The Broad Usage of Indie

Speaking from a game development perspective, you’ve most likely heard the word “indie developer” thrown around.  It’s becoming quite the phenomenon lately, especially with the numerous changes that benefits indie developer.  These changes range from financial support systems like Kickstarter to platforms that make indie games readily available (circa the Steam Greenlight program).  There are also numerous engines available to the public now such as Unity and RPG Maker.  All in all, the industry scene has changed quite a bit for indie developers, allowing them more access to tools to make games and more access to people to play those games.

All that being said, none of these changes have affected how we apply the word “indie developer.”  Yet, for me personally, I have to wonder if the term is applied too broadly now?  With more tools and more platforms comes a wider variety of quality in these games.  Is it fair that all indie developers get lumped into one group?  That is the topic I wish to explore today, or more so, apply my opinion to.

To begin, we first must have our standard definition.  Wikipedia defines indie games as the following:

“Independent video game development is the video game development process of creating indie games; these are video games, commonly created by individual or small teams of video game developers and usually without significant financial support of a video game publisher or other outside source.”

By this definition, we’re speaking then of creators who are not supported by publishers like Electronic Arts, Bandai Namco, etc..  While this may at first seem like a fine definition, when one looks at the wide range of games available, it starts to have some flaws.


Let’s take a look at Subnautica by the studio Unknown Worlds.  For those unfamiliar with the game, Subnautica is a survival, crafting game with a futuristic, underwater theme.  Subnautica, in my opinion, has a graphical quality that could challenge a lot of AAA games.  While there is a stylization to it, the graphics in it are high quality featuring smooth meshes and spectacular animations.  Fish in the game all have individualistic movements, from the Gasopods who more float around to the Reaper Leviathan’s who coil about.  The interface is also well-developed, featuring stylistic minimalism that serves its use while fitting in with the futuristic tone of the game.  The world is fairly vast, featuring numerous individualistic biomes.  This includes areas such as a biome filled with mostly underwater lava to a biome that that is in shallow water and has a bunch coral like structures.  The mechanics of the game are also well-developed and pretty balanced, letting the player explore, gather resources, and craft items at a good pace.  The atmosphere the game possesses is very intense and has vast immersive factors; one cannot but help but be a little more scared of the ocean.

In summary, though, the point is that this is a high quality game that you can tell was developed with great care.  While the game is still in development at the moment, there’s a certain level in which you could be tricked it was finished.  That is how amazing the game is.

That being said, let’s take off our Subnautica hat and look at someone else: me.  Now before you click off, understand I do not choose myself for shameless self-promotion.  I choose myself, because I’m the person I can criticize the most without hurting anyone’s feelings.  My intent in this article is not to discourage anyone from making games, so I’m a risk free candidate.  Moving on, in October 2016, I developed a Halloween game called Dark Forest.  It was made in the RPG Maker VX Ace engine and used, for the most part, in-engine assets.  The game is a puzzle-horror game and was made within the span of a week.  The game takes maybe 20 minutes to beat.  While I personally may be proud of certain aspects, I’m under no illusion that it’s some amazing, revolutionary game worth playing.


The unfortunate fact is, however, that a lot of indie games are closer to mine in quality.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that as everyone has to start somewhere.  Yet, all these beginning developers (such as myself) still get to wear the title of indie developer.  So the point I ask you is that particularly fair?  Should I be able to say I belong to the same grouping as a hard working studio like Unknown Worlds?

In my opinion, the answer should be no.  In fact, I would argue applying the word indie so broadly in this case is detrimental to both sides when it comes to public perception.  Let me explain.  Say there was a player who only ever played my game and games of similar quality.  Let’s also assume that they did not care for these.  So, when a game like Subnautica comes along, there’s a risk players may not even consider it once hearing that it is an indie game.  After all, indie games to them have so far been of an immense lesser quality than AAA games.  On the flip though, say they were someone who, so far, only played games like Subnautica or Stardew Valley.  These are both fairly high quality indie games, so overall those high standards would inform their perception of what an indie game should be.  However, when they go to play a game by someone just starting, they are probably going to hate that game by default for not matching the higher quality of others.  In the end, both sides of this coin cause a huge rift in player perception.  Either they are going to expect gold or expect trash upon hearing that one word.

I feel this is a gross disservice to both experienced indie studios and those just starting.  While I, of course, have no power to suddenly command language to change, I do advocate that maybe it should in this case.  At the very least, I feel indie games should probably have sub-genres of a sort: one for games like Subnautica and one for games like mine.  In this way, the word indie would have less effect on players’ expectations, and the quality someone was getting into would be better known.  Though I acknowledge this may disadvantage those starting out, at the very least these developers would not be getting people who hate on them for not being these more intense indie games.

Unfortunately, this is the extent of my power in making this change happen.  I have no real expectations for it to change, nor am I going to go on one-on-one tirades for anyone who is okay with using the term broadly.  I do understand that not everyone feels a need to get that specific about word usage.  Nevertheless, I did want to put my two cents out there regarding this linguistic phenomenon.  At the very least, maybe someone thinks about indie games different than they used to, and I would at least consider that a victory.

Subnautica is © to Unknown Worlds all affiliated parties.

Image 1: Screenshot from Subnautica during one of my playthroughs.

Image 2: Screenshot from my game Dark Forest.