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So what the heck is an 'indie game' nowadays anyway?

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You'll have to forgive me, dear readers, because I am a little confused on what's going on at the moment. What the heck actually is an indie or independent game nowadays? Someone like me is probably supposed to tell you what it is, but honestly I'm just as confused as you are now.

The problem is, there doesn't really seem to actually be a good answer to this now. Game developers and publishers alike don't agree on it, and other prominent people in the industry all seem to have different opinions on it now too.

To add to the confusion, The Game Awards decided to put DAVE THE DIVER into the "Best Independent Game" category. A great game for sure but the problem is that while it may perhaps have the look of what a lot of people think is an indie game, in my book it's firmly not. You see it was developed by Mintrocket, a sub-brand of Nexon, who are a pretty big South Korean publisher that have billions in income. How, in any possible meaning of the term, is that indie?

Arguments on this have been ongoing since the nominees were announced a couple of weeks ago, and adding fuel to the fire now TGA's Geoff Keighley has given some thoughts on it during a recent Twitch (about 27:00) livestream and Keighley's response to a question on it was:

Look it's a great question. Independent can mean different things to different people, it's sort of a broad term right. You can argue does independent mean the budget of the game, does independent mean where the source of financing was, is it based on the team size, is it the independent spirit of a game meaning the kind of smaller game that's different. Everyone has their own opinion about this. We really defer to our jury, 120 global media outlets that vote on these awards to kind of make that determination of is something independent or not.

In other industries sometimes there are things like the film industry the budget can't be above this amount of dollars, some people said Larian with Baldur's Gate 3 that's an independent game, Kojima Productions with Death Stranding some people say that's an independent game and even though it's an independent studio of course it's funded by PlayStation. It's question like if you have a publisher, is that still independent or not. We also have Best Debut Indie Game, which is something I'm really proud of too, that's for teams doing it's first ever game this year, that's often really really independent studios just starting out and I love that we can recognise them that way.

So yeah Dave the Diver, that game is made by a group named Mintrocket, it's a smaller game from a smaller group  but it's part of Nexon which is a very large publisher so I think it's a fair debate and discussion is that game truly independent or is it not. You can kind of argue either way it's independent in spirit, it's a small game, I don't know what the budget it is but i think it's a probably a relatively small budget game but it's from a larger entity, whereas there's other games on that list that are from much smaller studios. Like Dredge, published by team17, so is that independent or not, 'coze you have a publisher. It's a really complicated thing to figure out and come up with strict rules around it, so we kinda let people use their best judgement and you can agree or disagree with the choices, but the fact that Dave the Diver was on that list meant that out of all the independent games that the jury looked at or what they thought were independent games that was one of the top 5 that they looked at this year.

Keighley goes on to mention past game awards and games that won and how people debated this in the past, but basically sums it all up with the exact criteria being an "open debate for discussion". Seems to me that Keighley had no real answer on this. Just a lot of dancing around it, asking more questions of the category and just further adding to the confusion.

I get what Keighley was trying to say though, when mentioning how "it's a different set of games, and I like that we get to recognise different games in our show and not have the same 5-10 games nominated in every category". As otherwise, you likely would just get the huge publisher games filling up every year but the category itself is just not named particularly well it seems, or they need to actually properly settle on what indie actually is.

Certainly is an interesting debate.

So — over to you in the comments: what is an indie or independent game now? How would you define it exactly?

Article taken from GamingOnLinux.com.
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34 comments
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elmapul Nov 30, 2023
Quoting: grigiIndie game to me means it has:
* Independent direction (can make what they want to, without oversight)
* Independent ownership (financial and creative "IP")
* Independent vision (can make the game how they want to, without interference)

As in the studio itself has full creative direction of what it makes, owns what it makes and is allowed to make what it wants to. The studio carries the majority of the risk, but also gets the majority of the reward.

Having a publisher is not part of that definition, as long as they don't interfere with direction/vision on a more than consultative basis, and don't own your creative "IP", you're still indie.

The moment you can't change publishers as a publisher owns some integral part of your creative "IP" you're definitely not indie anymore.
DAVE THE DIVER doesn't own their own IP as it's owned by a publisher, so they fail the independent ownership.

speaking of it, any game published on consoles should not count as indie...
seriously you are pretty much required to have an publisher (or big one, but that means having tons of money) to publish on consoles and you have to agree with their NDA and other terms that prohibit a lot of things.

i will trust this award once an eroge game (aka: hentai game) win in any category.
ObsidianBlk Nov 30, 2023
Amusingly, I'm starting to feel that, if the game developers are willing to sell their game(s) on Itch.io, then they're indie. Off the top of my head, I cannot recall seeing any AAA publisher ever putting there game(s) on itch.

In reality, the big publishers (Microsoft, Sony, Activision, EA, etc) do not want the term "indie" defined! Why would they? They'll let people debate over the term and, in the process, bring in customers that either don't understand what "indie" even means, doesn't realize a AAA publisher made their favorite "indie" video game, and/or doesn't care one way or the other. We can see this from their "Awards" show... worse than a Grammy or an Emmy show, these Game Awards are really just a circle jerk and massive ad spot with no real substance or meaning, and they're more than happy that most gamers realize that or don't care.

On a serious "what defines Indie" note, I think the term alone is too broad. Instead of an "Indie" category, the categories should definitely be more specific (with strict definitions). Like...

  • "Best Solo-Dev Game" - Game developed without publisher by a single individual

  • "Best Independent Team Game" - Game developed without a publisher by a team of less than 20 individuals

  • "Best Small Publisher Game" - Game released by a publisher who only publish small studio (less than 100 employees) games.



