Perhaps one of the greatest movements in the history of the game industry is the rise of indie development in the late 2000’s. With the advent of widespread digital distribution, increase in instructional content available on the internet, and the introduction of affordable game development software suites, such as the Unity or Unreal engines, game development opened up to be available to the general public, and not just those lucky few who managed to get hired at an established studio. Likewise, said established studios were freed from the need to secure funding from large publishing companies to keep their doors open via crowd funding services such as Kickstarter or the topically named Indie-Go-Go.
But what exactly is an indie game? Well, the term indie is an abbreviation of the word independent, used to denote that the product was produced independent of a publisher. The way game development typically works—at least for studios who don’t have the financial base to self publish—is that a studio receives money from a publisher to cover development costs (paying employees, renting offices space, etc.), and in exchange, the publisher keeps the lion’s share of the game’s profits, if not all of them. So intuitively, an indie game is a game that decided to forego this process and self-publish the game.
The term indie is an abbreviation of the word independent, used to denote that the product was produced independent of a publisher.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with language, the truth is a bit more complicated. So what does indie mean? Does it still mean anything at all?
While in the beginning the term indie game really did just refer to independently published games, that definition no longer strictly applies. Case in point, companies such as tinyBuild [sic] and Chuckle Fish function not only as indie developers themselves, but also as indie publishers. Some examples of indie titles published by tinyBuild include Punch Club and Mr. Shifty. As for Chuckle Fish, they’re perhaps best known for publishing Stardew Valley.
Even if we were to disqualify the aforementioned games from being indies, there’s still the issue of games that are released independently digitally, but have a publisher for the physical release: for example, Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero whose physical version was published by Xseed. This would mean that only the digital version of such games as can be categorized as indie, while the physical versions are published titles just like any other third-party title. On the subject of first, second, and third-party games, I’ve even heard folks refer to Cadence of Hyrule as an indie game, even though it’s a Nintendo published game featuring Nintendo characters!
Clearly, the term’s usage has shifted away from its original meaning.
When I was first planning this article, I contemplated making my thesis that indie games were the new B-games. If you’re too young to remember the early-to-mid 2000’s when B-games were far more common, B-games were/are second-tier productions that didn’t have nearly the budget and polish of AAA games (which, now that I think of it, didn’t really exist back then in the same capacity that they do now) but often made up for it by being more experimental and original. Great examples of such games from that era are: Battalion Wars, Custom Robo, Drill Dozer, Ghost Trick, and Chibi Robo. Punch “B-game” into your favorite search engine now, however, and all you’re likely to get are a bevy of articles bemoaning their absence from the modern gaming industry.
B-games are second-tier productions that don’t have nearly the budget and polish of AAA games but often make up for it by being more experimental and original.
The notion of smaller-scale games with a greater emphasis on inventive game design initially led me to equate B-games with indie games. But after some more thought, I realized one massive issue: some indie games are AAA. Case in point, Yooka-Laylee received a massive 2,090,104£ ($3,266,205.52) on Kickstarter. Admittedly, that’s not the actual budget, as Kickstarter got a cut of that, but I think it’s safe to say that whatever they had leftover certainly wasn’t a “B-game budget”.
So having said all of that, we can rule out indie games being the modern incarnation of B-games.
The last possible thread connecting indie games is their aesthetics and themes. Let’s be honest, there is a certain look and feel common to a lot of indie games: subdued color palettes, narrative ambiguity, minimalistic synth-based music, and so on. Of course, there are just as many counter examples to these commonalities: Snake Pass, Octodad: Dadliest Catch, and the previously mentioned Yooka-Laylee just to mention indie titles with bright and cartoony aesthetics. Yeah, using aesthetic choices as a means of categorizing indie games is not only superficial, it’s also a waste of time.
Obviously, indie games aren’t a genre or aesthetic.
Okay, we’ve examined all the things that don’t define indie games, great; but that doesn’t answer the question, does it? What does indie mean?
I know, I’m disappointed too. While any of the above definitions can apply to individual games, I unfortunately just can’t think of a single, consistent definition that doesn’t come with a truckload of asterisks. That said, the way it’s used implies that it carries some meaning. The term indie game has an understood usage and context, even if it doesn’t have a clear definition. Most of the time, people can agree on which games count as indie games and which don’t. Ultimately, it’s sort of like the distinction between art and obscenity, “we know it when we see it”.