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Humble? Sure. Indie? Not so much.
by Craig Stern on 06/02/12 06:02:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


"What, did we finally run out of indie games?" That was my first reaction. My second reaction was slightly longer and more vocal. Now, I'm going to issue my third reaction in written form.

If you haven't heard about the Humble Indie Bundle (unlikely, but certainly possible), let me get you up to speed. The Humble Indie Bundle is the brainchild of Jeffrey Rosen and John Graham of indie studio Wolfire. These guys have been working for years upon years on a sequel to their anthropomorphic animal fighting game Lugaru. With no publisher backing them and huge amounts of time and energy expended on building the game's engine from the ground up, they found a way to fund themselves as they proceeded with development:

“One thing that we instantly noticed is that anytime Steam would take a bunch of games and put them together and discount the price, it would become the number one story on Reddit,” noted Humble Indie Bundle co-creator and Wolfire Games founder Jeffrey Rosen in a presentation at the 2011 Game Developers Conference. “I felt like I could do that, [that's] not too hard.”

The Humble Indie Bundle distinguished itself from Steam's bundles in a few ways. First, it exclusively offered games that ran on all three of the big computer OSes: Windows, Mac and Linux. Second, it let the buyer name his or her price and decide how to allocate the money among the developers on offer. Third, it donated proceeds to charity.

And last but not least, it was an indie bundle—the original indie bundle, in fact. Every game in the bundle was indie, produced by a small team on a small budget. In a few instances, the games got publishers late into development, but each of those games had been all-but-completed beforehand.

The Humble Indie Bundle went through four highly successful iterations by sticking to this formula; but in the fifth bundle, something changed. They included Psychonauts.

Psychonauts is not indie.

There is no single universally agreed-upon definition of “indie” in the gaming community, but there is an emerging consensus about some of its core features. “Indie” began as a shortening of “independent,” as in “created independently of any publisher.” That independence from publishers remains a core part of what it means to be indie.

The primary reason this independence from publishers has so much resonance is because of the regularity with which publishers interfere with the development of games, sabotaging the creative autonomy of the developers. Among major publishers, marketability has historically trumped every other consideration. In this sort of environment, “created without a publisher” essentially means “created with the possibility of artistic integrity.”

Merely being independent of outside publishers isn't enough, though. We can thank Epic Vice President Mark Rein for making this patently obvious with his statement that Epic is “big indie.” Epic, after all, is big enough that it can publish its own games; it needs no publisher. If “indie” just means “no publisher,” then Epic is indie—which would make Gears of War 3 indie. The same could be said for Zynga, Valve, Bethesda, and a whole raft of other major corporate powers in the game development world. If “indie” is to mean anything even remotely useful, it must be more exclusive than this.

Mark Rein hinted at part of the solution with his use of the phrase “big indie.” Size matters. “Indie” suggests a relatively small team (and perhaps, to some extent, limited resources). When you command a team with dozens (much less hundreds) of employees, you inevitably limit the amount of creative input each can realistically add to a game. The game becomes less a work of authorship, and more a product that each team member sees only a limited piece of.

Big team size also sabotages the system of direct give-and-take between developers and fans that indies are known for. Once a team grows past a certain size, there isn't just one or two people required to implement ideas and listen to feedback anymore—there is a whole group of people who need to be coordinated, and by someone who probably doesn't have time to interact with the community him or herself. Thus, the so-called “big indies” hire community managers, and the people actually developing the game vanish behind a veil of anonymity.

Whatever your preferred definition of indie, Psychonauts almost certainly doesn't meet it. Psychonauts's total budget was $11.8 million; the team working on it was 42 people at its peak, with 5 additional contractors. Except for a few months in the game's fourth year of development, Psychonauts was under a publisher's thumb at all times prior to its release. The Game Developer Magazine post-mortem of Psychonauts paints a portrait of Microsoft interfering with the game's development continuously, and very nearly killing it in its fourth year.

Some people have suggested that Psychonauts has now transformed, butterfly-like, into an indie game simply because Doublefine purchased the rights to it. However, this completely misconceives the nature of “indie.” Indie describes how a game is created, not who owns it at any given point in time. If the Diablo 3 team split from Activision-Blizzard, started their own studio, and somehow managed to buy the rights to Diablo 3, we wouldn't say that Diablo 3 had suddenly become an indie game. I have nothing but respect for Tim Schafer and the folks at Doublefine, but let's not kid ourselves: no matter how much we like these guys and their work, Psychonauts is not indie.

Why this matters.

The gaming media has been curiously silent about this issue. I've actually gotten a few emails from gaming news sites to the effect of “Yes, you're right, but who cares?”

Just a month ago, I would have said “lots of people.” You may recall the absolute uproar when EA tried to release an indie bundle—one which actually did consist exclusively of indie games. But here, people seem to be giving the Humble Indie Bundle a pass.

