Recently, I got into a discussion about what constitutes an indie game. I had watched the first couple minutes of the IGF/GDC awards and mistakenly thought Horizon Zero Dawn was being classified as an indie game. This caused a discussion amongst my local dev group (shout out to the Warp Zone in Louisville!). After thinking about it, here’s my opinion.
What is Indie?
Indie is a genre and a designation. Indie was born out of the idea of let’s make what we want to make instead of a clone of everything out there that the suits with their limited imagination and focus on “safe” money want. Indie is unique. It takes risks.
For a long time that meant any game made without a bankroll. Now as costs go up and alternative methods of funding like Kickstarter gain prominence, the distinction is less clear. However, much of the original concepts remain.Big budget requires a large audience, so it remains unlikely we’ll see risks taken by the large studios who are beholden to investors.
What isn’t Indie?
It’s not easy to define what indie is, but it can be easier to define what it isn’t. No one really argued that Horizon Zero Dawn was an indie game although it does stand out from the AAA focus on traditional shooters. There’s an argument to be made that Portal could be a gray area. It was born from the idea of students and morphed into the game we see today. The original version had a smaller team as Portal was just a piece of Orange Box (a larger game). However, I still don’t think anyone would argue Portal is indie either.
Where is the Line?
Actually, the only games I weren’t sure on were follow-ups to well-received indie games. Certainly sequels don’t take the same risks. They’re usually based around a similar formulas and have established audiences.
Is Edmund McMillen no longer indie since he has been successful in previous games? To my knowledge, he doesn’t use his money to fund the sort of large studios we expect outside of indie games. It’s still his small team.
Was ‘The Witness’ an indie game? It was made over several years and had a large budget. Yet, it wasn’t, at least in my opinion, designed for mass appeal.
From Wikipedia, The Witness was nominated for “Best Indie Game” twice, but in both cases it was also nominated for “Best Original Game”. That’s interesting. I like the concept of “Best Original Game” as it potentially rewards studios of all sizes for taking risks while separating out “indie” games.
What is Original?
That said, every good game makes some claim to some originality. The term “original” certainly doesn’t carry the same weight as “indie” and I do thing it’s important to protect the designation “indie”. Many of those passionate about games want to support the game makers that take risks or give out special opportunities to those passionate about their ideas, but lacking a large budget.
Really, the conflict is that indie envelops two categories. It is the category of unique games that stand out from their peers with new mechanics, depth, art, or style. While it is also the category of the small studio. The underdog desperately clawing their way into the collective zeitgeist. The concepts have been married for some time, but that doesn’t have to be true.
Personally, I’d love to see a world where the threat of bankruptcy didn’t loom large over passionate creators or prevent others from realizing their dreams. I don’t want to see smaller studios who get money in advance punished by revoking their indie card. The starving game creator is a reality we need to encourage. In fact, is it already out of date?
Kickstarter, Fig, and others have directly connected game makers with their fans (usually after significant development has already been done). Leaders in the industry have taken up the task of funding new comers. Ludum Dare provides a short term audience for passionate creators. Personally, I’d love to see a 2.0 competition where the top games are given a week to nurture their ideas and compete again with their newfound feedback.
For now, we’ll see. We’ll see if creativity trumps budget size or if standout games like The Witness become prevalent enough to earn their own category. We’ll see if games become an artistic expression funded by those who want to see its growth without direct financial gain. We’ll see if making games remains exclusively the arena of large scale companies and the underdogs risking their financial future for the chance to keep doing what they love.