What are indie games?

The burning question at the moment, partly fuelled by us, is what makes an indie game indie? If you came along to our community meeting last week then you’ll already know what our views are on this, but for those of you that missed it here’s a quick catch up:

“In its very essence we believe an indie game is one that has been developed without being guided by an unseen hand. It’s been created unmoderated from vision to completion. How it’s been funded isn’t so important.”

Simple as that!

We knew this was going to be quite a contentious issue so we wanted to get an idea of how our community defined indie games. Yesterday afternoon we sent a survey out to our mailing list, and we got some interesting results!

Survey Results

The image above will enlarge when you click on it. We stripped the ‘don’t know’ answers from the chart as they just muddled the data with people not having heard of certain games. At the time of writing this was based on 144 results.

Initially the results didn’t hold too many surprises, games like Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress being thought of as indie whereas titles like APB and Half Life being definitely not indie. Trials HD, DeathSpank and Angry Birds were more of a surprise in how contentious they seemed to be, it shows just how differently people think when it comes to what makes a game indie.

However, some common themes did emerge after reviewing the answers to the question “How do you define indie games?”, we’ve collated some of these below.

Non publisher funded:

“I generally define indie by publishing deal, team size and target audience – in that order. Games like Joe Danger and Limbo both had publishing with PlayStation/Xbox respectively, but didn’t have funding and security from those publishers while building the game, and both were made by small teams. A game like LBP or APB had a large amount of funding, a big publishing deal and a large team and targetted mainstream audience so therefore I don’t regard those games as indie.”

“Indie games don’t have large amounts of financing. If a big publisher provides all the money you need, it’s not indie. Indies must be (virtually) independent of the big publishers. They can still be developed by companies that have large teams and money in the bank from previous work; but the project itself should not be financed by funding from big existing publishers (unsure how to consider venture capital in this.)”

Small Teams:

“Games made by small (less than 5-10 members of staff, if you can call them staff) possibly in after-work time without major financial backing.

I liken it to the indie film or music business, made by people who simply have to make games to get their ideas out there, hopefully to either develop those ideas further for a sequel (or remake if you prefer) or as a testing ground for newer ideas that might go against the normal idea of what a game is.”

“Made by very small development teams with no outside backing from a publisher.”

“I tend to think of indie games as those that are created by small teams that do not have the pressure of a publisher to help shape or rush a game. Indie games also often explore experimental gameplay and don’t rely on trying to appeal to everyone. Many indie titles tend to be quite unique and take risks rather than much of the copycat stuff we see some of the commercial companies churning out.”

“Indie goes straight from idea to finished form with as little resistance as possible. There is a lot of resistance that happens in corporate culture that may be completely out of the control of those involved. Features axed because they, while innovative, did not contribute to the appeal of the masses. Profit over innovation… more concerned over investors than the game itself. All things that can transform a bright idea into the grey drab of the status quo.”

“It’s funny that the older a game is the broader the definition of ‘indie’ feels to me. S2Games (indies in my mind) were definitely not heavy hitters like EA, but they also weren’t just a handful of people. With each passing day the definition of indie seems to shrink, such that it’s less acceptable to be a team of 10 or 20. Still, I’d like to think that there is significant audience that sees the game for what it is and doesn’t get too distracted by strict definitions.”

Indie Spirit:

“A game that is indie goes as unadulterated as possible from conception to product and passes through as few hands as possible.”

“I think there is a distinct difference between ‘indie’ and ‘independent’. Independent is a monetary, size thing. If you and your dev team can call the shots and take risks without jeopardizing stockholders and salaries, then you’re independent. I think this is why a lot of people claim ‘indie’ is a studio that makes less than $250K. To me, that’s not indie. Indie is the spirit of the thing. Did you make a game you were passionate about? Did you limit how much money influenced your decisions? Did you get creative? Those things which are more intangible define indie for me.

I think the independent studios tend to be able to make more ‘indie’ games just because of their size and their ability to take more risks. This is why ‘indie’ often gets confused for ‘independent’. But I personally feel EA can still make an indie game, it’s just much, much harder for them to do it.”

