"What, did we finally run out of indie games?" That was my first reaction. My second reaction was slightly longer and more vocal. Now, I'm going to issue my third reaction in written form.
If you haven't heard about the Humble Indie Bundle (unlikely, but certainly possible), let me get you up to speed. The Humble Indie Bundle is the brainchild of Jeffrey Rosen and John Graham of indie studio Wolfire. These guys have been working for years upon years on a sequel to their anthropomorphic animal fighting game Lugaru. With no publisher backing them and huge amounts of time and energy expended on building the game's engine from the ground up, they found a way to fund themselves as they proceeded with development:
“One thing that we instantly noticed is that anytime Steam would take a bunch of games and put them together and discount the price, it would become the number one story on Reddit,” noted Humble Indie Bundle co-creator and Wolfire Games founder Jeffrey Rosen in a presentation at the 2011 Game Developers Conference. “I felt like I could do that, [that's] not too hard.”
The Humble Indie Bundle distinguished itself from Steam's bundles in a few ways. First, it exclusively offered games that ran on all three of the big computer OSes: Windows, Mac and Linux. Second, it let the buyer name his or her price and decide how to allocate the money among the developers on offer. Third, it donated proceeds to charity.
And last but not least, it was an indie bundle—the original indie bundle, in fact. Every game in the bundle was indie, produced by a small team on a small budget. In a few instances, the games got publishers late into development, but each of those games had been all-but-completed beforehand.
The Humble Indie Bundle went through four highly successful iterations by sticking to this formula; but in the fifth bundle, something changed. They included Psychonauts.
Psychonauts is not indie.
There is no single universally agreed-upon definition of “indie” in the gaming community, but there is an emerging consensus about some of its core features. “Indie” began as a shortening of “independent,” as in “created independently of any publisher.” That independence from publishers remains a core part of what it means to be indie.
The primary reason this independence from publishers has so much resonance is because of the regularity with which publishers interfere with the development of games, sabotaging the creative autonomy of the developers. Among major publishers, marketability has historically trumped every other consideration. In this sort of environment, “created without a publisher” essentially means “created with the possibility of artistic integrity.”
Merely being independent of outside publishers isn't enough, though. We can thank Epic Vice President Mark Rein for making this patently obvious with his statement that Epic is “big indie.” Epic, after all, is big enough that it can publish its own games; it needs no publisher. If “indie” just means “no publisher,” then Epic is indie—which would make Gears of War 3 indie. The same could be said for Zynga, Valve, Bethesda, and a whole raft of other major corporate powers in the game development world. If “indie” is to mean anything even remotely useful, it must be more exclusive than this.
Mark Rein hinted at part of the solution with his use of the phrase “big indie.” Size matters. “Indie” suggests a relatively small team (and perhaps, to some extent, limited resources). When you command a team with dozens (much less hundreds) of employees, you inevitably limit the amount of creative input each can realistically add to a game. The game becomes less a work of authorship, and more a product that each team member sees only a limited piece of.
Big team size also sabotages the system of direct give-and-take between developers and fans that indies are known for. Once a team grows past a certain size, there isn't just one or two people required to implement ideas and listen to feedback anymore—there is a whole group of people who need to be coordinated, and by someone who probably doesn't have time to interact with the community him or herself. Thus, the so-called “big indies” hire community managers, and the people actually developing the game vanish behind a veil of anonymity.
Whatever your preferred definition of indie, Psychonauts almost certainly doesn't meet it. Psychonauts's total budget was $11.8 million; the team working on it was 42 people at its peak, with 5 additional contractors. Except for a few months in the game's fourth year of development, Psychonauts was under a publisher's thumb at all times prior to its release. The Game Developer Magazine post-mortem of Psychonauts paints a portrait of Microsoft interfering with the game's development continuously, and very nearly killing it in its fourth year.
Some people have suggested that Psychonauts has now transformed, butterfly-like, into an indie game simply because Doublefine purchased the rights to it. However, this completely misconceives the nature of “indie.” Indie describes how a game is created, not who owns it at any given point in time. If the Diablo 3 team split from Activision-Blizzard, started their own studio, and somehow managed to buy the rights to Diablo 3, we wouldn't say that Diablo 3 had suddenly become an indie game. I have nothing but respect for Tim Schafer and the folks at Doublefine, but let's not kid ourselves: no matter how much we like these guys and their work, Psychonauts is not indie.
Why this matters.
The gaming media has been curiously silent about this issue. I've actually gotten a few emails from gaming news sites to the effect of “Yes, you're right, but who cares?”
Just a month ago, I would have said “lots of people.” You may recall the absolute uproar when EA tried to release an indie bundle—one which actually did consist exclusively of indie games. But here, people seem to be giving the Humble Indie Bundle a pass.
Why? Is it that people like the Humble Indie Bundle, and they like Double Fine, and so they're willing to keep quiet if it means they can get Psychonauts for cheap? Are developers afraid to sabotage their own chances of inclusion in a future Humble Indie Bundle by speaking out? In all honesty, I don't know why everyone has been so strangely silent about this.
What I do know, however, is that including non-indie games in an ostensibly “indie” bundle is misleading and bad for the indie community. Directly, it takes up space that could have been given to a game that actually was produced independently, on a limited budget and with a small team.
That's small potatoes compared to the knock-on effects, though. Doing this invites other non-indie games to intrude into the “indie” category. Despite the well-publicized confusion of certain developers about what indie means, it does mean something to consumers: it means niche games; games by small, creatively independent teams; games with authorship. The fact that this bundle has sold so incredibly well sends the signal that there is no consequence for selling big-budget games in lieu of indies, and doing so under the “indie” banner.
Indie developers fought long and hard to build the kind of market we have right now, where even small developers have a shot at decent distribution and sales if they produce something compelling and polished, regardless of whether they can find a publisher or appeal to a sufficient swathe of the gamer market. By diluting the “indie” cachet, we invite big publishers to coopt the movement and shut small developers out of mainstream distribution channels, just like in the bad old days.
The Humble Indie Bundle does not operate in a vacuum. The Humble Indie Bundle has been enormously influential, spawning a huge variety of imitators. From Indie Royale to Indie Gala to The Indie Bundle, businesses look to the Humble Indie Bundle as the gold standard of indie game sales. People expect the Humble Indie Bundle to set a good example—and in this instance, it has failed badly.
Craig Stern is the founder of IndieRPGs.com and the sole developer for the indie development studio Sinister Design. You can read more of his opinions here and here.