Why? Is it that people like the Humble Indie Bundle, and they like Double Fine, and so they're willing to keep quiet if it means they can get Psychonauts for cheap? Are developers afraid to sabotage their own chances of inclusion in a future Humble Indie Bundle by speaking out? In all honesty, I don't know why everyone has been so strangely silent about this.

What I do know, however, is that including non-indie games in an ostensibly “indie” bundle is misleading and bad for the indie community. Directly, it takes up space that could have been given to a game that actually was produced independently, on a limited budget and with a small team.

That's small potatoes compared to the knock-on effects, though. Doing this invites other non-indie games to intrude into the “indie” category. Despite the well-publicized confusion of certain developers about what indie means, it does mean something to consumers: it means niche games; games by small, creatively independent teams; games with authorship. The fact that this bundle has sold so incredibly well sends the signal that there is no consequence for selling big-budget games in lieu of indies, and doing so under the “indie” banner.

Indie developers fought long and hard to build the kind of market we have right now, where even small developers have a shot at decent distribution and sales if they produce something compelling and polished, regardless of whether they can find a publisher or appeal to a sufficient swathe of the gamer market. By diluting the “indie” cachet, we invite big publishers to coopt the movement and shut small developers out of mainstream distribution channels, just like in the bad old days.

The Humble Indie Bundle does not operate in a vacuum. The Humble Indie Bundle has been enormously influential, spawning a huge variety of imitators. From Indie Royale to Indie Gala to The Indie Bundle, businesses look to the Humble Indie Bundle as the gold standard of indie game sales. People expect the Humble Indie Bundle to set a good example—and in this instance, it has failed badly.

Craig Stern is the founder of and the sole developer for the indie development studio Sinister Design. You can read more of his opinions here and here.

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William Johnson
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Hm...I didn't even realize that. But its true. Psychonauts isn't indie. And while I have great respect for Double Fine and Tim Schaffer, to be fair, I'm pretty sure Psychonauts has made its money back. Isn't the Humble Indie Bundle there to help give exposure for the little guy? This might be going slightly against the spirit of the Humble Indie Bundle.

But on the other side of the coin, Psychonauts now isn't owned by a publisher. So technically, it is indie, because all the profits from Psychonauts sales do go to the creators. Which is also kind of what the HIB is about, cutting out the middle man.

Hm...I don't know where to stand on this one.

Richard Eid
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Thanks for writing this. I've been on the fence about whether or not I should speak up regarding this for the exact reasons you stated. Double Fine is a beloved developer within the gaming community and you're sure to be downvoted for speaking out against them...even if you aren't posting on reddit. But this is a pretty big deal. And I know you're not speaking out against Double Fine and this is more directed towards the HIB. Though Double Fine plays just as big a role in this as the people who run HIB.

I'm not sure if you saw the AMA all these devs did the other day on reddit, but someone brought up the point about Psychonauts not being indie and Tim Schaefer responded:


True, Psychonauts was originally published by a publisher (or two) in 2004, but Double Fine has the rights to it now and so we are self-publishing it and supporting it with our own money.
PS One of the self-funded improvements we made to the game was fixing some bugs that made Meat Circus harder than it was meant to be. So please give the new build a try! :)

But you's still not indie. I mean sure, they might be supporting it now with their own money, but then they've only released one update since reacquiring the rights. And sure, they might be supporting it now with their own money, but would there even be a game to support with their own money if they didn't originally have $11.whatever million of other publishers' money years back?

You really hit every point right on the nose, though. These are all the exact things I'd been pondering over the course of the past week. The Diablo III example is spot on.

Another item I want to talk about is The Ship. This is also included in the latest HIB. A quick rundown of its history:

The Ship was originally a mod created for the original Half-Life and bears the same name. When HL2 was released Outerlight, developer of The Ship, created a new version that ran on Valve's Source engine and acquired a commercial license for the Source engine. This allowed them to sell The Ship as opposed to just distributing it as a free mod. Fast forward a few years and Outerlight released Bloody Good Time. By this point they had ceased to be an indie studio as they had signed on with Ubisoft to fund and publish the game. You can find Chris Peck's various rants about how he felt Ubisoft ruined BGT on the Steam Users' Forums sub-forum for BGT. Mr. Peck was the founder of Outerlight Studios.

Anyway, shortly before or after the release of BGT Outerlight Studios was disbanded and I believe is now fully shut down. Months later a developer, Blazing Griffin, purchased the rights to The Ship and is now the developer or publisher or whatever. And so would this also still be considered an indie game? I mean, the people who developed the game no longer see any money for sales of the game. The new developer hasn't done anything but run a couple of sales on it...and of course now have included it in the indie bundle. I won't get into the technical issues with the game other than to say there are a few very big issues, one of which completely prevents users from playing the multiplayer portion of the game. Blazing Griffin has yet to address any of these issues.

So I know it's a totally different situation than Psychonauts as The Ship was completely funded by Outerlight before they signed on with Ubisoft. But is an indie game that was sold off to another completely unrelated developer who had no input at all in the creation of the game still an indie game? At the very least, I don't feel that it is in the spirit of an indie game anymore, even though it was originally an indie game.

