Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

28 March, 2009

What is “indie”?
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:58 PM

I had a discussion with Bobby Thurman about being indie. He mentioned that he saw a few poor reviews of his MMO, Secondhand Lands and felt frustrated until he realized they were comparing his game to the AAA titles, not as an indie title.

We started to discuss what it meant to be “indie”. As with a lot of other terms we use, this one doesn’t exactly have set definition. So, what is “indie”?

When talking about “indie” games, I feel like Justice Potter Stewart when he was trying to define obscenity; I can’t give an exact definition of “indie”, “but I know it when I see it.”

Knowing what’s indie is important because I feel indie game development is important to the future of the industry, as I’ve said a long time ago. But, I think it muddies the water if just anyone can grasp at the “indie” label in order to get instant cachet. If too many people try to use the “indie” label, then it becomes meaningless.

What is the benefit of being “indie”? There’s a certain amount of “cool” associated with indie stuff, like indie music. Indie artists thumb their nose at “the man” and get away with insane/brilliant stuff. But, the main benefit is that it allows forgiveness of a lot of sins. Is the game short? Does it have 2D graphics? Is it a bit slow to start? Is it a one-trick pony? If the game is indie, some people will be more forgiving of a wide range of sins; it’s more likely that people will compare you to other indie games instead of AAA games.

One reason why it’s hard to define exactly what “indie” means is that there are a lot of other descriptions that can apply to an “indie” work, but that could be shared by a non-indie. Some examples, based on my opinions:

Independent. Even though “indie” is short for “independent”, it’s important to remember this. But, to me, being “independent” isn’t enough. I remember people who ran third-party studios who have claimed they were “indie” because they weren’t owned by the publisher. Indie means you’re free from outside influence for the most part.

Low budget. Indie games are usually done on the cheap. But, just because someone skimps on the budget doesn’t mean it’s “indie”; if a big company doesn’t allow a project a large budget, that’s usually called “shovelware”, or more politely, a “budget title”.

No investment. Related to low-budget, an indie games don’t get massive investment. Raising a few million dollars usually means you’re no longer truly independent, anyway.

Original. If you’re trying to reach mainstream audiences, then you’re probably not working on a main-stream game. Trying to clone a successful mainstream game, even if you use ugly graphics, isn’t “indie”. Indie material tries to explore new territory and take risks.

Not well-known. Indie work usually comes out of nowhere, or has built up their reputation by doing other indie work. Having a big name gained by working in the “mainstream” industry runs counter to being indie. Being known for other indie work, however, is definitely “indie”.

Is this too much attempt at classification? This isn’t an all-inclusive checklist, and the definitions are not binary. If your uncle loans you $10k to make a game, does that disqualify you from being “indie” because you got investment? Probably not. And, where is the cutoff for “low budget”? $100k might be a lot to spend on a “casual” game, but it’s a drop in the bucket for a 3D MMO type game.

This is something that means a lot to me. I’d like to see Bobby’s game get the attention it deserves, but it will always languish if everyone only compares it to AAA titles. Bobby poured his life and much of his savings into the game. Even if the game is rough around the edges, it’s something I’d like to see get some positive attention so that one day he might be able to “sell out” and create an interesting game with a bigger budget. But, if people just look at his game as “not WoW enough”, that won’t happen. However, if people see that he created something unique with a small budget, without investment, and without a big name to back him up, then they might give it the attention it deserves.

What are your thoughts? What is “indie”? Is that a useful definition?

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  1. I was watching videos of the awesome “indie” stuff seen at the GDC and it only made it more difficult to define what I was doing exactly. If these guys are indie (not saying they are not and I don’t mean to disrespect anyone), I guess it makes me just some random guy with too much time on his hands.

    From the “average crowd”, my view is that there is no such thing as indie. They don’t care and we probably can’t ask them to care anyway. The web makes it just easier to not care. I have stopped counting the number of times I received comments (about Golemizer) in the line of “Should be 3D” (!!!), “Should have better graphics”, “You guys should work more on your game before releasing it” and so on. I mean yes, if I spend 5 more years in development, quit my day job and gather a team of 10 developers I can probably create a much better game… But…

    Even from a good proportion of players, “indie” doesn’t matter. They enjoy the game but will talk to you like you were sitting all day long in front of your code to fix/improve things. They expect the same service they would receive (or not!) from an AAA game (the game being free also doesn’t matter for some). “Hey! Fix this ASAP! (… or I quit)”. Of course it’s nice to see that some players are so emotionally involved in your work but it can also be the death of you if you try to keep up at the expected pace. With no community manager to help, you got this type of things in your face quite often.

