Defining Indie: The Guidelines
Foreword: This blog by Wolfire Games was very helpful in providing the information necessary for fleshing out this article. A thanks must also be given to Krillbite Studio and Compulsion Games for their input.
At eGamer we have been debating the definition of what exactly is and is not an indie game. It’s a die hard process where we’ve come to some very promising conclusions in detailing what exactly constitutes something to be “indie”. One needs to understand that defining indie games involves an endless gradient of grey area, where differentiation is quite difficult. As the developers from Among the Sleep, Krillbite Studio, argue:
Ultimately, I don’t think it’s important to exclude many shades from the “indie” umbrella. Every developer has to find the approach that works best for them, which makes it challenging to draw a hard line in the endless gradient.
With this in mind, we at eGamer are proposing guidelines for what we consider to be indie. We have also consulted indie developers on their perceptions of the genre. All of this is done in the hopes of achieving a greater understanding of what we mean when we refer to a game as an “indie” game.
Traditionally, and as defined by Wikipedia, indie games can be understood as:
Video games created by individuals or small teams generally without video game publisher financial support.
However, many gamers and journalists alike argue that there is an “indie spirit” which permeates the nature of indie development, and can be seen in indie games themselves. In the Independent Games Festival (IGF) rules this is more so evident, as the rules stipulate requirements for being an entrant such as:
1. Independently Created: The Nominating Committee must be confident that the submitted game was created in the ‘indie spirit’ by an independent game developer, fulfilling the question asked on the entry form. The Nominating Committee reserves the right to refuse any game at its sole discretion.
2. Use of Third Party Technology: Games that make use of third party game engines, middleware, or other software or technology are only eligible if the Entrant has all necessary rights to commercially publish the game. For instance, if an Entrant does not have full legal rights to commercially release a game using the Source engine, that game is not eligible for the Contest.
It comes down to the vague distinguishing factor of a developer developing a game in the “indie spirit”–which is in no way strictly defined. There is the other factor of which is legal ownership of the commercial publishing rights of your own game, which can be pretty confusing when many indie developers employ the usage of third party engines. Wolfire Games provided their own unique characteristics for distinguishing indie games from other games, and this incorporates some of the elements of previous definitions which are:
1.Motivated by passion, not money
Money is always a factor, but for indie developers it’s an incidental logistical concern (i.e. the project can’t continue if we starve to death), not the primary goal.
2.Designed from the trenches
The developers in charge of the project’s direction are also the ones doing the grunt work, such as programming and creating artwork.
Yet, there is a need for some explanation and elaboration upon the other factors that affect indie games and how they are defined. Such as the relationship between the indie developer and the publisher. Although the above definition does tell us that money is not the pursuit of the indie developer, but rather the indie developer is motivated by their passion for making their personal project into a full fledged game. It is also understood, and we agree with the definition provided, that the developers are in control and in charge of their game’s direction.
It is important and vital to note that this is where the “spirit of indie” emanates from, and that relinquishing creative control to the pull of a publisher on any terms means that the label of “indie” is inapplicable. We feel that in such a case the indie spirit of the developer is compromised and their game is no longer an “indie game”. So what does this mean? There is a third characteristic, or factor, that can be used to separate indie games from other games, which is the issue of dependency (or level of autonomy) on a publisher which undermines or adversely effects the creative control of the game by the indie developer. However, we feel that if an indie game has been developed without the aid of a publisher until completion, and following this the developers receive a publishing deal, without comprising the indie developers’ creative control of the final product, then a game can still be indie. Let’s break this down.
When an indie game is developed, its development is motivated by passion. Money is not the strongest concern. Rather developing a game of which the developers have creative freedom and can freely express themselves in the pursuit of their own personal project. Essentially, what they want from their own game is king. Financial worries are secondary.
Indie developers work on their respective game with a singular focus of partaking in all the tasks of game design and game development, and fulfilling many roles which would otherwise be taken up by many people in a bigger AAA studio. In essence, indie developers are jacks of all different kinds of trades and have a Do-It-Yourself mentality that permeates a game’s development. They therefore assume major creative control over the development of a game.
There is no dependency of the indie developer on a publisher in the process of completing their original game. ‘Dependency’ in the case of indie games means the influence of the publisher over the developer due to the financial support that the publisher may provide. In order to be indie, an indie developer’s creative vision must in no way be hampered by the goals and prospects of a publisher. Funding can be provided at a later stage when a game is in need of distribution channels such as XBLA, Steam and PSN. Therefore indie game development is characterised by a lack of financial support from a publisher, and we agree with this. If the publisher in any way compromises the integrity of an indie game or influences its development directly, and affects the developer’s vision for the game, then the game can no longer be considered an indie game. Freedom of control is needed in order for a game to be indie. This vital element is referred to as “autonomy”. The developers for the game Contrast, known as Compulsion Games, had this to say about autonomy:
Indie spirit, financial control, etc, it all comes down to the degree of autonomy you have. Now, in a sense, you never really have complete autonomy – there are always constraints. They may be financial (you might not have the cash to create the type of game you want to create), time based (if you take too long, your game may lose relevance as the industry develops), technology based (you want to build something, but can’t, eg due to a limitation in an engine) or, as you have said, control based (being under the thumb of someone else).
These are our guidelines for what we consider an indie game to be, and by extension games which may not fit neatly within the indie label. It is a really difficult line to tread, because so many games may embrace an indie spirit, but can be influenced in their creative development directly by a publisher. This may compromise the singular vision of a game’s creation. Yes, there are teams which self-identify as “indie”, but at what point can they still be considered “indie”?
It is also important to understand what labelling a game “indie” involves, and what the consequences and assumptions are. However, there are technicalities which need to be brought to the surface and discussed. This is what this article and our guidelines for indie games attempts to do. There is no true definitive definition for what constitutes an indie game. What we offer are some guidelines which include various perceptions about indie games, and what we feel they appear to be. The indie landscape is a forever changing one, and there are always exciting developments around every corner.
As Compulsion Games said, “I wonder whether it is helpful to have a “definition” of indie at all. Indie spirit is also about inclusiveness and enthusiasm – who is to say who is indie and who isn’t? Acknowledging that it is human nature to categorise/create taxonomy, I feel like we’d be acting like dicks if we started excluding teams that self-identify as indie, even though they have some publisher funding.”
These are the guidelines we will use to categorise games as indie. As time goes by, we will most probably update this article with new developments and progressions.