“When making the game is more important than selling it, then you know you’re actually creating an indie game. Which is one of the reasons why indies are such horrible business people.”
     –     Petri Purho, creator of Crayon Physics Deluxe

Making a career out of art is never an easy or straightforward task. For the growing movement of “indie” game developers, balancing creative experimentation with financial obligations is an all too common problem. In the end, each developer’s attitude concerning the question of art versus commerce is as unique and varied as their games they create.

Of course, none of the conundrums faced by indie developers would exist without the proliferation of digital distribution services in the last few years, which has resulted in a huge and positive impact on sales for indie games. Steampunk puzzle game Cogs from Lazy 8 Studios launched on Valve’s Steam download service in April, and Lazy 8 CEO Rob Jagnow states the game has sold around 2,200 copies in the last two months. Those sales have netted Jagnow’s two-person operation about $15,400 after Valve’s 30-percent cut of the profits. If (and it’s a big “if”) sales hold steady at 1,000 per month, Cogs could sell 12,000 copies in a year and earn Lazy 8 Studios around $84,000.

According to Jagnow, that kind of income simply wouldn’t be possible with the old retail model available to indie game developers. “I’ve had publishers who wanted retail rights for Cogs tell me that I’d be lucky to get 50 cents from a $10 sale,” he says. Retail publishers claim that store shelves act as advertisements and also reach an audience uncomfortable buying digital products, but for Jagnow, “the basic math is simple: If you think that for every 14 in-store purchases, one of those customers would be instead willing to buy online, then you’re better off skipping the retail sales.”

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There’s no doubt this growth in indie game sales has been encouraged by the special attention digital distribution services now pay to indie games. Steam has a separate “indie” section of 83 games (out of the entire service’s 735) with most prices ranging between $4.99 and $19.99. Perhaps inspired by its own roots as an independent developer, Valve has been proactive in adding indie games to Steam, signing finalists from the Independent Games Festival including 2009’s Seumas McNally Grand Prize winner Blueberry Garden, which was recently featured on Steam’s main page. Steam competitor Direct2Drive is the official download sponsor of the IGF and offers a selection of 93 indie titles on its site. Sweden-based Paradox Entertainment’s GamersGate sponsors the Swedish Indie Game Awards and lists its 11 indie games as a subsection of its “Casual” category. Developers told The Escapist these services offer comparable pricing and profit-sharing, plus the freedom to distribute their games on multiple services.

The explosion of indie games in the last few years – and the attention they’re receiving from both the media and distributors – can be interpreted as proof that a market exists for new, innovative titles. Jonathan Mercier of Citérémis, whose Aztek-inspired RPG Aztaka launched in May, encapsulates those feelings: “The decisions made by the bigger companies have left a space for innovation and fresh ideas to blossom. As long as players are interested in new and innovative games, ‘indie’ or even the more forward-thinking of the large studios will have an audience and a chance to profit.”

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, Michaël 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

Some indie developers fear that, once broadened, the “indie” label risks losing its association with the financial independence that often makes experimentation possible, becoming just another sales tactic in the same way big record companies looted the “grunge” and “emo” genres to sell otherwise mainstream music. Crayon Physics Deluxe‘s Petri fears the worst. “I think indie games are going to become a ‘genre’ of games,” he says. “And the ‘genre’ doesn’t have anything to do with independence or budgets, but it’s mainly something marketing people have coined so they can sell artsy stuff.” Samyn and Harvey are similarly pessimistic: “As profits of indie games rise, so will the interest in the format from bigger, even more commercial companies. Soon, the big corporations will start making ‘indie-style’ games and they will push the real indies out of the market. This is unavoidable in the current shark-eat-shark climate.” Blueberry Garden‘s Erik Svedäng is blunt about how he sees the future of indie gaming, a term he says he’s already sick of hearing. “I think the people who put their soul into moving the art form forward will survive,” he says. “Anyone not trying to do that is wasting their time, so I don’t mind if they fail.”

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But behind all the various definitions of and justifications for being indie, the common thread is that videogames as an art form can and should be better, and the industry needs people dedicated to experimenting and innovating. Whether those people are making money or going broke, staying independent or selling out, what’s important is that through this process games are exploring new territory and people are doing what they love. “I don’t think indie games are some kind of temporary bubble that will burst and eventually we all move back to playing blockbusters,” Svedäng continues. “Games are here to stay, in all sizes, shapes and tastes you can imagine.”

Chris LaVigne writes a technology column for Maisonneuve magazine and wrote about indie games for The Escapist in Issue 139.

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