beyond “indie”

i spoke at gdc again this year, though they called it “rapid-fire indies” instead of “indie rants” because apparently they’re trying to move away from the idea of rants. but if they wanted to get away from the idea of rants, why did they have me speak? my speech was about how we should move away from the idea of “INDIE GAMES” instead. here is a video my friend andrew recorded, and here is a transcript:






the words we choose to label things define the limits of our discussion, and this discussion is much more limited than the one i’d like to be having.

i don’t think the “indie” label has ever sat right with me because it has always seemed so limited: when we talk about indie games, we’re talking about a set of twenty or so particular games that look a certain way and play a certain way, which were made by an inner circle of celebrated indie game developers to be played by people who self-identify as “indie game fans” and perhaps no one else.

when, really, the promise of tools like game maker — that let anyone make a game with no professional or programming experience — and the cheap broadband internet that allows them to distribute their games without a publisher is GAMES MADE BY EVERYONE FOR EVERYONE, not games by the same small handful of nerds for the same nerds to play.

that’s what we should be having a conference about: this amazing era that we stand on the threshold of where game creation is available to everyone, where no one has to be just a fan or part of a scene because everyone can be a creator. that’s what’s exciting.

the indie label doesn’t contribute anything to the discussion except a needless sense of distance: calling a game an indie game or an author an indie developer just enforces the illusion that it’s an exclusive club, an inner circle to which most people aren’t admitted.

so my challenge to all of us is to stop thinking and talking in terms of indie games and indie developers, to get beyond the idea of an indie scene, to center the discussion on GAMES made by PEOPLE because there are going to be a whole lot more people making a whole lot more games and the indie label has become a moeity — a distinction we don’t need to make in an era where there’s no distinction between who can make videogames and who can’t.

39 thoughts on “beyond “indie””

  1. Brava. I couldn’t agree with this more. It is interesting how a limiting classification like ‘indie’ (I will add that it’s a pretty icky word!) gives people a false sense of empowerment.

  2. I don’t really understand where you’re coming from. As I understand the term, “indie” means a game created by one person, or a very small team, without financial backing. games made by everyone for everyone ARE indie games. the distinction is between these games and the types of games you can buy at walmart, like halo or starcraft. this seems like a useful distinction to make, doesnt it?

    are there really people who would look at a game made by one dude in his/her spare time and say “this is not an indie game”? i have never experienced this, but then again I’ve never gone to gdc.

  3. @yurt: I don’t really get why the low budget or no financial backing ideas come from.

    If I had two million dollars to finance a game, and made a game myself with those two million, it would still be an indie game.

  4. I think you’ve lost this one.

    Indie already means a particular style of game, just as it implies a particular style of music.

    I think what you need to work towards is the next label. But there WILL be a label; people LIKE giving names to things, it makes them easier to think about.

  5. > Indie already means a particular style of game, just as it implies a particular style of music.

    The thing is, that categorization works for market forces to commodify stuff (like calling all good books “the ‘literary’ ‘genre’”). When people started doing music themselves, the established music industry had to find a way to absorb that output into their system. They did it the way they do everything: by assign it to a category, a price range, a shelf. You have the pop shelf, the best-sellers shelf, the heavy metal shelf, the indies shelf.

    The problem is, we never wanted to be absorbed into their system. We want to replace it.

    Indie music: with this label, the music industry has minimized its greatest threat. Instead of allowing every consumer to become a producer, instead of the inevitable fade-out of middlemen between artists and listeners, the label turns independent artists into something quaint, picturesque, harmless because colorful. Look at them idealistic dreamers, trying to create new kinds of music. We were like that once, when young. If they just made as much money as Metallica, they would mature: would work within the tracks; would become equally bland.

    Industry forces have called these games “indie” because they wanted to hold power exactly in the same way as the music industry. It works. But we don’t want a lemonade stand in the lowest-price (thus signaled as lowest-quality) corner of Playstation® Network—we want to change the whole gamescape. We don’t want “indie” games to be the harmless court jester; we want to decapitate the Goddamn king. We don’t want our games to have a label; we want “independently produced” to be the norm; we want THEIR games to have a label; we want “formulaic sequelitis coward adolescent power fantasy” to be a tiny unimportant category in a large unregulated market of highly authorial games. Power to the peoples!

