Derek Yu is co-creator of indie hit Aquaria, which won best game at the 2007 Independent Games Festival Awards, as well as creator of Spelunky, which is headed to Xbox Live Arcade after a successful PC release, and main editor of TIGSource, a popular blog and community site for indie developers. This makes him a prominent (and busy) face of the independent games movement -- if it can be called a movement, that is.
Indeed, where is the line drawn? When you're partnering with Microsoft for the release of your game, how independent are you? More or less independent than the guys who just put out games free and don't worry about commercial success? Does it matter?
Here, Yu address these issues, and the impact of sub-movements in the larger world of indie games, while also discussing what indie makes possible -- and which large-scale development impedes.
How do you reconcile working with this giant Microsoft conglomerate on indie stuff? This is happening a lot, not just to you.
Derek Yu: I personally don't feel like that's something that needs to be reconciled unless I'm totally bending over for them. If they say, "I want you to put a Toyota Yaris in Spelunky" and I do it, then yeah, that's something I have to reconcile.
They're just providing a platform in there. They're just helping me put the game on their system and providing the marketing and the distribution for my idea and work. I don't have any problem with that.
It's been interesting to me to see how indie games are evolving, because I feel like you almost need a new word for the stuff that Cactus is doing, and other stuff like that.
DY: Right. Uber indie. [laughs]
Yeah, like a super indie, "I'm just doing this for free, as a fuck you to everybody," kind of thing.
DY: Yeah. I feel like from here on out, there are always going to be those two sides. I feel like both are really necessary. I think, yeah, it's definitely going to get really fuzzy, and some people are just going to feel like if you put a game on Xbox Live or something like that or that if you work with a publisher, you're not indie. That's totally fine. I'm very happy with it being kind of gray. I don't know if a new name is really necessary. I mean, Spelunky started out as a free game, not a "fuck you," but more just something that I wanted to...
Well, they're not all necessary a "fuck you."
DY: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. You know, I definitely do have ideas for "fuck you" type games, just games that are kind of just totally just for me and stuff like that. That's kind of the nice thing about being independent, that I think you can jump back and forth between those two sides, you know? I don't know. I think it's great that guys are being successful kind of doing their own thing.
There are a lot of games coming out right now that have indie origins and have a really different feeling and aesthetic than a lot of your space marine and corporate games.
DY: [laughs] Right.
I wonder why you think that may be. My speculation -- you kind of triggered the thought for me -- is that maybe it's because people are making more personal games. They're like, "I'm interested in this."
DY: Yeah, I've been thinking about that. I think that honestly, once you get beyond a certain amount of people working on a game, and I don't know what the threshold is exactly... At a certain point, there are just games you can't do. Beyond a certain point, you have too many people.
I wonder, for example, that indie roguelike Dwarf Fortress, it's just a crazy simulation. It's probably the most complex game that I've ever seen, like ever. And that's just one guy. And you just wonder why a company that has some money and some resources doesn't make a game that's that complex. I think it's just they wouldn't. The priorities are just different.
For Tarn [Adams] and his brother, the two guys who make Dwarf Fortress, their priorities are making this really complex fantasy simulation. But for the big companies, graphics, for example, are always going to be a huge concern. That's going to be a huge priority for them. As a result, the games, I think, are just going to be different beyond a certain point.
But it's difficult to make anything that really says something when you have a whole bunch of people working on it.
Unless you have a really, really strong creative director who's totally managing that experience, it's hard to maintain the voice.