    So my take on “indie”? I don’t know. The more I lurk around, the less I know what it is exactly. It seems you get the “indie tag” from the press if you’re one of the few to know great success and did so without any big company behind your back. For example, Braid is definitely “indie”. Others? Well, they are trying…

    It might be just me but it seems the “indie brand” is starting to look a bit like the “web 2.0 brand”. People don’t really know what it is but are using it anyway.

    But then, that’s from the “mainstream point of view”. There’s people, like you, that help to forget this for some time and get us to keep doing what we are doing and help us to believe in it.

    Comment by Over00 — 29 March, 2009 @ 10:10 AM

  2. “Indie” does have some meaning in other media. Indie music and indie movies are different beasts. The problem is that other people will always want to co-opt the label for themselves. The Sundance festival is a good example in the movie side of things; it used to be a showcase of indie movies, but then when it became overwhelmed by the business aspect, it became a way for people to get their low-budget movies in front of studio executives so that they get picked up. Indie music has mixed connotations as well; it can mean something that only hipsters or other “too cool” people like, or it can mean whatever crap someone paid studio time to record. Indie music fans tend to be really rabid and rigid, though, because they are the first ones to scream when something is no longer indie (like it gets played on the radio, therefore the artist(s) “sold out”).

    The thing is, with movies and music it’s easier to forgive the sins. As The Blair Witch Project (and later Cloverfield) showed, crappy camera work can be part of the movie. Would these movies have the same impact if they didn’t have the nausea-inducing bouncing camera? Probably not. But, using simple 2D graphics doesn’t get the same pass, even if your game runs in Javascript as Over00′s game does.

    I also think this goes hand-in-hand with the general lack of quality game journalism and criticism. In movies and music, you have high profile people who search out the indie stuff and give it serious attention. We have some people that review indie type games, but our “big names” for magazines haven’t picked this up yet, unlike the magazines for movies and music.

    More thoughts.

    Comment by Psychochild — 29 March, 2009 @ 11:05 AM

  3. Indie doesn’t mean anything and it is an easy label for the big boys to steal, why do you think they like working with it?

    “Creator Owned” is a label that could actually mean something in this age of allowing direct connection to creators, but it is something that many Indie games fail to achieve.

    Comment by Kriss — 29 March, 2009 @ 11:38 PM

  4. Simple 2d graphics should have the same pass, provided the 2d graphics are approached with the right aesthetics and polish! The problem is usually the simple 2d graphics look like a programmer drew them.

    What is Indie? One thing I see missing on that list is “Niche”. This is different from Original, because it may be serving an existing market. Just not a big enough market to justify a AAA budget.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 30 March, 2009 @ 12:57 PM

  5. I’m idly wondering why we even bother trying to define something that is, by its nature, not like anything else. Doesn’t putting a label on “indie” games just make them conform to an arbitrary set of aspects that they were never meant to satisfy in the first place?

    Comment by Tesh — 30 March, 2009 @ 4:35 PM

  6. @Tesh

    I think that it’s exactly the point in fact. Maybe it’s just me but I feel we’re seeing more and more the word “indie” being used (for good or bad… or neutral?) so it might be useful to know what we are talking about exactly.

    Some companies of 20ish employees are starting to use the word “indie” in Montreal. Obviously, people in my situation can’t compare to them so there’s a point where you have to wonder what that word means exactly. Maybe it means many things but there might be many levels as well.

    Comment by Over00 — 30 March, 2009 @ 4:46 PM

  7. I’ve been thinking about what “indie” means for sometime now. I’ve yet to come upon a useful definition, at least for my purposes.

    Indie means you’re free from outside influence for the most part.

    When is this ever the case? Ultimately, consumers are always the outside influence, so if you’re truly free from outside influence, then you’re creating games for yourself. When you produce any creative work exclusively for yourself, there’s a good chance you won’t have a viable business.

    Being free from all outside influence pretty much means you’re the equivalent of an art snob. I don’t think that’s what being independent means. I think independence might mean freedom to fail. Third parties who are not owned by publishers still have contractual obligations–to investors or even to customers in the case of online services–to not fail. The proprietor(s) of the third party can’t simply close up shop without a fight. Third parties are, therefore, not independent despite being privately owned and operated.

    I don’t think your other attributes are necessarily “indie.”

    Comment by Morgan Ramsay — 31 March, 2009 @ 3:10 PM

  8. We’ll maybe I’m lame at gamedev and only “done” 2 unfinished games, but I have my own indie vision. For me being indie means mostly being independent. That means no company over me and watching my every step. I can do games in free time. I can implement what I want. I can sell game or give it free. And it’s desirable to be original – not clone – but doesn’t have to be. There are games that seem to be clones, but longer you play them, you see they have some “features” that differing them a lot from original in positive way.