Sorry to post such a big rant, but I think this current indie bundle has failed more deeply than you stated.

Richard Eid
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Sorry Guerric. You are correct. With all these indie bundles around I confused one for the other. Thanks for clearing that up.

John Flush
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I don't even care if it is humble or indie. I got a few games I didn't want to spend a lot of money on and even got to give it all to the one developer I actually wanted to play their game in the bundle. I already had one of the games too, so I see no reason to pay for it again in another platform.

Regardless, at least now I don't have to wait for Valve summer camp to get all these games 90% off.

J Spartan
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I also agree with all the points in the OP. There are a lot of great small indie teams out there that really need the money and exposure the Humble Bundle can bring to them.

Having said that, i'm just glad to be able to get one of the games (Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP) on my PC Steam free, which i wouldn't have been able to otherwise. So i can cut some slack on this occasion. Also i understand that Psychonauts didn't do that well comercially so it has the underdog (humble) pass ticket possibly? As long as we don't see the Humble Indie Bundle become completely non-indie, this is one slip i can look past and hope to see an all 100% indie bundle next time.

Luis Blondet
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Sorry, but Psychonauts is not an indie title, despite it being a wonderful game. Also, you guys are already a successful studio and that's not indie. Indie is barely able to pay your rent or living at someone's house rent free while you survive on dreams, dedication and ramen noodles. Indie is when Murphy's Law and daily struggles and the uncertainty of your future are an everyday norm. Indie is missing out on on that awesome movie everyone is talking about or buying that hot new game or going out or date simply for the sake of keeping your surplus as high as possible so you can hire someone to do the things for your game that you cannot do yourself. It's bumming rides or downgrading to a crappy, cheap car just so you can afford some stuff on the Unity Asset Store or sacrifice convenience or the nice things in your real life just so you can get your people paid.
If you have a place to go to everyday that pays you decently to make games, sorry, but that's not indie.

Justin Sawchuk
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So your saying Mika mobile is no longer indie because they are successful?

William Leu
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All this is true, but you also have the flip, that the HIB had the ability to add pay-what-you-want with Psychonauts in it for the newest bundle. Were they just to say no, the customer's can't have this great deal on this great game because of labeling? Maybe. But I bought the bundle, several times over the average, in part because of Psychonauts. (The decision to purchase several times over the average wasn't influenced by Psychonauts; I always do, it's just the average is so low, it's so easy - but still! )

I get the slippery slope angle, and I get the elitism and sanctity of the indie title, but you didn't argue the point that the customers shouldn't be enabled to use the pay-what-you-want methodology, that's so obviously antagonistic of having a publisher, with non-indie titles - you only merely implied it. What about the slippery slope that publishers may start following suit of Psychonauts with "newly" developed games if the idea gains traction. I know it's not as simple as just that, but it's as plausible as anything else.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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The problem is we all have our own ideas of what "indie" means, because there was no pre-ordained standardized meaning to that word, not that we could have seen it coming.

This description by eurogamer satisfies me the most (

"...most gamers would agree that the indie scene is actually defined by its fierce creative spirit and contempt for corporate meddling."

That's all. By that definition, it doesn't say you have to be a lone developer to be indie. It doesn't say you can't have investors in your venture to be indie.

Its about not being a cash cow and emphasize creativity instead. Psychonauts was just that.

Nathaniel Chambers
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I think there is a human need to define things and put them in absolute boxes. But they can't always. Things need to be judged on a case by case basis and by your own individual thoughts. In this case, someone in the Humble Bundle thought it was fine. I'm okay with this. It certainly comes close to crossing the line, but it isn't my bundle. It isn't my work. And it isn't my decision. It is whoever organized the bundle's decision and they decided that Psychonauts fit the spirit or definition of indie enough to include it. Meanwhile, friends of mine who never played it get a chance to play what is a really wonderful game that didn't sell well outside the people who work in the industry. Also, just because a studio is 'successful', doesn't make it not indie. I think some of Double Fine's digital releases would be hard to not qualify as indie.

Justin Sawchuk
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Well most of the games have already made there money back, if the bundles included games that failed no one would buy any of them

Ofer Rubinstein
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I don't think the influencial people on the indie scene have ever cared about the little guy. New indies are mostly on their own when they start.
It helps to network with other indies, but that's true to almost any industry, though fellow indies are likely to be less cynical and less buisness oriented than just colleages in other industries.
But... as I said, those who profit the most from the indie scene have always cared about their own interests first. In order to help the little guy, you would actually need to make an effort with no clear return.
Think of all sort of succesful Indie developers and see how much they helped the indie scene develop, or did they take care of themselves first and the indie scene only benefit as a side effect.

To be honest, I don't know what is the best course to take. Let's say you become a very succesful indie develoepr and have millions of DOLLARZ. What would you do to help the little guy? Or will you just keep developing your own games?