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.