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Indie Week: Independent Of What?

[Welcome to Indie Week at gameinformer.com. We’ve got a full seven days of indie game coverage leading up to the 2010 Independent Games Festival Awards. Check the hub daily for new previews, interviews and other coverage of the top independent games of the year.]

We’re kicking off an entire week of indie coverage by starting in the most logical place – square one. Originally debuted early last year, this feature explores the freedoms and hardships that go hand in hand with the indie moniker. Additionally, we probe into the minds of a  thriving community of international developers, all united by big ideas in non-traditional packages.

Independent of What?
Indie has history. Braid, Castle Crashers, and World of Goo helped introduce indie games to the masses, but small teams of dedicated developers have been pushing the creative envelope  for years. Some indie developers are fiercely loyal to their niche in the industry. Others use independent projects as stepping stones to bigger, mainstream projects. But what exactly is an indie game? Must indie developers meet a list of prerequisites before being accepted by their peers? Is there an accepted cap to the development team size? Is any or all outside funding forfeit? 

To answer these questions we turned to Simon Carless, a chairman on the Independent Games Festival board for the past five years. Carless is also the acting publisher of Game Developer Magazine and the industry news outlet Gamasutra. Indie-icon Ron Carmel, one half of the World of Goo team, also offered up his brain for picking.

Talking to the two experts helped to clear up the majority of our questions, but not without a few surprises. It turns out that the term “indie” is much more fluid than one would believe. 

“The rule we currently have for the Independent Games Festival is we certainly would like the games to be self-funded,” begins Carless. “Obviously, it’s a bit more difficult to get funding now, and some XBLA games that have been given money from Microsoft to finish, but you would still consider it a very indie-style game.”

Carless continues, explaining that the current criterion to enter the Independent Games Festival, in terms of eligibility, is simple. Those interested must click yes on a box that asks “are you indie?” “To a certain extent, it’s like a self-identifying thing,” maintains Carless. 

From a development standpoint,  Carless provides a bit more insight, laundry-listing many defining indie characteristics. Indie games tend to have smaller audiences and are the product of a vision from an individual or a small group of people. Independent games also tend  to short form and aren’t necessarily looking to gain mass market appeal.

When asked what indie games are independent of, Carmel struggled with his own answer.

“Maybe they're not independent of anything,” muses Carmel. “Maybe they arise from independent thought and creativity. Honestly, I can't define indie, and it's not for lack of trying. I see a lot of things that many indie developers have in common: they value design over profits, they create games as an exploration of a medium or as an expression, they take bigger risks in the process, and they work in small teams.  Kind of like that small squadron of X-Wings that blew up the Deathstar. I'm afraid that indies are a bit like anarchists in this respect. As long as we each get to do what we want, we're happy, and as soon as someone tries to define or centralize anything, all hell breaks loose.  I've talked to enough indies to know that we will never agree on a unifying principle.”

A unifying principle isn’t the only thing that’s tough to agree on. With intentionally lax rules as to what qualifies as “indie,” some games fall into a gray area. Is a game developed by a single individual more “indie” than one made by a small unit of a larger development studio?

“I think that there’s a massive difference,” Carless offers. “Indie is just big enough to where it starts getting controversial. On the one hand you’ve got someone like Jason Rohrer, who lives pretty minimally, and he’s making these pretty interesting games just on his own and often gives them away for free. On the other hand you have the PixelJunk guys at Q-Games who’ve been a little bit divisive. Some people have been complaining that those guys are insufficiently indie, which I don’t really know how to respond to. It’s a point of view, certainly. Those guys are based in Kyoto, Japan. They are a slightly larger studio. I think they are a 25-30 person studio, but they still offer a little division of their company to just work on a self-funded, five-person game. Is that indie? For me, it still fulfills what indie is.”

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Monetary Motivation?
Our conversation with Carless continued by exploring the difference between hobby and career indie developers, and discussing how it’s unwise to ignore finances even if not motivated by monetary gain.

“Like anything, you can be creative and make a game in your bedroom, and it can be really cool,” explains Carless. “Some people will like it. You don’t have to quit doing your day job. You can just do that for fun. Some just want to make games in the same way that some people make music in their spare time. However, I think the business imperative is important because if you want to commit to making games fulltime, you certainly have to work to fund it.”

Carless continues on to explain that the concern is less about commercial success than it is about finding a way to continue a self-sustaining lifestyle. “It’s important for indie developers to understand marketing. I think 2D Boy is the best example of this not only because they’ve made a really good game, but they also have fully-distributed their game across four or five media forms. You actually have to do that to be successful. As an indie, if you’re putting all your eggs in one basket, it’s risky. Especially when you’re only making one game at a time. In some cases it makes sense to only put it on one medium. But what if it’s a massive flop? What if you can’t make games for a living anymore?”

So ignoring finances isn’t the best idea, even the goal isn’t to make oodles of money. With this monetary motivation somewhat removed (at least when compared to mainstream games), is competition amongst developers traded for camaraderie?

“To a certain extent there’s plenty of room for everybody,” weighs in Carless, “so you don’t really get to the stage in the bigger industry where two publishers release a first person shooter on Christmas and have to worry about which one is going to be better.”

Because many independent games exploit niches, Carless reasons that there isn’t a ton of direct competition. He also argues that since the overhead is smaller and the profit margin lower, indie developers are usually more willing to work together and publicize each other’s projects. 

Carmel paints an even more idyllic picture. “There is no competition amongst indies. We help each other whenever we can. There's no room in this world for two World of Warcraft games or two big football franchises, but there's always room for another great indie game.”

Innovating the Industry
A common sentiment about independent games is that they are the industry leaders of innovation. Looking at the nominees for the IGF awards each year, it’s hard to ignore the characteristic out-of-the box thinking.

