So, with a relatively stable distribution system emerging and a sizable audience craving new experiences, the time should be ripe for indie developers to profit from their creativity. However, as their ranks grow, a key question has emerged: Are indie developers "independent" strictly in a business sense, or in a grander, more philosophical way? Does the word "indie" describe a genre, a business model or a way of life?

At a presentation at this year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Michaƫl Samyn and Auriea Harvey of Tale of Tales, and developers of The Path, posed the question differently: What are indie developers independent from? "The point being that you can never be totally independent," they wrote in an email to The Escapist. "What matters is what you are dependent on. And that's often a personal choice."

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For Samyn and Harvey, independence from greed is key. "This means trying to find a model of production that does not put great commercial pressure on your creation," Samyn says. "It's okay to make a profit. It's not okay to be totally dependent on this profit because that means dependence on the market. And then you're no different from the mainstream games industry." John Warner of Thinking Studios, creator of music game Raycatcher, says being indie means having freedom from the financial pressures of investors, which allows for experimentation that "is perfect for exploring new, profitable business models."

Simon de Rivaz, who created the space-colonization game Light of Altair with his brother Thomas, notes that indie development can be a stepping stone to mainstream success. "As tends to happen, the most profitable indies simply turn into non-indies when they get the attention of a major publisher," he says. "Take [LittleBigPlanet developer] Media Molecule, for example - they used to be a successful indie and now they are successful mainstream." In music and film, indie roots often result in mainstream success, as is the case with bands like Modest Mouse and directors like Robert Rodriguez. Others build successful, bank-account-sustaining careers without ever leaving the indie world, as with rock group Sleater-Kinney and director Jim Jarmusch. For his part, De Rivaz says he intends to keep pursuing the "unexplored niches in game design" rather than go commercial. Jagnow feels the same way. "Lazy 8 Studios won't be the next EA, and we don't want it to be," he says.

Some developers interpret the indie label as something that refers to motivation more than a business model. And Yet It Moves designer Felix Bohatsch says, "Even if one of the big players puts money behind a project, a game can still be independent as long as the people keep their independent mindset and are able to make the game they want to make." Carlos Bordeu of ACE Team, the makers of punk fantasy game Zeno Clash, agrees. "It's not a black-and-white thing," he says. "Some AAA games are more 'indie' and some indie games look a lot like bigger productions." If "indie" is defined as an innovative, creative spirit, then it's hard not to include mainstream developers like the critically acclaimed Team Ico, cult hero Tim Schafer and his Double Fine studio, or Japanese developer Sting with its bizarre, niche-market mash-ups of the JRPG genre.

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