Feature Article

Don't Throw "Indie" Away Just Yet, We Still Need It

There's no other word to describe these games.

As each year passes, fewer and fewer game developers exist truly independent of big publishers. Some indie teams are bought outright by larger companies, and others are virtually assimilated by publishers via deals. At the same time, AAA developers are starting to break off small, focused groups of their own to make "indie" games. When Insomniac, Ubisoft, and Harmonix all have projects that many would consider indie in style, does the term "indie game" really mean anything anymore? Another GameSpot editor recently wrote an editorial arguing that "indie" has lost all meaning and is often misleading.

I believe, however, that calling a game "indie" isn't just meaningful, but also necessary. It's not a matter of scope, focus, immediacy, inventiveness, or style. Rather, it is a combination of all five, and something more. The essence and feel of indie games are what make the label significant. To me, indies are defined by a specific philosophy. When resources, whether financial or human, are relatively scarce; when a developer doesn't have the benefit of separate, dedicated marketing teams fueled by a big publisher's financial capability; when a team is so small that ideas cannot be diluted and individual personalities shine through, that's what makes a game "indie."

There's been an interesting shift in music over the last decade, during which "indie rock" became its own genre separate of rock or alternative. It's hard to define, and it's definitely nebulous, but that doesn't make the term any less descriptive. I can associate "indie rock" with a song by its feel, if not its content. Where folk, soft rock, alternative, and a little bit of pop mix, that's when I think a song is indie rock. There's no other term to describe it.

And I feel the same with games. How do you classify a game like Proteus? Like Flower? Broforce? Not a Hero? None of these games fall comfortably into an established genre. But even though our traditional means of categorization fail to accurately illustrate these games, we still need to describe them. You can't call Journey an adventure game, because it's incredibly different from classic adventure games like the Monkey Island series, and also modern action-adventures like Uncharted. But it's also not a puzzle game, because the puzzles are only one small, often secondary part to the main experience. My efforts to classify Journey end up with an absurd genre sequence. You can't call it an atmospheric, ambient, cooperative, adventure, narrative-driven exploration game. That's just too much. You might as well just say it's got some of almost every genre within it.

But if you call it indie, the game's essence is conveyed without having to grasp for an elusive catch-all word to describe it. If you call it an indie game, immediately people know what to expect. A smaller game, stylistic, artistic, innovative, original.

I think that one of the most telling signs that a game is indie--and one of the reasons why the term is still important--is when a studio's goal is to produce a compelling game with especially limited human and financial resources. This is how Ubisoft can pull off indie games, even though it employs thousands of people throughout the world. This is why I accept Insomniac's announcement that it's making an indie game. These games--like Child of Light and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon from Ubisoft and Slow Down Bull from Insomniac--are the results of small teams, small budgets, and creative freedom.

Ideas that arise within small, focused teams are handled far differently than they are in larger developers. When you have only a few people designing a game, original ideas shine and stand out. And because there are only a few people handling each idea, they are implemented in an almost unaltered form. Ideas in indie games are often weird and risky, powerful and passionate. They feel raw, as if no external forces shaped and revised them. This is both the biggest advantage, and the greatest risk, for small teams. There's very little focus testing or market research to reduce risk, but at the same time, the ideas often result in games that fundamentally change game design formulas.

With large teams, there are so many voices, so many "cooks in the kitchen," that those crazy ideas have to be tempered, reduced, and diluted to fit in with the overall vision for the game.

When Ubisoft allowed a few of its developers to make Child of Light, the result was creative freedom. It allowed creative vision to flourish, because the designers had a degree of autonomy that was almost impossible in larger teams. In an interview with Gamasutra before the game's release, writer Jeffrey Yohalem described the experience of working with a small group as liberating and empowering. "I got to polish that thing so that it was exactly what I wanted it to be," he explained. "There isn’t an inch of it that I have not seen or don’t know about. I’m not worried about any of it transforming. That's just so powerful, because the difference between a moment that works, and a moment that doesn't work, is so miniscule."

That's what is meant when a game is called "indie." Those creative ideas are allowed to spread and become the game. Larger teams, then, undergo what I like to call "idea dilution." There are so many voices, so many "cooks in the kitchen," that those crazy ideas have to be tempered, reduced, and diluted to fit in with the overall vision for the game.

