Indie games — not a genre but… a lifestyle?

Indie games keep proving us that without a large budget or an aggressive advertising campaign you can still achieve success. Of course indie developers do not earn as much as moguls of the gaming industry, although they do manage to turn a profit. Players are seemingly craving for more retro platformers or narrative-driven interactive stories with almost no gameplay but why is that so? What are these indie games and what’s their place in the big system of electronic entertainment?

I was inspired to write this entry by a panel discussion that took place on Pixel Heaven 2013 — an annual retro gaming event happening in Poland. During this panel a group of journalist and podcasters inquired whether it is possible to define what indie games are. Did they manage to do that? Not quite. One of the speaker rightfully mentioned that “everyone has his own definition what the indie games are” and thus making an official explanation, term might be an impossible task. And yet, we could still come up with a blurry definition. Most of players questioned would probably mentioned how indie games are supposed to be made by lone individuals or small teams, completely  independent of big publishers and without free advertisement of important websites like IGN or Destructoid. Others could add that these people are self-taught hobbyist, making games as a part of their free time. Some might insist that indie games should be simple and not too complicated. While that’s true it is a generalised simplified concept of what independent games are like, it still tells us something about the genre. It is in human nature to apply labels to various things, so finding a similar movie, game, band is much easier as they are grouped into numerous genres. However, when it comes to video games things are slightly different.


Indie_140 140 as an example of minimalism in video games


One of the speaker on the aforementioned panel (her name is Maria Garda) said that if we were to draw a continuum of computer games, on one side we could place AAA titles coming straight from production lines of Ubisoft or EA (okay, that’s not what she said), and on the other there would be small indie titles developed in basements and attics. To sum it up, we have two opposite poles that somehow stay in balance — while independent games won’t make as much money as another Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty, they still are fine competitors, influencing big brands. I agree wholeheartedly with Maria Garda’s concept. I believe it shows us how our perception of video games has changed since the beginning. Everything what is not an overhyped crap coming from the top publishers; everything what goes back in time to the 8-bit era; everything what is a product of unlimited creativity, unrestricted by budget or a board of directors is an independent game. Thus, we start thinking differently, focusing on other elements and expecting different things. For example, an indie developer should be active on social media, stay in touch with his fanbase and listen to the feedback and players’ ideas. Indie developers should, games should, players should and it’s all because “independent” became something more than a genre.


Indie_COL Big publishers want to benefit from indie games’ popularity as well


I’m inclined to believe that “indie” became a collective of ideas, symbols and patterns of behaviour that influence the authors, the games and the players. It is not a simple genre, a branch of electronic entertainment anymore, the term has some serious connotations. For instance, we might name an idea of “Freedom”, that is a freedom of expressing oneself, creating and publishing games. Because of that the developers don’t need to worry about not finding their own niche, because there will be always (at least theoretically) someone interested. Moreover, the developers can create the most abstract, absurd and/or (overly) philosophical title without anyone giving a crap about it. Compare it to the big publishers — how many “highly artistic” can you count? Just look at all these independent freaky “simulators” that recently have been quite popular. Another example, of a symbol this time, might be the (in)famous Retro Graphics, which can be either an awful battening on our nostalgia or a lazy shortcut since it’s easier to create a retro platformer than a realistic looking FPS. Regarding the patterns of behaviour, I would point here using Early Access what has become a plague of our times. Players receive unfinished product but in return they are given (at least they should be) an opportunity to influence the maker. It is their feedback and ideas for improvements that matter here. Buyers are entrusting their money to some random guys, who might as well be scammers abusing the EA system (The Stomping Land case). That’s hell of a gamble, as these games can rot in development hell and yet  consumers are willing to spend their funds on such a risky investment. We could elaborate on it further, name some more ideas or symbols but that’s enough. The most important thing is the fact that “independent” is supposed to be an opposite of “mainstream”, thus creating a balance in the “ecosystem”. You may say now that it’s nothing new, that it’s obvious, however, think about it for a second. Because indie games are nothing like AAA titles, we have different expectations of them. We understand that the team is small or not that experienced, that they don’t have enough money and need to work in an office to afford making a game. We forgive them for coming up with another platformer with ugly pixel graphics — we are sympathetic, because they are not under the aegis of big publishers. Calling themselves “indie” makes developers associate with a particular role to which we, players, correspond in a particular way. I believe that due to this fact the market can get flooded with mediocre retro action games for 5€ without annoying (too many) gamers.


