‘Indie’ Means Nothing, And It’s Everyone’s Fault


Man, oh man. The big question: What is ‘Indie’? You’d think a publication that has the word ‘Indie’ in its title and is staffed by primarily ‘Indie’ fans, all of whom write exclusively and exhaustively about anything and everything ‘Indie’ under the sun, would sorta know what the bloody word actually means by now. Well, turns out we don’t. Turns out no one does. Turns out not a week goes by where I don’t hear someone meekly ask their fellow gaming compatriots whether or not GAME X is ‘Indie’ or not, only to be subsequently thrown aback by the crashing waves of wildly conflicting opinions on the matter until they find themselves gasping for air as they plunge deeper into an ocean of bickering, twisted logic and malice. Turns out this is a problem. So I’ve decided that for the good of all the game lovin’ peeps everywhere that I’m gonna figure this shit out right here, right now!

Alright then. Let’s start this thing from the top: ‘Indie’ is short for ‘independent’, right? And a game studio can be ‘independent’, i.e. not owned, funded or aided by the money of a publisher. So………..there ya’ go, then! Problem solved! Jeez, why have you guys been struggling with this one for so long? This question’s a cinch! Yup. Without a doubt I have just crafted an ironclad definition that, as a community, we can all agree is 100% accurate:

In-die   noun
1.      A video game created by a development studio that is ‘independent’ from publishers.
HAHA. Oh man. I even fooled myself for a sec there! I mean, good lord, if only it really was that simple! Well, actually it would seem there’s plenty of people out there who DO think it’s that simple, and are more than willing to cause one hell of a ruckus about it…….when it suits them. For a rather unflattering example, one need only think back to the 11th month of the 32nd year of our lord Notch (known to some as May 2012), when the unholy titan of evil, Electronic Arts, dared unleash a plague of cut price video games upon the fair province of Steam. The name of this abomination? The EA ‘Indie’ bundle.

Fallacy Of A Holy War

All at once, what seemed like the entire population of planet Earth (along more than a couple of douchebags jumping on the bandwagon) did cry out in furious anger, “THAT. IS NOT. INDIE.” Yes, this was an issue that got the hardcore fanatics so wound up that they started polishing off their pitchforks and declared a jolly good witch hunt for anyone even vaguely involved in the affair.

“Sacrilege, that’s what it is! Everyone knows that contracts with big, mean ol’ publishers are strictly forbidden!”

Which, even in retrospect, was a completely rational response to the whole thing really. I mean goddamn, HOW DARE THEY DO THIS? A publisher of all things trying to pass off clearly tainted tripe like Deathspank (which, sarcasm aside, did kinda suck) and Shank 2 as pure aryan Indie products! Sacrilege, that’s what it is! Everyone knows that contracts with big mean ol’ publishers are strictly forbidden! ‘Tis our highest law after all, one punishable only by incessant whining and a few poorly worded Tumblr posts!

Well, hey, guess what? Under that same stupid logic, Super Meat Boy ain’t ‘Indie’ either. Nor is Fez, Braid (i.e. the stars of Indie Game: The Movie) Bastion, Journey, Limbo or innumerable other members of the Indie pantheon many of us so willingly worship without question. It’s no secret that they all had contracts and deals with publishers, which is why most of us have even heard of them in the first place! If we really want to move forward as a culture, then we’ve gotta face facts: simply looking at whether the devs have colluded with a publisher is a terrible barometer for Indie credibility. So please, for the love of God, let’s stop doing it!

So now that we’ve put that BS aside for a sec, let’s have a think about what it is we’re actually trying to imply with the word ‘Indie’. That’s easier said than done of course, as it’s probably one of the most loaded words in the English language. It conjures up vague (with a lot of emphasis on the ‘vague’ part) images of small teams working on shoestring budgets and under impossible deadlines in order to create some revolutionary tour de force that’s full of so much raw passion and creativity that it that changes the way we look at games forever*.

*Indie speak for “it’s a 2D 8-bit pixel platformer with some random physics puzzle bollocks thrown in”

Indie Definition Attempt – Take Two

Right, so how about this one then?

In-die   noun
1.      A video game produced by a small development staff with extremly limited resources.

