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  • The Indie Ethos

    - Jill Duffy
  •  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.


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