What Does It Mean To Be An Independent Developer?

There has been a bit of rise in the popularity of indie developers recently. While the indie scene has produced a few nice things, there is this large feeling of a “stick it to ‘the man’” type mentality; the man being large developers/publishers. I definitely don’t agree with this mentality, but some feel more strongly about it than I do. I personally prefer the term independent developers to the shortened “indie” developers. It’s clearer and more concise about what it actually means.

The more I read about “indie” developers, the more I get the feeling that even they don’t really know what it means – and I feel that this article shows that. I think that this is mostly due to the huge emphasis on being “creative” and “artsy”. The mentality is synonymous (in my opinion) to how people view paintings and sculptures; sometimes there’s no explicit meaning, but we can draw from it our own conclusion. Coming from a computer science background, this sounds kind of ass backwards.

To me, the point of being an independent developer is to be, well, independent. You’re not owned by anyone but yourself and are free to experiment (if you so please) and do what you want, whether those be good decisions or incredibly terrible ones. The article goes on from the interviewees saying things like, you’re not “indie” if you are old, make too much money, or have too many employees. I find it really funny that the interviewer asks whether they think id Software was “indie” before they were purchased and they basically say maybe. Then the next question they ask “What about a studio that makes more than $10-million?” and they say they’re not “indie”. There’s an iPhone question where they bounce back and forth, but you get the idea.

Long story short, are you (or company in question) owned by someone other than yourself? If so, you are not an independent developer. That should be apparently obvious and it really is that simple. Whether you make an incredibly artistic game that makes everyone go “Ooh pretty” is another story.

That said, id Software was an independent developer until last year. It just so happens they’ve been doing what you do and doing it a hell of a lot better for 19 years! That was back when there was a LOT less money in making video games compared to today. If you want to bring the “in the spirit” excuse into play, then id Software is by far the definition of “being ‘indie’”. Hell, I’d go as far to say they are like the founding father’s of “being ‘indie’”. Some people might be thinking “Oh no! id sold out!”, but let me assure you, id Software (and John Carmack) are not stupid (somewhere in the 2009 keynote he talks about Zenimax). Being acquired by a publisher is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, even the big daddies aren’t totally stupid. EA has some great products that they’ve published. Just look at Dice’s Mirror’s Edge and EA Redwood’s Dead Space, both amazing games and, in my opinion, exactly the kind of game that “indie” developers would want to make. In fact, id Software proves that you can make those kinds of games as an independent developer. You’ll need a larger team than the average “indie” team, but it is very doable. Problem is, who starts out with that kind of money? Usually it’s people who’ve been in the industry for a while or made a good enough living elsewhere. I can also imagine publishers shooting down a lot of good ideas because of really bad pitches. Let’s face it, if you were given a terrible pitch, would you want to put money into it?

Anyhow, I think I’ve really explained what I believe is the definition of being an independent developer. I had more to add to this post, but I just realized that it is a bit of a separate topic.

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