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A Boston Indie Manifesto
by Scott Macmillan on 08/10/10 03:39:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Last month, Boston Post Mortem (our local IGDA chapter, which I help run) did a second helping of the PAX East panel, Indies Will Shoot You in the Knees - Why We Don't Play Fair.  

It was moderated by Eitan Glinert, the head honcho of Fire Hose Games, and the panel consisted of Damian Isla of Moonshot Games, Ichiro Lambe of Dejobaan Games, and me.

If you want to watch it, you can find the full video of it here, courtesy of my good friend Darren Torpey.

"What is Indie" = Useless

During it, I got onto a good rant about "who is indie".  Eitan loves to get a good argument going with these panels - which is great, no one wants a snooze fest.  So this time, he did a lightning round - all three panelists had to answer "yes", "no", or "maybe" to the question "Is such-and-such a studio indie?"

My stance, then and now, is that the question of "Who is Indie?" is utterly useless.  And as a game developer, "useless" is one of the dirtiest words I can think of.

We cannot afford spending time on useless things.  We have way too much to do, to create, to explore.  We usually have way too little time and money.  We must be ruthlessly utilitarian in pursuit of what we think is really important.  Unproductive navel gazing and deciding who is not in our special club is useless.

Exactly like in film and music, there is an indie brand now - it's a certain kind of game, a certain style of art, a certain set of people.  That's fine.  But do not make the mistake of assuming that this is what you need to be as a game developer and artist.  That brand will see its rise and fall, just like every other creative movement in the history of culture.

If anything isn't indie, it's the idea that your creative output should be forced to fit into someone else's preconceived notions for it.

Indie is an Aspiration

To me, indie is an aspiration.  It is a desire.  Indie is wanting to make your mark, creatively, to learn and grow and share something new and special with people.  Indie doesn't meant making a certain kind of game, fitting within a certain budget, or not sitting in a certain office.

I think there is a high correlation for successful people and companies not taking creative  risks.  This makes perfect sense to me - once you have something to lose, it's harder to risk throwing it all away.  But spending time trying to figure out if someone "is indie" makes no sense.  How does that help anyone make art?

My Soapbox Manifesto

What does indie mean in video games?

Indie is the aspiration to create something new, interesting, or different.  Something you as an artist find worthwhile.

That's it.

It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks, if you make any money on it, or anything else.

So go make a game.  Make something new, even if only to you.  Learn something.    Then challenge yourself to go make another.

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Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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Exactly what I've been getting kinda annoyed by. I hope that people don't get too stuck up with debating and deciding on the question "What/Who is indie" but rather use their time productively

Ron Alpert
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Well, this always happens. Whenever there's any kind of media it will seem to splinter off into at least two distinctive factions - the big, market-research driven publishers who dictate what everyone will buy and talk about, they are "The Man;" and the small, scrappy, intellectual (pseudo- or otherwise) DIY element which is intent on maintaining their artistic integrity, doing what they "want to" rather than what they "have to," yet likewise intent (more often than not) in resculpting the landscape of what is popular and acceptable, and hopefully doing this without "selling out." As we all know it's happened for ages in music, in books, in film, even newsreporting.. and only recently has it been happening in such a more noticeable way with interactive electronic entertainment (the medium was simply not as accessible for several generations, to those with lesser means).

And so, it is important to delineate between independent and mainstream for several reasons. What exactly are the purposes of the smaller developer? Do they want to craft experiences that are as accessible as the ones being developed by the large studios? Should they share the same distribution network, the same media coverage? Are many of these indies trying to exist completely on their own vector, or will a lot of them desire to exist alongside the corporate productions in some manner or other? (to the point where they are to some strong degree partnered with, even controlled by the larger entities)

This is just the beginning - the independent side is still so new and a lot of the voices are just starting to express themselves. As movies, books, etc are all passive media, independent (interactive) entertainment is something totally different and we are still trying to decide what this can mean a few generations in.

Tristan Campbell
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I've been involved in my local music scene for many years now and I've found some eerie similarities between their concept of "indie" and this modern video game sense of "indie". The concept of "indie" was made possible in music when the average person or small collective could finally afford to record and duplicate an album. The concept of "indie" in games appears fairly recent to me. It appears as if tools, libraries and languages combined with fast PC computers finally allowed non CS-majors to create performant games and the quickly distribute them the internet.

Once the ground work was set, both scenes start off innocently enough, with a small set of people out to do their own thing on their own terms. This small group reaches out to each other for support and slowly grows. Over time one particular style proves popular throughout the community and everyone jumps on the bandwagon for the appeasement of their peers. Overtime scenes fracture and evolve like any other organism. Those people who manage to reach an audience outside of their scene are either perceived as sellouts or still manage to maintain the "indie" crown by commercializing the style itself.

To be truly independent means making your art on your terms and not needing to identify with a social group to tell you that you are valued.

Arinn Dembo
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I agree with Tristan Campbell--"Indie" in gaming is becoming a label analogous to the use of the word in cinema or music. I'm not sure I agree that it's a meaningless label, however, in any entertainment industry.

The relationship that most consumers have with big corporations--including the electronic media publishers--can get very depressing and very, very boring at times. I think the attraction of playing independent games may have something in common with the desire to support independent film-makers or local bands who are not the latest Fake Boyband Package a la the Monkees.

