Why What ‘Indie’ Means is Tiresome but Sometimes Important

A close-up photo of the entry for "indie" in the Oxford English Dictionary. The view is too close to the page for the entry to be clearly readable.

If you have spent any significant time around current gaming communities you’ll have likely encountered some of its members attempting to quantify the conditions for a game being Indie. You’ll have also noticed that they failed to satisfactorily complete their task. I will examine why that is the case and what it means for events like the IGF.

Meaning from Use
As Wittgenstein writes in his collected notes known as The Blue Book:

“if we had to name anything which is the life of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use

The term “Indie game” is used often, and used with fair consistency. Steam lists hundreds of games that it labels as Indie, IndieGames.com covers news related to many more titles. These sources and others seem to largely agree on which games should be categorised as Indie, despite the occasional flaring up of debate in comments sections over whether a particular game contains sufficient Indium.

Photograph of bars of the metallic element Indium

So there’s really no problem, right? We take Wittgenstein’s theory of the meaning of signs, see that “Indie game” is consistently used to pick out a set of games, and we declare that to be what the term means. Why the perennial debate over the term’s meaning?

19th Century Gamers and Definitions
The gaming community at large is regularly criticised for its outdated attitudes, and it seems this aged approach to things extends to the philosophy of language. Reading my previous paragraph you might well have felt a sense of unease with the idea that the meaning of a phrase is simply what it’s used to indicate. Surely the meaning of something should be more solid, more certain than just what it is currently used to pick out from the world? What we want is a nice list of rules to check something against to see if it is an Indie game, or perhaps an ideal Indie game to compare a given object to and see how closely it corresponds. In short, we want a definition.

It’s this goal of finding a working definition of Indie games that those tiresome discussions among the gaming communities focus on. Usually someone will – with a concerning air of certainty – declare that Indie means independent, which means it’s a game created without the financial support of a publisher. That does seem to be what independent means in this context, but it also holds little resemblance to what the term “Indie games” is generally held to pick out.

Valve software are the creators of such major releases as Portal 2, and they’re also the publisher. Which is to say they received no financial support from a publisher and therefore are independent developers. Likewise many of Nintendo’s major game releases have been both developed and published by themselves. Yet no one seriously considers these to be Indie games.

Not only do the items picked out by the proposed definition fail to not match those picked out by the term “Indie games”, but the financial basis of the definition is far separated from what it meant when one talks of Indie games. When someone speaks about Indie games they are simply not meaning to discuss the financial situation of the work’s creator(s).

A close-up photo of the entry for "indie" in the Oxford English Dictionary. The view is too close to the page for the entry to be clearly readable.

This divide can again be seen in the classification of Indie music. Look for a definition, and Wikipedia and its like will gladly present information on recording contracts and independent labels. But look up examples of Indie music on a tool like Last.fm and you instead find a genre of music, including bands that have all manner of recording contracts.

As it is in music, in common parlance Indie has come to mean a particular style of game – a style which arguably arose from developers working free from the direct influence of a publisher (arguable as I would not claim that publisher influence is necessarily stifling, although it typically is).

The term Indie game needs to be understood in line with the manner in which the term is actually used, and it needs to be recognised that a definition built around that is going to inevitably have fuzziness in its borders. Some very rough basis for such a definition might be:

  • A focus on innovation, especially in the area of game design.
  • A relatively small development team, with an emphasis on encouraging creativity from its members.

Does it matter?
So Indie games are to be understood not as being a classification related to the financial situation of the developer but as some more nebulous style or approach to game design. Fascinating. I’m sure we can now all sit back, sagely nodding and discussing the flexible nature of language and how the classification terms we use and value judgements we make are innately tied up within the complex web of constructed social ideas in which we find ourselves at this particular moment in history. But does this realisation really matter in the real, practical world?

Possibly it does matter to those who would set out to create games. It might clarify the feeling they likely already had that what matters about creating a good Indie game is that it be a quality and novel experience to play, rather than the financial circumstances in which it is created.

Where the problem of Indie games definition can have a more substantial impact is when organisations and competitions arrange themselves around the concept and feel they need to add legitimacy by constructing rules that classify something as an Indie game.

