Who is an indie developer?

I recently resigned from my startup engineering roles to start my own thing at mentioned here. I wanted to pursue my own projects and goal, work on stuff I was really excited about, learn a few new things and I currently have the financial safety to just go for it.

I started reading www.idevblogaday.com, and followed one of the authors to their blog and came across the Indie Budget, by Doug Davies. Since I haven't produced an indie game yet (but a few New and Noteworthy Travel apps) I won't comment on budgeting, but I think I can give a few opinions regarding his opening on who an indie dev is. I will return to Doug's definition in a moment, but I wanted to visit a few others first.

A Wikipedia entry defines an indie dev shop as one that is not owned by a publisher, thus retaining control of their development pipeline. They may choose to work with a publisher, or self publish, and still remain independent. This definition seems overly broad, though I agree with the retaining control aspect of the definition.

I too think it is a bit of a cop-out by the Independent Games Festival, as noted by wolfire in his post, http://blog.wolfire.com/2009/08/what-are-indie-games/ which says an indie game must be created in the 'indie spirit' but doesn't define that (but they can refuse any game at their sole discretion).

I think wolfire's two-part definition, Motivated by Passion and Designed and Produced in Trenches is close, but it still might exclude slightly larger indie groups. As a developer and a businessman, I am motivated in equal parts of Passion and Money, so he might say I am not indie because I am not 'pure' enough of an indie. I want to make some great, original games, but I will also add the polish, level balance and marketable elements that hopefully will also help the game make a bunch of money.

And if I give direction to a fellow dev, but I don't actually do the coding, does that make our project no longer 'indie'. I don't think so. Or what if I sub-contract the graphic design completely to another person. But if an investor/publisher/financier intruded into development, design or personnel decisions, that would definitely mean you aren't independent anymore.

A while ago Jusso penned http://www.gameproducer.net/2009/10/19/i-finally-got-it-the-ultimate-def..., Just one developer makes you indie. Anything more and you are no longer an indie dev.

This is way too restrictive. This excludes all two and three person groups, or even one-off collaboration games as not being 'indie'. But I think many people would regard a designer-developer duo producing a game with their own time and money would certainly be considered indie.

Over at http://blog.ninjabee.com/2009/06/indie-game-developer-definition.html, by NinjaBeeGames they flesh out idea that the whole debate is just a distraction, since many try to define 'Indie' to include themselves, but nobody who is 'doing better' or 'has more resources' than them. It seems that the any reason to disqualify one set of developers, is just a wish to have the resource available if possible. If you disallow working with publishers ever, it might just be because they actually want to be picked up by a publisher. If the visuals are too high end, that must exclude a group from being 'indie enough' until I can get my hands on some good designs. NinjaBeeGames doesn't really answer the question of who is an indie, but provides much food for thought.

So now that I have checked into a few old and recent posts regarding the topic. I know that I am an indie game developer regardless of any of the proposed definitions, and I plan on being the head of an indie studio eventually.

Coming from the Silicon Valley startup scene, I have seen and been apart of a few different types of startups, some feeling more independent than others. An angel funded group has taken some seed money, but generally the investors very much sit on the sideline, cheerleading but not really contributing or constricting the company. But a larger venture capital round leads to board seats, management meetings and lots of oversight. Definitely not independent anymore.

I mostly worked in self-funded startups (also all were profitable, proving you don't need investors to start a new company). The founders pour their own money into the endeavor, they make a ton if successful, give their developers salaries and a small slice of the pie. By all definitions, these companies are independent of any outside pressure, free to pursue the goals before them (of course, market pressures still force the company to make good products and services). Regardless of size of the company, from 2 to 50, I would still call them all independent companies.

I think the same applies to indie game developers and indie game studios. The definition should have nothing to do with size or success of a group, but if their priorities, budgets and personal are determined internally, or if there are external inputs into those decisions.

If you have accepted money from an investor to produce a game, or from a publisher as a prepayment, then you aren't independent anymore. But if you only use a publisher to help market the game after production, that seems to still fit the definition of an independent game shop, as the publisher wasn't mostly an after the fact contributor to the project.

According to some of the above definitions, even having a studio makes you no longer an indie game developer. That seems a bit narrow. If I grab two fellow developers, a graphics person and churn out a great game from an internal idea, we are definitely still an indie game group. Why should we not be considered 'indie'? I imagine other might dispute, but it generally seems apparent.

So going all the way back to Doug Davies definition:

“An indie is someone who designs apps with total freedom both financially and creatively and is motivated by passion, not money.”

I almost agree with this definition. One of the key words that motivated my leaving the startup world go independent was 'Freedom'. I needed the freedom to pursue the projects. I have the financial freedom to go for it, and of course I have plenty of ideas to flesh out into games. It is the other half of the definition, like the above wolfire definition, I am equally motivated by making money and a successful studio, as well as passionate about the games/products I produce. So I would drop off the 'not money' part and just leave it at freedom and motivated by passion.

An indie is someone who designs apps with total freedom both financially and creatively and is motivated by passion.

I then want to throw out without further comment, the definition of an indie studio:

An indie studio is a group of indie developers who design apps with total freedom both financially and creatively and are motivated by passion.

Well this has turned into a long post, so I will end it here. Join in the discussion in the comments or hit Twitter.

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Throw out the financial part,

Throw out the financial part, and you got yourself an Indie:

"An indie is someone who designs apps with total creative freedom and is motivated mainly by passion."

Upps, now we have a loophole. Let's fix that:

"An indie is someone who designs apps with total creative freedom and is motivated mainly by passion while not being employed or otherwise working for the software industry to build said apps."

Personally I think the "financial freedom" part is overrated. Way overrated. In fact, an indie is often quite dependent on making money to continue making apps, which will influence the indie's decisions whether (s)he knows it or not. Whether we accept that or not. If at all, the financial freedom should be "freedom of investors and other money-lending institutions like publishers, business angels and rich uncles".

Yes, I think that there

Yes, I think that there always seems to be an asterisk on these definitions. So either leave 'financial freedom' in, with the caveat that you can't have it doesn't count if you have that freedom due to investors or pre-production publisher money (I still think a post production distribution deal with a publisher is just fine).

Or we might have to add an * on the 'software industry*' part of your definition as to what is being in the industry. How many conferences can you attend before you are 'in the industry'. Can you be the boss of a three person 'indie shop', or be taking a salary as lead designer in such a shop and still be 'indie'?

At times I can see why a IGF just uses the 'we will know it when we see it' mentality, but that doesn't cut it. Or maybe, new to the game, I am making too much of wanting to swim in the indie seas.