Indie Games and Game Categorization

Indie Gaming is a tricky topic. Indie games are defined as “Video games created by individuals or small teams without publisher financial support.” The definition itself is fairly clear; however the line between “indie” and “non-indie” games becomes blurred based upon the interpretation of indie by individuals and corporations.

A good example of just how blurred the line between indie and non-indie games is Chucklefish Games. They are referred to as an “indie” games company which develops indie games… when in fact they are also a publisher. This is important because the technical definition of indie states that these games cannot have a publisher, and yet two “indie” games (Wanderlust Rebirth and Stardew Valley) are published by Chucklefish.

 

Wanderlust Rebirth, published by Chucklefish

Wanderlust Rebirth, published by Chucklefish

 

“Indie is being able to make what you want without a publisher or client breathing down your neck. There are big indies and there are small indies but as long as you’re making the game for yourself, I think you can still be indie, no matter what your team size is.” – Alex Gold, director of Dark Scavenger

Stardew Valley was developed entirely by Eric Barone, and was planned to be self-published until a little while ago when it was announced that Chucklefish Games would be publishing it. Should Stardew Valley still be considered an indie game?

An interesting thing about the definition of indie games is that it never specifies anything with regard to sales, meaning that even if an indie game outsells a AAA game it is still considered to be indie. Therefore, unlike some people think, there should not be any connection between sales and the indie label.

Stardew Valley by Eric Barone

Stardew Valley by Eric Barone

“An indie game is one which is made by an individual or small team driven primarily by passion. Indie developers make games because they like making them, not because they have to.”  - Andrew Sum, creator of Dungeon Dashers

At least part of the blame for the industry’s confused interpretation of indie is because of companies abusing the term. A great example of such abuse is EA’s “indie games bundle” which was released on Steam in May of 2012, containing Shank 1 and 2, Gatling Gears, Warp, DeathSpank and DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue. All of these games were developed by small studios but published by EA, technically making them non-indie.

I believe that journalists in the gaming industry can help the situation by putting at least a little more focus on how games they’re covering are being funded and what makes them indie if it is claiming to be indie.

 

EA's "Indie Games Bundle"

EA’s “Indie Games Bundle” on Steam

“It’s not about trying to be professional. A lot of people come into indie games trying to be like a big company. And what those game companies do is create highly polished things that serve as large of an audience as possible. The way that you do that is by filing off all the bumps on something. If there’s a sharp corner you make sure that’s not going to hurt anybody if they bump into it or whatever. That creation of this highly glossy commercial product is the opposite of making something personal. Things that are personal have flaws. They have vulnerabilities. If you don’t see a vulnerability in somebody you’re probably not relating with them on a very personal level. So it’s the same with game design. You know it was about letting me take my deepest flaws and vulnerabilities, and putting them in the game… And let’s see what happens. ” – Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid (Indie Game the Movie)

Perhaps we’re just looking at this in the wrong way. Another way people tend to describe indie games is by calling them the innovators of the games industry, which can be true. Indie games do sometimes innovate, and the top-rated and best-selling ones typically do. However, this isn’t always true. While I’d love to say that indie gaming is all about innovation, often it really isn’t. Indie developers and studios also need to feed themselves, so they are often just as worried about turning a profit as big publishers and studios are. This isn’t necessarily a problem, although it does mean that even indie gaming tends to follow trends, meaning that many of the same type of game are sometimes released within a short period.

Braid by Jonathan Blow

Braid sold over 55,000 copies on day one

“In our view, an indie game or indie developer is simply one that is independent from a publisher or a game in which the developers call the shots for how the entire game is made. For us at Superboss Games, that means being able to do things that are riskier gameplay wise and closer to our real vision of how that game should be which we think is important for new gameplay experiences.” – Rob Storm from Superboss Games

One thing I think we can say for sure about indie games is that they tend to be new IPs. Publishers are often focused on milking what they can out of their big money making franchises (ie Nintendo with Pokemon or Ubisoft with Assassin’s Creed). Just think about it… when was the last time Nintendo developed or published a new IP? I can’t think of any recent examples. Publishers are often reluctant to try anything completely radical because it’s outside of their comfort zone and outside of our comfort zone as gamers. Gamers today are usually more comfortable with iteration rather than innovation, meaning that we like (or are at least more comfortable with) things that are familiar to us rather than things that are completely radical and unheard of.

