Solitary shed semantics: what it means to be indie

By Stace Harman, Wednesday, 14 March 2012 07:49 GMT

For some, it’s already a way of life, for others it’s a long sought after ideal. Stace Harman chats to indie developers to get their thoughts on the hows, whys and wherefores of indie dev.

The typically romanticised image of indie development is brought to mind as Smith talks about his lifestyle – by his own admission he sleeps and works in a shed (albeit a very nice shed) – but this can only be considered an endearing anecdote once there is a finished product to point to and some modicum of success to celebrate; take these away and Smith is just a man living in a shed.

Before any discussion about the current position of indie gaming can begin, it’s useful to first define what is that we’re talking about. What is an indie game?

“It’s important for people to realise that there are so many titles that come under the umbrella of indie,” offers Hannah Fordham from online market place, Indie City. “From simple platformers to text adventures to huge sprawling RPGs with a 30-hour campaign”.

Being indie should be a barrier to neither size nor ambition; fair enough. Perhaps it’s easier to simply describe an indie game as the product of an independent studio, then.

“Blitz Games Studios and Codemasters are both independent, but neither would really be considered ‘indie’,” Fordham counters “There just doesn’t seem to be a universally accepted definition or answer that appeases everyone.”

This feels like the “games as art” question all over again. To be indie requires a certain flair for unique expression but the rest, it seems, is open to interpretation. Certainly, an indie game is not always the same as an independently developed game; the ethereal quality that makes something “indie” can be cultivated by a non-independent studio – Rez, created by Sega’s United Game Artists, is an example of this.

In the same way, an independent studio can produce decidedly non-indie-style games, as seen with the Project Gotham series created by long-time independent British studio Bizarre Creations. Sadly, the studio was closed down in 2011, four years after Activision Blizzard acquired it. Prior to the acquisition that resulted in its closure the studio had existed for 19 years as an independent.

Independent inc.

One thing that those that constitute this particular sliver of the industry do agree on is that their freedom from external control is one of the most attractive and liberating elements of their position, and should be celebrated.

Of the indie developers that I speak to, none chose their path for want of a better option. None are holding out in the hope of being snapped up by a publisher or subsumed by a platform holder. This is important, because it further informs the types of games being made by these studios, and I get the sense that these small teams and individuals are making the games that they want to make, rather than hoping to catch the eye of potential buyer.

“The best thing by far about being indie is being able to do what I want and follow it through. I can choose what I’m going to do at any given moment.”

“The best thing by far about being indie is being able to do what I want and follow it through. Of course, I have bills to pay and have to make decisions that benefit my business, but I can choose what I’m going to do at any given moment,” says Andrew John Smith of Spilt Milk Studio who, along with Nicoll Hunt, created iOS title Hard Lines. Smith describes his next title, Smash the Block, as one that aims to “fix everything that I don’t like about bat and ball games,” and, like Hard Lines, it’s a project he’s undertaken primarily for himself.

The ability to work on whatever you like will sound appealing to many, but the reality is a lot of hard work and focused effort. The typically romanticised image of indie development is brought to mind as Smith talks about his lifestyle – by his own admission he sleeps and works in a shed (albeit a very nice shed) – but this can only be considered an endearing anecdote once there is a finished product to point to and some modicum of success to celebrate; take these away and Smith is just a man living in a shed.

This further enforces the notion that being an indie involves not only capitalising on the opportunities that present themselves as a result of hard work, but also assuming numerous different roles in order to make your game work.

“It’s important to realise that what you’ve created only becomes a game – and only becomes relevant – once someone has actually played it,” Smith warns. “You have to understand that while making your game fun is part of getting people to play it, promoting it so that people know it exists is also a massive part of the process.

“You have to make the most of your chances: the world is full of people doing what someone else did but just a little bit better.”

“If you’ve made a really good game that has been well loved by a few people but you’ve not done enough to push it, then you perhaps have to acknowledge that you’ve not really done it justice. You have to make the most of your chances: the world is full of people doing what someone else did but just a little bit better.”

Assuming you’re able to put much of this in to practice – to take the first spark of an idea and see it through to successful publication by yourself – does this relegate publisher backing to nothing more than a big pile of readies? Is it just a question of the funds that you have at your disposal for shiny marketing and stage presence?

“If we’d done this off our own backs and not spoken to Microsoft about it at all we wouldn’t have had the same drive to achieve the level of polish that we have,” insists Ahmed Zaman of student start-up Angry Mango.

“We would have released [Mush] near the beginning of 2011 had we not gone the Xbox Live [for Windows 7 phone] route, and that would resulted in a much less polished title. Microsoft’s input has been very valuable in that respect.”

The wealth of experience that a publisher can offer an indie, especially to those new to the industry, should not be dismissed, but nor is it the be-all-and-end-all.

The indie difference

For some indies, the more commercially successful a project is, the more adamantly independent the studio becomes; certainly that sums up the career trajectory of Dan Marshall of BAFTA award-winning Size Five Games, creator of point-and-click adventures Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please. Marshall is currently working on The Swindle, an open-world platformer whose development has led him to re-consider such fundamental game mechanics as death and fail-states, in ways that mainstream developers seldom have the freedom or inclination to.

“The gamer doesn’t care that I developed it and they certainly don’t care about seeing the name of the game because they already know it. What’s stopping me from just opening in-game?”

“I was idly thinking about the menus, splash screens and a title-screen displaying the game’s name when it occurred to me that, actually, the gamer doesn’t care about that stuff,” Marshall recounts. “The gamer doesn’t care that I developed it and they certainly don’t care about seeing the name of the game because they already know it.

“That led on to thinking, ‘What’s stopping me from just opening in-game?’ From there, I played through the game in my head and got to a point where I’d been shot and thought, ‘Well, where do I go from here: do I go back to the start of the level, do I go back to the hub or have checkpoints dotted around the level?’

“All the options just felt really awful – it felt like instead of punishing a player in-game for failing, I’m punishing the player in the real world by making them sit through a loading screen. Perhaps I’ll go with the idea that you’re dead but you choose where to re-spawn, but regardless of the final decision, I’m thinking very hard about how not to inconvenience the player.”

Whatever Marshall’s eventual decision concerning fail states and the weighty issue of death, he’ll have given it considerable thought and is free to do so due to his independence. If nothing else – even if we can’t quite agree on what an indie game is or where the fine line between inspiration and blatant cloning falls – we should all be free to ponder failure and our own mortality, to question accepted norms; to revel in our independence.

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