“An independent spirit of developer. Not just independent of any publisher or massive piles of venture capital but living up to the ideals of the community. Making games for the love of crafting, not the generation of profits.”

“It’s more about the spirit of the project than anything else. Indie games are typically unconventional, they push boundaries, they experiment, though they need not do any of these things. Sometimes they make us think differently about how we define games and what games can be. Design decisions for indie games come down to what is best for the game itself, what is best for the vision or story or gameplay, not necessarily what will ensure the most commercial success. Not to say that indies shouldn’t (or can’t) be commercial successes (eg. Portal).

When these two things go hand in hand the developer should, by all means, do them, but for the indie, the work itself should always remain his or her highest value. In the most general sense, an indie game is truly independent — it is free to develop in more or less ANY direction, whichever best suits the game itself. This means being free from virtually all influences that don’t hold the integrity of the product as highest priority.”

A conclusion…really??

What can we conclude from this data that seems to have so much uncertainty? Well IndieCity’s mission is to provide a destination for all things indie, and that means our main focus is to keep the AAA manufactured games out of the system. So with regards to the Community Approval Process we were therefore wondering what percentage of yes or no votes should be used to draw the line between games being allowed on or not.

If we said that at least 51% of the votes had to be a yes before being allowed onto IndieCity then the following games would NOT make the grade:
Deathspank, Geometry Wars, Savage, Half Life, Plants Vs Zombies, Worms, Portal, Farmville, Little Big Planet, APB.

Everything else would be accepted, and to be honest that’s pretty much what we wanted to see. With IndieCity we aren’t actually trying to nail the definition of What Makes an Indie Game (sorry if some people were hoping for that!), but that list of games that would be disallowed seems pretty good to us, and confirms that the system should work for keeping out the mainstream while casting a loose net that allows everything else in.

So that’s our opinion – what does everyone else think?

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Thursday, December 9th, 2010 News Author: DrPiD

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3 Comments to What are indie games?

  1. That definition (if there was a certain one in there!) seems cool. I’d probably set a % at about 55% to 60% though, just a little higher than 51% it may not seem that much but it’s better to have X amount more than 50% than being just a tiny wee bit over imo.

  2. Frazer (midget31394) on December 9th, 2010
  3. There’s also a difference between indie games and indie devs. More often then not, indie devs (those with established studios) tend to do work-for-hire to keep their companies afloat, sometimes with established properties. They’re not making indie games then, but they’re still indie devs.

    I am ok with the separation as it is right now. Games like World of Goo and Braid will become the ‘big games’ on the Indie City list… I consider them more like AAA-equivalent in the indie scene because of their success on consoles.

    May I propose a second category? Hobbyist games. These are games made by non-incorporated entities; the real “bedroom coders”, and associated partners and freelancers. As an example, Minecraft in its early stages was a hobbyist game. Currently it is not, since it is supported by an indie company. The original Flow was a hobbyist game (if it was made before the incorporation of ThatGameCompany, which btw is not independent).

    The reason for this proposal is to showcase and call attention to promising new talent, since these are made by students or those with day jobs (Not sure how the unemployed looking for a break would consider themselves ‘full-time indie’ though). Once you start a full-time company that’s not a sole proprietorship then the focus does shift towards maintaining a revenue stream, so they are able to produce games at a constant rate that dwarf the one-hit wonders.

    Even if this additional category turns out to be a bad idea, there should still be a specific entry point on Indie City where a total unknown will be able to debut and hopefully join the ranks of the true independents (those who can maintain a living making uncompromised games).

  4. GDI on December 10th, 2010
  5. [...] diversa di cosa si un videogame indie. Un po’ di tempo fa organizzammo un sondaggio (http://www.indiecity.com/blog/?p=92) estremamente esemplificativo in tal senso. Personalmente ritengo che non dipende più di tanto [...]

  6. Intervista esclusiva a Chris Swan, project lead di Indiecity on August 10th, 2011

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