The Indie Ethos

By Jill Duffy [11.20.07]

 When we think of independent games, or "indie" games, we think of small budgets, scrappy teams, and experimental concepts or art styles. We think of games that push the envelope in some ways but don't measure up to high-end console games in others.

As a definitional term, though, the video game industry is not unified in how it classifies independent games. To qualify for submission to the Slamdance Games Festival, for example, entries must be below a specified money cap. For the Independent Games Festival, games must be made in the "indie spirit" by an independent developer, and can be disqualified by the nominating committee at any time. Similar to submitting to the IGF, to be part of the Indiecade Festival or Showcase (a traveling exhibit of independent games), it is the feeling and intent behind the game, rather than the amount of money behind it, that allows games to qualify for inclusion. Still, most of these competitions and shows tend to highlight games that were created without publisher funding -- and that seems to be the thrust of "indie" in the game world. But some find even that definition limiting. 

"We kind of really think about indie in the broadest terms possible," says Celia Pearce, chair of the Indiecade Festival, who recently spoke on a panel on the subject ("Are You Indie?" GameCity, Nottingham, October 27, 2007). "We're trying to keep a very open definition: basically, games that are not coming out of a publisher and not coming with a marketing directive."  But even this definition is loose. For example, included in the Indiecade Lab currently is a game called Bone from Telltale Games. As a company, Telltale publishes many of its games with a publisher, notably episodic titles from Sam & Max, so the company has its share of commercial financial support. However, Pearce defends the inclusion of Bone by saying it was "clearly made from an indie perspective." She says Indiecade selects its games "because they resonate in some way," an arguments that's difficult to debate because it begs the questions "What is the indie perspective?" and "What makes a game ‘resonate?'"

Bone, a self-released title from Telltale Games, might be considered indie, even though Telltale does have a publisher for many of its other games.

Alice Taylor, author of the blog Wonderland and vice president of digital content for BBC Worldwide, has a different definition of indie. "From a commissioning point of view, from our point of view [at the BBC] ... it means independently British owned" and that the money both used to make the game and earned in profit stays within Great Britain.

While the Indiecade's definition of "indie" focuses on the game and its purpose, and the BBC's focuses on the movement of money, others believe being indie comes from a developer-focused perspective. It's not the game that's "indie" so much as the people who make it.

Paul Taylor, one of two people who make up the indie game studio Mode 7, says one of the benefits of having a term like "indie" is that it can provide some solidarity among people who identify themselves that way. He says that as "an umbrella term," it embraces everyone from single developers to small groups to small start-ups. One benefit of unifying those people, he says, is the possibility of creating public forums where everyone can discuss issues that affect them as independent developers.

If it is the developers -- the people -- that make a game "indie," then one still must question what criteria those people should meet. Everyday ShooterAlthough it's straightforward to say a team of four developers working with a self-funded $1,500 budget is indeed making an independent game, what happens when the studio is 10 people strong and has a budget of tens of thousand of dollars, but the money comes from the individuals on the team refinancing their homes? What happens when the team is 15 people strong and is backed by several hundred thousand dollars in venture capital? How do both money and team size play into the picture?

Everyday Shooter, by Jonathan Mak, is an independent game that won three awards at the 2007 Independent Games Festival. Now it is available on the PlayStation Network.

"It's not a scale issue" for Indicade, according to Pearce. "We have one-man studios or 20. We have [games that were supported by] funding. ... If you look at the social ecology of other media, say film, the whole indie film scene is mixed in with mainstream films," she says. "You can have a game that's indie that's on the PlayStation now."

Alice Taylor says the word "indie" in other mediums such as film or music has "a kind of base level," but for games, she says the amount of learning, effort, and technology required to make a game must be acknowledged, and therein lies the difference. Sam Roberts, director of the Indiecade Festival, agrees, noting that there are more low-cost options for musicians and filmmakers nowadays than there are for game-makers. In the last 10 or 15 years, the barrier of entry for filmmakers and musicians has dropped dramatically, with more and more low-cost tools and digital equipment becoming available, and with more and more outlets for releasing finished products. For game developers, on the other hand, the barrier of entry is still quite high, seeing as even low-cost tools require the user to have some knowledge of programming.

Science-fiction novelist Cory Doctorow, who was in the audience at the recent "Are You Indie?" session at GameCity, raised an analogy that indie games can be similar to postmodern art appreciation. He notes that the viewer's appreciation of a piece of art, for example Any Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans, relies in part on the viewer admiring not just the work, but the artist's love of art. Doctorow says people love the games in part because they appreciate the people who make them and their motive; on the other hand, people don't appreciate a publisher's motive -- trying to take their money.

Working indie developer Paul Taylor, however, knows from first-hand experience that even developers who make games for the love of games need to earn a living. When people talk about art, he says, "they miss out on the fact that artists have to make money. ... You've got to find an intelligent line in the middle."

Introversion Software, who developed the award-winning game Darwinia, marketed their company and their product heavily with an indie ethos, gaining support by appealing to people who like to see the underdog come out on top. (Plus, the game is really good, which helps, too.)

"One of the things we look at when we look at an idie game when we consider it for a festival or a competition is its aesthetics," says Roberts, which he adds is a new value for games. In particular, he says he looks for games to have a cohesive aesthetic nature, which tells him that all the developers of the game were somehow able to achieve the same artistic end -- a feat that's extremely difficult when half a dozen people or more are involved in the creative process. Roberts say Indiecade tries to show content that is innovative, artistic, and yet sometimes snobbish, as long as it "functions as an artistic whole."

"Depending on who you talk to," says Pearce, "there is snobbery about what ‘indie' is." She says games can be chastised for not being "indie" if they are not artsy enough, are focused on a non-entertainment goal (for example, games for health), or use an interface that isn't typical of electronic games. Many games in the Indiecade Lab currently are pieces that many people in the game community would not consider games, Pearce says, because they are web-based or do something that falls slightly outside the norm of what it means to play a game.

Jill Duffy is the editor of

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