Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Why Indie Matters

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 4, 2012


That label has been part of my life for about a decade now, since a little after it started replacing “shareware” as the term for those of us who made games without the benefit of publishers. Or, all too often, real budgets. But that isn’t to say it was a hobbyist movement. No, at the time, you had the Dexterity forums and all kinds of voices from the Association for Shareware Professionals explaining what it takes to “make it” as an independent software developer. The spectacular shareware success of games like Doom weren’t such ancient history at the time, either.

Who Are the Indies?

I’d left the mainstream games biz (at least the first time) with this funky idea that I could maybe make my own games and sell them, rather than being told, “No, we don’t believe there’s a substantial market for RPGs anymore.” (Yeah, those are the actual words from an exec from our parent company, Infogrammes / Atari. They did come around, didn’t they?) I had no idea how to do it. I had no idea there were other people really doing it, other than memories of the “shareware scene” and my brief glances at what was happening at the IGF whenever I attended the Game Developer’s Conference. But I did my research, found some forums, met some people, and learned that yes, indeed, there was an “indie” movement happening.  And – surprisingly enough – some of the games were really freakin’ cool. I became a convert, and as much a cheerleader for indie games as a developer. Here were these cool games that nobody else knew about! Someone should do something about that!

Really, the indie “scene” (as if there was any unified scene) really only had one thing in common: Freedom. They were going at it on their own, in spite of the industry and the press acting like Baghdad Bob and proclaiming that the industry was owned by the big publishers now, that everything was under (their) control, and that was as it should be. Their one unifying factor was a big one: They inverted the established relationship between the developer and the middlemen.

Traditionally the middlemen (publishers) bring in the money and the demands on what kind of game would be made, acting as a barrier to reaching the customers. The developers have to beg for contracts – or, if they have a game in development, have to beg for a publishing agreement from somebody or their game will never be released. Instead, with the indies, the developer makes the game on their own, oftentimes sell it directly to the customers, and any middlemen who think they can offer an interesting deal to reach a wider audience are welcome to participate. So while some indies had genuine antipathy for the “big boys” – or perhaps were seeking attention and contracts from them by doing what they were doing – for the most part the indies were exactly that: independent of whatever was happening on the “big business” side of the industry. They were using and building an entire underground network for making, distributing, selling, and acquiring games.

In other words, the overwhelming rule of the industry was that you needed permission to make games. Indies neither needed nor sought permission. They just made games.

Especially for those of us who saw the big money rise to power in the 1990s and do their best to turn a wonderful, creative new medium that we loved into a factory that merely cranked out product, this was a Really Big Deal to a developer (both good and bad). But as important this might be to the folks making the games, by itself it doesn’t mean much to those who play them. Yeah, you got your games a different way, but otherwise a game is a game. There were some other potential benefits that you might notice – such as direct contact with a developer who had a small enough customer base that he actually paid attention to you.  But those were indirect. Thus the complaint about “indie” not carrying too much meaning for you.

“What Does It Mean?”

As the players themselves discovered indie games, their impressions were much like those in the story of the blind men describing the elephant based on the part of it that they felt. Players saw a subset of indie games, and assumed that this was what “indie” meant. At one point, “indie” became synonymous with “casual games.” They were the “hot” category, which meant more indies made casual games, making a pretty substantial subset of indie games. The mainstream companies weren’t making them (yet). So to the guy on the outside, “indie” meant “casual.” Those of us who weren’t working on casual games found ourselves fighting a weird perception about what “indie” meant.

For some, “indie” meant “low-budget.” Which was again descriptive of a (large) subset of indies, but hardly the whole group. I mean, yeah, a “big-budget” indie game would make a AAA producer laugh, but not every game produced by the moderate-to-big publishers had a AAA budget associated with it, either. Barbie ain’t indie. But it ain’t AAA either.

For some, “indie” meant the opposite of “commercial.” Which caused a perception that Indie should mean “Free.” Again, pure B.S., but as Flash caught on among indies, it again described the bulk of “indie” games that many people saw, so thus the perception.

For many folks now, “Indie” is supposed to mean “hip.” Or something. It’s the realm of poor, starving artists who do cool artistic stuff. Oh, and if you actually make enough money at it to live on better than rice & beans and a tiny studio apartment, you aren’t indie anymore. Yeah. We totally kicked Notch out of the club, man. You gotta know pain to be an indie. Or some other silliness like that.

People keep assigning additional meaning to “indie” that doesn’t really exist. And yeah, in some cases we indies have deliberately fostered that perception. We sometimes get into arguments over it. But in the end, it must be about the games. Once again, what indie really means is that nobody has to give you permission to make your game. Some argue. Some create. The rest… play. That is still the important part.

“I knew Indie. Indie was my friend. And you, sir, are no Indie!”

