In September’s issue of Game Informer, the “esteemed” publication seems to be initiating its own quiet assassination concurrent with the #GamerGate wars of Twitter. While they do not seem to have leap on the “fuck all gamers” bandwagon with most major games reporting outlets, they do seem to be digging beneath the walls that separate major gaming from indie gaming. Turn to the two-page spread on 31 and behold! Matt Bertz throws down his wall-less theory of gaming entitled ‘The Mutating Meaning of the Word “Indie.”‘ I call offended and uproarious bullshit. Indie isn’t mutating, it means just what it always has: independent. What this should be entitled is “Why we want to destroy the meaning behind the term indie.” Strap in, this another rant of bombastic proportions.
Bertz poses the following question in the first paragraph, which will serve as the thesis for the GI article:
When the majority of games in the contemporary landscape are already coming from outside the walls of big publishers like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Activision, what does becoming indie really mean?
I am a firm believer that within each question lie the roots of its own answer. In my opinion, the answer Matt wants you to come out with is “When the majority of games in the contemporary landscape are already coming from outside the walls of big publishers, being ‘indie’ really has no meaning.” He then goes on to try discrediting the term indie saying that the number and style of the projects that fall into the category “indie” that the term is no longer “useful.” That is a charming thought. but being indie is more than just “breaking away from the standard studio-publisher” model. Sure, that is a major centerpiece for the concept, but that is not the only thing it’s contingent upon. Going rogue in the gaming industry takes serious balls, especially in the face of major publishers that are trying to muscle into the region of indie gaming. The simple fact is that being an indie developer means putting in countless, thankless hours developing a game that will likely be swallowed up by the sea of other small titles. Sure, indie as a genre is useless, which is why people need to stop letting Steam make them think indie just means an artistic game with hand-crafted backgrounds and a bizarre concept. Indie isn’t a genre of gaming; it is a community of indifferent rebellion.
Bertz then takes two indie developers, Cloud Imperium Games of Star Citizen fame and Lucas Pope of Papers, Please, lays them against each other and claims a multi-million dollar company, such as Cloud Imperium, and lone developers residing in the same sphere degrades the purpose of calling something indie. Honestly, anyone that would make this claim is just fooling themselves. I don’t wholly blame Bertz, either. His misconception is one born of an artistic medium still striving against its own over-bearing identity to define itself properly. Taking an example from the music industry, Eminem has his own record label and I would call it an independent record label. At the time of its inception, Shady Records was not a giant in the industry, but it surpassed those lofty heights. Just because he ‘got big’, doesn’t mean he ever stopped being independent. Likewise, when developers such as Lucas Pope or Mojang become big they don’t stop being indie developers. Sure, indie is a genre of music, and that community defines itself with easily identifiable features: retro glasses, a taste for music no one has heard of, flannel. But Bertz is suggesting that gaming has to take on the same restrictive reasoning. You are defined by an easily identifiable array of elements that collaboratively structure “how indie games are supposed to be.” The point of indie development is that there is no structure. You can create whatever crazy fucking idea you have concocted. Take Minecraft as one example. It is possibly the most successful indie game of all time. Even those musical miscreants labeling themselves as indies listen to a respectable variety of musical types ranging from rock to chiptunes. Trying to label them all as the same ‘genre’ is just as useful as stating indie games are all the same ‘genre’.
I reported on a fantastic game crowdfund which found itself on IndieGoGo called X-Tactics. This is a game that will be developed by veterans of Square-Enix, Capcom and Sega, and, as far as I know, it will be an indie game. This is because it will be a game developed under a name and publisher separate from the major development community. Other major developers have broken away from the gilt Alcatraz of major gaming and gone rogue. This sort of thing happens in music all the time with super-groups of famous stars that get together to form an awesome musical entourage. They don’t feel the need to label themselves indie, although many found independent record labels. I would speculate this is due to a lack of oppressive horseshit experienced in the gaming industry. They have their own struggles with record labels and within their industry, and I am not trying to diminish their battles. But when you look at the size of the gaming industry and its unrivaled power to crush dreams, the music industry seems positively navigable. Lorne Lanning, creator of the Oddworld series, is another of these major names, and Oddworld is a game that deserves to call itself indie. In his interview on VG247, he goes into exhausting detail about why major developers would ever go indie, but my favorite line is:
I’d rather not make games than go fucking be a slave for public companies who care more about their shareholders than they do about their customers.
