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I increasingly feel the need to add “so-called” when I talk about indie video games, in part because no one seems to know what an indie game developer is anymore. And while it’s tempting to dismiss the situation as just a rehash of the same sort of hand-wringing that took place in the 1990s in the film industry, around Miramax cutting up independently-made films and how indie those movies could be considered anymore, I think the video game industry has much more on the line than the film industry ever did.
Last September, the second annual Boston Festival of Indie Games was held on the MIT campus. Where the 2012 festival was held mostly in classrooms between two contiguous buildings, the 2013 iteration was held primarily in the Johnson Athletics Center, which gave all the developers a huge space to spread out in, and made it much easier to make the rounds of all the exhibitors and get a feel for the games the festival had to offer.
I asked some of the developers at the event what they thought defined an indie game. Some of the answers were artistic intent, or the desire to do something different; the need to be granted leeway in terms of visual performance; the expectations of the audience; smaller scope, owing to smaller team sizes; a labor of love, versus a game built primarily for profit; and the amount of press attention a game could count on.
There’s a grain of truth in all of that. The idea of an indie studio used to evoke images of very small teams of game developers fighting against the grain to make their dreams come true, or developers who were trying to publish games that defied traditional understandings of what a video game was, or games that were primarily concerned with thematic and artistic statements over commercial success, similarly to the way indie music or filmmaking were always thought of.
But I could challenge almost all of those propositions I heard at the Boston Festival of Indie Games. Indie studios can be quite happy to work in genres normally associated with the mainstream video game industry, like first person shooters. It’s not safe to partition the audience between mainstream and indie anymore, not with a maturing audience that plays games in both categories. I don’t know many indie developers who are blasé about profits, and the enthusiast video game press has its eye out for gems being developed by the indie sector. A good game is a good game, and will get its due attention.
Now there are “indie” studios like Blue Manchu, the developers of “Card Hunter,” or The Fullbright Company, the developers or “Gone Home,” that are staffed with bona fide veterans of the blockbuster, triple-A sector of the video game industry. Rami Ismail, one half of Vlambeer, the Dutch development team responsible for “Ridiculous Fishing,” is one of the loudest voices proselytizing for the indie community, and a central figure in that community’s cooperative efforts, but his studio is getting huge professional accolades and press attention. That Vlambeer is composed of only two individuals doesn’t feel relevant anymore to an assessment of whether they are indie or not.
I don’t believe this is purely a semantic debate, which is too often what it’s chalked up to as people yawn and retire from the discussion. I think there are legitimate concerns to be voiced about the fate of innovation in game development if our industry allows a mirror version of the Sundance syndrome, when the Utah film festival mutated from a showcase for fresh or unusual voices into just another part of the Hollywood marketing machine.
Every year at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, which is arguably the most important professional event in the annual slate of video game expos and cons, the Independent Game Festival Awards are followed by the Game Developers Choice Awards, both of which are considered by many to be the most important video game awards given out that year.
At GDC 2013, the traditional lines between the award shows remarkably blurred. Indie games were all over both sets of awards, in some cases outnumbering triple-A games in GDCA award categories. The nominations for both sets of awards for 2014 have been announced, and the same blurring has taken place, to the point where triple-A developers who care ought to be thinking about whether or not they’re in legitimate danger of being eclipsed in these award shows, as audiences in the know, and critics, continue to grow bored with constant iterations on old game designs and repetition of stagnant themes.
The GDC awards are generated strictly from peer nominations, which is why they have traditionally been a venue for the mainstream games that everyone knows. The Independent Game Festival awards, on the other hand, are driven by developer submissions which are made available to a pool of judges, who may play as many, or as few, as they like. This gives relatively unknown games or niche games an opportunity to shine, and as game development tools become increasingly accessible even to designers who may lack a robust programming background, this method of nomination ought to become even more important in the future.
I remember my grandiose plans for shooting short films to submit to festivals when I was a film student, and balking at all the logistics that were involved. I am made to understand, from game developers I trust, that it is much easier for amateurs to develop their first video games. Hence my concern that the video game industry has so much more to lose than the film industry did by allowing a murky definition of what constitutes “indie” to potentially crowd out new talent.
My intention is not to tell the Independent Game Festival how to run their awards, but rather to provide a scenario which demonstrates why keeping to the original idea of what constitutes indie is so important. If this blurring of the Independent Game Festival Awards and the Game Developers Choice Awards continues to grow, doesn’t that suggest the potential for a Sundance-type situation, with studios who really aren’t indie by the traditional definition obscuring newer, fresher voices for whom the Independent Games Festival is an extremely important tool to get noticed? Even if that’s not an imminent risk, isn’t it worth considering as a thought experiment?
Part of the industry narrative over the past several years is the idea that a development studio either has to be triple-A or indie, with nothing in-between. Developers who played to the traditional, core audience but who lacked a blockbuster franchise, or who couldn’t keep up with the technical arms race which provided the spectacle demanded by the core audience, collapsed and left that middle space unoccupied.
Developers like Vlambeer, Blue Manchu, and The Fullbright Company are filling that gap. They’re not indies to me. They’re small studios. They’re just as potent and relevant as any of the long-established developers pumping out blockbuster games that make hundreds of millions of dollars. Small, successful studios are helping to create a new ecosystem where inclusion in that middle space is not defined by B-grade efforts to snare the core audience, but rather by combining innovation, artistic relevance, and risk taking which the mainstream industry generally cannot afford.
Retiring certain developers/studios from the indie club, which is something the press can absolutely encourage if not de facto make reality by how we cover these small studios, and officially recognizing them as the new, mid-tier of the game development world, is not only a vote of respect for their work, but a recognition that the video game industry can avoid the mistakes made by the film industry, and protect the rising tide of experimentation and innovation that continues to blossom in the world of video game development.
2014 can be the year the indies metaphorically died, or at least a good number of them, to make sure we’re always leaving plenty of room for new blood. Let the word “indie” mean what it used to, and reserve it for the fresh faces that need the leg up.
Dennis Scimeca is a Boston-based freelance writer. He is usually on the video game beat, and has been published on Salon, Polygon, Ars Technica, and Kotaku. Follow him on Twitter @DennisScimeca.