So what’s the definition of indie these days? It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot in the 21st century. When not applied to gaming, it seems to mean very different things. It’s supposed to just be an abbreviation for “independent”, but often winds up being a descriptor for a particular archetype, or for a certain way of doing business. For example, when it comes to describing people, it often describes thin guys wearing skinny jeans, who wear a lot of vests and beige. When it comes to music, it’s about bands compromised of thin guys wearing skinny jeans, who wear a lot of vests and beige. I’m overgeneralizing of course, but the article is about Indie games, so I’m allowed. The point is that when the indie term is applied to things outside the gaming realm, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of common threads on the surface between indie gaming, and indie anything else.
A major point which differentiates “indie” outside the electronic space is that if success is added into the equation, the indie label seems to fall off. A band can’t be an indie band and have sold millions of albums. A person can’t be an indie personality and be a well known figure in the mainstream media. Generally speaking, the moment an indie entity starts cashing large checks related to their indie talents, they are no longer indie. They have stepped out of the beige haze and have merged with the other shrink-wrapped products sitting on the shelves.
Here in the world of indie gaming, it doesn’t seem to work that way. The commonality of the indie gaming label isn’t really part of a counter-culture movement. It doesn’t lose its credibility the moment the lines are blurred. Rather than an anti-establishment scene, it’s more of a community that bleeds in and out of the establishment. Many of the indie developers that we all know to have found success are still considered indie developers. There are developers, both individuals and entire teams, who have crossed the boundaries in both directions. Tim Schafer of Double Fine was once part of the established system of publishing machines, and is now a prominent, if not also divisive, figure of the indie gaming community. In contrast, Markus “Notch” Persson started as rags-to-riches, and then famously (or infamously, depending on who you ask) made plans to sell his Minecraft franchise to Microsoft for literally billions of dollars; meanwhile still being involved with the development of Mojang’s next indie title, Scrolls.
There are certainly those amongst the indie community who think that the individuals given as examples above have lost some of their street cred, or do not represent the true indie spirit. However, there is no major consensus on that. For many, the success stories and juggernauts that have emerged from and entered the indie community proudly represent cornerstones of the independent industry.
So if “indie” in gaming does not equate as evenly to obscurity as it does for other uses of the word, what does it mean?
I think Johnathan Blow (Braid, The Witness) put it very eloquently in 2012’s Indie Game: The Movie: “Part of it is about not being professional. A lot of people come into indie games trying to be like a big company. What those game companies do is create highly polished things that serve as large of an audience as possible. The way that you do that is by filing off all the bumps on something. If there is a sharp corner, you make sure that’s not going to hurt anybody if they bump into it. That creation of this highly glossy commercial product is the opposite of making something personal. Things that are personal have flaws, they have vulnerabilities. If you don’t see a vulnerability in somebody you’re probably not relating with them on a very personal level. So it’s the same with the game design. Making it (Braid) was about: “Let me take my deepest flaws and vulnerabilities and put them in the game and let’s see what happens…”
An indie game is still a product, but one that’s made with an extreme personal touch. Whether that’s inserting bits of one’s own personality into the gameplay, or working with inspiration drawn from an intense love of a certain bygone game or genre; the most important element of what defines “indie” is the same. Indie development is a person or team working without the guiding hand of a business model which demands the alteration of elements of their vision. Indie development is not trying to appeal to the widest possible market.
Indie games are able to get away this now, and are as successful as they are, because the digital age has broken through the gates which used to limit a niche market. Thanks to the internet, any given niche now has the potential to be millions of people with unlimited access to information about, and distributors of, the things they’re interested in. When it comes to gaming, it no longer matters how geographically spread out a demographic is. It doesn’t matter how weird the title of the game is. It doesn’t matter if the game’s protagonist is sufficiently cute in the traditional sense, adequately chiseled and gruff enough for an adolescent power fantasy, or buxom enough for sex appeal. The indie developers who’ve taken the chance to ignore these guidelines have found scores of people who relate to concepts and gameplay that fall well outside of the blades of the cookie-cutter.
There are other factors to the indie identity, but as the market continues to develop, those lines become even more blurred. A few years ago, one could have also said an indie game is defined as being financed on a shoestring budget, but crowdfunding is putting the kibosh on that. One could have said that indie games feature strange subject matter, bizarre imagery and lo-fi graphics, but those are no longer requirements either. AAA publishers are quite picky, and although decidedly less bizarre, the concept of a spiritual successor to a well-loved retro game seems to cause as just as much of an averse reaction as a 2D platformer about a boy made of meat. If it represents a risk to investors, that’s where indie has the prime opportunity to step in and do right by the concept.
So that’s it, creative autonomy is the most important element to what makes independent game development “indie”. The wonderful results it produces is what makes indie gaming successful. The landscape may continue to change after 2015, and perhaps we’ll see a bust at the end of this boom, but as long as the people who make things they love have an avenue to deliver their product directly to the people who play things they love, the indie gaming spirit will endure.