Friday, 1 February 2013

What Does Indie Mean?

So what does "indie" mean? I have described my games as "indie" on several occasions in several different venues. No one ever questioned me on it, and everyone seemed to know what it meant. But seriously, what the hell does indie mean? It's time to do some googling.

Google answer:

  1. (of a pop group or record label) Not belonging to or affiliated with a major record company.
  2. (of a movie) Not produced by a major studio: "she's landed herself the lead in an indie horror movie".

Well, we're not talk about movies or music. This is games land. Let's try again. This time, we will try Wikipedia and search "indie role-playing game". Here we go:

"An indie role-playing game is a role-playing game published outside of traditional, 'mainstream' means."

OK, that I can work with. Indie means your game doesn't have a big distributor right? If you read the rest of the article you will find that the whole thing is pretty murky. Some people claim that "indie" is a self-identifier and you have to be part of a indie community, while others claim just by not being part of a corporate structure (like Dungeons & Dragons) you are magically indie. 

Making the waters even muddier, detractors of the term will tell you that the tabletop RPG industry is so small that almost every company is "indie" when you start to look at things like distribution numbers and profits (D&D being the exception again). From now on, I will refer to this as the Grognard School of thought.

Yet another school of thought is that indie RPGs tend to cover "unconventional" play styles, an emphasis on rules designed to support specific settings/concepts, or a focus more on improvisation and story than actual game elements. Just for fun, I will call this the Warhol School of thought.

Both the Grognards and the Warhols have a point. Gaming is small business. The costs are small, the volume of product moved is small, and the profits are minuscule. So the Grognard claim that we are all indie cannot be discounted. At the same time, the unconventional games of the Warhols are wicked fun. I have a cabinet full of their quirky goodness, and I would be lying if I said that their works didn't influence my own game design. Those Warhol games, by the innovative use of rules, change the way games are played, and, much indie film and music movements, they are having a real tangible effect on the design of the more mainstream games. 

Now to tear the schools up a bit. 

The Grognards are forgetting about relativity. While the industry is small, there are still discrete tiers of popularity within the industry. We have D&D (and perhaps Pathfinder?) at the top, a cadre of middle tier publishers who make good profits (For those in the know, companies like Fantasy Flight, Privateer Press, and Whitewolf, amongst many other), and then there's the rest of us fighting for whatever is left, and trying to break even. Those of us at the bottom are working on very different publishing and distribution models than those at the other levels, and so the indie moniker could definitely apply to us.

The Warhols are on shaky ground as well. If you look at their "creator owned" moniker, then such wonderfully "traditional" games as Rifts (love him or hate him, Kevin Siembieda is Palladium books) are indie. If we look at the Warhol idea that indie games are experimental, or explore games out on the fringe of design, what happens when these games become mainstream. Most Warhols would have called FATE an indie game, it won some indie RPG awards back in 2003, but Evil Hat's $400 000+ kickstarter (hell's yes, I contributed) means that FATE is now smack in the RPG mainstream. 

So are the Grognards right, or the Warhols? is there some sort of compromise? To hell with it. Let's look at this another way. 

Steve's Rule of Indie Game Design:

If you can't afford to quit your day job, your game is indie!

You can quote me on that.

This pays tribute to the Grognards in recognizing that most game designers are tiny, and need to have "real jobs" to keep publishing. But it also acknowledges that a few people do "make it" in the industry and are able to it as a full time job, and a few even make good money at it.

It also should appease the Warhols to some degree. Creator owned projects tend to be works of art that are full of passion and new ideas, but do not sell enough to let their creators live off of them in any significant way. Under my new rule, once you make games profitable enough to live off them, you are no longer indie, and the Warhols can either keep supporting your games, or much like their hipster cousins, they can move on to other newer projects.

As for me, my day job has excellent benefits, a good pension plan, and very good pay. I am sticking at it for at least another decade. So my games are indie for now... I guess.

I have a feeling some people are going to disagree with me on this one. If so, let me know. I can handle it.


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