What makes an indie game?

Though impossible to define in a universally acceptable way, indie games can sometimes be identified by what they are NOT. A recent academy poll asked, “In your mind, what disqualifies a company from being indie?” 62.5% cited having a publisher who has some creative control, while only 4.2% cited having a publisher otherwise. 54.2% also cited having more than 50 employees or buying and publishing another company’s game in development. The latter lost only a few percentage points with the caveat than another company’s indie game was bought. No one thought that financial success alone should have any bearing on indie status. Dominating a market made little difference as well, perhaps because companies can often dominate a market while operating at a loss.

Rainslick 3 was held out as a unique collaboration that made it difficult to classify “since it uses a licensed property and gives creative control” to a third party, Penny Arcade. One response noted, “The question in this survey is too broad. You can be an indie developer but not develop an indie game. For example, Klei is definitely an indie developer since they aren’t owned by a publisher (like, for example, Infinity Ward). However, I wouldn’t consider Shank, Shank 2, or Mark of the Ninja truly indie games since they were all published by a major publisher.”

Perhaps the most interesting perspective came from Amsterdam: “But even big companies can be indie from my point of view. Miyamoto was as indie as a dev can be back in the 80’s, even though he didn’t have any prior experience with making video games. He pioneered on his own idea of what an adventure could be…” Can a big publisher make an indie game, or are we conflating indie and innovation? Certainly anyone can innovate, but can anyone be indie? For now, the best answer seems to be “maybe,” as long as an outside publisher or investor does not have creative control. The key word here is control.

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