The changing face of the indie game developer

The meaning of the term ‘indie’ in video games is an elusive and ever-changing one. As technology changes so does the ability to produce and share games. Independent games traditionally were associated with low budgets. Without large publishers and companies backing projects, it was left up to the developers to find the money.

Recently though indie games have surged in popularity. Titles such as Minecraft and World of Goo are pooling profits in the millions and being regarded as pinnacles of innovation in gaming. When these companies go on to produce more games, or publish through AAA companies such as Nintendo and Xbox. Can they still be considered ‘indie’? Has the idea of ‘Indie’ evolved within the games industry?

Calum Bowen is a London based video game composer who primarily works on independent titles, such as Super Ubie Land and Winnose. He also produces music under his pop alias Bo en and is an active member within Tigsource, one of the largest indie developer communities.

Tigsource is one of the biggest indie developer collectives with 30,000+ members.
Tigsource is one of the biggest indie developer collectives with 30,000+ members.

“I think, to me, the image of an ‘indie game’ is a super small team, perhaps just one person, working away at something without any rules or expectations.” Calum states.

“I would certainly say that ‘indie’ has changed! Indie games have seen a lot of success. I suppose the main difference is money [profits].”

“There was a time where the difficulty of distribution would make being a successful indie developer almost impossible. With online distribution methods indie developers are able to easily distribute their work to thousands of people with little to no investment.” Says Rhys McCane. An independent developer/programmer and enthusiast, who creates free to play games for the web.

As social media has taken off so has the accessibility of an audience for these small companies. Indie developers recognized that they didn’t have a large company to back them. But they did have an audience.

Websites like Kickstarter began to appear, where the community can donate a certain amount of money to the developer for rewards. Projects pre-sell their games for early access. Allowing the developer to not only have money to fund the game, but also a group of play testers. AAA publishers such as Steam create polls to decide which projects they should fund based on community interest.

“I think a lot of people are getting tired of the sheer saturation of indie projects that are around. Steam had to quickly revise their green light rules because a lot of unfinished and poorly made games were flooding the submission section.” Says Rhys.

“I think there was probably an air of mystery and an excitement is discovering an indie game in the far corner of the web maybe 10 years ago and that’s definitely still possible but it might not have the same impact now that indie games are so commonplace.” Calum comments, “Some people are in it for the money and are making boring games.”

Nigel Lowrie, of Devolver Digital (Hotline Miami, Broforce) claims the role of a publisher has been changed by the shift in modern indie gaming.

AAA publishers are noticing the rising interest in ‘indie’ games and picking up titles and publishing rights to all manner of up and coming developers and titles. Games like Minecraft and World of Goo are being picked up by companies such as Xbox and Wii. Developers like Thatgamecompany (Journey, Flower, Flow) are being picked up by companies such as Sony. Valve is well known for hiring members of the modding and indie game community to work for them.

Journey promotional picture from Thatgamecompany.
Journey promotional picture from Thatgamecompany.

Indie Developers and AAA companies are now helping each other to create profitable and interesting games. As this bond develops, the line between AAA and indie titles could be growing more transparent.

Jonathan Holland, treasurer for the University of Queensland’s Video Game Society, says “Indie games are approaching AAA standards, but there is still not nearly enough difference to make them indistinguishable. With the platforms available to make Indie games becoming more and more popular, we can see an increase in the revenue/popularity of them [indie games].”

“Games like Little Big Planet are quite difficult to place – the company was initially independent but was picked up by Sony and are definitely AAA but have an ‘indie’ mentality & approach.” Calum comments.

Journey also has an indie feel and was released as a PSN game rather than a boxed title but that was a really expensive game with a ton of people working on it so it’s hard to call it indie in that sense.”

“The tools that developers have at their disposal are really increasing in Quality. It’s certainly moving in that direction and I never underestimate the ingenuity of indie developers.” Says Rhys.

Jonathan states, “You don’t need to work for a large company/label. The more popular the scene gets, the more prevalent this will become and the more freedom it will afford developers.”

It seems that although indie still carries lots of financial related connotations the idea has definitely evolved into something more. It has come to represent the production process of a game. A game produced free of labels, rules or expectations.

An interesting post on Sinister Digital that relates.

Edited by Jacob Morrison-Gardiner

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