The Heart & Soul – What Makes It Indie?


I have always been a fan of looking behind a product and deconstructing it. Actually finding out what makes something tick, why a product was created, the purpose behind it and of course the most important aspect. The people behind it, on both sides of the product (both developer and the consumer).

In this series it is going to be my goal to deconstruct areas related to video games and really dig down into them. All opinions in this will be my own and I am well aware many people may disagree with some of the content, which is fine I encourage debate just know this is my own opinion on the matter.

This week I am going to be looking at what actually makes a game indie. It is a very divisive issue, and one that seems to of come up a lot recent, with many developers and studios ascending the ranks of fame and fortune. Which makes us ask the question, when do they stop being indie?

There are numerous ways to quantify what actually makes a game indie, the metrics used to judge this can be almost infinitely varied. Many people consider a studio who is financially secure to no longer be indie, others claim a studio who is a global brand will no longer be recognised as indie but do these metrics really matter in the larger scheme of things?

[private_insider] Minecraft-Screenwriting-2

You can try and quantify the meaning of indie as much as you like, the only thing that really separates indie from the mainstream AAA is the backing of a publisher, once all the other ideas are stripped back, this is the skeleton for which indie has been built around.

Indie is removing the shackles from an outside entity, allowing the developers to actually connect to the game they are creating and develop Their game, a game that is as much a part of them as a poet would say their poem is a part of them, or book is that of an author.

Indie is to me, not some quantifiable metric. It is not determined by the revenue stream of the company in question, it is not determined by the whim of the community at large, it is only determined by the developer. The developer who is imparting part of himself (or herself) into the game.

Video Games are more than just games for people to enjoy, of course this is their base function, but games have become so much more than just this. They are a modern day avenue for people to express themselves through. Indie games really allow developers to put across their personality, their flaws, their ideas and their humanity. To me an indie game actually contains a lot of the developer in the game, this is a pivotal difference to the huge monolithic publisher ran studios.

These video game tycoons aim only to churn out titles accepted into the mass market as a money making venture. Of course plenty of these titles have great gameplay, great stories and fun mechanics but do they actually have a heart & soul?

I am not aiming to discredit any type of game at all, it is only my aim to show how I feel the indie market differs to the AAA publishing market, because they both have two very different goals. It was the fantastic Indie Game: The Movie that really got me thinking more about indie games in this light.

Indie Game: The Movie

The movie really did show how much personality developers can and often do impart into a project they work on. It was heartfelt and very touching to see the documentary follow the very different developers. Probably the most poignant line in that whole film for me was the quote about what made Indie games special. It ran along the lines that the games did have flaws, they had jagged edges and where not perfect, but that is what gave them character and a unique appeal not seen in AAA.

It was actually on the back of this that got me thinking about starting a series like this, to express what I (and I am sure many others feel) think the indie game scene is all about. Developers like Edmund McMillen have always been a favourite of mine as he always managed to impart a lot of himself into his games.

A lot of his earlier games such as Aether really touched me. Edmund said that Aether resembled a lot of his thought on life as a child, he often felt alienated and did not care for the company of others a lot of the time, something I am sure most people can relate to.

In Aether you play as a boy who travels space looking for friends only to find out that everyone is equally as unhappy as you. It is a very moving and poignant game, one that I enjoyed a great deal and the movie coupled with The Basement Collection really hit the message home for me.


It is games like this that really allow the world to see developers intimately and explore much of their thoughts and fears. I really like the idea that games can and often are used as expressive tools to convey mood and emotion to the world. This is one thing that I love deeply about the indie scene.

This however is just one facet of what makes games indie to me, an important one sure but there is more. The second is the ability for developers to interact on a personal level to the community and create community driven games.

It is again about connecting to the developers, however this time it is more on a gameplay level. With many indie titles the developers actively ask the wider community for feedback and suggestions to be implemented. Of course this is carried out in many AAA titles as well but the main difference in the indie scene is THEY ACTUALLY LISTEN.

Some games are built around the idea of crowdsourcing, which allows the developers to find new creative solution to problems, from the larger community. This really is great and shows full involvement of everyone, because not everyone has the skills to create games. So this interaction between community and developer bridges that gap and allows the community to actually influence how a game turns out and after all these are the people who will be buying the game.


The idea of crowdsourcing in games over recent years has only increased. With the implementation of alphas and funding programs like Kickstarter a lot of the community’s input is looked for, in part to help develop the game.