  6. Failed to create an alternative term. Discussion requires a sylable restricted title. Indie-Game mearly most catchy. Come up with a catchy alternative. You did it with masochor.

    SEE ALSO: use of the term Euro-Game

  7. I posted this already on the youtube page but again… This is awesome.
    I saw you speak at last years summit and it was great.
    I will be continuing to follow your stuff even more closely.

  8. thank you for articulating this.
    this point has frustrated me to no end lately.

    i understand the initial use of the term; cribbing from indie music/film, by defining games not developped under a big publishing ‘label’; that is, with no vested corporate interest to stymie artistic integrity and creativity.

    maybe in the early days of the igf this definition was useful; today as you observe, it is not. the damaging implications are two-fold as i understand.

    the first is the seperation of the current prominent/visible ‘independent’ developers from their contemporaries. while outsiders or newcomers may legitimately be unaware of the history of games, most of the current established faces are well aware of it, and seem to collectively cling to an imagined niche in order to establish immunity from impartial comparison (critical or otherwise). this seems to be the problem dmx is trying to adress, albeit buried under several layers of neurosis.

    the second is, as you describe, the insder mentality; scenesterism. the most worthwhihle work of self-described independent games news blogs and assosciated outlets has been creaming the crop of amateur game dev communities to find quality new work and talented, unique voices worth the attention. while this still happens to a degree, the vast majority of coverage seems to focus on the daily trot of the ‘established circle’, or worse, near-verbatim publication of developers self-promotional material reminiscent of the mainstream games ‘press’.

    to those asking, we _should_ care, because it is important to communicate the value of independent developers to the world at large, not as a bastardized alternative to the mainstream, but as worthwhile contributions to the form. we need to communicate to the ‘press’ that they deserve equal (if not greater) consideration than big budget equivelants. we need to guard against the exploitation and commodification of amateur creativity, eg. Microsoft® XBOX™ Live® Marketplace Indie Games. [edit: leoboiko beat me to this point, said it better]

    anna, your audience applauds, but i wonder whether they will bother with further discussion, let alone effort to effect change.

    i’m paticularly interested to hear from simon carless, tim w, mike rose, and derek yu on early and ongoing use of the term.

    basil, yurt: there is most definitely an audience of people making the subjective judgement “independent, not indie”. it’s certainly a gdc-attending self-proclaimed-indie type of proclamation: see phil fish’s 2009 rant.

  9. Offal, thanks for the reference; I just looked up phil fish’s 2009 rant. his target was Q-games, who are a game development company with fulltime employees. they released a licensed starfox game on the DS in 2006. their founder worked on the original starfox. their game “pixeljunk eden” was in the 2009 IGF. phil thought it was wrong to call them indie. (phil went on to say that the word “indie” is too vague to really be useful)

    I was looking for someone using the term in an exclusionary way towards a dude making games in a bedroom, which is what anna’s post is about. phil used the term in an exclusionary way towards a commercial game development company.

  10. ====
    Failed to create an alternative term. Discussion requires a sylable restricted title. Indie-Game mearly most catchy. Come up with a catchy alternative. You did it with masochor.

    The accumulated filth of all their retro pixel graphics and experimental gameplay will foam up about their waists and all the developers and enthusiasts will look up and shout “These games are different!”… and I’ll look down and whisper “No.”

  11. I really like this, except for the lack of any alternative shorthand. Maybe “amateur game development”, but that seems like it would imply low quality.

  12. Well if we’re looking for a new shorthand, it’s at least 3 concepts with the same name, innit?

    There’s “independent game developers”: basically any company making games that is not owned by a publisher. I guess we say “3rd party developer” these days but it was not always so. (showing my age here)

    There’s “indie games” the aesthetic: lots of 8-bit-looking platformers. Sometimes it’s doing the best with limited resources, other times it’s deliberate “make it look shit so it’s authentically indie”.

    Then there’s “indie games dot com”, which is the little club of devs who make games in the above style but nooooo not casual games

    And then there is “???” which is all the other people who are independently making lots and lots of games in Flash and for mobile and using all these other amazing tools. (Mostly hidden object puzzles and room escape games.)

