What the hell does ‘indie’ even mean anymore?

Matthew Jarvis
What the hell does ‘indie’ even mean anymore?

Indie. It's a word that instantly conjures visions of 2D platformers, retro graphics and quirky gameplay, of bedroom designers and nervous-looking developers showing their life's work in the corner of games industry events.

Today, the term also brings to mind some of the most innovative, influential and talked-about titles ever seen: No Man's Sky, DayZ and the world's biggest game, Minecraft, among them.

With triple-A publishers and platform holders investing millions (and in the case of Microsoft's acquisition of Minecraft creator Mojang, billions) in their indie output, the sector's grassroots past is long behind it. But those experimental, low-budget efforts still exist behind the spotlight. So what exactly does the word ‘indie' mean today?

It's so widespread now it's getting almost meaningless as a term,” responds Dan Pinchbeck (pictured, top left), creative director at Dear Esther and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture studio The Chinese Room.

The general sense seems to mean lower-budget, smaller or shorter games made by small teams. But that doesn't really cover it anymore. As much as anything, it's whether people or studios self-identify themselves as indie, rather than a description of work; it's more of an attitude than a tick-box definition.”

"Indie is more of an attitude than a tick-box definition."

Dan Pinchbeck, The Chinese Room

While titles like 2008's Braid and 2010's Super Meat Boy (pictured below) established the indie sector as a serious contender in the games market, they also did it a disservice, spawning countless spiritual successors and clones, and leading to the wider perception of indie games as little more than retro-styled 2D platformers.

Gunpoint and Heat Signature creator Tom Francis (main image, top right) says this stereotype has now been overcome.

There is a much greater acceptance of indie games, and that's awesome,” he enthuses. The lines are blurring – it no longer feels like a niche.

"The thing I'm really glad that we're getting away from is indie as a genre, as in: 'Is it a shooter, is it an adventure game, or is it an indie game?' Indie game meant a side-on platformer where you jump over spikes and push blocks, and then it has a special mechanic where time rewinds or you switch to a different dimension or gravity inverts or another trope. There are still loads of those games being made, but it's not the default for an indie game anymore.”

FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE

Despite being produced by teams as small as one or two people, many indie games now rival triple-A staples in terms of graphical punch and technical polish; The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Gone Home both boast photo-realistic visuals and complex narratives.

However, Gone Home (pictured below) saw some consumer backlash upon its release in 2013, with a group of players criticising the game's 14.99 price tag as being too high for a two- to three-hour title lacking ‘traditional' gameplay. Would those same gamers have happily paid the same (or more) had the game been labelled triple-A?

A large number of players seem to not be willing to accept an indie title costing as much as, or even approaching, triple-A game prices,” offers Felipe Falanghe, lead developer at Kerbal Space Progam studio Squad.

I'm not sure if this is because there is a notion that a one-man or small team developer shouldn't need to charge triple-A-level prices, but that's not a valid argument. Conversely, by that logic, why should a big studio, which can reach a vastly larger potential player base, need to charge more than indies?

"The matter of price versus value is something that should ideally be only judged in terms of the game itself, not the size of the company behind it.”

John Watson (main image, bottom left), technical director at Banner Saga studio Stoic observes:The problem of value will always be an issue for anything that doesn't have a direct analogue for comparison.

"When Journey was released for PS3 there was nothing to compare it against, and the same applies to Gone Home. When Madden 2019 is released there will be a long chain of precedents from which an exchange value can be derived and a use value inferred.

"Developers should not be afraid to charge as much as they feel is appropriate. A developer should be able to trust that her audience will agree to a price sufficient to pay for her livelihood and game development endeavors. I have no interest in chasing an audience that values my work so little, and sees my efforts as so irrelevant, that they refuse to pay me for it.”

Using indie games to pad out PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live's offerings is great for consumers but it's not helping the indie cause as a whole.”

Debbie Bestwick, Team 17

Indie has suffered a pricing struggle similar to mobile – an app costing more than a few pounds is sure to raise eyebrows, just as 15 indie titles see forums full of vitriol that 50 triple-A entries don't – often regardless of content.

The situation has been exacerbated by the double-edged sword of subscription services such as PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live, which often feature indie titles for free to attract subscribers.

Using indie games to pad these offerings out is great for consumers but ultimately it's not helping the indie cause as a whole,” Team 17 MD Debbie Bestwick laments.

We talk to plenty of developers who've had their games signed up directly to go into these programs and it's really no better than the old work-for-hire model and the subsistence-farming level of business it breeds.

"It encourages a perception of indie games as being of little-or-no value – I'm starting to lose count of how many times I see comments like ‘I'll wait for it to be on PlayStation Plus or Games With Gold' when a new title is announced.”

Adrian Chmielarz (main image, bottom right), creative director at Ethan Carter developer The Astronauts, adds: On the surface level, PS+ and GWG should indeed devalue indie games. Why buy a game when all you have to do is to wait a couple of months and then you'll get it for free?

On the other hand, this forces developers to create better games – ones that people feel they have to buy right here, right now.”

STACK THE DECK

All of this indicates a market still coming to terms with the idea of indie titles.

While the increasing presence of smaller titles at E3 and Gamescom has helped indies gain traction, the deck remains stacked against games outside the triple-A mould.

It's really interesting if you ever see a trailer for a new indie game on YouTube,” recalls Francis. If I ever watch a trailer and think 'wow, that looks so good', I then glance down at the rating bar and it's 20 per cent dislikes, which is freakishly high for YouTube.

"Every time that happens, it's always on the official Xbox or PlayStation channels, and it's because there's about a fifth of people who watch those channels who just fucking hate indie games. They're like: 'Urgh, this is shit. There's no 3D graphics. What the fuck is this? This is some bullshit flash game. Fuck this.' So they certainly haven't gained

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