Project Stormos by Superboss Games

Project Stormos by Superboss Games

Of course, that’s not to say big blockbuster titles are lesser than indie ones, because that’s absolutely not true. A big problem that’s forming right now is this division being created between AAA games and indie games. In the end, they’re really not that different except for the way that they’re created. They’re both designed to entertain gamers, so why would we try to divide the two? It doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, the worst of it being the indie elitism that I’ve been seeing in recent history. This elitism is the categorization and segregation of indie games from non-indie games to the extreme by gamers and developers; These people are compelled to separate the two because they feel that indie games are the only good type of game on the market. Indie games and AAA games can indeed exist in harmony, contrary to what some people seem to believe. Both of these types of game creation have value and both of them have produced some pretty amazing games.

I’m going to pose a question to you. You’ve got to answer honestly, otherwise there’s no point in even discussing this. If a game is good, does it really matter much how it was made? Does it matter whether or not a video game is developed independently by an indie development studio or by a big publisher? Does the way the game was made actually have any sort of impact on your experience?

Of course it doesn’t. In my mind, the very notion of that is ridiculous. Obviously a good game is still a good game, regardless of who it was developed by. To me, it doesn’t matter if a video game was made by Electronic Arts or Chucklefish Games. Don’t be a fanboy, if you want to objectively judge the quality of a video game, you must put past experiences aside and only focus in on the now. I say this because although there’s been a lot of uproar and controversy over EA lately, they are still capable of making good games and the judgement of games developed by them can’t be influenced by anything else other than the elements of the game. As gamers, we need to get out of the habit of segregating games. If EA makes a good game it is still a good game, regardless of the fact that they are a publisher rather than an indie development studio. This is also true in reverse, indie games are not necessarily lower quality than games made by big publishers. Elitism (both in indie games and in AAA games) is not a good thing and is rather unhealthy for the industry… something that we need to stop.

Minecraft by Mojang

Minecraft recently surpassed 10 million sales on PC

“A game made by a large studio that isn’t backed by a large publisher. Since they usually don’t have a large budget they have to rely on creativity to sell their games.” – James Scott, Independent Video Games Journalist

At the end of the day, no matter what anybody says, there really is no universal interpretation of what indie games actually are. Nobody I asked about it seemed to be 100% sure, and all were wary about providing an answer as it’s a very difficult and loaded question… one that requires a lot of thought. One thing that I do want to see stop though is this idea of indie games being superior to AAA titles and vice versa, as it’s absolutely not true and judging a game whether it was made by a large company or small studio is stupid. What constitutes an indie game is subjective, what constitutes a good video game is not.

All opinions represented here are my own unless otherwise noted and do not necessarily represent the views of The Indie Mine or any of its staff.

© 2013, The Indie Mine. All rights reserved.

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Author:Taylor Whaley

Hi, my name is Taylor Whaley, and I go by the username of RegretZero. I am a video games journalist who's been into gaming for over a decade now. My first ever games were Super Mario Bros Deluxe and Pokemon Gold. I write on both a site of my own and on The Indie Mine, with my main focus being the indie segment of the gaming industry. I write all sorts of articles, ranging from reviews to editorials. You can follow me on twitter @RegretZero.

11 Responses to “Indie Games and Game Categorization”

  1. May 9, 2013 at 5:32 am #

    When a corporate piece of shit like Journey can be called indie and win all sorts of awards thereof, the term is completely meaningless.

    • May 9, 2013 at 5:49 am #

      I love seeing differing opinions, and yours might be the first negative one I’ve ever seen towards Journey. Interesting.

    • May 9, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

      Actually interestingly enough Journey is one of those games in murky waters between “Indie” and “non-indie”. Thatgamecompany (Not even kidding, that’s the name of the company) was contracted by Sony Computer Entertainment to make three games for the Playstation 3. Journey was one of them.. So it’s rather difficult to say for sure if it is or isn’t.

  2. May 9, 2013 at 10:22 am #

    “Should Stardew Valley still be considered an indie game?”

    Why wouldn’t it?

    Stardew Valley is completely free from publisher interference. Chucklefish imposes no deadlines, it imposes no requirements, it provides no funding, those that sign under Chucklefish enjoy complete and total freedom to do what they wish with their project. The notion of a ‘publisher’ changes when the only thing the publisher is actually doing is providing their brand name to draw exposure towards the game they’re bringing in.

    Chucklefish isn’t a publisher, and yet it’s serving only for the purposes of marketing. It’s doing PR work, but it’s not a PR firm. The notion of publisher gets murky here, but anyone who implies Stardew Valley isn’t ‘indie’ despite being worked on by a single man out of his home is being pretty silly.

    • May 9, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

      Thanks for the comment.

      A couple of things:

      - Publisher is defined as “A person or company that prepares and issues books, journals, music, or other works for sale.”. Chucklefish has been doing exactly that, so I would argue that they have actually become a publisher… Though perhaps not in the traditional sense, like the way we think of companies such as Ubisoft or Electronic Arts.

