What is an indie game?

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Wikipedia defines indie games as:

[V]ideo games created by individuals or small teams generally without video game publisher financial support.

Is that really what consider indie games these days? If a large company uses a small team to produce a game without publisher backing, is that indie? Is Valve indie? Robert Space Industries, who successfully leveraged crowdfunding to make over $79 million towards Star Citizen.

First, an indie game history lesson

When the home video game industry first hit its peak in the 80s, a cottage industry of small bedroom developers exploded onto the scene, creating quirky, memorable and timeless games. Hundreds of games were created and sold, exploring the fringes of this new found entertainment medium. Video games were becoming art for art’s sake, made with little money and lots of passion. But as is inevitable, the money men moved in, technology moved beyond homebrew and the budgets needed moved out of reach of the small teams working on the Atari, Commadore and ZX Spectrum systems. It was an exciting time, and one that’s talked about passionately in the documentary From Bedrooms to Billions.

Once the 16-bit and 32-bit consoles reared their mighty heads, the only way for developers to keep creating bigger and better games was with the backing of large publishers – the gaming equivalent of major record labels or film studios – such as Electronic Arts, Psygnosis, Capcom or Lucasarts. The independent games industry pretty much lay dormant throughout the 90s and early 00s until a certain little fruit-named company decided to lower the bar for entry via their mobile app store. When it launched, The iOS App store cost as little as $99 to join as a developer (as long as you had a Mac and an iPhone, of course).

Since then Sony, Microsoft and Valve all worked towards making their platforms much more accessible to small studios without the budget and infrastructure to bring out physical copies of games. While Valve’s Steam digital distribution service already had the leg up from the beginning by cutting out some of the difficulty, discovery was an issue.

Back in 2004, Microsoft released XNA, a freeware development suite to make it easier to create games for Xbox LIVE Indie Games. When XNA was shuttered, it left a gap in the Xbox Marketplace which struggled to see indie games fans catered to. Once the Xbox One was released in 2013, there were serious concerns with the terms of entry for indie developers. This was an opportunity that Sony capitalised on, with indie champion Shahid Ahmad at the helm. not long after, Microsoft brought out the ID@XBOX programme, to help indie developers get the support they need for publishing on Xbox LIVE. This meant that games which originally had no chance of getting on the LIVE Marketplace, such as Oddworld New ‘n’ Tasty could get to fans on Xbox.

Valve’s answer to the problem of publishing more indie games was to make discovery much easier, and to leverage crowdsourcing to do so. Steam’s Greenlight system was launched mid-2012, designed to get the sizeable userbase voting on what should head to Steam proper. On top of that, the Early Access section of the Steam Store meant developers could further make the most of the crowdunding revolution to support the cost of development. Love it or hate it, crowdfunding has helped a lot of great games and technology. Perhaps this has been the single biggest opportunity for indies int he 21st century?

Spirit of indie

There are plenty of companies out there that, at first glance, seem like megacorps but are actually fairly small. Of course, the opposite can be true as well. Either way, it’s sometimes hard to know where a company fits in the ‘indie scale’, and that’s why there’s something I call the ‘spirit of indie’. Basically, these are companies (usually mature) that are very well established, with a secure business model, that retain the agility and bravery of the indie games scene.

One such company is Valve Software. We all know them. They made Half-Life. And Steam. They’re also agile and innovative, trying out things like episodic gaming, digital distribution, and user created content marketplaces. Yet they’re a fairly large company, with 330 employees (at last count back in 2013); and have been operating for nearly 20 years. Valve’s work environment is designed to cultivate proactive workers who will happily pursue their own projects and work together. They have a flat organisation, with very few managers and team leaders, much like small startups might have. The ugly side of this that with no one officially working PR or customer service, it’s down to whoever decides to check their emails as to what customer support you get.

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Mojang, the creators of Minecraft, started small. They used the early access finance model and iterative updates to great effect. They weren’t the first: you can trace the idea of players supporting a game’s development all the way back to 2004, with Mount & Blade, and perhaps even further with some MMO games. These days, they’re firmly owned by computing giant Microsoft, but are still only around 50 strong, keeping them well within the SME category. And they’ve pretty much taken over the world. You can see the running stats just for PC over on their site, and the numbers are ridiculous. That’s JUST for Linux, Os X and Windows. They’re in schools, on mobile, all PC formats, and even have toys.

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Even the big boys are able to grasp the ‘spirit of indie’, EA surprised everyone with a slick new game idea way back in 2008 when they released DICE’s Mirror’s Edge, the antithesis to the big budget blowouts that they are known for and a game that would look just at home in the indie section. They also recently published Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, a cute multiplayer game similar to Team Fortress 2 based on the popular mobile games. Ubisoft has games like artsy Child of Light and Valiant Hearts, the WW1 point-and-click adventure game. There’s a quest by big publishers to capture the essence of indie games, and Ubisoft is certainly leading the charge.