Ratchet & Clank developer Insomniac released a high-profile shooter called Fuse last year that, by most measurements, didn't do very well. But the end product was dramatically different than what the team started out with. As the development process continued, focus testing compelled the team to dramatically redesign the game to make it more in line with military shooters. Creative director Brian Allgeier said in an interview with IGN, "The game started out with a much more stylized and campy direction. We were actually going for something on the level of Ratchet & Clank, except with humans. We started to discover that everyone thought this was a game for their younger brother. We would hear this from 12-year-olds. So we decided that we needed to make a game that had an older appeal."

And now, over a year later, Insomniac is developing a stylized, cartoony game that looks interesting and at least slightly innovative. Sunset Overdrive looks like what Fuse should've been, had the team not been at the mercy of big budgets and focus testing.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. I look at The Last of Us as a manifestation of clear designer vision for a game. But for the most part, bigger teams mean more creative voices, which means design choices are often based on compromise. With smaller teams, an individual can have a much larger impact, causing those ideas to be more passionate and raw.

We need the term "indie" not because it indicates independent development, but because it captures the essence of certain video games. It encompasses the games that have those original, unrefined, undiluted ideas that appear among smaller teams. When I hear the term "indie game," I know what to expect from the feel of the game. Stylized art, unusual gameplay, focused intentions, immediate gratification… It's not about any one of these things, but about a certain combination of some or all of them. It's about the nature of a game that's meant to convey ideas that haven't been run through a gauntlet of developers, but rather express the individual personalities of at most a few creative designers.

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Discussion

99 comments
Aletunda
Aletunda

Well done Alex, looks like you keep your job for this week again haha 

123whatever
123whatever

god i loved journey.. most beautiful, simple,  and interesting game ive ever played. so much meaning, but in such a simplistic delivery. we need more games like this. 

krazken
krazken

This is a great follow-up to McShea's article. It encapsulates my thoughts on the importance of the term 'indie' perfectly. Thanks, #Gamespot, for allowing another view on this subject!

ECH71
ECH71

Didn't "alternative" also mean "indie"? I prefer using that.

mr_nee
mr_nee

All indie means is artists is independant of publisher. In music indie can be rock, pop, rap, folk or death metal. Same with games -- if devs can get $100mil. to crowdfund their average AAA FPS, still it's indie, because devs were free to go with the flow.


If Ubi makes a sidescroller RPG with hipster graphics, it's still not an indie game, because Ubi's marketing director dictated what haircolor of players character should be.

megablast16
megablast16

For what it's worth my definition of Indie has always been small teams, experimental and self published.

snxx
snxx

Alex Newhouse gets it, McShea doesn't.

DrKill09
DrKill09

With this logic, ALL games were indie up until the mid 90's.

imgpty
imgpty

This just means that within the heterogeneous category of "indie," that although there can be no single defining factor, there's certain reoccurring elements that tends to bind the parts together as a category and greater control over the creation process is often what enables the artists to fully realize their intended vision; they're not in it for the sales. Indie hip hop is almost the exact opposite of indie rock, but the both tend to have much more depth while being open to experimentation with a fusion of disparate yet complementary and beautiful styles, themes and sometimes radical discourses that hardly ever occur within their mainstream counter-parts; they often intentionally neglect tradition and subvert old paradigms.

I still think it's important to maintain the distinction between actual independently created cultural goods and the companies who want to cash in on the scene and thereby often ruin it, and while that doesn't mean that the latter's goods, despite their source of funding, can never be a quality product and that credit shouldn't be given to all those who participated in the creation process (the music in Child of Light was amazing), this is what we tend to call the "recuperation" and "total subsumption" of anything that attempts to escape the logic of profit accumulation. Indie is more than a wide range of styles or aesthetics, it's often practiced as an ethic as the preferred pseudo-alternative to traditional capitalist power relations; it's become an enclave, refuge and a practice of resistance, affirmation, solidarity and reciprocity that can't simply be replicated by corporations funding smaller projects no matter how good the projects may end up being (for however long of a period of time).

