the success of games on the Apple App Store. It’s in the ongoing crowdfunding revolution. “Indie” empowers the smallest and the freest of game developers. It is a declaration of creative freedom. It is a declaration of creative control. The day that changes is the day that “indie” must be set alight and left to drift to the horizon, buoyed along on the sea of forgotten words.

Craig Stern is an indie developer currently working on the multiplayer turn-based tactics game Telepath Tactics. He is the founder of IndieRPGs.com, and can often be found rambling in short, 140-character bursts on Twitter.

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  • Banov

    Thanks for addressing this! I found the Psychonauts issue particularly interesting–hadn’t seen it come up before, hadn’t noticed it. I find all of your opinions on the matter quite agreeable. :)

  • http://www.indiegamemag.com The Indie Game Magazine

    Great Article – completely agree

  • CraigStern

    Thanks!

  • CraigStern

    I’m glad you liked it. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/andreas.podgurski.3 Andreas Podgurski

    Great article, really. Maybe I would adjust one or the other argument a bit, but in general your analysis is very precise. Sadly only a few indie developers are interested at all in disussing this matter, most see their opinion as dogma and aren’t able to give the slightest fundament to their opinion. The example you gave is very typical for this.
    The biggest problem in my opinion is the lack of words we use for small developers. They all want or claim to be indie, but in most cases, they are something different. From retro developers, over art house developers to home brewer, they all make great games, but they aren’t indie automatically. And what is the problem with being not an indie developer, but carrying one of my other labels? Would make them much more special and one would know, who he is talking with.
    Keep on the good work, you are really indie!

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  • http://www.erickinkead.com Eric Kinkead

    “A game that is both (a) developed to completion without any publisher or licensor interference, and (b) created by a single developer or a small team.”

    This makes me clap at my computer monitor.

    I have been saying this for a while. I know a lot of studios and directors of those studios that still run their business in the old publisher/developer model. They complain that they can’t get ‘indie scene’ cred. While they might be independent of their publishers, they are still run under a medium-large business style. What legally/federally defines a small business? Under 15 employees?(not sure off hand) I think when you have a size & burn rate that exceeds that of a small business you are no longer indie, you are just an independent studio, mid-tier. Probably a place many of indies want to end up one day. Also probably a place many indies do not want to end up.

    A clarification has to be made and I am glad you wrote this.

    Another problem is that the ‘indie scene’ is starting to prosper and get attention. And when something prospers, larger business definitely take note and move in to see what stake they can claim out of that.

  • empireforge

    As far as I’m concerned, this is now the true definition of Indie!

  • Bad Sector

    While i agree with the other definitions you used, i disagree with the last one about size and the reason is the problem you clearly seemed to have when you decided to avoid specifying any threshold for the team’s size. You cannot have a definition with “open holes” – the definition must be able to answer a “yes” or “no” without external influences, otherwise it is as useless as “indie is what has the indie spirit” since it leaves to the individual to decide what has the indie spirit (or proper size).

    In my opinion and what i always thought, indie games are games developed without the assistant of a 3rd party (be it a publisher or other investor) and based on original material. If that includes developers like Valve and id Software (before the zenimax buyout) then so be it. They’re big indie developers, what is wrong with that? It isn’t like the word has to *absolutely* define a game – it doesn’t anyway since a game is defined by more than the way it was developed.

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  • Hello!

    Yeah, I agree. Bringing in an arbitrary size limit does leave this definition a bit nebulous. It seems a bit disingenuous to consider a team of 24 qualitatively different in terms of process to a team of, say, 10. If anything, the most concrete qualitative leap on the scale would be the move from one person to two. Should indie be “created without any interference from another person”? Well, sorry, that’s a bit facetious.

    Also, I’m curious as to what would consider, for example, a game like “Portal” to be? Apparently it was made by a team of around ten. You couldn’t really say they had publisher interference, since they ARE the publisher, essentially, and it’s a pretty small team, I’d say.

    P.S. For what it’s worth, Epic and Bethesda aren’t wholly independently owned anymore.

  • VGI_Wes

    Christ on a bike, this was a fantastic read, serious props are in order.

    “A game that is both (a) developed to completion without any
    publisher or licensor interference, and (b) created by a single
    developer or a small team.”

    Every website from this day forth should adopt this as the universal definition of indie.

    Also I loved the part about the ‘Thingamizoozle’. One of my pet hates is when folks use a word without a clear definition to describe said word without a clear definition.