    Trouble is, any shorthand you come up with, you’re going to pigeonhole people into one of these groups like I just did. It’s all just GAMES, right? If it’s good, if it’s creative, why does it matter how more or less “indie” it is except to exclude people?

  13. My 2 cents:
    As far as I can tell, the people proposing alternate words for the same purpose are completely missing the point. We don’t need to replace the word indie. We would be right back to the same fucking problem. We need to use it less.

    We already have the words game, developer, designer, gamer(which I have different problems with), etc. Let’s stop qualifying that shit with “indie”.

    We are game developers.
    We play games.
    We like to talk about game design.
    Games are awesome.

    I see no reason to limit those things to the “indie” category.

  14. I don’t have a problem with the word indie. I also don’t have a problem with you having a problem with the word indie.

  15. I guess a group of people have monopolized the term.

    I’ve seen many flash games that are more innovative and fresh than most “indie” games, yet they’re never mentioned on the indie blogs.

  16. The problem is obviously not that the particular word is “indie”, the problems of scenesterism etc that you mention would have existed just the same no matter what label used. Your rant is “linguistically shortsighted” and stupid.

  17. I wish you had concentrated your efforts on talking about what’s bad about scenesterism instead of attacking the word itself. Replacing “indie” with a new word/label will work great until the exact same thing happens again.

  18. Alf is probably right, it’s a generalized issue of “scenesterism” — but to the extent a new (old) word might be useful, what was wrong with “homebrew” as a shorthand for “games by people”? Does that sound too limiting? Or “handcraft” maybe.

  19. my goal here is not to suggest that the problem is with the label, but that the problem is with labels. i’m not asking you to come up with other labels but to stop using labels. my proposed solution: instead of calling them “indie games,” call them “games.” let’s use language that’s inclusive rather than exclusive; let’s not let our discussion of games be limited by the labels we use to characterize them.

    there are commonalities between games that are worth exploring – between board games and digital games, between games by solo authors and games by big publishers – but the context in which we frame our discussions makes those connections invisible.

  20. Again, the problem isn’t about terminology (“games” is as much a label as “indie games”) and making it about this only diffuses the issue. If we stop calling these games indie, people will still use words to distinguish between them. Even if you were able to completely eradicate the use of the word “indie”, another word would appear in it’s place – that’s the very principle on how a language evolves. If that new word happens to be for example “solo games” the scenesters might call themselves “soloists” and be all possessive about that term instead.

    Again, I liked where you talk about how similar “indie” games are, and how uniform the people who like them are. But your solution is crap.

  21. HEY MA’AM




    alf is retarded i mean who would call themselves ALF in the first place

    10 dollars “alf” has never made a game or anything besides a comment on the internet

  22. See, for me, it’s just easier for me to use the “indie game” label because it aids me in finding the kinds of games I want to play, and most of those games are made by “indie developers.”

    Scenesterism sucks, but it really is going to always exist. That is, admittedly, a pretty bad argument, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I support the fight against elitism, but I do think that attacking terminology is ultimately pointless. Better to combat the attitudes directly, because words, in the end, are just words.

    Also (and I’m sorry, Daphny), the argument that “you’ve never created X” is an empty one. The fact that I, say, make music doesn’t give me a special, more valid opinion on music. It’s irrelevant.

  23. Apologies in advance for any of this that is rambly or incoherent.

    I’m going to mostly agree and partially disagree Anna. Not for Anna’s sake in any way. Her position is a fine one and squabbling over the details would be nit picky and petty.

    I think what Anna said is important. People in the indie community get caught up in the indie moniker. They confine themselves to projects that fit that label and they organize under their whole community around it. The label becomes a harmful, obstructing ideology. This is the important bit in my opinion and the part I don’t think anyone here will disagree with.

    Where I disagree, and I think this is where you’re all hung up, is I don’t think the label is inherently damaging or useless. Labels, almost (but not quite) by definition, are designed to be useful. To categorize, organize and help communicate ideas in fewer words. They can naturally also homogenize ideals if ones not careful, and that is why I think it is good the Anna took the term to task. But I’m not going to stop calling my self an indie developer. Not because, I’m fond with the term, but it communicates what I am actually doing (basically it means I’m poor! :D) and in that sense, it remains useful. It’s useful to describe some games and their budget class. But, and Anna may disagree with me on this, I don’t think we really disagree on this too much. I think Anna is being more (and wonderfully) idealistic vs me being pragmatic and thats not something that I think is terribly worth arguing. Anna just has more passion and that’s a good thing. It’s not osmething to be hung up in the comment sections about. It’s the core idea that is important.