Now indie gaming has “made it.” We’ve at least won some significant battles. The publishers no longer have the stranglehold on distribution – or upon the minds of the consumers – that they once did. And then this week, the very company that declared indies dead, beaten and irrelevent, the one that proclaimed that the indies were now powerless before the full might of the gaming empire, that “it is now impossible to ‘Blair Witch’ this business,” has branded a pack of games on Steam the “EA Indie Bundle.”

Yeah. My head about exploded when I saw that, too. The words “EA” and “Indie” just don’t belong that close to each other.  EA is such an incredible polar opposite of indie it’s an oxymoron. Or worse, like matter and anti-matter, destruction must result if they come together. If EA was trying to undermine and invalidate the indies by completely obliterating the term, that was a pretty good way to do it. Now even Rock Paper Shotgun is declaring the very term “indie” to be worse than useless and dead. I mean, if EA is using it, it’s totally jumped the shark now, right?

What people aren’t getting is that it has nothing to do with EA distributing indie games. That sort of thing has been happening for years, actually. Indies have been working publishing deals with bigger companies for longer than I’ve been associated with them. It’s not at all uncommon. Those casual games didn’t appear on the shelf at Wal*Mart by magic. But the people on the outside – the people new to this “indie” thing, who still have weird definitions of “indie” in their heads – the contradiction may seem more mind-boggling.

No, the ugly part is really about the branding. EA making money off the indies? Okay, yeah, weird, but not mind blowing in and of itself. But EA becoming a representative through branding of the “indie scene?” Okay, yeah, there’s something scandalous and ugly about that picture. While EA is welcome to work with the indies and cash in on indie gaming if it can figure out a way how, EA ain’t indie, and everybody knows it.  They can call themselves a chicken, too, if they want. But they still can’t squat and lay eggs.

But this is sort of the big culmination of some head-scratching from the industry over the “indie” thing – causing yet more head-scratching, which I think is exactly what EA would want. We have people who didn’t even know the word “indie” five years ago proclaiming that, “Oh, the word has lost its meaning!” My response is: “Yeah, it never had much meaning, so what?”

Not to the gamers, anyway. For the developers, indie has meant freedom and its accompanying responsibility. There’s nothing undermined by that with EA releasing a bunch of indie games under its label. Indie is still indie. The games existed before EA sold the bundle. The games will be around even if EA never does something like that again. No big deal. “Freedom” is not a category. It’s not a style of game. It’s not a brand. It’s not a genre, a budget, a marketing strategy, a life philosophy, a lifestyle choice, a political party, an industry, a business plan, or anything other than an approach to making and distributing games that bypasses (or ignores) the mainstream industry machinery. That’s it.

Why “Indie” Matters

So what’s in a name? What’s the value of labeling something “indie?”

To be honest, it has been kind of a useful label. For years we had that mainstream games biz machinery going on full tilt with a marketing message telling people that BIGGER IS BETTER. Yes, all caps, just like that. Bigger, more realistic, higher production values, more celebrity voices, bigger resolution, more light blooms per square inch, more more MOAR! So you had two generations of gamers who couldn’t look past the things the marketing folks told them was important.  If a game didn’t look as good as Halo, you were to immediately dismiss it from your mind, because if they failed to achieve that quality in graphics, what other qualities did they obviously skimp on, huh?

“Indie” has been a convenient term to reset customer expectations. So when you show a gamer a game, and they say, “What? It’s using 2D sprites, not 3D? What is this crap?” you can simply say, “It’s indie.” Then they might grudgingly give it a chance. Or not. And if they play it, they may still not like it. That’s fine. But then there’s a certain number who play it, and then like it, or maybe even love it. These are the people who find joy in something that they would never have discovered if it hadn’t been for the word, “indie.”

But we indies have been trying, for many years, to get people to respond that way to the word. It was our one weapon against a well-funded marketing machine that was telling the world that it was no longer possible to “Blair Witch” the industry ever again. It was our +5 Sword which we used it to carve out an exception to the BIGGER IS BETTER rule.

We succeeded – to a point. Now the industry is maturing, and the rank-and-file gamers are starting to pay attention to Things Indie. To look beyond the cover, to accept a game for reasons other than mind-blowingly realistic screenshots or celebrity voices and edgy television ads. Gamers are more and more willing to take a chance on an indie game. It’s progress. And maybe one day in a gaming utopia,  gamers of all stripes are willing to check out games based not on those superficial elements dictated by budget, but rather by what’s really important (which admittedly, for some folks, might be those superficial elements dictated by budget). There will be only Games. And we can retire the indie term.

But I’m not holding my breath. There’s always going to be a struggle between the big money guys who are trying (quite naturally) to dominate and monopolize the industry, and everybody else.  There will be times when the struggle is fierce. There are times when the sides will cooperate. There are times when they’ll try to co-opt each other. It’s the way the biz works. It’s always dynamic. It’s cyclical. The guys without the big marketing budgets and the teams of lawyers will have to keep coming up with guerrilla tactics to win gamers away from their far-better financed competition, and we’ll use whatever tools we have available. Including the term, “Indie,”  as fuzzy and hard-to-define and limited its meaning may be.