    One again, great read!

  • Matt D

    I think what you are calling “indie” is better defined as “auteur”. It removes the semantic baggage that the word “indie” carries via its association with the word “independent”.

  • CraigStern

    I agree that this part of the definition needs to be nailed down. However, we are not in a great position to do that yet. As I wrote:

    “I’m hesitant to put a solid number to this part of the definition; that
    task seems much better suited to people with access to empirical data about how the dynamics of game development change with increasing team size.”

    I couldn’t find any studies on this subject despite a fair bit of searching around. Once we have some empirical results to work off of, we can plug that hole with some authority.

  • YourMessageHere

    “In case that doesn’t give you pause, here are some other studios that are independently owned and operated: Ubisoft, Epic, Valve, and Bethesda. These companies are so big that they publish other studios’ games, own the distribution platforms other studios use to publish games, and/or flat-out own other studios.”

    Surely the fact that they interact with other entities, e.g. Ubisoft publishing Tom Clancy-branded games or Bethesda’s relationship with the film industry (for the Doom movie, for example), or that they have a responsibility to other formerly-independent studios which they now own, or that they publish/distribute other studio’s work, means they aren’t independent in any functional way whatsoever? They are independently owned, OK. They’re a very long way from being independently operated, given that their businesses at this point rely on other firms to operate. There’s no danger at all of these huge firms being called ‘indie’.

    Let’s not forget that the word came from music originally, via filmmaking to gaming, and it’s just as amorphous and uninformative in either of those industries as it is in this one. I’m not sure there’s any point in attacking Nathan Grayson for exploring the connotations of the ‘indie’ appelation; it’s a different sense of ‘what indie means’, but it’s no less valid, and in my view far more useful than formulating a definition.

  • John Brindle

    Agreed with the definition, but there’s something rather odd about testing and rejecting explicit definitions using an implicit definition which we seem to already know…

  • Kenny Young

    Hi Craig,

    Your definition of indie excludes a lot
    of works which are “too big to be indie” but too small to get any
    attention on their own – I think the issue here is that there is no
    “appropriate” platform for promoting these games even though they
    are worthy of it. There are a lot more of such games now that
    traditional publishing deals with small and mid-tier independent
    developers have dried up, and the distribution channels, market
    forces and business models all lend themselves to hybrids which don’t
    fit nicely into such neatly defined categories. As a result, there
    has been massive pressure on the “indie” promotional landscape to
    step up and fill the gap. It has done so and, personally, I think this is a
    positive development.

    I like where things are going even if
    it is currently a bit confused and messy. I enjoy and appreciate
    (what I perceive to be) good work no matter where it has come from. I
    therefore like the increasingly popular definition of “indie” as
    “good” (which is probably closest to what you discuss in “An
    indie game is a game that innovates”, though that’s
    poorly defined because innovation in and of itself is of little value
    just as being a small team is not intrinsically a recipe for quality
    or success or anything else). If I were to try and package that up
    nicely I’d define it along the lines of “creative independence is
    clearly apparent in the work, and I consider the work worth my
    support”. This definition puts the work front and centre
    independent from any polemic, and independent from the
    majority of works which are, of course, average and derivative.

    That’s an ideal which, if I were king,
    all promotional platforms would strive for, be they promo bundles,
    awards ceremonies or games writing. If that’s what I get from a
    Humble Indie Bundle or that’s the games that the IGF makes me aware
    of, then that’s massively valuable to me. I’d argue that the
    promotional platforms for indie games are evolving into truly
    independent promotional platforms.
    I think that’s a wonderful thing that should be cherished and
    supported irrespective of it being a very different meaning of
    “indie” from the original definition and intent.

    I can see why the “independent
    curation of games” is viewed as a threat to the “curation of
    indie games”. Understandably, some people don’t like this because
    it decreases their chances of being promoted – as you so rightly
    observe, everyone has their own self-serving definition of “indie”.
    Perhaps the only way you can “fix” this is by somehow ensuring
    that the people responsible for these platforms love the indie
    community more than they love novel and unique gaming experiences
    which they like to share with others. That would be short-sighted
    though – independent-minded gamers want quality gaming experiences
    that offer something different to mainstream offerings, and outlets
    which curate and promote such games, no matter their source, gain the
    biggest following which, in turn, is good for such games and their
    makers and the future games they will then be able to develop.

