3/14/2013

Why the word "indie" shouldn't exist

A problem with all the things that are "indie" is that it's just an empty term. There is no clear definition what makes a piece of art indie. I might be strongly biased about the term "indie" since the first time I heard these sad kids trying to make some use of the instruments, calling themselves an "indie rock band". Then again, I haven't seen any proof so far that the term is worth anything. I saw people trying to narrow it down to some basic commonalities of indie stuff. One of the most popular and - it seems - ground characteristics is "not being financially backed or in any way dependant on publishers". If that was to define "indie", then Square Enix is an indie game developer and Timbaland is an indie musician.

Let's take a look at writers as an extreme example. How is it that self-publishing authors are generally ridiculed for being not good enough to publish while "indie" authors are considered to be so cool? After all, they are doing an exact same thing! I completely understand how the catchy slogans of independence and innovation arouse the masses. Someone came up with a brilliant idea of marketing the same product under a different banner. These aren't struggling writers that can't get to be published by anyone. These are writers that are fighting the system, a possibly globally controlled secret association of publishers to smother the creativity and devilishly laugh while counting money. The artistic value of it stays the same.


I am not a historian of the game industry, but the the popularity of the whole indie game movement is relatively recent and began more or less with game designers quitting their jobs in bigger companies and starting from scratch, on their own. But what's so fresh in games made by Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel or Jonathan Blow? How is Molyneux starting 22 cans different than Molyneux starting Lionhead or Bullfrog? The same kind of startups weren't called indie in the 80's or 90's.

The difference lies in the market situation mostly. Smartphones and electronic distribution happened along with new, free and more complete game making tools. An era of games in great quality for affordable price finally arrived and everyone lived happily ever after! No? Well, not really. The barrier to entry got significantly lower, yes, but no miracles were involved. Making a good game still requires skills. With the skilled veterans breaking indie came rising stars like Markus "Notch" Persson. And along with them came thousands of startups with more, less or no experience whatsoever. All hoping to get their slice of the pie.

The sad truth is that for every excellent indie game released, you get 10 copies of Angry Birds or Bejeweled, 50 generic point-and-clickers and 100 barely finished school projects. Normally, these would never see the light of a day and frankly speaking, nobody would cry because of it.  The only reason why these games get to be released is because they are branded "indie". Meaning their authors get credit for being not-so-professional developers that don't pay the publishers, for fighting the system and wanting the industry to grow in a more innovative and less money-driven direction. They get all that benefit of doubt just for being in the "indie" basket while what they often actually do is try to cheaply rip off a popular idea for money. It's almost a shame there is no instance that could browse through all this stuff for us and just hold back the games that don't meet even the lowest quality requirements, like... I don't know... a publisher or something?


The whole indie movement in gaming is often perceived as a revolution. And let's maybe look at it as such for a moment. A revolution is an act of uprising led by the middle class (here: mid-sized developers), that encourages the lower class (here: every wannabe developer and small company) with the use of catchy slogans (here: independence, creativity, freedom of artistic vision, return of fun, you name it) in order to overthrow the upper class (here: biggest gaming companies) depicted as the common enemy (here: greedy moneymakers producing generic games for masses) and introduce new order, in most cases meaning getting the power for themselves (here: taking the market share from the bigger companies). Every revolution ends when the lower class gets tired of fighting and looses interest. Will the indie movement take down the biggest companies? I don't think so. Will it steal their market share? Maybe a small piece. Still, there are surprisingly many similarities to the revolution, at least in the mindset and slogans.

How does it actually work? Suddenly nearly anyone can make and publish a game. Sure, it is now easier than before, but... there's nothing really uncommon about it. All these "indie devs" are doing exactly the same thing the current giants did 20 or 30 years ago. They are starting small studios and how big they will become depends mostly on the success of their games. Yes, some guys have quit the bigger studios to have more creative control. Once they succeed with their first small game, they can still have this creative control when they hire 20 people to help them to make a slightly bigger one. Then they will hire 100 more people to make two games at once, still having the creative control over both and making at least a few of this hundred people think "maybe I'll quit and start my own company to make the game I want to make..."



Glorifying the "indie game" term actually leads to more negative than positive things. It puts great games developed by skilled individuals together with hundreds of mediocre products unifying them under one mushy category. The term draws attention from actual brands, like World of Goo or Jonathan Blow, to promote a blob of games whose only common element is being non-AAA. Furthermore, it creates a state of fictional conflict between "the creative indie" and "greedy and repetitive AAA" industries, completely ignoring that the vast majority of indie games could be pasted on Wikipedia under "recycling" and that pearls of creativity like Okami, The Sims, Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls or Little Big Planet have been developed by these dreaded AAA gamedevs. It causes misinformation for the players, stereotyping insanely broad categories of games with tags that cannot possibly fit them all.

My prediction would be that in a few years the studios that actually managed to stand out of the indie crowd will do their best to get as much distance from the movement as possible. They will realize quite soon that being branded as "indie" will just stall their progress. The most mediocre developers will keep on holding the indie banner up, shouting their slogans of independency, of hatred towards sell-outs that aren't living on instant noodle anymore. Will games evolve in a more creative direction? A considerable amount of them will. But not because of some silly indie fad - because of the natural tendency of the market to satisfy an identified demand. And thanks to brilliant individuals that will deliver these games.



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2 comments:

  1. Hello there!
    I really liked this article. It gives you a little different point of view from what you can usually read on the internet or in games magazines. While i'm not sure i can 100% agree with everything stated above, I totally agree that players, press and recently Sony and MS give a little too much credit to "Indie" Games.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. I'd be worried if you 100% agreed. I like it when readers have their own opinions - makes it less boring to have a dialogue :)

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