“Sometimes I think you can overdo innovation as a criterion,” Carless begins. “Oftentimes, the best games are evolutions of previous ideas more than just abstractly, insanely innovative. I think what independent games allow people to do is a lot of rapid photo taking. One of the main things I found at the Independent Games Summit was that the person speaking was  famous or popular for the tenth or fifteenth game that they released online."

Using indie developer Petri Purho as an example, Carless explained that Crayon Physics Deluxe was one of the yearly games Purho created as part of a rapid prototype experiment. This type of iterative process allows creators to receive constant feedback, giving them the opportunity to really push the most interesting or innovative aspects of their work.  It's decidedly harder for large development teams to operate this way.

“If you’re doing a game that is really big, you probably can’t release it to the public to see what they think,” explains Carless. “To a certain extent, indie games win (as relates to innovation) because of the shear amount of ideas. Eventually, if you’re smart, one of them is really going to break through. You don’t have to worry about starting full production in three months or whatever. If you’re working for a publicly held company, your pre-production has to end eventually. A lot of these popular [indie] games have taken much, much longer than the developers thought that they would, but they managed to get away with it. World of Goo was meant to be a seven-month project. I think they said it ended up being a two-year project.”

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Trials, Tribulations and Triumph
Even with the inherent freedom of being indie, independent development is constant challenge. For Carmel, quitting his day job, moving back in with the parents, and slaving away at the computer all day was essential to World of Goo’s success.

“One of my biggest realizations this year was that so many of us get hit on the head hard by our first game,” recalls Carmel. “Becoming obsessed with the game to the point where everything else in life crumbles a little is a very common story among indie developers.”

This sentiment is echoed by many other indie developers we surveyed, all drawn from the pool of 2009 Independent Games Festival nominees. Many were quite willing to detail the struggles they encounter as a result of going indie.

“The hardest aspect for me is the fact that the technology doesn’t support independent development, but instead expects you to work with a large team of dedicated people for each task,” chimes  in Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey of Tale of Tales. “Also the fact that you’re always working. Being indie is not a job that you do part of the day and then come home and relax. Being indie is a lifestyle. And sometimes working all the time can be a drag. And finally the harsh money, time and skill limitations of a small-scale development of original concepts in an industry that caters mostly to risk-free hit-driven blockbuster production is difficult to contend with.”

“There are two conflicting forces as an indie that seem to always pull in opposite directions,” reasons Alex May, co-creator of Dyson. “The toughest aspect of being indie is reconciling them. The two forces are creativity and funding. Finding funding is hard, and there is a temptation to hamper the creativity of the work to provide for future funding. Some people find a happy medium and enjoy a limited creativity while making games for targeted markets. Others forgoe funding completely and engage in game creation as a hobby. Others still may pass their IP over to a publisher or platform holder, preferring (or requiring) the cash advance on royalties. These entities offer less creative freedom, although this is now stretching the definition of the word 'independent'. Finding a place where you are happy creating your work for whatever reason is very hard, because often it seems like the most satisfactory options just don't exist.”

“Aside from the obvious money issues, I'd have to say losing your life to game design is the toughest aspect of being indie,” says Coil creator Edmund McMillen. “In order to live as an indie you basically have to sacrifice 90 percent of your life to thinking about and designing games. It's almost like being haunted by video games. Everywhere I go, no matter what I'm doing, I'm always thinking about how this situation can be applied to a game, or other ways to push the art of game design.”

“Self control is the hardest,” confesses Dylan Cuthbert of the PixelJunk Eden team. “There is no publisher ‘complaining’ about stuff, so the final quality is what you end up making it.  Controlling your own budget is hard too, it's so easy just to keep developing the game, but with each month you are using up your own money.”

But being indie isn’t all bad. After months (or years) of labor and love, eventually the development cycle draws to a close. And that’s when the indie developer can step back and look at what their freedom afforded them.

“The best part about being indie is that we have complete ownership of the product,” says Matt Gilgenback of 24^ Games, nominated for their work on Retro/Grade. “We are making the game that we want to make the way we want to make it. We don’t have to compromise our vision in order to make a game more marketable or to appeal to every demographic if we don’t want to. We don’t have to hit a specified release date, so we can take the time to make the game meet our high standards.”

“Without a doubt it is the community,” adds Michael Wilford of Twisted Pixel, developer of The Maw. “The indie developer community is the most supportive, non-competitive, friendly, fun, energetic, and awesome collection of people I've ever seen. I'm constantly blown away by it.”

“Having the ability to push and mold game design as a whole [is the best part],” reasons McMillen. “Indies have the ability to take risks, by taking risks and succeeding you're making it okay for mainstream companies to follow in your footsteps, and that's very inspiring. I also love the ability to not have to answer to anyone, being indie means doing things the way you want them done and not having to worry about censorship.”

“When you are indie the work you do is not restricted by current trends, focus groups and similar things that make many of the bigger companies avoid risk and go for the conventional or proven formulas,” explains Andres Bordeu, co-founder of ACE Team and game designer on Zeno Clash. “The work done by indie developers is more personal and I think it's much more gratifying to get good feedback from the players when you are more closely related with your product. Talking about motivation, I also think everyone feels more committed with a project when you’re a small team because each individual’s work is a large portion of the product. If you’re working in a huge company, maybe you get to work on incredible blockbuster titles, but what percentage of your work is part of the whole game?”

“Being indie means to be truly proud of yourself when you accomplish something against all odds,” concludes Samyn and Harvey. “Showing people what humans are capable of and feeling kinship with the great poets, sculptors, architects and composers of the past. That’s where it’s at.”

Be sure to check back all week for more indie game coverage, including previews of the 2010 Independent Games Festival nominees.

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