Every now and then someone will ask me for advice on making it as a professional indie game developer. First, it’s a huge honor to be asked that. So I want to say “Thank you!” Second… damn, if I really want to help out it’s a serious endeavor. Of course, I could always say “Give it your best! Work hard! Be true to yourself!” and it wouldn’t be a terrible reply… just not a terribly useful one, either.
So here it is. Here is what I’m going to link when that rare situation arises again, because it’s too much work to write it up more than once! This is advice that I feel may actually be practical to someone who is just starting out as an indie game developer. Hope it helps!
So yeah, what does being “indie” even mean? Is “indie” short for independent? Is this game “indie”? Is “indie” a genre? IT’S CONFUSING – WHY DO WE NEED THE WORD “INDIE” AT ALL.
To answer the last question, I offer the following scenarios. Scenario 1: a person is looking to make games, and perhaps start their own studio. They type “game development” into a search engine. The results, to say the least, are underwhelming. Dry. Academic. Programming-centric. (Try it yourself and see.)
Scenario 2: the person instead types “indie games” into a search engine. Instead of pages upon pages of conferences, bachelor’s degrees, and programming tools, that person is met instead with pages upon pages of games to play and vibrant communities filled with people who are doing exactly what he or she wants to be doing. Some of them went to school, but many did not. A wealth of different ideas and tools are used. There are even documentaries about making games! It’s not just something where you get a degree and wait in line for a job. You can start making games RIGHT NOW.
The word “indie” is more than just a way to describe a type of developmental process… like any label, it actually provides an avenue for people to explore that process and then flourish within it. It has a real purpose. It serves real lessons on game creation and entrepreneurialism. It offers real motivation!
Of course, it can be irritating to see the term misused, or become a vehicle for pretentiousness and arrogance. Like any label, “indie” also breeds a certain amount dogmatism, croneyism, and other -isms. But the net result is really worth something. As someone who once gave up on professional game-making because I thought it meant a 9-to-5, I can tell you that it’s genuinely valuable.
As for what games are “truly” indie, we’ll never fully agree, and that’s probably for the best. But I can tell you the criteria I’ve devised for The Independent Gaming Source to determine whether a game is fit for coverage:
1. “Independent”, as in no publisher.
2. Small studio (roughly 20 members or less).
I choose that definition because it’s the most useful one. Someone who is looking to become an “indie” game developer is interested in what is possible under those constraints and how those types of studios operate. It excludes companies like Valve and Double Fine, which are certainly independent but too large to be “indie”. It also excludes “feels indie”-type games that are not self-published.
Under that definition you still run into gray areas, but hey, just because we don’t know when “red” turns into “purple” doesn’t mean the words aren’t useful. Just think about someone who wants to make a game with a small team and self-publish it… what should they type into Google for inspiration, advice, community, etc.? “Indie” is still as good a word as any, in my opinion.