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What Does It Mean to Be Independent? And Why It Doesn’t Really Matter

May 5, 2012

After a two-week hiatus to wrap up my last two courses for my degree (I still have my thesis to do), A Pixel Canvas will return to the usual weekly updates. This week I’ll be discussing what is means to be an independent game designer—this discussion is fuelled in part by the negative reactions to the “EA Indie Bundle” released on Steam this week. Many of the game developers that I know and follow on Twitter had something to say about it, and I do too. But there are deeper issue at work here, and I’ll be discussing them as well.

Not Indie

Before we get into defining what makes a studio independent, it’ll be helpful to list a few that definitely aren’t, and investigate why. Companies like NintendoSquare EnixBethesda, Blizzard, Obsidian, Ubisoft, Valve, and EA (hence the confusingly-titled Steam bundle) are clearly not independent—at least, no one in the industry would ever claim it. So why is that? Well, at least two things that they all have in common is their size and their wealth. Further, they all have well-established franchises that helped them to achieve their wealth.

But one thing that they do not have in common, but which often factors into the question of independence, is that some of the companies are funded by publishers, whereas others fund their own games. For instance, the upcoming Diablo III from Blizzard Entertainment is published by Blizzard as well. This makes sense, of course: Blizzard has made boatloads of money from World of Warcraft and Starcraft II in recent years, giving them no reason to seek outside funding. So in that sense, they do indeed operate independently. So what makes them so different from traditional indies like Introversion Software, creators of Darwinia and DEFCON?

Indie

Just as we went through a few game companies that are unquestionably non-independent, let’s consider a few that are undeniably indie. Introversion SoftwareTeam Meat (Super Meat Boy), Number None [Jonathan Blow] (Braid), Playdead (LIMBO), and 2D Boy (World of Goo). And certainly, there are many individuals without proper companies that are all definitely independent. These companies all have this in common: they’re small.

So is that it? Are small companies independent and big ones aren’t? I doubt it. A few summers back I worked as a co-op student at a smallish (20-25 employees) game studio in Vancouver. But they developed the games that their publisher told them to make. Besides, their games were crap and they (along with the publisher) were just out to make money off of the popularity of video games, whereas independent studios care about games and put their whole heart into it. Right?

It’s hard to say…but that’s certainly what a lot of people think. Responding to the so-called EA “indie” bundle, Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson tweeted:

Indies are saving gaming. EA is methodically destroying it. [link]

This is a common sentiment, for sure. I’ve heard people claim similar things, treating independent game makers and their products as the only “true” and “worthwhile” parts of the game industry. This is exactly where the problem of defining “independent” becomes important because it equates quality with independence.

As with the non-independent companies above, though, we run into a bit of trouble with, say, Thatgamecompany, who made the much-loved Journey, released this year on the PlayStation Network. The problem is that Journey was made under a game licensing deal that Thatgamecompany had with Sony: the developers were funded and supplied office space by Sony. Does that mean that they weren’t independent? Surely they had total control over the creative vision of the game, and there’s no denying how valuable Journey is to the development of games as an expressive medium. So how could they possibly be non-independent?

Similarly, when the long-since-forgotten game The Unfinished Swan surfaced as a PSN-exclusive game under a licensing deal similar to the one for Journey, one writer had this reaction:

For some reason, upon finding out this news my gut reaction was to scream “NOOOOO” at the top of my lungs. Probably because I wanted to see the game on PC but also because, well you know, an indie developer receiving help from a company like Sony could make us question its indie status. [emphasis added]

Once again, we have another example of someone expressing the opinion that “indie = good, non-indie = bad”. Otherwise, why would the “indie status” of developer Giant Sparrow even matter?

Who Cares?

I certainly have my own ideas of what makes a studio independent or not, but I don’t wish to articulate them because ultimately, it doesn’t matter—what matters to me is the quality of the game, and whether it helps or hinders the growth and maturation of video games. I am thankful for the existence of Fallout: New Vegas and Mass Effect just as I am Braid and Journey. The more artistically-focused mindsets of traditionally independent developers seems to me a better thing (if only because it’s new and different) for the game industry than most mainstream developers, but that isn’t to say that they are entirely infallible: I’ve definitely played indie games that do no justice to “good gaming”. But we can’t dismiss larger games and companies either. That would be like saying that big-budget films are entirely vapid and useless, because it would dismiss the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy—that kind of scale isn’t possible for independent filmmakers, just as its equivalents in the game industry (say, Mass Effect or The Elder Scrolls) aren’t possible for independent game developers.

So in the end, the question of independence shouldn’t matter. Both individuals and large companies can produce games that mean something, that craft unique experiences, or that, on the whole, explore what’s possible with games. I’m very thankful that independent developers exist because they have created many games that would have been too risky for publishers to back, but they aren’t the only ones pushing the industry forward and in a good direction.

I suppose, though, that I’m worried that the stronger the independent game developer movement becomes, the more people will view it as the “saviour” of the game industry, further dismissing mainstream developers as wholly destructive and meaningless. On Thursday I saw Indie Game: The Movie, and I loved it: it told the story of a few developers really well, and I hope that many non-gamers view the film and see the amount of heart that goes into games these days. But I’m still concerned that some people will use it as evidence to “prove” that indies have a passion for and care about games, whereas others do not. And I think that that mentality is more destructive to games than any mainstream game out there.

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