Those are just some off the cuff ideas. A real award show (that actually cared about what they were awarding) would spend way more time thinking these details through, but, in my opinion, nowhere should the word "indie" be included in the category title... so as not to confuse the audience about intent or meaning..

That's my two cents, anyway.
Arehandoro Nov 30, 2023
Quoting: KimyrielleStrictly spoken, any game that's developed by a studio not fully independent in their decisions is not an indie game. Which is funnily why Baldur's Gate 3 (a clear AAA title) qualifies as indie, because Larian is a fully independent studio, despite its size.

The community seems to have adopted a slightly altered definition of the term, though. An indie game seems to be anything that's a labor of love and has the "Not made by big business" vibe to it.

That's not entirely correct. During BG3's development, I believe, Larian sold 30% of the business to Tencent.

It's mentioned here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IaCcTD_wKk
Also: https://twitter.com/GamerTrader1/status/1431899588324175873

Aside of that, strictly speaking, Larian did not have full independence with BG3. I'm pretty sure Hasbro and WotC had requirements too.


Last edited by Arehandoro on 30 November 2023 at 6:09 pm UTC
EagleDelta Nov 30, 2023
I, personally, like to stick to the meaning of the word "indie" or "Independent". As such, studios like Larian and EgoSoft are fully independent studios, desire to stay that way, and even have some level of requirements when working on IP not owned by them that give them more control on the direction they take it.

I'm not sure I'd classify Baldur's Gate III as an Indie game itself, but it was developed by an indie studio. That said, the Divinity series, the X Series, etc are all indie games despite looking mostly like AA or AAA games. Larian hasn't been published by a 3rd party for Divinity since Divinity II and even then they eventually re-published those games under themselves.

Trying to define "indie" as games that either aren't "profitable" (Which is dumb as that implies you want the studio to go under) or that are made by a less well known studio make no sense or aren't successful. If they are truly independent, then it is still "indie".
Belaptir Nov 30, 2023
I think we should start cathegorizing indie games as we do with A games.
An indie game must be done by an independent studio. It means the studio MUST be the only one having a say in their game. That's the main point.
Sure, the game might look like an AAA one (baldur's gate 3 for example) but will always be an indie.
HOWEVER, maybe baldur's gate could be called an III game (because they had a studio behind, but it was not a shareholder corporate wanting just money)
Then, a game like Stardew Valley would be an I game because... well, it was just a guy doing it, nobody else in the middle.
Last, there would be an II game. Something in the middle between being all by yourself and having behind a strong studio (that, still is not owned by a stakeholder council), maybe we could include there games like those pubblished by Devolver and other small pubblishers.
eldaking Nov 30, 2023
To comment generally on many answers: I think being too literal about the word "indie" as "independent" is a mistake. Being self-published is not remotely the most important part (or the single important part) of the games we consider as indie.

Indie as a category referred to the use of the term in the music industry, where it was at a point a good description but eventually moved on. AAA referred to the stock market (the reliability of a bond). Neither is perfect for defining games, and associated terms like AA or BBB have never been popularized so we are stuck with awkwardly-named categories.

Sure we probably should use a more accurate term for each category, for clarity, but letting our categories be decided solely based on the terminology being used is not a step in the right direction. The meaning of "indie" has evolved, and going back to dictionary definitions to make it linguistically consistent comes at a cost of being a good category for games.
EagleDelta Nov 30, 2023
Quoting: eldakingSure we probably should use a more accurate term for each category, for clarity, but letting our categories be decided solely based on the terminology being used is not a step in the right direction. The meaning of "indie" has evolved, and going back to dictionary definitions to make it linguistically consistent comes at a cost of being a good category for games.

Then maybe "indie" isn't a good category name for games. The minute we start shifting the definition of a word like "independent" we create confusion in the language and semantics do matter a lot. Yes, language changes over time, but that only works when the definition changes holistically, not when it changes definition for just one sub-area of concern. It also creates issues where now "indie" means different things depending on if you're talking about movies, shows, music, books, games, board games, etc. That is too much to expect people to keep track of.

All that said, a studio making a low budget game for their publicly traded company is obviously NOT "indie". By the same token, I don't think Larian, ConcernedApe, EgoSoft, etc can be anything BUT "indie".... being successful doesn't mean someone loses their "indie" or "independent" status. That implies that only failed studios that make something people like can be "indie".
jams3223 Nov 30, 2023
Indie should mean not owned by any big corporation or shareholder company, and the IP belongs to the creator or developers of the project despite other people choosing to invest in it. If investing in a game makes the game not fit to be called an indie, then crowdfunded games are not indie.
eldaking Nov 30, 2023
Quoting: EagleDeltaThen maybe "indie" isn't a good category name for games. The minute we start shifting the definition of a word like "independent" we create confusion in the language and semantics do matter a lot. Yes, language changes over time, but that only works when the definition changes holistically, not when it changes definition for just one sub-area of concern. It also creates issues where now "indie" means different things depending on if you're talking about movies, shows, music, books, games, board games, etc. That is too much to expect people to keep track of.

All that said, a studio making a low budget game for their publicly traded company is obviously NOT "indie". By the same token, I don't think Larian, ConcernedApe, EgoSoft, etc can be anything BUT "indie".... being successful doesn't mean someone loses their "indie" or "independent" status. That implies that only failed studios that make something people like can be "indie".

It one hundred percent is a terrible category name, and my first post a bit above suggested many alternatives. I just don't think we are going to change everyone's minds. The meaning already changed, like it or not, and linguistic prescriptivism isn't going to change it back.

As far as we want to promote a better way, I'd rather we moved to better terminology to remove the uncertainty, than use bad categories to keep the language accurate.
hardpenguin Dec 1, 2023
I wanted to comment on this article right after it was published but I am not logged in on mobile and I don't remember my password 😂
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