Indie_SoManyMe Luckily not everyone goes for the retro graphics


I presume this “independence” reflects how angry and dissatisfied everyone is due to annual releases, selling unfinished and unpolished game for full price and treating consumers as if they were walking piggy banks. Apparently indie devs realise all of this and therefore communicate with their fanbase, there are clear with their intentions. Also, they rarely hype their product, they keep being sincere and can genuinely apologise for not delivering a good game or for not meeting expectations of their players (e.g. Frozenbyte and their apology regarding Trine 3). Perhaps it’s because small dev teams are reliant on players and need their (financial) support? I’m prone to believe that players subconsciously trust indie developers more as they find them similar to themselves. Free mass media access, to the Internet and thus to various tutorials and apps allows everyone to learn how to make games or to make a team. Just look at the indie.db or Reddit where there are groups in which you can ask for help. Collaboration and aiding are very important. Nobody is perfect, everyone will make some mistakes but that only helps in improving oneself and releasing one’s game. Maybe that’s all about? That everybody can make his own product? Perhaps that’s why we feel sympathy towards all these indie developers. Of course, you can ignore all the backstory and focus only on the game itself but in my opinion you lose a lot of important information.


Indie_CitiesSkylines Passion and honesty are apparently more valuable than a famous brand


All in all, indie games become a lifestyle, a determiner of relationship between the developers and their games, between the developers and the gamers, between the gamers and the games. Being “indie” is cool, everyone wants to be indie what leads to some crazy abuse like in case of The Stomping Land. At one point however, we’ll need to say stop. It is just yet another trend after all.


Jedna myśl na temat “Indie games — not a genre but… a lifestyle?

  1. I agree with most of it but disagree with your ending comment – that it’s a trend. I think indie gaming has indeed become a huge niche of the gaming market, in no small part due to XBLA, Steam and digital sales in general (I say XBLA over PSN because I recall them and their summer sales putting indie games like Braid, Super Meat Boy and FEZ in the limelight of millions of otherwise AAA-exclusive gamers). Distinguishing indie games from regular ones becomes very difficult when someone like Markus Persson, creator of Minecraft, becomes a billionaire because of his indie game. If he made a game now, would he still be indie? Hard to say. Like you said, every person has their own definition of indie – to the point that I’d say something is indie when a certain amount of people consider it to be. It’s kind of a snake-biting-its-tail definition, but we do use general consensus for things like elections and whatnot, right?

    My arbitrary definition is: „1. developers set their goals and aren’t in a hostage-situation with who funds their games (e.g. publishers). They can receive input from players and other people, but whether they use it or not is up to them. Perfect example: development of Nuclear Throne (read this: 2. relatively small teams. Why? Because if there’s a big enough group of developers the developing company starts to have a bigger and bigger hierarchy to the point where it sort of becomes like a publisher/developer relationship: ultimately there’s going to be a couple of bigshots who decide what to do and what not to do.” – satisfy these two conditions and I’m satisfied calling it an indie game. As to old-school indie developers who aren’t just riding the fad-wave, we still have guys like Lucas Pope, CACTUSQUID and the participants of Ludum Dares. Hell, even some developers who have „become big”, like Super Meat Boy’s Edmund McMillen, still make freeware games or projects just for the sake of making them. I, for one, am glad we have such a massive amount of indie games being developed, because even if a bunch of those are just more of the same ‚2D platforming’ games that are made because they sell like hotcakes, plenty are unique – like Aquaria, Hotline Miami, Papers, Please and so many more. Nice article, by the way.

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