And even then, what do these types of practices and cooperative (meaning sometimes non-hierarchical) relations that tend to enable creators while stimulating innovation and non-conventional forms of expression, which generally results in better goods (for a variety of reasons), say about potential alternatives and possibilities other than our current arrangements or the old, authoritarian ones that were framed as the *only other* alternative?

dapman418
dapman418

I'm more in line with Tom's opinion. There's something that's become political and conniving about the word "indie." Sometimes, it seems to be a marketing scheme that certain big (and small) developers call their games "indie" because it often connotes something more positive, expressive, and unique than "AAA." Some people might associate "indie" with cute, lively, personal, and varied experiences, while "AAA" is seen as cynical, gray samey sequels. But in reality, you can find great and terrible, unique and derivative games in every space.

I'm in favor of throwing out categorical words altogether, which is sadly impossible. But we should at least try to not evaluate things in relation to other things all the time and focus on individual works' own merits and flaws. 

I'm glad GameSpot can post pieces on two sides of the coin to spark discussion though. Good luck with the internship, Alex! 

Aaronp2k
Aaronp2k

I agree with this article without even having read it and just reading the title.


In the music industry a lot of "indie" music is actually very popular and indie is just use to describe the feel of the music. Very similar concept applies here.

ArchoNils2
ArchoNils2

I agree with almost everything but the part that we can't define what gerne broforce is. Broforce is obviously a 2D shooter, it is actually Metal Slug with destructable enviroments and (probably not licensed?) well known characters

simo_tmm
simo_tmm

I got it. Your indie game cannot be indie unless it fits that "feel" and specific philosophy. Check chapter 2 for your creativity regulations. Please follow them strictly.

atopp399
atopp399

Publishers are trying to get a piece of the Indie action.  Too bad they are ruining the name.  I am sure a different name will take its place at some point.

leandrombraz
leandrombraz

I only see a problem with the term when it's used merely for marketing purpose, to appeal to this "indie appeal", which doesn't mean the game will actually have this Appeal. I don't remember the name of the game, but I saw a trailer some days ago where indie is show as one of the features of the game, like it's something that can be implemented in a game and sold. 



hitomo
hitomo

wow GameSpot, first you dictate that indie should not be used anymore ...

now you proclaiming the exact opposite, who owns you know? Putin?


guydude3412
guydude3412

The indie feel for me is one of those $15 games on psn or Xbox live. It gives it almost innocence, like it is small and helpless almost. It is hard to describe. Usually it has a different art style, like child of light

Pewbert
Pewbert

An indie game developer is a company that doesn't have any publishers or money men to report to. They have full independent control over every aspect of their day to day running. It's not that difficult to comprehend, Gamespot.

Anyway, Indie Devs are the reasons we are starting to see more creative ideas from the "big" companies. They have seen the success from the likes of Minecraft and they want a piece of that pie. Where there is money, there are corporations waiting to muscle in.

udubdawgz1
udubdawgz1

anybody who wants to make a hybrid game with story and characters and gameplay that involves tacticts, real-time, strategy, upgrades, rpg elements and lots of gameplay customizations, contact me.


ghost59
ghost59

i wouldnt make an indie game on consoles. only on pc. or if i wanted to tell a story. id make a graphic novel. because video games are not the place for story telling

lovely_dime
lovely_dime

I like a nice Indi to play with every now and then

StHapns247
StHapns247

How about this for a definition: If you paid for it before it was released then it's an Indie.

Dannystaples14
Dannystaples14

It really doesn't matter to me. I play the games I like and I don't play the ones I dislike. What genre they are in or which developer made it is irrelevant overall.

rasterror
rasterror

Trust me, Sony is not throwing it away any time soon.

hamza345
hamza345

Journey is the best indie game ever made IMO!!

newhaus1994
newhaus1994 moderator moderatorstaff

@DrKill09 It doesn't matter in the same way it does now. But I would agree that the early years of games had tons of small teams with crazy ideas. That's what all new industries generally have. 

newhaus1994
newhaus1994 moderator moderatorstaff

@dapman418 I would agree with several of your points. But personally, it's still valuable to make a delineation between "indie" and "not indie". There's shady politics that surround it, but in general, I like being able to know if a game has that "feel" whether it's a good game or not. You might take Darksiders and Entwined as two mediocre games in two different spaces. I like to know that Entwined is indie and Darksiders is not, because then I know the feel that each game will have. 


And thank you! It's crazy to think that I've been here for six weeks already. 

gamecoder99
gamecoder99

@hitomo  Or... Or... Maybe... Just maybe... There are multiple personalities that write for Gamespot, and they don't all have the same opinions on things?