Yes, he really says that, and more, but saying ‘established developers going indie would similarly render it useless’ is equally quaint. The fact is that major developers are terrified of indie developers. Scared down to their quivering, flaccid cores of achieving the same level of irrelevance populated by Leigh Alexander and Anita Sarkeesian. But why would they be afraid? Here’s why:
Some people estimate that Mojang made 84.2 million USD and 66.4 million Euros from Minecraft in 2012. Sure, they are on the forums, but they were estimating out of nerdy interest and had no real motivation other than spontaneous curiosity. If a fraction of that is true, it still doesn’t account for the numerous other countries that play Minecraft and how much money they’ve spent on it. When Mojang became a money machine overnight, the collective bowels of major game publishers voided into unsuitably diminutive pants. Mojang showed that a bizarre game with a solid concept and motivation can conquer the world, and they didn’t have to pass through the close-guarded gates built by major developers. Simply put, major developers weren’t getting a share of that money, that millions and millions of currency of your choice, and it hurt. If not in their pockets, it hurt somewhere deep in their dark, dusty souls.
Turning back to Berts, he goes on to attack indie from numerous angles: big budgets, large staff, companies that make both major games and indie games, and honestly he continues attempting to discredit the concept of indie games. It’s a shoddy attempt to convolute the real issue behind the conversation. See, major publishers see everyone jumping ship for this concept of “freedom.” More and more, major developers are leaving them, and, like a jilted ex, major publishers try to bring them back. This article points to companies like Ubisoft, which was responsible for Valiant Hearts, and says that the “easily identifiable elements” that make these games ‘indie’ are artistic, retro features of a game that make it bizarre or deviant from the norm of gaming. Thing is, this article tries to make it sound like indies are becoming just as independent as major developers, when really major developers are just afraid of becoming as small-time as indie. They are afraid of the change in the industry bringing about new giants and contenders and themselves losing relevance in the swarm of rising stars. Mostly, this is just the result of gamers becoming largely disenfranchised by major publishers, who want to make the same bullshit over and over and have us swallow their crap forever. The fact is, funding autonomous studios to make games for you is nice, but the fact is if your game is published and distributed by someone like Sony or Ubisoft, you aren’t independent, which is the source-word of indie. You are just following the same tired model of the studio-publisher model except that they grant you a little more freedom. Because that is what is making money nowadays, right? Indie games are innovative and bold in ways that major publishers don’t have the balls to be, they’re creative in ways that major distributors can’t rely on and they’re unpredictable in ways that can’t be monetized by a massive company effectively. Indie games are indie games because they succeed by their own virtue, not under the cultivation of a major publisher, which has all the power of a totalitarian propaganda machine at its disposal.
Then again, I am reading this in Game Informer, a magazine that is commonly perused by the Mountain Dew and Doritos abusing target audience of major publishers. Not like they would ever publish an article that is biased in favor of the people who directly profit from the sale of games created by major publishers (who publish this rag mag), rather than the sale of indie games that sell through Steam or even indie devs’ websites. My suggestion is to refer to “indie” games that have been incubated and published by the likes of Sony, Activision et al as subbed indies: Independent games that are subsidized by major publishers. Granted, people will likely not care about the distinction, as long as the game is fucking fun. I just find it annoying when they say the label is no longer “relevant” or “useful” just because major industry gaming thinks so. Indie games should remain indie because it keeps them from being enslaved by major companies that just want to put their dick in it and soak up profits.