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Tony Vilgotsky

What makes a game an "indie" game?

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Hello, dear colleagues!

Recently I had a long evening of reflections on the topic, what makes a video game an indie game? Of course, indie projects are the whole niche in this days, but it seems sometimes that when some people are talking about “indie games”, they just don’t know what they are talking about. For some reason many people think that being indie means to be a low-qualified person who is obligated to produce tons of clones of classic games which were hits decades ago. And when they come to game making, they even don’t consider an opportunity to create something more original and interesting. They deliberately produce all these clones. Moreover, with deliberately downgraded graphics, sound and mechanics, which makes sense when it comes to retro scene, but… retro scene is a separate scene and all the indie games don’t have to fit its standards. And then they complain: why nobody is buying this? I think that the answer is obvious: modern gamers prefer modern graphics. So why shoot your own leg, filling your game with pixels, which aren’t even “an art”?

I’m even silent about the gameplay clones. I think that there should be fewer of them, because indie development is just that thing that gives you freedom to be more original and implement bolder decisions. The world is playing Tetris for 200 years already (correct me if I’m wrong) - and nobody wants to play Tetris with crocodiles instead of bricks.

It’s sometimes even getting funny: recently I’ve joined a new team (as a junior writer), making a 3D action/adventure game Between Realms with Unreal engine. This is an indie team and indie game, but the goal is to produce a major hit. The game incorporates modern 3D graphics, cutscenes and professional voice overs. And when we posted some stuff from it on the Internet, some people just didn’t believe that we are actually an indie team! I think it’s because modern indie projects almost always belong to the pixel scene or notably simplified from the visual side. So, when we show our materials, some people don’t believe that we belong to indie niche.

Does it mean that one has to produce simple games with poor 2D pixel graphics to be considered an indie developer?

From my (and my colleagues’) point of view, indie development must be not a compromise between production speed, expense and quality, but a freedom to create a conceptual product which is not limited by obligatory to sell millions of copies. Those who are tied by this obligatory, are forced to produce standardized, so to say, “tentpole” projects. But with modern technologies the developer is able to create nice, commercially promising, but still an independent project. As developers, we want to raise the bar of indie standard and wish all the rest to reach the same with the games which would be not only original in terms of gameplay but also attractive visually.

What are you thoughts on this matter? Can a project with budget over $100 be called an indie project? What are the main features of typical indie game? What really makes a game an “indie” game?

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Definitions are usually susceptible to both interpretation and opinion in the gaming world, but I think the denominating factor is the lack of funding. Without funding or money flow, there is effectively no business. This doesn't have to mean the team is unprofessional or the produced games are low quality.

Other than that, why do you care how outsiders label your way of working?

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9 hours ago, Tony Vilgotsky said:

Can a project with budget over $100 be called an indie project?

The word you're looking for there is hobby project

Anyone who's aiming to actually make money, is running a business. And anyone who's running a business has to put a value on their own time... $100 doesn't get you one day's worth of work, let alone a whole game...

Indie games can easily have budgets of anywhere from $10k to $1M. That doesn't necessarily mean that they actually spend that much money -- but the "free labor" that the founders have put in could easily be worth such sums.

Also it's normal to have to hire contractors to do the development tasks that the founders aren't good at. For example, on of the first famous "indie games" in this recent usage of the word is Braid, which cost about USD $200k in actual spending (not including the hidden costs of Jon Blow's own time!).

No one argues that Braid isn't an indie game. 🙄

9 hours ago, Tony Vilgotsky said:

filling your game with pixels, which aren’t even “an art”?

...really?

9 hours ago, Tony Vilgotsky said:

And when we posted some stuff from it on the Internet, some people just didn’t believe that we are actually an indie team!

One of the downsides of punching above your weight (putting out something that looks close to the AAA quality level) is that people will treat you like a AAA company. People will expect updates that take 100 man-months to produce, every month. People will expect bugs fixed yesterday. People will expect customer service :D 

One good example of this is Wander, which is a simple exploration MMO made by a tiny, tiny little indie team on a shoestring budget... but, because they had nice CryEngine graphics, the public's expectations were much higher than what you'd expect from one programmer. So when it had hilarious bugs at launch, it quickly became a meme of "the worst game" instead of people having the patience to wait for bugfixes :| 

9 hours ago, Tony Vilgotsky said:

Does it mean that one has to produce simple games with poor 2D pixel graphics to be considered an indie developer?

No, that's what the people who try to define the "indie genre" tend to expect. But a genre of games and a style of development are two different things (and the people who try to define the "indie genre" are wasting their time)...

An indie developer is someone who develops games independently (not beholden to external stakeholders).

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Technically, "indie" just means your team isn't working with a publisher. You're going independent. That's not always good, and also its not always bad.

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Yup, "indie" and "independent" are thrown around casually and can mean many different things.

An independent studio generally means a full-fledged business that is not affiliated with a major company like EA or similar. They can be small with just a few people, or they may be large with several hundred people. Often these companies do ports or help provide assets and development support for larger projects.

Hobby projects are people working on their spare time, making a project because they want to. Generally they have no money, no resources, and engage in many legally risky practices like not having a corporation set up, not assigning rights so everybody maintains their own ownership of their contributions, and more.

When someone says "a group of us are making an indie game", I generally assume they're working a hobby project that is unfunded and will never see the light of day.  When someone says "We're an indie studio working with (some publisher)", I assume they've got a multi-million dollar budget and are working on a low-budget professional project.

Another term people have used but don't typically use recently is "homebrew", which has it's roots in sometimes-illegal liquor production. Homebrew games were often developed to run on unauthorized hardware, often requiring exploits, possibly-illegal hacks, possibly-illegal reverse engineering, and possibly-unlicensed software and hardware. It was neat to see someone's game play on a GameBoy Advance or similar systems, or programs that only run on console emulators for devices from yesteryear, but they were always somewhat of a murky area.

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