November 23, 2010

What Is Indie?

This was my first article for indiePub games, a new indie-focused site from Zoo Entertainment, a publisher. It was posted there about a month ago, but since my agreement with them allows me to post it on my blog, I figure it's probably best to put it here too.

So… This might not be the best place to admit it, but I’m not really sure what “indie” games are. I’ve done quite a bit of “student” game development. I’ve been making games as a “hobbyist” for a while. I’ve seen a lot of self-published games, too, mostly in the casual space. But I don’t really know how to define the “indie” scene. I’m not sure I’m even allowed to call it a “scene”. Maybe that’s too hipsteresque or something. I wouldn’t know.

At first I thought that “indie” just meant that the game was developed independent of a publisher. It wasn’t long ago that any mention of the dreaded publishers elicited snarls and gnashing of teeth. My opinion on the matter was pretty much entirely shaped by an excellent 2005 article by Greg Costikyan (founder of the commendable but ill-fated Manifesto Games) that revealed the evils of publishers and retailers for all to see. They’ll never fund you unless you’re making derivative schlock! Then, if they do fund you, they’ll take your IP! And then they’ll force you to alter your game until you don’t even recognize it anymore! Suffer not a publisher to live.

But then I kept having these weird encounters where I would find World of Goo on a retail shelf, Braid on XBLA, or Everyday Shooter on Steam. Aren’t these guys now, ah… dependent on Nintendo, Microsoft, and Valve? Sure, it was just distribution, but there were also privately-owned AAA development studios that only used publishers for distribution and marketing, and nobody called them “indie” as far as I could tell. Branden Sheffield already made this point more articulately than I: “Indeed, where is the line drawn? When you're partnering with Microsoft for the release of your game, how independent are you? More or less independent than the guys who just put out games free and don't worry about commercial success? Does it matter?”

So if indie doesn’t mean independent, what does it mean? My other sources, aside from the word itself, are the presentations, forum posts, and blogs of the indie developers themselves. Defining the term turns out to be a lot easier if you just jettison the etymology and start listing the traits of the prototypical indie developer. Indies are small and agile, unlike AAA studios. They’re informal, unlike our corporate nemeses. They help each other out with feedback and encouragement. Indies are creative, have vision, and don’t let outside forces spoil their art.

There’s a spirit of community and artistic integrity that quickly starts coming through. It wasn’t immediately apparent when I was trying to understand “indie” as a business strategy, but it becomes clearer and clearer as I listen to indie devs talk to each other and talk to their fans as they craft their next masterpiece. There’s something deeply inspiring about this nascent indie spirit. David Sirlin wrote about entering the indie game summit at GDC: “As soon as I walked in, everything changed. Everything was different here, the vibe, the people, the energy. This is the kind of thing I can't communicate to you [in] words… People help each other, they collaborate, they are rooting for each other to succeed. I really have to tell you, this is not made-up hippie bullshit.”

And I also keep picking up this vibe that indie games are finally coming into their own. Five years ago, Costikyan claimed that “in gaming, we have no indie aesthetic, no group of people (of any size at least) who prize independent vision and creativity over production values,” and that “astonishing, first-rate, unconventional titles like Darwinia or Rag Doll Kung Fu exist - but not enough of them.” Five years ago, the availability of indie games and the audience for indie games were disheartening and small. Now, indie games command attention. People are excited about them. I can’t go about my daily internet life without stumbling across someone frothing at the mouth with praise for Spelunky or Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress. Fun, focused games like Gratuitous Space Battles or AaAaAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity keep showing up and intriguing the hell out of me. I enjoy a blockbuster as much as anybody, but there’s an energy associated with the indie games scene, and I can’t get enough.

So now I find myself ready to dive in headfirst, and I feel like there’s a whole community of like-minded developers implicitly cheering me on, just as I cheer them. “These guys,” wrote Sirlin. “These crazy, passionate guys. It's like they all have the same kind of blood flowing through them, and I have it too.” I like these crazy guys. I think they’ve got the right idea. And if that makes me crazy too, well… I think that’s worth it. These crazy guys seem to be having the most fun.

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