The Return of “What Does It Mean?”

Indie means games don’t need permission to be made. Indie means more games. Indie means more kinds of games. Indie means lots of crappy games.  Indie means weird artistic games. Indie means cheap clones. Indie means games on new platforms and markets that are too risky for traditional publishers. Indie means games on old platforms that are no longer supported. Indie means some incredible gems that would have never been released under the traditional model. Indie means new games in old genres. Indie means experimental games. Indie means games you never want to play. Indie means games you never could play. Indie is games with meaning, making you think about your life and your relationships with others. Indie is pure entertainment value. Indie is a domain of new developers making their first games. Indie is a sanctuary for experienced game developers fleeing the constraints of the traditional industry so they can make the games they always wanted to make. Indie is 2D games. Indie is 3D games. Indie is 4D or 1D games if they can figure that out. Indie is the primordial, chaotic mass of ideas bubbling, living, dying, and growing until emerging without boundaries upon the world in the form of games.

Indie means games.

Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 16 Comments to Read

  • Craig Stern said,

    Nicely written, Mr. Barnson. 🙂

  • Gareth Fouche said,

    Ok, I think you’ve managed to convince me that the indie title is worth defending.

  • JeffSullins said,

    Wow, what a post!
    Thought-provoking and inspiring.

    Now, if only I had a few more hours in the day to get my game finished so I could start on the next 3 projects I want to do…

    Indie is not enough time in the day to implement all your ideas because of the day job 🙂

  • Indie! « WaddlingDragon said,

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  • Jesse said,

    “Indie” is easy to define. It’s a shortened form of “Independent” and related ideas, like “developed by an Independent developer instead of a large corporation”.

    Where it becomes fuzzy is when the independently-developed game is published by a large corporation. Also fuzzy is when an independent (or small-ish) developer/company like PopCap is purchased by a big one like EA. After that, the PopCap standard of excellence (used as an example–they were/are excellent at their niche) will probably become diluted and fuzzy unless they–PopCap or any Indie developer insisted/insists on very specific legal terms defining how much content/game IP/etc. control the Indie developer retains after being ‘bought out’ by a large corporation, including whether the Indie can separate and go back to publishing games on its own terms if the agreement doesn’t work out as the Indie hoped..

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    There are a lot of independent developers who create games on behalf of the large corporations, though, Jesse. Another point where it gets fuzzy. An “independent studio” is simply a studio that is not owned by a publisher. But most (well, in the past it was most, that is probably not the case anymore) are not “indie.” Many of them would LIKE to be indie.

    And then you have a former employer of mine, NinjaBee. NinjaBee is their indie label. Very much indie. But the company also does guns-for-hire work for publishers (under the “Wahoo” label). Definitely NOT indie. Not much distinction for the customer, but a huge one for the developer. And it does trickle down to the player, as that distinction influences everything the developer does. It’s just not direct.

  • NintendoLegend said,

    I want to write some sort of long diatribe about the meaning of “indie” and its implications and history and current context and, and, and — but you just did it all. This is an excellent piece. Thank you.

  • pete said,

    This is very well written. Thank you. You have swayed me.

  • Corwin said,

    One minor correction. You said EA can’t squat and lay an egg. YES THEY CAN!! 🙂 (Metaphorically, at least)

  • delve said,

    Excellent semantic argument, made my evening.

    @Corwin: But EA’s eggs are all sterile. Indie eggs have a better chance at fertility. 😉

  • Han said,

    Brilliant. If it wasnt for Indie games I would’ve lost interest in games. I’m so over bigger and better. Games like To the moon and Dear Esther stays with you long after you’ve played it.

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  • Dan said,

    Very nice and inspiring article.
    You really struck a chord with this phrase.

    “Indie is a sanctuary for experienced game developers fleeing the constraints of the traditional industry so they can make the games they always wanted to make.”

    I’ll share your article around that’s for sure 🙂

    Thanks a lot

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I wrote an article about just that very thing a few years ago for the Escapist ( http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/issues/issue_161/5113-Going-Rogue ). It served exactly that purpose for me, and I discovered I was far from alone as a mainstream refugee gone indie. There’s a lot of us doing that. I can’t say the mainstream games biz is imploding, not with things like Diablo III breaking all-time sales records for the PC last week, or the continued blockbuster sales for the biggest console games putting everything short of Super Mario Brothers to shame. But I think it’s running up against the law of diminishing returns, and the harder it churns the more room it is making for the little guys like us.

    Working on hit franchises that everybody has heard of is a lot of fun. But in the end, we do this because we love games. No matter how “big.”

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