ByCassie Benter, writer at
Breaker of Games, Mother of Bug Finding. Co-creator of AdventureJam. Twitter: @FenderBenter
Cassie Benter

There seems to be a lot of confusion, speculation, or even snobbery around what "indie" means when involving both games and even the developers themselves. Thanks to things like bundle websites, Steam Greenlight and Early Access, the market for indie games has grown rapidly in recent years, making any confusion completely understandable.

What are the definitions of "indie"?

Breaking it down, and looking at the word 'independent' in a dictionary will provide you with many results, and quite a few of them could be applied to a video game in some way. This just makes this confusion even more understandable, when it's virtually impossible to pinpoint one specific meaning to the word, and especially when so many people view that word differently depending on what it means to them.

How are those definitions applied to "indie" games or developers?

PC adventure game veteran, Ron Gilbert (Maniac Mansion, Secret of Monkey Island, The Cave), once asked the question on his blog: What makes a developer "indie"? I highly encourage you to read his post. It's not very long, and it asks many thought-provoking questions. Here's one of the paragraphs from the post:

What if the "indie" developer already has lots of money? Does having millions of dollars make them not "indie"? What if they made the money before they went "indie" or even before they started making games or if they have a rich (dead) aunt? Does "indie" mean you have to starve?
The Secret of Monkey Island by Lucas Arts (1990)
The Secret of Monkey Island by Lucas Arts (1990)

As Gilbert addressed in his post, there can be some snobbery between certain independent developers. Some claim that they're indies while other devs aren't. Unsurprisingly, the same can be said about the consumers as well. Recently, I've seen people claim that game X is indie, while Y isn't, and Z isn't even a "game" at all. I've even seen comments towards games that resemble this example...

"THIS (game) is what indie games should be. Not that 2D side-scrolling bull-****!"

... which implies something completely different. Of all the definitions under 'independent,' there is nothing to suggest that anything that is "indie" must fit certain requirements. There is nothing that an indie game "should" be. In fact, some of the most original ideas, and exhilarating stories I've ever seen in games have come from indies, because they're not tied down to what they "should" be. Sometimes, when you turn to a publisher, they want a game done a certain way, meaning that you can lose some of your freedom. This seems especially true with AAA games, because they can't always take risks to give us something different. (And I'm not knocking AAAs! I love them too!)

Sometimes indie games are unfairly torn apart.

For example, we've been presented with indie gems like Gone Home, but some people will pick it to shreds because it is a "walking simulator," which is basically the laziest way of saying "this doesn't have enough content to even have the right of being called a video game."

'Gone Home' by The Fullbright Company (2013) - Cover art by Emily Carroll
'Gone Home' by The Fullbright Company (2013) - Cover art by Emily Carroll

But according to, the word 'video game' means:

  • any of various interactive games played using a specialized electronic gaming device or a computer or mobile device and a television or other display screen, along with a means to control graphic images.

Gone Home is an interactive game that tells a story about a girl named Katie who comes home from studying abroad to find that her family is nowhere to be found. Playable on PC, we are able to control the main character to explore the house and unravel the story to find out what happened to everyone. There was never anything about it that jumped out at me and screamed "This isn't a video game!" It is, by all definitions, a video game, and it's a great one at that.

Has "indie" lost its meaning?

Video games are constantly rising in popularity and numbers, and with those numbers, things are quickly evolving and ever changing. They are the youngest sibling to their entertainment counterparts: books and film, and in what little time they've been around, they've gone from text-parsers, to point-and-clicks, to 3D environments. Thanks to technology, we can even have games that are using virtual realities, or bio-feedback to make a horror game scarier. Just as games are advancing from a technology standpoint, they're also advancing in design and original ideas. Many of these ideas tend to come from the indie market, so I do understand why people are confused, or speculating on what all of these "indie" terms mean. And perhaps Ron Gilbert was right with his closing words.

Or is being "indie" just another marketing term? Maybe that's all it means anymore. It's just part of the PR plan.
One of the many new ways that allows developers to get their product out to the masses.
One of the many new ways that allows developers to get their product out to the masses.

All of this leads me to believe that "indie" can mean whatever you want it to mean. It's one of those words that has been said so many times that it has lost its meaning. But regardless of what it does or does not mean, I will say this...

We're currently living in an age where we are able to test the vast amount of experiments that are being developed and published, and we're able to do so quite easily thanks to the wonders of digital distribution. We don't even have to leave our computer chairs to enter and explore a new world.

The developers are living in an exciting time as well! Gone are the days of handing out their games by hand to various local software shops. Now they're able to release them and have them become available to audiences from all around the globe. And if they need a helping hand, there are crowd-funding websites to help ensure that their project can see the light of day.

And I say to the developers:

Don't let any of the negative comments become your motivation to change what you are currently doing, to what you "should" be doing. Keep the innovative ideas coming.

We need you.


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