      - I think you’re taking the question I posed to the reader a little too far. I wasn’t necessarily implying that it should not be considered to be indie, but rather giving the reader some food for thought. I would personally consider it still to be indie, but not all people would and that is the point of this article

      I do of course enjoy hearing your opinion on the matter, so thank you for your comment.

      - Taylor

      • May 9, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

        I didn’t mean you were impyling it, just that anyone who would imply it is silly. Since there are people who have said that SV / TAW aren’t indie games because they have a publisher.

        • May 10, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

          Oh okay, well thank you. :)

          Personally, I do think that Stardew Valley is an indie game… especially because of the vast amount of work Eric Barone must’ve had to do on it just to get it to the point where it is now, and all by himself. He hasn’t had any outside help with development or publisher support until Chucklefish helped him out recently… which I was really happy to see. Chucklefish is a very promising company and I am looking forward to their upcoming titles.

  3. May 9, 2013 at 11:09 am #

    Wanderlust: Rebirth was in development for 4+ years before being published. It is still very much indie. Not one dime was put into development that was not out of Matt or I’s pocket. Having a publisher just allows us to reach a broader audience with our game, and still be able to make a living off of it.

    To put it into perspective, after 4+ years of development, without a publisher, we were making roughly $500-$800 in a year. That comes out to around $125-$200 a year ‘profit’. There are several kinds of publishers, you cannot simply generalize if a game is indie or not based on a publisher. Chucklefish did not pay us anything to create Wanderlust, we made it from everything we could financially and physically. Now there are other publishers that do pay for production, and expect to be reimbursed after release, I believe these are the types of publishers that make a game no longer indie.

    • May 9, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

      My apologies if I offended you based on the wording of the article.

      I was not necessarily trying to state that Wanderlust Rebirth was not an indie game, just trying to show the reader how the interpretation can cause the term to stray from its original definition. I would consider Wanderlust Rebirth to be an indie game, but the point was not to show that it was or wasn’t… Just that everybody has their own interpretation of what is and is not “indie”.

      I was also trying to show exactly what you are.. That games which have a “publisher” can still be indie, even though that’s not exactly the way you might think of it based off of the definition.

      Again, I apologize if you took what I said as Wanderlust not being an indie game, for that was not my intention. I hugely appreciate the comment however, especially the unique perspective you provided.

      Thank you for your time.

      - Taylor

      • May 10, 2013 at 9:00 am #

        Sorry if you took what I was saying as a defensive move, I was simply trying to clarify some things, and possibly shed some light on the situation.

        I agree that the term indie is thrown around a lot with little meaning anymore. When you have huge industry vets from large companies “leaving” to make their own game, and then when they release it every media site covers them because of connections, you start to wonder if they are even indie anymore. Having these connections because you were in the professional industry and still being called indie is a bit iffy to me.

        I wasn’t trying to accuse you of putting Wanderlust: Rebirth down, I was simply trying to shine some light on the events that happen behind the scenes. If you have any questions I would love to answer some regarding our experiences with publishers and development.

        I will point out that a lot of publishers are screwing indie games over, we know this first hand. The deals we were proposed were so scummy, basically leaving the publisher with 100% of the profits until they “recoop” their marketing expenses, but they are able to invest as much as they want into marketing. This could potentially leave the developers with 0% of the profits until the publisher decides they have been “paid” back; developers are basically paying publishers to do their job and make money off their game without having a hand in development.

        Chucklefish has been amazing to work with. They do not trying to rob us, and are very supportive of our games. I would be willing to say they are the best indie publishers around from our experience.

        • May 10, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

          “I agree that the term indie is thrown around a lot with little meaning anymore. When you have huge industry vets from large companies “leaving” to make their own game, and then when they release it every media site covers them because of connections, you start to wonder if they are even indie anymore. Having these connections because you were in the professional industry and still being called indie is a bit iffy to me.”

          I completely agree. That sort of behavior in the games industry to me is part of what’s damaging the term. Although technically indie, I don’t really think that’s what it means to be independent of a publisher. Normally developing a game without a publisher is a long and difficult journey, and those people don’t really get to experience that.

          “I would love to answer some regarding our experiences with publishers and development.”

          And I’d be thrilled to chat with you about that. If you please, send an email to taylor.whaley@theindiemine.com so we can get in touch.

          I’m glad you’ve had such a great time with Chucklefish, they’re a very promising company; One I’ve had the pleasure of getting in touch with on several occasions. I’m looking forward to all of their upcoming games. :)

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