The Difficult Definition of Indie Game Developer

The definition of “indie game developer” or “indie game producer” varies greatly depending who is talking about it. Some people think only “one-man” studios can be called indies. Some think it’s the size of the budget. Some think it’s those who don’t do indie style games.

I don’t even try to give a 100% accurate definition for “indie game developer”, here are some points I’ve noticed people using.

Before going deeper, I want to remind kindly that it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice – that’s as far as I will go defining whether I’m an indie or not. It’s not the title that matters, but there are some typical elements that indie game developers have.

One-man studio
As mentioned earlier, doing games solo is a typical way to define an indie game developer. Naturally one could gather 4-5 indies together and call it an indie team. I see no problem with that. To me indie developer can be one-man studio or a small team.

Tight budget
Indies are cheap as Scrooge McDuck: they’d rather spend 100 hours working before handing 100 dollars to anyone. Okay, I might be exaggerating a “bit”, but basically many indies have a tight budget and they do anything to save their cash (wish naturally sometimes is a good idea). This is not always the case though.

Innovative game ideas
Indies have the greatest (and craziest) game ideas ever seen on the planet. I’ve seen video games about themes such as “indies trying to contact a publisher” and “player preventing people doing a suicide (by shooting them)”. I’ve seen retro cames brought to life by indies. How many AAA studios would do anything like that?

Not many.

They can be spotted at Indiegamer boards
Indiegamer has been somewhat conquered by casual gamers as well, but there’s still lots of members who proudly announce being indies.

Indie isn’t necessarily same as (financially) independent
There are many independent game studios that do games with million dollar budgets and have dozens of developers in the team. These studios are financially independent, but not (necessarily) indie studios. Naturally some indie studios can be (financially) independent.

Indies and publishers & portals
Indies originally (perhaps that could be said) self-published their games, but nowadays these developers also approach publishers and portals. It’s bit tricky to say if they can be considered indies if they work closely with a publisher, but I guess that “depends on the studio”. What’s your take on this? Are “real indies” those who self-publish only?

I think indies go in their way but also adopt to the current trends. With the era of increasing digital distributors (portals & publishers), I believe it’s a fine opportunity for indies to make their games more popular.

Indie style
I think it boils down to this: indies have certain style. Indies know they are indies – and are proud of it. They make their own rules, and their own games without handing control to others. They feel that they are indies and contribute to the indie game scene. They simply refer to themselves as indies, and feel it to be true.

That might suggest that indies are stubborn. And perhaps that’s true… but at least stubborn comes with indie style.

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. stumbled here recently looking about peoples definitions of “indie” as far as games. Why the seperation between financial independent and “indie” what are “indie” independent from then? I guess you could argue creative independents but that stems alot from financial independence.

  2. Under the 4th headline, you seem to make a difference between “casual” and “indie”. Though words and definitions aren’t very important to me as well, I’d like to hear what you think about that difference?

  3. Labels aren’t very important and lines are getting especially blurry now, because of the large amount of small developers making casual games and publishing them on portals. Are they indies? I wouldn’t say so, because to me an indie is someone who doesn’t *work for* a publisher. As soon as you start relying on a publisher as your primary source of funding, which of course also means you have to do what they say, you’re no longer an indie in my book. However, like I said above, labels aren’t important. You don’t have to be an indie to be successful, and you don’t have to be successful to be an indie. :-)

    Anon said: “Some people are seeing portals like the devil. They are stupid, they should see them as big massive mall – supermarket – what-ever-you-call-them and use them accordingly.”

    I wouldn’t call them “the devil” but there are good reasons for avoiding them. If you intend to make a game that would sell well through a portal, you pretty much have to sell it through one. They have the casual market in their pockets, and at this point they’re the gatekeepers. If you try to self-publish a casual game, you probably won’t get far. Yet depending exclusively on a portal means that your financial future is linked directly to them. If they go down, you go down with them.

    By distributing your game through a portal you also can no longer build much of a customer base (since most sales would be through the portal). This is probably the most important thing to an indie, if you intend to make a full fledged business rather than just a development studio. Repeat sales are MUCH easier to make than initial sales. By giving up the customers to the portal, you lose the opportunity to market future games to your existing customers. The portals will also take some 60-70% or more of the net profit. Sure, you could make perhaps even a large amount of money in the short term from a portal (if your game is very popular). But you’re not building a brand, not building a customer base, and your long term future depends solely on the portal wanting to publish your future games (assuming the portals will be around for a long time). Not a great long term business model in my opinion.

    Technically one might argue that you can use a portal as a secondary source of income. Perhaps in some cases that’s true, but I’m still not sure if the lost customers and brand mindshare are worth it. Selling anywhere outside your own web site would in my opinion dilute your brand. Perhaps it’s silly to worry about brand dilution for us small indies, since you kind of need a brand before it can be diluted. :-) But the loss of customers that can potentially be repeat buyers is a real issue, unless you’re making a game for the kinds of customers that would seek out the actual game developer despite buying it form a third party. Casual players (the main target of portals) would not fit this category however.

  4. > I’ve seen retro cames brought to life by indies.
    May be, but in what way can you call that innovative?
    I am always laughing when I see people saying they are original because they don’t do the same things as the current trend. They call every body cloners (and other words) and they call themselves innovative and creative. You take a closer look and these guys are working on breakout-games and space invaders.

    Is cloning a retro game not cloning but innovative? I don’t think so, all the same for me.

    All so, who said that Indies should be innovative? Can you name some truly successful and innovative Indies games, which don’t get strong inspiration from an existing game? Even Darwinia is not that innovative. I really like the style but they ended like that because they didn’t have any artist (really cool programmer’s art). I will call Nintendo innovative.

    Most people publish themselves because their games are not good enough.

    Some people are seeing portals like the devil. They are stupid, they should see them as big massive mall – supermarket – what-ever-you-call-them and use them accordingly.

    Personally, I see myself as a game dev. I worked in the “retail” industry for many years and produce a couple of truly AAA titles. I am also working on my own games at home. I can tell you that there is difference obviously but at the end off the day, we are all doing the same things: creating entertainment.

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