What is an indie developer?

Apr 17, 2014

What makes a developer "indie"?

I'm not going to answer that question, instead, I'm just going to ask a lot more questions, mostly because I'm irritated and asking questions rather than answering them irritates people and as the saying goes: irritation makes great bedfellows.

What irritates me is this almost "snobbery" that seems to exist in some dev circles about what an "indie" is. I hear devs who call themselves "indie" roll their eyes at other devs who call themselves "indie" because they "clearly they aren't indie".

So what makes an indie developer "indie"? Let's look at the word.

The word "indie" comes from (I assume) the word "independent". I guess the first question we have to ask is: independent from what? I think most people would say "publishers".

Yet, I know of several devs who proudly call themselves "indie" when they are taking money from publishers (and big publishers at that) and other devs that would sneer at a dev taking publisher money and calling themselves "indie".

What about taking money from investors? If you take money are you not "indie"? What about money from friends or family? Or does it have to be VCs for you to lose "indie" status?

What about Kickstarter? I guess it's OK for indies to take money from Kickstarter. But are you really "independent"? 3,000 backers who now feel a sense of entitlement might disagree. Devs who feel an intense sense of pressure from backers might also disagree.

Does being "indie" mean your idea is independent from mainstream thinking? Is being an "indie developer" just the new Punk Rock.

Does the type of game you're making define you as "indie"? If a dev is making a metrics driven F2P game, but they are doing it independent of a publisher, does that mean they are not "indie"?

This is one of the biggest areas I see "indie" snobbery kick in. Snobby "indie" devs will look at an idea and proclaim it "not indie".

Do "indie" games have to be quirky and weird? Do "indie" games have to be about the "art".

What about the dev? Does that matter? Someone once told me I was not "indie" because I have an established name, despite the fact that the games I'm currently working on have taken no money from investors or publishers and are made by three people.

What if the game is hugely successful and makes a ton of money? Does that make it not "indie" anymore? Is being "indie" about being scrappy and clawing your way from nothing? Once you have success, are you no longer "indie"? Is it like being an "indie band" where once they gain success, they are looked down on by the fans? Does success mean selling-out? Does selling-out revoke your "indie dev" card?

What if the "indie" developer already has lots of money? Does having millions of dollars make them not "indie"? What if they made the money before they went "indie" or even before they started making games or if they have a rich (dead) aunt? Does "indie" mean you have to starve?

Is it OK for an "indie" to hire top notch marketing and PR people? Or do "indies" have to scrape everything together themselves and use the grassroot network?

Or does "indie" just mean you're not owned by a publisher? How big of a publisher? It's easy to be a publisher these days, most indies who put their games up on Steam are "publishers". The definition of a publisher is that you're publishing the game and the goal of a lot of studios is to "self-publish".

Or does being "indie" just mean you came up with the idea? The Cave was funded and published by SEGA, so was it an "indie" title? SEGA didn't come up with the idea and exerted no creative control, so does that make it an "indie" title?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions (and maybe there aren't any), but it irritates me that some devs (or fans) look down on devs because they are not "indie" or not "indie enough".

Or is being "indie" just another marketing term? Maybe that's all it means anymore. It's just part of the PR plan.

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The whole indie label as a badge for others to give or take away has always bothered me. First in music, now in games. I for one think you (and David and all the others) are both Indie as well as Experienced. Wear them proudly as scout badges!