Some people just have the urge to see something different. They support independent games for the same reason that they can't stand to eat the same stale Twinkie three times a day, every day, just because "the Man" thinks that Twinkies are a safe investmest.

For the record, the same people also get tired of watching the formulaic films that might as well be titled "Comedy Formula 3C--now with Adam Sandler!" or listening to albums that might as well be titled "Generic Girl Voice-Bot 2009!" or "Hey, Here's Another Guy With A Whiny Nasal Tenor--Must Be 'Alternative'!"

Who knows. Maybe eventually the game publishers will learn the same lesson that the music business did, and we can look forward to a Grunge Game revolution. :P

Scott Macmillan
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@Arinn - That's fair. My take is completely from the point of view of a developer. I think that from a consumer standpoint, indie-as-a-brand can be really useful, because at its best it opens up peoples' eyes to new ways to experience the medium.

David Wesley
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You make some good points. Officially, "indie" means independently owned and operated, versus a division or subsidiary of a large established studio or publisher. By that definition, it does not matter what kind of software you produce, or even how big your company is. In reality, the definition is not always that clear. Games like LittleBigPlanet and Flower are often described as "indie" but they are beholden to Sony, both as distributor and investor. On the other hand, if an independent studio produces a traditional FPS or RPG title, people will be less inclined to refer the game as an "indie" title, especially if it involves a significant investment and has the polish of a mainstream title.

Michael Joseph
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Call me crazy but I never thought the label "indie" in game development was fashionable or particularly marketable.

All a game studio has is their reputation for releasing good polished games. If it's an indie or not is of little consequence to end users imo.

From my perspective, the problem with games produced by big corporate publishers isn't that they don't want to take risks (little or big) because they do take risks. The "problem" is that their culture is geared towards mass market games and not niche products. They have huge overhead and shareholders demanding success and they're run (typically) by people who think in terms of "products" first and foremost and not in terms of "games."

Indies simply have more of a luxury to create the games they want to create as opposed to the games that will please as many people as possible. Call it the different between indie games and corporate products. After all, it's not as if Indies are taking risks. They're typically just creating the game they want to make and filling niches. The only Indies taking risks are the ones who try to make a triple A game of a dominate genre to compete with the mega budget games being made by the mega publishers. Valve for instance took a big risk creating Half Life... but the founder had deep pockets but clearly he had a singular passion for the game he was making.

Edit: "more of a luxury" isn't even the right way to explain it. Indie developers are more likely to be driven to create the type of game they are passionate about. They aren't thinking in terms of risk at all. Eve Online is a great example. Sure they hope for success, dream of success, pray for success... but they're driven because they believe in what they are making. Mega publishers don't create original titles that way not because they don't want to take risk, but because they lack the vision and passion for any particular idea. Generally speaking it's inherent to their nature. They are dispassionate profit seekers.

Edit 2: Valve is great example of a private company lead by people with vision and who love games and know games and play games. They recognize the potential of a mod and they hire the developers and make a high production version. Counterstrike, Team Fortress, Portal, and now Defense of the Ancients. The suits running corporate publishers are cut from a different cloth... they're too often from sales, marketing and financial backgrounds.

Valve treats indies like a minor league farm team. That comes from appreciating indie developer passion and vision and not scorning them as if they were mere shadows or dogs of the industry lapping up table scraps.

Scott Muir
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"Home coding is killing video games - and it's illegal!"

Brandon Van Every
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Defining "indie" in terms of marketing polemics is what's useless. Try something more substantial, like who controls the intellectual property. We attempted to do that in the

IGDA Indie SIG Constitution.

Michael Lubker
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Indie means publishers are what they should be. Publishers, and nothing more.

Peter Whiteside
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I think that the importance of the word "indie" as applied to game development is that it is associated in the mainstream consciousness with new innovative content by developers that are not owned and operated by large publishers and will not just churn out the next tired iteration of an established franchise.

Brandon Van Every
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I'm actually opposed to the idea that indie = innovative. As much as I care about innovation and do my best to pursue it, an emphasis on innovation has no legs as a political movement among game developers. In fact it excludes the vast majority of game developers. I would far rather have indies concentrate on their IP rights with respect to Publishers. That way, when *I* personally choose to make something innovative, I have a much greater chance of benefiting directly from my own innovations.

Rey Samonte
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I agree that the label "indie" brings with it a level of expectation or stereotype. Of course developers want to stand out and try to create something new that gamers can enjoy. Just like the buzz about "AAA Title" brought with it high expectations, indie also has a stereotype that must be met. In my opinion, indie basically means that you own your IP, the studio is able to develop and release games on their own time, and you are financially independent. It doesn't mean the kind of game you make has to fit into a particular box that either has to deliver something new or have a unique art style.

I understand that as an independent studio, you are free to explore creative ways to express yourself through the game you're making. You are free to take risks and try something new, or you can just develop a game you've been wanting to do even if it's been done before. However, these luxuries also brings its own risks. Like you said, it's about growing as a developer and as a team.

It would be nice if every game an independent studio makes generates income, but in reality, that's a hard thing to do. What's important is that the team members enjoys what they're doing, they are focused, and they continue to grow as individual members that will one day produce something that represents the growth of the studio.