*Shrug*

udubdawgz1
udubdawgz1

@Pewbert i agree with your talking pts, but, don't ever forget that "more creative" is not a reality.  starting to see?  i'd argue the reverse.  minecraft?  despite its boring repetitiveness?  you wanna bank your salary on a rehashed bit-game?



lovely_dime
lovely_dime

@ghost59 

What difference does it make on PC or console, many Indie games have had storylines on both platforms, or to a degree. 

udubdawgz1
udubdawgz1

@ghost59 lol, people think tlou is a great "video game."  so, i'd disagree.  tlou, signifies a divide between gameplay and illusion.

hitomo
hitomo

@gamecoder99 yeah, I know they had problems ... normaly you have disscusion in the Meeting room with the question ... whats our opinion on that, what should people think about gamespot in that matter?


I really miss the old community driven site, with the blogs on front page and all ... nowadays, you post in a article today and you simply cant find it anymore the next day


its really only a channel for the companys behind that site, dont know, spike? MS? Sony?


but dont get me wrong, I dont dislike the guys working here, sometimes a glance of independant thought shines through all this ... and after all being a media puppet sucks itself enough ...


regards

ghost59
ghost59

@lovely_dime @ghost59 the kind of stories i want to tell doesnt belong in games. i want to tell an interactive story with good game play.
but that's never going to happen. because i don't have a team

ghost59
ghost59

@udubdawgz1 @ghost59 agreed.  you can not tell a good story in a video game. thats why movies and graphic novels exist. 

a dumbed down  story with good game play always  work.  

the story doesn't even matter. 

rasterror
rasterror

It was a light hearted joke. Trust me, I love my indie games like crazy. Just only indie games is not cutting it.

hamza345
hamza345

@udubdawgz1 @hamza345 It exclusive to PS3 and available for $15,don't know about the budget.

spartanx169x
spartanx169x

@ghost59  both Mass Effect and Metro Last Light do a very good job at telling a story.

udubdawgz1
udubdawgz1

if done right, the story matters to the player and they propel it.

udubdawgz1
udubdawgz1

@lovely_dime @udubdawgz1 i agree.


walking dead first episode?  (i haven't looked at the pubs/devs.)

RicanV
RicanV moderator moderator

Fortunately no major console only does indies.

udubdawgz1
udubdawgz1

@hamza345 how long is the game?  what's the replay value?  are they nickel and dimin?

rasterror
rasterror

How dare you think that the Ouya is not a major console.

brain-pudding
brain-pudding

@udubdawgz1 @hamza345 I finished the game in about an hour (maybe more). It is quite a short game, and to many it does not justify the price. Don't worry about nickel and diming, there is none. As for replay value it does and doesn't, depending on your style. There are a bunch of connectable stuff that you can look for after you've finished the game. I personal only played it once, I thought my first playthrough was so perfect and beautiful that I don't want to overwrite my memory of it.


Anyway, if you're looking for a new experience, or you find artistic games appealing go for it. You won't find any action or energetic gameplay, only fascination.

udubdawgz1
udubdawgz1

@ghost59 @udubdawgz1 hear me:  are tes games stories all well-done?  could the writing be a bit better?

yet, the nature of tes games wins.  it's inherent.


if beth hires great writers, lol, i'd be talking about the need for competitors.  the witcher3 is perfect and perfectly timed.


"open-world" as done by, lol, gta4 is a disgrace. "open-world" as done by gta5 is a copycat of numerous previous games.


the tes universe is far from that.


halo wars and kotor and civrev and gladius prove workability.  mass effect and the pause wheel prove another aspect.


people think mass effect dialogue wheel is xtraordinary, lol:  let em continue to think so.

udubdawgz1
udubdawgz1

@ghost59 @udubdawgz1 mass effect 1 is barely a rpg.  halo wars is not a rpg.  civrev is not a rpg.  gladius is not a rpg.  gta, lol, is not a rpg.  kotor is a good/bad simpleton rpg.


shooter and cover mechanics aren't tough decisions or hard to implement.  it's pure money allocation.


regardless, i simply want a great gameplay experience that involves rts, sim, queue, rpg and fps mechanics.

it's not that tough when you understand "when" to put them in.