Earlier today, Microsoft listed a few of the independent studios it's working with for its ID@Xbox program, which lets independent developers self-publish content directly to the Xbox One. One eye-opening addition to the list was Crytek, a studio notable for the Crysis series, the CryEngine development tool, and, most recently, the Xbox One launch game Ryse: Son of Rome.
GameSpot editors Justin Haywald and Tom Mc Shea face off in trying to answer the question: Is Crytek really an indie developer?
Justin Haywald: Going by the comments in the story for this announcement and the noise on Twitter, a lot of people seemed almost offended that Crytek could be considered an "indie dev." But I really don't see what the problem is. It's not a plucky two-man studio, but it's no different from the other developers on this list. It partners with publishers to get its content out, just like Double Fine, Inis, and all the rest do.
And unlike some of the other studios Microsoft listed that are recognized only for making ports of existing franchises, Crytek makes the games it wants using its own intellectual property.
Can you not be considered indie if you're also successful?
Tom Mc Shea: Success has little to do with being designated independent or, um, dependent. Various studios have made waves both critically and commercially and still carry the indie developer label, such as Team Meat, DrinkBox, and Mossmouth. My problem is not just that Crytek--with its budgets soaring past dozens of millions of dollars and its cutting-edge, proprietary engine--has no place among the likes of two-man studios, but that the very categorization is fundamentally flawed.
What exactly are we trying to communicate by calling certain studios indie? It can't be based on the size of their bank accounts, considering that the tiny Size Five Games and behemoth Mojang carry that designation. It can't be originality if you look at the plethora of puzzle platformers and roguelikes being churned out by smaller studios. And if you think refinement should factor into that label, look no further than Gone Home, which is just as smooth as any AAA game.
So what does indie even mean anymore?
Justin: That's the real issue. To some people, indie has an almost hipster-like connotation of "that studio that makes this game I like, but you probably haven't heard of it." Indie studios create games that might be rougher around the edges, but they do things their own way.
The only solution I see is to separate the two ideas. Studios like Crytek and BioShock-developer Irrational are "independent." They develop their own games, but have to seek outside companies for publishing.
Studios like Capy are "indie." They develop their own games, but have fewer than 50 employees (at least two of whom must have dreadlocks).
Tom: And then there's Valve. The Greatest Company in All of Gaming destroys every independence-related argument. Those who seek thoughtful, creative, and interesting games flock to Valve's offerings, and there's no question that the house that Half-Life built develops whatever it wants. But Valve rakes in so much money, and has so much control over the market with Steam, that to label it as anything but a brilliant megacorps is disingenuous.
It's because of companies like Valve and Mojang that I started to avoid using the term indie. The connotation is obvious--studios built on a passion for gaming rather than money--but there are just as many me-too indie studios as there are AAA teams who endlessly recycle, and Bethesda and DICE prove that all the resources in the world won't save you from a buggy project.
Why do we need to use indie, independent, or any other label when no one can decide on a proper meaning?
JH: Just because it has a broader meaning than some people put on it doesn't mean it's inaccurate. Valve is a power unto itself, but Crytek, Mojang, Irrational, and Way Forward are all just different flavors of independent.
And any system that lets developers have more autonomy both in how their content is created and how it's distributed is a gross positive. The closer the Xbox and PlayStation 4 come to the PC in terms of giving independent developers more freedom, the better.
Tom: Now that's an idea that I can get behind. The lower the bar for entry, the more experimentation we'll see, which will only strengthen the industry going forward.
But instead of trying to arbitrarily label every developer, instead of trying to separate the Infinity Wards from the Vlambeers, or debating where Housemarque and Thatgamecompany fall, we should just call them all game developers. Then we won't unfairly downgrade Retro for having Nintendo to help it out, or excuse Paradox for releasing buggy games at launch. Without an indie designation, everyone could be looked at through the same filter, and we could let the games speak for themselves.