Indie publishers

Sometimes, a company transcends the definition of indie, by moving from pure development (and self publishing) to become a fully fledged publisher in their own rights. They’re still ’boutique’ in the products they ship, but they’re more than just a game developer. They could be a behemoth megacorp or a few people, it doesn’t matter… they not only make great games, they publish them as well.

Oddworld Inhabitants

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Our profits are going back into games so we can ultimately raise to the point where we can grow our audience, who are expecting new content.

Outspoken and fiercely independent, Lorne Lanning is the owner of Oddworld Inhabitants, a company that started life as a developer, first working for GT Interactive (which became part of Atari, back in the day), then Electronic Arts. After several years’ hiatus, they’re back and effectively self-publishing their own games, what Lanning calls a micro-publisher: as close as you can get to an indie publisher.

Rovio Entertainment

For a company that started off as three students way back in 2003, Rovio Entertainment has become a powerhouse in the mobile arena, with their Angry Birds games pretty much dominating the top spots on all the app stores. Rovio have since moved on to cultivate other indie developers and help them release their games on Android and iOS, with fun and addictive games like RETRY and Plunder Pirates now in their catalogue.

Double Fine Presents

Sometimes it’s useful to already have some clout, like Tim Schafer did before starting Double Fine Productions. A legend in his own right, Schafer struck out on his own after working on classic games from LucasArts like Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango. Double Fine not only work as a development studio with some classics under their belts, they’ve picked up the mantle as a publisher, to help nurture indie talent and bring quality games to the masses, including

Team17

Most famous for the Worms series of games, Team17 has a very long – and sometimes turbulent – history (at least in gaming terms), but they’ve recently struck out beyond their safe long running title to not only release a new IP called Flockers, but to work towards nurturing the indie scene, releasing games like The Escapists and L.A. Cops from small third party studios. In fact, as a recent interview with MCV explains, Team17 like to avoid the term ‘publisher’ and rather consider themselves a ‘label’:

‘Publisher’ has too many negative connotations and represents a way of thinking and doing business that’s completely at odds with the new world of digital distribution and the kind of company we wanted to build.

When we started our Indie Partner Program we came up with a manifesto – a statement of our core values.

In brief, this was a commitment to being a vehicle for our partner’s creative vision, putting them front and centre, never taking IP ownership, showing our partners where every penny is spent and giving them sign-off on it, helping them however and wherever we can, and, most of all, helping them to build a sustainable business.

All these companies have one thing in common: they started off small and alone, and now they’ve found success they want to help other indie developers gain success s independently as possible.

So… what is indie, then?

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It’s easier to say what indie isn’t, to be honest. And the rise of digital distribution and stores like Steam or itch.io have only made things more complicated. It’s fairly obvious that the large publishers like EA and Ubisoft aren’t indie by any traditional measurement. The larger a company is, the harder it will be to justify calling themselves indie. Companies like Valve, Bohemia Interactive and Epic Games are still technically indie, they just have a huge amount of capital to run their own projects as if they’re backed by a large publisher… which in today’s era of self-publishing is a huge advantage. It does allow them to embrace new ways of monetising their work, though. Bohemia Interactive has fully embraced its community, nurturing third party content so as to keep people playing their games. Epic Games have gone all out on marketing their game engine, Unreal Engine, which continues to dominate the industry, alongside Unity3D.

Whether it’s a team of three in a bedroom somewhere, with a vision of exploring the boundaries of the art form, or an established company that has the chance to set out on their own in a digital world, maybe backed by fans in some way, the spirit of the indie philosophy is far more important than any definition. In the end, maybe the best way to define ‘indie’ is for developers to ask themselves: Do I feel indie?

One thing’s for sure: while it might be a great time for gamers with all the great games exploring the fringes of the art, the lines between indie and not are beginning to become too blurry to distinguish, and with mounting evidence that traditionally indie avenues of funding are being co-opted by big business, we need to start asking if the term is even relevant anymore. If it isn’t, that doesn’t mean the end of brave and original games across all the various platforms, it simply shows the success of what the indie scene set out to do.

What do you think defines an indie games company? Do you think it matters anymore? Let us know in the comments!

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About Dan Morse

From the Atari 2600 right through to bleeding fast PCs, Dan's played on them all. One thing that's never changed is an unwavering passion for video games. Twitter: @happydan | Steam: happydan | GOG: happydan