What Exactly is an Indie Game?

flower-game

This piece was done for Bitmob as part of our new ongoing monthly contribution on indie games.

Indie gaming is a growing sector of interest and popularity today. But what really makes a game indie? What does the term really mean? What’s the difference between games like Braid, Castle Crashers, and Flower?

It’s a slippery slope trying to define indie gaming since there is a lot of discord in the game-making community. Some developers think that to be truly independent, you have to be creating artistic experiments with mechanics that have never been experienced before. Others think it’s a mindset where you’re not letting money, marketing, and big business cloud the vision for your game.

I’m not going to try and come up with a definition. Instead of trying to pigeonhole a wealth of titles that are incredibly artistic, let’s talk about a few games: what makes them different and why they are (or aren’t) indie.

Page BreakThe game: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Why it’s not indie: Let’s start out with an easy one. Clearly Modern Warfare 2 is not an indie game just like Transformers 2 is not an independent film. An immense team of people at Infinity Ward developed MW2. Activision Blizzard, a huge, publicly traded publisher, owns the studio and paid for all the funding, salaries, and marketing for the game upfront.


The game: Shadow Complex

Why we’re getting closer: The game is a digital download for Xbox Live Arcade and was made by a small team at Chair Entertainment who published and developed the indie title Undertow.

Why it’s not indie: Epic Games (Gears of War, Unreal, etc.) acquired Chair in May 2008. They funded and oversaw Shadow Complex’s production and release.


The game: Flower

What makes it an indie game: If you’ve played Flower, you’ve experienced its artistry and uniqueness. The experimental gameplay mechanics, storytelling, and concept are all very unique and capture the indie spirit. Beyond “feeling” indie and being a digital download, Flower was designed by the small independently owned studio, thatgamecompany, whose members are very involved in the Independent Games Festival.

Why some may argue it’s not indie: thatgamecompany has a direct relationship with Sony and Santa Monica Studios as their games have only appeared on the Playstation Network. Sony does not own thatgamecompany, however.


The game: Castle Crashers

Why indies are jealous: It’s one of the biggest hits on Xbox Live Arcade and has made developer The Behemoth a ton of cash (it has sold over 1.5 million copies). The Behemoth was founded by four people — among them were Tom Fulp and Dan Paladin of Newgrounds fame — and has always seemed well funded.

What makes them indie: Their first title, Alien Hominid, was completely funded by the four founders via mortgaging their houses, cashing in 401Ks, liquidating savings accounts, and taking on second jobs. They ended up working with a publisher to get the original game onto GameCube but saw real success with its release on XBLA. Castle Crashers was also completely self-funded and published by The Behemoth and was featured and won awards at the Indie Game Festival.

Why some may still argue they’re not indie: They’re too corporate — a weak argument for sure but still something I’ve heard. Also, XBLA is evolving into a platform where substantial capital is needed for certification and publishing, making it harder for indies. The Behemoth’s success means that their team doesn’t share the plight of other indie developers.


The game: Braid

Why indies are jealous: Braid created a lot of buzz for indie games. It was a critical darling, receiving tons of incredible reviews and awards from the mainstream gaming press.

Why it’s indie: One guy coded and designed Braid: Jonathan Blow. He recruited and hired help for the art and music, but Blow supplied nearly everything else (including the estimated $250,000 of development costs). The game was the creative vision of one man — completely unencumbered by corporate influences.


The game: Gratuitous Space Battles

Why it’s really indie: Like Braid, GSB was coded and designed by just one guy. Cliff Harris (or Cliffski) of Positech Games not only funds his own projects, but he also self-publishes them on his own website, handles all the customer-support questions and emails, markets, codes his website, manages his forums, and writes his own blog. Positech Games is a one-man shop that embodies the work, risk, and effort it takes to be an indie developer.

Hopefully after reading about these games and studios, your interest in the field is piqued, and you’ve started to develop your own opinion about what makes something “indie.” For more reviews and coverage, check out www.indiegamemag.com. See you next month!




There are 7 comments

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  1. Gerald

    This is one great article showing in a great way what indiegames are and what makes them so special! I really like it. :-)

    Thanks, i´m gonna link to it in my descripton.

  2. EnvoyOfTheEnd

    A large problem for indie developers is their independance, in not having someone else to pay for marketing or PR.
    Many indie games are reliant on word of mouth, rather than expensive advertising.
    If you aren’t aware of indie game, and particularly weren’t aware of Braid, then you are looking in the wrong places for new games.

  3. Brandon Schmidt

    Good article. It’s a topic I’ve struggled with for awhile myself and it’s nice to know that others feel like there’s still no strict definition.


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