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.)


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, and can often be found rambling in short, 140-character bursts on Twitter.