Logo for the 2012 Independent Games Festival

IGF 2012
The prompt for my writing of this piece came from the Independent Games Festival 2012 and the controversy over Fez being re-entered and going on to win the grand prize despite already winning the Visual Design category back in 2008. Dealing with the many issues raised by the events is out of the scope of this article, but I do want to pick up on one aspect.

Phil Fish, one of the creators of Fez said in an interview for Rock Paper Shotgun:

“The IGF wants the biggest, best games to enter the competition. They want their competition to be fierce. They don’t want the best game developers to sit it out and be like, ‘Oh, we’re too good and this is the kid’s table.’”

He goes on to challenge those that think it’s unfair for his game to win prizes in multiple years to:

“Make a better game than mine.”

The message is clear: This is a competition and he’s in it to win.

But it isn’t quite a simple as making a better game than his. You need to make a game that is both better than his and is eligible to enter the IGF. It is here we find ourselves back at the problem of Indie game definition. The IGF does not define exactly what an Indie game is, with their rules simply stating:

Independently Created: The Nominating Committee must be confident that the submitted game was created in the ‘indie spirit’ by an independent game developer, fulfilling the question asked on the entry form. The Nominating Committee reserves the right to refuse any game at its sole discretion.

In my opinion this is about the best they could do. To attempt to formalise the meaning of Indie game would inevitably result in games that are otherwise considered Indie to be excluded, or allow in games that are generally not.

If the IGF is to be approached as a fierce contest as Fish reports the organisers wish then it must be expected for contestants to push at the limits of the rules, just as Fish himself is doing by re-entering with Fez, and just as anyone serious about winning a competition (or game) must do. But the rule on games being independently created is by necessity vague, and so attempts at pushing against it are going to be very difficulty to fairly judge.

A screenshot from the game Journey, showing a figure in a red cloak looking out ruins scattered in a desert

Let us take for example the game Journey by ThatGameCompany. It is widely referred to as an Indie game, being described as such by the creators and getting plenty of coverage on IndieGames.com and other specialist sites. Like Fez it is a game focusing on exploration through a beautiful world rather than the more typical conflict-based mechanics of action games. Like Fez it has a relatively small development team. Also like Fez due to the manner in which it has received funding its release has been limited to just one platform, with Fez exclusive to Xbox 360 and Journey exclusive to PS3.

However it was not an entrant into the IGF. I don’t know if they simply chose not to enter, or if they were rejected by the Nominating Committee as they has a publishing deal with Sony (as I understand it Fez doesn’t have a publishing deal per se, but does have a contract with Microsoft granting them funding in return for exclusivity).

It’s quite possible that Journey could have been judged to be a better game than Fez if it had made it into the competition. But it didn’t as either ThatGameCompany or the IGF felt that the game was not sufficiently Indie to enter. Phil Fish and the IGF were content that Fez is.

By making the case that the IGF should be viewed as a competition to be won, Fish inadvertently revealed the vagueness of it’s most fundamental rule. To beat Fez you do not just need to make a better game, but make a better game in such a way that it is considered by the outside world to be Indie.

What does it all mean?
If you want to create a serious competition or organisation around Indie games then you need to give serious thought to what Indie games are. Winning a prize at the IGF can have a huge impact on a game’s prospects beyond the already significant prize money awarded. You need to take hard decisions about what does and does not qualify for entry.

If you rely on unwritten or vague rules and personal judgement you will be accused of bias and favouritism.

If you rely on written specific rules you will be accused of failing to understand what Indie games really are.

Personally I just wouldn’t organise a competition’s rules around the category of Indie games in the first place. Make a prize for games developed by students; a prize for games developed by a team of less than 10 (with clearly defined terms for who counts as a team member); a prize for innovative game mechanics that  you’re not afraid to award it to a mainstream game if it is deserving.

Most of all, don’t expect to find a definition of Indie games that everyone agrees with.

P.S. I’ll go back to writing about shaders and stuff real soon, I promise.
P.P.S. My sincere apologises to anyone reading who has a real understanding of philosophy of language.

One comment on “Why What ‘Indie’ Means is Tiresome but Sometimes Important

  1. Thomas Leyland Torr on said:

    the word Indy is difficult to define, especially when you consider Indy music, as you said. “Indy Spirit” seems to be the best description. These days it means a lot to label your product as indy and it’s difficult to tell which games have been created in the true indy spirit. Games designed by 1 person should be a category on your list.

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