    As long as “true” indie games are
    part of the equation, and they will be so long as the quality is
    there, then it’s a market pressure which shouldn’t be fought through
    protectionism and it would be defeatist to attempt to do so.

    In short, if you love games then you
    love games first and indie games second. If that upsets anyone then
    it’s time to reconsider why you’re doing this in the first place.

    Cheers,

    Kenny

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  • Mike from WorldAlpha

    I agree other than the term “small team” still can lead to interpretation. What is a small team 5, 10, 50, 100? Depending on the game, all of them could be “small teams”. You also forgot Indies take every opportunity to pimp their game. Check out http://www.worldalpha.com ;)

  • http://twitter.com/larsiusprime Lars Doucet

    I think this is a great article, and I’m a guy who usually isn’t big on definition turf-wars.

    What I really like about this approach is the separation of definition from connotation. Ie, separating things-that-distinguish-this-from-other-things from “what this label means to me emotionally.”

    And I think it IS important to distinguish “indie” from “not-indie,” because there are groups that are trying to co-opt the definition, and I think this would suck.

    For instance, many large food conglomerates have been pretty successful lately in co-opting the term “organic food.” Organic* is a really useful term – “This food was made with dirt, seeds, sunlight, water, and poop, rather than artificial pesticides, etc”

    (Ignoring, of course, the unfortunate biochemistry baggage of the word “organic” – ie, most stuff with carbon)

    It’s super useful to know which food was made without extra inputs the old-fashioned way and which was made on an industrial agribusiness complex, REGARDLESS of whether you happen to think organic or industrial is better. If the definition gets co-opted, and anyone can label their food “organic,” then it’s all just a muddled mess. Again – definition vs. connotation. Maybe organic means “healthy and natural” to you, or maybe it means “overpriced yuppie BS.” That’s subjective, will always vary from person to person, and is totally irrelevant in assigning the label itself. All that matters is, do you use regular ol’ cow poop, or fossil-fuel derived chemical inputs to fertilize your sugar beets? One is industrial, the other is organic.

    There will always be politics, and in-fighting, and yes, hipster drama deriving from the innate social need to define an in-crowd and an out-crowd, but definitions like this serve useful purposes, because they help us understand and recognize how things are different, and I think Craig is on to something with the “define it by how it’s made” avenue, rather than trying to judge the final product itself divorced from its creation process.

  • VT

    A good definition for small may be “lacking dedicated managers or producers”. Once you get to the point where a chain of command is introduced in order to manage size or to filter creative input, you’re no longer indie.

  • CraigStern

    “Attacking”! That’s a bit overdramatic, don’t you think? This is the internet: people share ideas, and sometimes they disagree. You can knock down someone else’s argument without it being an attack, you know.

  • TimEatsApples

    Others have tackled the second part of your definition, so I’m going to try to poke some holes in the first: “(a) developed to completion without any publisher or licensor interference”.

    “Interference” is a fairly nebulous term and it leaves a lot of cases open that I think we’d still want to class as “Indie”. So:

    1) What if a publisher offers grants to indie developers? They provide a small amount of money but otherwise make no contributions and have no influence on the design process. They do not publish the result – this is a purely altruisitc/PR-led exercise. Does it make a difference if they offer 1%/10%/100% of the total budget?

    2) What if a publisher backs an independent game on Kickstarter? Presumably this is even further removed than example (1) as they may not directly interact with the development team at all. Does it make a difference if they post a comment and receive a reply in the Kickstarter comments section? Does it make a difference if they pledge from an organisation account versus the head of the organisation pledging from their own account?

    3) What if an independent developer approaches a publisher at a conference to ask for advice? Does it make a difference if the advice is on development versus marketing/financing?

    4) What if a game is developed ‘independently’ by at least one person who still works/used to work at a large developer owned by a publisher or actually at the publisher? What if they bring to bear skills gained while working at the larger organisation? What if they discuss their game with colleagues?

    5) What about negative examples of interference? If a publisher sues an independent developer for using a name they feel infringes their trademark and the smaller company is forced to change their game’s name, does that count as interference?

    6) What if an independent developer creates a game using an editor created by a non-independent company? They are bound by that company’s T&Cs, but the company doesn’t otherwise contact them or interfere with the creation process. What if the T&Cs change during development and this impacts the final game?

