28 March, 2009
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?