Oh what’s in a name? What is it that makes an indie game…well, an indie game? The textbook definition of an indie game is an independent video game developed without the financial aid of a publisher. This is much like indie musicians or bands, who often claim the genre of indie by not being linked with a major label and maintaining creative control of themselves. Ironic then, that both music and video games often also claim to be indie due to stylistic choices of their brand or product even while being tied to or supported by a major publisher. So where does indie start and end? Let’s look at few examples.
Minecraft, need I say more? Released November 18, 2011, Minecraft was a very ambitious project. Created by Markus Persson and Jens Bergensten and developed by Persson’s self-started publishing company Mojang, the game features a block based environment in which the player can use tools to collect resources, create various tools, weapons and equipment, and explore the world, all while fighting the various monsters that would see them dead. While the game was developed by a publisher, Mojang, this was a company started by Persson solely for the purpose of getting Minecraft into the world ( Mojang has since published other games, including Scrolls, Cobalt, and the episodic Minecraft spin-off ‘Minecraft: Story Mode’ ). Minecraft would not last as a solely independent game however, and in November of 2014, just three years later, Microsoft purchased Mojang and the Minecraft IP for $2.5 BILLION. Minecraft succeeded due to one of the calling cards of a successful indie title; viral popularity. This game was EVERYWHERE! Whether you were watching videos on YouTube or scrolling through subreddits on Reddit, you couldn’t go anywhere without people talking about this cool new take on survival games, and it is this that is the greatest ally to indie developers’ greatest weakness, the lack of marketing funds. Word of mouth can make or break a title like no ad campaign ever could. This component sold Minecraft like hotcakes, and to this day, even non-gamers have likely heard of the game in passing, bringing it up to titles like Pokémon, Mario, and Sonic!
Now what about games that ARE backed by a publisher. Are these games still indie games? Well, now we start looking at the blurring of that line, and again asking ourselves ‘What IS indie’? We’ve looked at a game that was independently developed and published by a company started by the creator, what happens when a game is published by a third party? When that third party is Adult Swim, some pretty good shit. Adult Swim is quickly becoming a big name in indie-friendly publishing, because they WANT original. Their submission guidelines invite the wacky, the crazy, the original and the absurd to pitch their ideas, and if AS likes it, guess what? You’ve got yourself a marketing budget, a place to host your game, and massive creative freedom. This breaks the Wikipedia definition of an indie game, sure, but it still allows the developer the freedom to make the game they wish without being beholden to big brother. Imagine pitching
a game to, say, Microsoft, where you control a 4-player free-for-all 2D platform brawler, where all of your characters are duck-men. Probably not something you’d find in a green plastic case on the first try, but once Adult Swim stepped in, you can now get Duck Game on both PC and console! So it looks like sometimes it’s ok to get a LITTLE help.
My last point is more difficult to provide single examples for, but you can find them all over Steam, XBox Live or the PS Store: the indie genre. Just like how I mentioned music eventually started to take on indie as a look or sound, so too did video games start to take on indie as a style all its own. Often games will use low-res graphics, 2D visuals, traditional platforming and in general ‘old school’ style design elements to appear more ‘indie’. ‘Child of Light’, a game that looks like it came from a small developer ( not an insult, the game has a beautiful hand drawn, 2D style to it ) was made by the same team that gave us Far Cry 3, Ubisoft!
Even indie studios like Telltale games have begun to draw critique, in that due to its influence on other choice/consequence based games, people have begun to see them in a sort of celebrity light, and no longer consider them indie.
So what IS an indie game? Well, it’s mostly what you make of it. It is the artistic style, the lack of traditional big money backing it, or maybe just a crazy game that came from a crazier publisher. Either way, this has been a fun chance to look through so many different kinds of indie games, and I hope as we continue into Indiecember, you’ll be convinced to check some of them out!
Stay Kultured, Gamers!