Hmmm. It sounds alright, I guess. But I think we may need a case study to test this new definition. Let’s saaaaaaaaay……….Hawken.

Take a deep breath and read that one again. E. Three. Party.”

You guys, Hawken is really cool. I mean REALLY cool. It’s about robots shooting each other n’ stuff, plus the graphics are so shit-hot that it’s like getting a sneak peak at high-end AAA gaming circa 2 years from now. I would hope that I don’t need to explain to you why both those things make Hawken totally bitchin’. But that’s irrelevant really. What matters here is that it’s ostensibly an ‘Indie’ project, at least according to the world at large (e.g. you’ll find recent talk of it on almost all major Indie gaming blogs). You can easily see why people would call it Indie too. After all, the Hawken dev team did start off as just a small bunch o’ dudes equipped with nothing but a dream, some cheap/free software and a garage turned into a makeshift office. That my friends, is Indie as shit.

Now, here are 4 reasons why they also make a mockery of ‘Indie’ definition I just mentioned.

  • The dev team now have over 10 million freaking dollars of venture capital funding behind them.
  • They threw an E3 party. Take a deep breath and read that one again. E. Three. Party. Seriously guys, fucking Snoop Dogg was there!
  • I reiterate: Snoop Dogg.
  • Oh! And they totally have a publisher contract now, for those of you that care.

What this tells us is that the whole “tiny team, tiny budget” angle is also total bunk, because despite everything I just said, there’s many people out there still insist on calling Hawken an ‘Indie’ title. Even with all the money, the publisher, the glitz and the Snoop Doggy doggness, in many a person’s heart Hawken still encapsulates what THEY feel is in the spirit of the ‘Indie’ movement. Crazy people like me, for instance.

I’m in yo’ vocabulary, messin’ with yo’ words

I call Hawken ‘Indie’ because to me, all that word means is that the devs are the ones callin’ the shots on how the game gets made, and not some big publisher executive dude. Is that what most people think? No. Is what “most people” think also what most OTHER people think? No.

“It’s not a mystical rune forged by the elder gods, one whose power can only be divined after years of careful study and deliberation with fellow scholars.”

And really, that’s the root of all evil here. We all got into this weird scene for different reasons. Some people detested the direction that the AAA sector was/is going; some people like to see tributes to the games of their childhood, and others just like being hipster wankers. But whatever our reasons were, ever since we got here we’ve all (myself included) been like, “Oh, ‘indie’ means this” or “Actually, ‘indie’ means that”. We’ve all been so obsessed for so long that the word ‘indie’ represents our particular attachment to the scene, that we’ve forgotten what ‘indie’ actually even is.

Protip: It’s a word.

It’s not a mystical rune forged by the elder gods, one whose power can only be divined after years of careful study and deliberation with fellow scholars. It’s a word. A combination of sounds we can make with our mouths. A sound that only exists so that we can label the stuff we wanna talk about without having to spend all day explaining it. That’s it. That’s all it is, and all it ever will be. A silly little label we made up for convenience’s sake. A label we abused the shit out of. A label we tried so hard to cram as many possible conflicting emotions and opinions into at once that now all we have left is…….this:

In-die   noun
1.     A word that now means nothing, and it’s everyone’s fault.

Less Dictionary Worship, More Game Worship

I can’t help but feel we should be looking to the music industry for guidance. Sure, maybe they get a little carried away with the whole labelling ‘thing’ sometimes, but it sure wouldn’t hurt if we took a cue from ‘em here and there. Think about it; there’s regular-ass Grunge and there’s Post-grunge, so why can’t there be Indie and Post-Indie? Or Alternative Indie, or Heavy Indie, or Acoustic Indie, or Indie-Indie or just about anything that’ll let us all have our own way with the word and end this zero-sum war? And since when did we become so bloody obsessed with trying to give our scene one singular absolute label anyway?

Perhaps we’re just victims of our own success. Whatever the ‘Indie’ thing is, it evolved faster than any of us could have imagined. Day by day, the barrier for entry in the game making biz is getting lower, making every year feel like the dawn of a new era of progress and discovery. But meanwhile our lexicon has been content to simply sit on its arse all day and fiddle with its navel. Maybe with a bit more time to mature we’ll manage figure that part of the puzzle out, but it sure don’t look like that’s happening any time soon.