The final point I am going to raise is one that I got from talking to indie developer Colin Northway the creator of Fantastic Contraption and Incredipede. I asked him for his thoughts about the indie community and he responded with one of the best answers I have heard on the matter.

I think a big part of the indie community being so good is that we don’t view each other as competitors like the AAA guys do. What’s good for SpaceChem or Spelunky or Minecraft is good for Incredipede. We don’t fight over the existing players, we’re all fighting to bring more people in.”

It is a fantastic take home point that the indie community is more like a family where everyone is working together to get the best outcome for everyone. This I feel is one reason indie games are so great. The developers don’t spend time worrying if their game is going to be a hit, but look at the community and often ask them and work with them to create something special. [/private_insider]

Everything can be measured with numbers and statistics, but this is not what the indie community is about. Being indie is so much more than just being an independent company, it is an identity, a badge, a label, that should be worn proud as an inspiration to be part of this community that has been forged. Being Indie is not about numbers… It is about people.

There are 5 comments

Add yours
  1. Wuthrer

    I like and share this point of view. Interesting article thank you !

    But how long will survive this community ? What’s going next ? I think all the indie stuff is quite new.

  2. Yukii Mal

    I think it will survive as long as it keep beeing real and authentic. I
    mean there are lot of huge developers and publisher who are selling
    games or promoting them as if they were indie. And if we start to call
    indie to any game in XBLA or to any game that last less than 2 hs, I
    think people will start devaluating the meaning of a truly indie game.

    Also I think that the entire indie movement became a big deal, because the big games company lost their innovation, or at least didn’t risk enough in that field, since they didn’t want to lose any money. That’s why we see games with a 5, 6 or and 8 at the end of every franchise nowaday.
    Maybe they are starting to notice that, and if they get innovative again there will be a lot of more interesting games. But that won’t mean the end to indie games, but a whole wide variety of games of both kinds (indies and AAA).

  3. Tom Killen

    I’m not totally convinced by this article. imo indie has its roots back in the 80s, when there was no formal discipline of game design, and all the designers were trying to figure out what a good game was. They weren’t necessarily trying to be explicitly experimental, it was more that no one really knew what a good game was yet.

    Then they discovered The Formula. Whilst at one point, FPS wasn’t even a genre (as then all FPS’s were Doom clones), it became a trope.

    This is great, game developers thought, we now know what makes a good game. And lo, everything was good, and modders began modding these FPS’s (I remember when I first hacked up Quake to use custom textures so that I could shoot pigs or ice cream cones, or whatever seemed funny).

    Then a sub-section of this modding community became explicitly interested in being experimental. It wasn’t about trying to work out what a good game was, it was about trying to do something weird, different, unexpected. It was explicitly trying to screw with The Formula.

    This is the real origin of “indies” imo. The idea of being “indie” isn’t about being self funded or self published, it’s about an independent mindset. Being indie is an aesthetic. thatgamecompany is totally indie, even though they get lots of money from sony, because they are trying to reinvent The Formula.

    On the otherhand, Zynga are not indie, and not because they make social games (social games can be indie). Zynga aren’t indie because they are trying to make The Formula, or find a New Formula – they aren’t trying to be “experimental” for the sake of pushing boundaries and exploring the medium. They don’t have the indie aesthetic.

  4. Sheila Robinson

    Good article. You can see the creativity and passion that goes into the development of many indie games. Some of the current mainstream games seem to have lost their edge as far as originality is concerned. Collaborating and sharing in the joy of my partner’s development of his indie PC video game has been a very rewarding experience.

  5. mark phillips

    Nice article, being an indie is in my mind a passport to creativity… we don’t have shareholders to report to, we don’t need to get buy in from the whole team before adding a feature. We do what feels right and iterate until it’s the best it can be.

    It’s an exciting time to be an indie developer, the barrier to entry has never been this low. I remember coding a simple 3D vector on the Amiga, the total intro had a little scroller, some music and a 3D vector and was 65000 lines of assembler… now imagine how much code would go into a game!!

    We also don’t have to deal with publishing houses and the suits behind them, we simply make something that we feel is fun and that hopefully has a market.

    So what can indie do, well they can change the “formula” because they aren’t (or shouldn’t be) afraid to experiment. I am personally amazed by the quality of the indie products out there and I hope it continues to grow and provide us with more fun products to play. ;)

Leave a Reply