    The other thing is like Over00 wrote “It might be just me but it seems the “indie brand” is starting to look a bit like the “web 2.0 brand”. People don’t really know what it is but are using it anyway.”
    But what can we do with it?

    Comment by d.evil — 2 April, 2009 @ 1:07 PM

  9. I’m not convinced that the problem is that indie games are compared against AAA games. I think the problem is that the criteria being compared on are the wrong ones, and that those criteria favour AAA games. Or to look at it another way, AAA developers have learned to play the system by investing heavily in meeting those criteria.

    eg. This review of Secondhand Lands spends 1 paragraph talking about graphics, 1 talking about sounds, 1 talking about gameplay (where by ‘gameplay’ they meant ‘the GUI’), and 1 talking about community. Actual discussion of the game systems or the aesthetic themes are absent, yet these are the areas where an indie can truly compete, and are arguably the areas most important to how a game actually plays. People only complain about graphics because we train them to do so with reviews that put them foremost.

    A consumer is entitled to compare any game against any other, regardless of who developed it. When it comes to the end user there shouldn’t be any marks for effort alone. They have to decide whether it’s worth their time and/or money, and that’s independent of how it was made. So I don’t expect any pulled punches on account of lower budgets or smaller development teams. What I do hope for is greater insight into what actually makes a game fun or interesting, and that alone will elevate many indie games above many of their AAA counterparts.

    Incidentally I don’t agree with the idea that indie games must necessarily be original. I think that a company which meets most of the other criteria but which makes clones of existing gameplay is still essentially ‘indie’. It’s just not terribly interesting. I think the label applies more to the producers than the product as such. If I filmed a short movie out of my own pocket and based it on the Die Hard series, I think film critics would still consider it an indie film, for whatever that’s worth.

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 7 April, 2009 @ 7:38 AM

  10. I’m actually giving a keynote talk at the IMGDC, and I’m going to talk about this. Thanks to everyone who participated.

    Morgan Ramsay wrote:
    When is this ever the case? Ultimately, consumers are always the outside influence, so if you’re truly free from outside influence, then you’re creating games for yourself. When you produce any creative work exclusively for yourself, there’s a good chance you won’t have a viable business.

    Who said indie had to be a viable business? Some of the most unique works out there were done because people found them to be interesting. The perfect example of this is Will Wright, who created SimCity because he had more fun creating the maps for an early game than creating the gameplay. The Sims was created without the blessing of the management of EA because they didn’t think it would sell.

    That brings up the interesting question: Is Will Wright “indie”? He probably qualifies because he started outside the mainstream and had to buck the system to make the game he wanted.

    I think independence might mean freedom to fail.

    I think that’s a fair characterization. But, I think that freedom can entail the freedom to make what you think is interesting and hope others agree.

    Ben Sizer wrote:
    If I filmed a short movie out of my own pocket and based it on the Die Hard series, I think film critics would still consider it an indie film, for whatever that’s worth.

    Ignoring the problems with IP ownership, the problem is that you’re not really offering anything independent here besides the fact that you’ve self-funded something. The mainstream entertainment industries can make clones and sequels just fine on their own; an indie trying to copy existing work isn’t doing anything special.

    Comment by Psychochild — 7 April, 2009 @ 12:01 PM

  11. That in turn poses the question: does “indie” necessarily imply “special”? I’m not convinced that it does. Expectations are certainly higher of indie games but I don’t feel it ceases to be independent if the game turns out to be uninteresting.

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 9 April, 2009 @ 3:43 AM

  12. I think you’re approaching it wrong. “Indie” should be “special”.

    The problem with coming up with a set definition is that there are potentially a lot of things that fit that shouldn’t (and things that don’t fit that should). If we start allowing anyone who makes a clone (or ripoff) of an existing product also use the term “indie”, that waters it down. Someone’s Bejeweled clone doesn’t deserve the same attention that someone creating a new genre of gameplay deserves. Part of the point here is to get people to realize that indie games aren’t the same as AAA games. But, if we let the “indie” space get flooded with allow easy-to-make clones, it devalues the name. Let poorly designed or executed games be judged properly, not just because “the graphics suck”.

    Perhaps “indie” isn’t the best term to use, but it does have some force of being a recognized term. I think trying to define it in a way that is useful to truly independent game developer should be our goal, in my opinion. Yeah, it’s an exercise at marketing, but that’s what we need, to be honest.

    Comment by Psychochild — 9 April, 2009 @ 5:34 PM

  13. And, a few years later, Sanya wrote about this topic on her site.

    Comment by Psychochild — 7 June, 2011 @ 10:22 AM

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