“Come on guys. Can’t a good game just be a good game?”

So, wanna hear my short term solution in the meantime? Stop giving a shit and count your blessings. Seriously, have you heard audiophiles talk about the difference between Grunge and Post-grunge? That stuff is the very definition of monotony! Hell, even if we did subcategorise indie, we’d probably still spend way too long arguing about what game goes in what category, and far too little time actually playing the damn things.

I’m sure there are plenty of the fanatics out there who’d crucify me for showing such indifference over the most debated topic of our age and all, but……. hey. Come on guys. Can’t a good game just be a good game? Does it really matter THAT much what ‘indie’ really means? Can’t we just…. oh…it does matter? Well. Alright then.

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  • http://www.strangemasks.com whitetigle

    I hear you ! And I agree.
    We all started as indie and just wanted the same thing : getting known, make some money, give some food to our children and then make new games. That’s it :)
    Is andy warhol indie ? Are artists indie ? What is indie ?
    Trying to make our games available on Steam, the money machine, is that Indie ? Giving a 20% share to “indie” publishers, is that an indie ecosystem ? What’s the difference with Apple ?
    Trying to use our networks to spread the word in order to get known, is that indie ? Using our fame to easily get published, and push less than average games is that indie ?
    But what has happened is that there’s money to make with the “indie” hype… And a lot of people making money on the back of indie developers.
    So I agree that indie does not mean anything today.
    A good game is a good game.

    • Gerrard Winter

      Man, if only more people could see the world as we do……

  • That_one_voxer

    Am I the only one who laughed through this entire thing? It’s hilarious how wrong you are. You think you know what indie means? So be it, but I disagree. So good day to you sir, and diamonds. To. You.

    • Gerrard Winter

      If you’re being sarcastic, then I know I made something worth parodying. If you’re being serious, then you just proved everything I said was correct.

      Either way, thank you.

  • TheFlyingWelshman

    Well this is convenient. My friend just asked me what made a game “indie” and I had no way of explaining it to him. I now have this article to do it for me. Thanks.

    • Dom

      Well this is convenient. I just asked my friend what made a game “indie” and he had no way of explaining it to me. I now have this article to do it for me. Thanks.

    • Gerrard Winter

      Glad I could help!

  • http://www.tinytycoonsgame.com Lizard&Co

    What bothers me is the negative reaction certain people give games that call themselves ‘indie’ – I know people who lose all respect for self-proclaimed ‘indie studios’ because they feel they’re trying to ride a trend. A good game is a good game regardless! Like most mediums, new tech is making game design wildly accessible and we’ll need to produce all sorts of sub-definitions to explain them. Then there’s the whole concept of VC-backed “small independent studios” (which is what we are) who are self-published but have some funding to work with. What are we?!

    • Gerrard Winter

      Yeah, people really need to chill. The most important part of an ‘indie game’ should be the ‘game’ part!

  • Steve

    There is a lot of ambiguity that goes along with the word “Indie.” I think that is why it’s so interesting. It’s a great breath of fresh air from the modern gaming scene, as you never know what titles will pop up. However, I feel like people need to stop worrying about what makes a game indie or not. Just enjoy playing the game. I also love Mario Kart just as much as Cave Story. I love Halo, and I love Minecraft. Truth is, these are all fun, well made games. So why are we so bent out of shape if something is indie or not? Why not just be glad it’s fun! So EA called their bundle “indie.” But indie is the most ambiguous word ever. And honestly, those titles were as “indie” as EA could get. Why not just happy to see Shank 2 on sale for cheap?

    Why can’t we all just get along =)

    • Steve

      Also, good article Gerrard. It was a fun read.

      • Gerrard Winter

        Thanks so much for your feedback and thoughts! Hopfully this will be one of many such articles from me in the coming weeks.

  • Wenceslao Villanueva

    What I want to know is what game is it on the right side of that comparison pic? The one labeled 2012. Guess I’m not “indie” enough to know.

    • Chris Priestman

      That would be Dust: An Elysian Tail. Only available on XBLA, at the moment at least.

      • Gerrard Winter

        Indeed, and it comes highly recommended! (from me anyway)