  • http://twitter.com/stevehartke Steve Hartke

    This is a really good essay except for the fact that you didn’t successfully define indie.

    “Indie” games are navelgazing, boring tearjerkers made by metrosexual hipsters who think that weird hats and hornrim glasses make them special. Most of them can’t code for shit and, thus, work in Gamemaker.

  • CraigStern

    Hahahahaha! Thanks for that.

  • CraigStern

    (1) We’re concerned about interference. A grant without strings attached is no obstacle to creative independence (and similarly, is not a publisher relationship). Thus, you can get a grant and be indie under the definition.

    (2) See the answer to (1).

    (3) See the answer to (1).

    (4) See the answer to (1).

    (5) That’s an external legal dispute, not a consensual relationship that structures the entire development of the game. You could probably interpret the words in the definition to include law suits if you wanted to adopt a nonsensically rigid construction, but I think that’s straining it a bit.

    (6) I have never heard of a game editor license agreement that gives the creators of the editor the right to interfere with the game development timeline, reject mechanics and substantive content, or otherwise do anything even remotely analogous to what a publisher or IP licensor can do. I think it’s pretty clear that this isn’t an obstacle to being indie under the definition.

  • TimEatsApples

    Ok, but given your answer to (1), what if a major publisher gives money to an independent developer and publishes their game under the publisher’s label but doesn’t in any way interfere with the creative process? If (1) doesn’t equate to “interference” then neither does this example. That obviously isn’t what we want to call “indie” but it doesn’t seem to disagree with your definition.

    I just think you need a more precise term than “interference” within your definition, or else a complementary definition for what “interference” means in this context.

  • CraigStern

    Someone asked me this one Twitter; I’ll give you basically the same answer I gave him. If a publisher actually, demonstrably does not interfere in the process or substance of designing a game in any way, then it’s more like an idealized patronage situation than a typical publisher relationship. I think you can make a pretty good argument that this doesn’t prevent the game from being indie.

    On the other hand, the principle of creative autonomy is still arguably compromised by this situation, since it exists only at the publisher’s sufferance. As long as the publisher has *the right* to come in and make changes, then even if the publisher doesn’t exercise that right, it’s going to affect the way the developer approaches the game. The developer is going to second-guess his decisions, is going to self-censor, in order to keep the publisher from intervening in the substantive decisions that occur while designing the game.

    One way or the other, I’d say it’s debatable. That said, this sort of situation is so extremely rare that I’m not especially concerned about how it fits in. (Remember, this is meant to be a practical definition.)

  • TimEatsApples

    Fair enough, I can accept that. Other than my minor concern, I think it’s a very good definition, and gets to the heart of what indie should mean.

    Thanks for taking the time to reply!

  • jason johnson

    why would you want to do this? one of my biggest problem with games is the mentality that there is a broad universal answer that accounts for everything

  • CraigStern

    No problem; thanks for stress-testing the definition. ;)

  • CraigStern

    When it comes to design, I am vocally in favor of diverse approaches. (See: http://sinisterdesign.net/?p=689 ) This article isn’t about design, though.

    “Indie” is basically the one really potent marketing weapon that small, independent developers have. Without it, it’s basically just them against companies with ten thousand (or in some cases, more like ten million) dollar marketing budgets. Small, independent developers have every reason in the world to want to prevent big companies from coopting the term. A clear definition will help that effort enormously.

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  • http://twitter.com/SurplusGamer Peter Silk

    My trouble with this is that I don’t think words have to be defined with all encompassing, flawless, infallible precision in order to stay meaningful.

    I’m happy with the ‘person or group of people who make games without publisher intervention’ kind of definition because it’s simple and inclusive. That might make it a little over-inclusive, but I don’t think that’s a big deal. I can look at Valve and say: ‘I guess technically they’re indie’ while still understanding that when someone uses the term ‘indie’ they’re PROBABLY talking about a smaller operation.

    I like that the definition can be a sort of fuzzy thing and I don’t think we lose the ability to use the term meaningfully just because sometimes it might brush up against some counterintuitive examples.

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  • Edmund Ward

    I also considered ‘no dedicated manager or producer’, but say me and a buddy come up with a game idea and they offer to do all the coding whilst I spend my time on forums pitching the idea and seeking out artists, musicians to help us make the game. I coordinate and feed back on their contributions.
    We made the game according to our vision, free of publisher control, with a small team but I was essentially a dedicated producer. Is the game not indie?

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