    We should not let labels define what we do. I, for example, have no intention of making more man games or restricting my ambition because I’m “Indie”. It means no more to me than when I say I’m a freelance graphic designer. I am a graphic designer, fundamentally. I can talk with any designer of any skill level. Even with games, many of my conversations are with people in the traditional industry. Too many other people trap themselves in it. I think eliminating the language is impossible (We will come up with shorthand for anything), but anything someone can say to inspire caution is a good thing. Language is powerful and potentially dangerous.

    I also know the scenester issue is one close to a lot of us, but that doesn’t make what Anna said any less important. In a way, it’s the language that clumps people together is what gives their scenes cohesion.

    Unrelatedly, Sean, while I agree that not having made something does not eliminate ones ability to comment on something, I think it’s a touch foolish to say that having deeper experience in the creation of something does not add validity to one’s opinions.

  24. YOU’VE NEVER CREATED ANYTHING is a pretty fucking straightforward statement

    its not you havent created X its you havent created ANYTHING besides a comment on the internet

    learn to read

  25. tell someone that doesnt play videogames that you make ‘videogames’ they’ll go oh cool

    tell them that you make indie games and they’ll look at you like you’re a snob




    Well, only a little. Because I AM annoyed that if I say I’m an indie developer ir implies snobbiness. That ANNOYS ME. But I don’t blame that on the label, I blame that on the community that abuses the label. When I say “I make videogames” (or more realistically “I’VE MADE VIDEOGAME… and intend on making more!”), well.. that’s a pretty vague statement! Do I work for EA? Do I make iPhone apps? Or do I dick around with game creation systems, as is the case?


  27. I hold to my position. Creating video games doesn’t give you a more valid opinion of video games, it just gives you a different perspective on them. It’s an important perspective, but there are still other valuable ones.

    More on topic, I do think one of the best ways to fight elitism in the arts is to create and to encourage others to create. Anna does this, and it’s the reason I value her opinion so highly and why I frequent this blog. I love that now it’s pretty easy for someone who wants to make a game to do so, and I look forward to a day when literally anyone can do it.

  28. That’s like saying a mechanic doesn’t have, all other things equal, a more valid opinion about cars because you both drive them.

    That’s dumb.

  29. To be clear though, I want to say that I don’t think a designer always knows more or has the best opinion on things. Somebody can be a poor designer while someone else could be a very informed game historian, or competitive gamer yadda yadda yadda.

    It’s the same with art really. Artists are often the best people to talk to about art, but a non-artist who is informed enough can do the same thing. Same with the car example too — the guy could be a race car driver. Now if this is your point, that “It’s not NECESSARILY more valid” sure, whatever. Obviously.

    But if it’s in that lame, hippie “Everyones opinion is just as good as everyone elses” way, well no, that’s dumb. Dumbdumbdumb.

  30. Of course the mechanic knows more than I do about the way that cars run. That’s something that’s quantifiable, something that is completely objective. That’s a stupid comparison.

    The arts have both subjective and objective qualities to them. And, for the record, I think that artists have a tendency to be the worst fucking people to talk about art with, as I find that they tend to be self-important twits most of the time.

    Not that I’m saying this about you or anyone else here. I mean, I don’t know any of you.

    On the other hand, I do agree with you that all that feel-good hippy shit is dumb.

  31. I’d hardly consider myself to be self-important here. As for twit, well, your opinion is what it is.

  32. I guess I don’t see the real effects scenesterism played out so much. Where are all the magnificent outsider-created games that are being ignored by “the indie scene”? I feel like any game of quality is likely to get attention in all the usual indie game haunts.

    And again, while the proliferation of easy to use tools and game making middleware is a great and democratising thing, I still feel like the best works of the medium come from people who are dedicated to the craft,and the honing of their skills.

  33. We have labels for everything. I don’t see how it harms anything. Soon we won’t even be able to call cars cars with that logic. What are we going to call everything Smurf?

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