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PAX 2009: What is an ‘Indie Game’? Panel

I’ve cleaned up a quick version of a transcript at the ‘What is an “Indie Game” Panel’ at PAX over the weekend. As these things go, it’s probably only about 80% complete so please excuse any omissions in the content. Enjoy!

PAX 2009: What is an ‘Indie Game’? Panel

Panel Description:

The rise in game platforms and distribution mechanisms has elevated the cultural profile of indie games. But along with this increased attention is an increasing debate about how to break through in the market. What really makes an indie title? Is it the game’s budget, art style, community outreach, or their distribution mechanism that really makes indies soar? This panel will examine the success stories within the indie gaming community to begin to expand and educate developers and gamers about this in-demand space.

Panelists include:

  • N’Gai Croal [Moderator] — (Consultant, Writer, Columnist, Hit Detection LLC)
  • Boyd Multerer (XNA General Manager, Microsoft)
  • Simon Carless (Chairman, Independent Games Festival)
  • Derek Yu (Editor-In-Chief, The Independent Gaming Source)
  • James Silva (President, Ska Studios)
  • Mitzi McGilvray (Executive Producer, TikGames)

NC (Moderator): What defines an indie game?

SC: Have an indie, execute on it, and that’s indie.

JS: Indie games are defined by no budget. have to figure out how to do stuff without a budget.

DY: When the idea of indie game became real, the main concept is that anyone can and should make a game. Now it’s distilled to intent & priority. What is your intent when you’re making a game and what are your priorities? That changes depending on a number of factors including budget. When your budget goes up the intent and priority of your game design changes. When team size gets bigger, the intent and priority changes. It’s not necessarily how much money and how big your team is but something changes when those things increase. I would love to see indie developers that have budgets as long as it’s tied to them and not a company.

BM: When you put money into creating a great experience, you start thinking about things like risk management. Independent games are about innovation and fun. Lower budgets free you to take risks that you wouldn’t find in other places and would otherwise not exist.

MG: Independent means that you’re not beholden to shareholders and purely profit driven

NC (Moderator): When you talk about engineers loving games and games responding to the market, should indie developers be responding to the market?

MG: Not necessarily, it’s important that developers pay attention to it. Primarily you do it because you love it, and you have to look at what it takes to be successful in the market. If you see that there’s a lot of competition in a game genre, don’t focus on being independent, build what people want.

JS: I just make games that I like to play. No budget forces you to be more creative. Bigger companies just invest more to make bigger, better more bad-ass games. To make a sequel to my game without a budget, you have to be more creative and think laterally.

NC (Moderator): Is independence defined by walking away from other people’s desires and do something for yourself. There’s a service aspect to it where you’re creating what people want. How do you separate what your fans want to do and what you want to do?

JS: I just do what I want to do. I’m not going to change, sorry.

SC: As far as being more or less indie, intention and attitude are different. Are you making a game in a pure, apart way? Are you making a game because you really care about games? The best indie games from the last few years like Katamari come from this.

NC (Moderator): Derek, can you expand on the idea of intention and priorities?

DY: The intention and priorities change when you get bigger and you get more mainstream. One of the big changes is making the kind of game you want versus making a game which satisfies a certain number of people. Accessibility is a concept which gets more priority once you get bigger and leave the “indie core”. A great example is a game Dwarf Fortress, which is one of the most inaccessible games I’ve ever played. Probably one of the most complex simulations out there. One half of a game you control a dwarf fortress. Very text based ascii graphics. His priorities and intentions are different from any mainstream company that has to make a living and a ton of money out of a huge investment.

NC (Moderator): Boyd, why rename Microsoft community games to indie games?

BM: The intentions are the same, we want to enable people to come in and make games. What you have to get are really good games and fun games. Focus on the fun part. There are people who are going to make a living off of it, and you need to make a fair representation to them that you’re going to get some good quality stuff and some more experimental games that won’t appeal to people. This will speak better to the type of games that we’ll see in the system.

NC (Moderator): While anyone could make a game that would go up on the indie games channel, it’s unlikely that everyone would.

BM: It’s not the easiest thing to do, there’s a lot of room in the industry to make it more approachable and allow people to write their own games. Even if you know how to write the code, the artwork is not super easy either.

NC (Moderator): In reference to kodu, do you think there’s a distinction between amateur side and commercial side? is there a further difference in pro and amateur indie games?

JS: You can’t really tell how much resources have been put into it. The one thing that would help with division is a difference between apps and games section.

BM: I see a division, but as long as it’s clearly defined it’s fine, the pro and the amateur division. I don’t care who makes it. I just want to help people find the better content. the user rating system is really important.

NC (Moderator): Simon, how do you choose what to cover?

SC: It’s interesting, it’s been running for a while. Most of the content is free and it’s mainly flash and freeware stuff. There’s quite a few flavors of indie developers out there. The word indie is being overused right now. Anyone who is not a major publisher is calling themselves indie. They have good methods for filtering the good stuff. It’s so easy to make games nowadays and there’s millions of them. How do you know what to play? TIGsource, user ratings, indiegames highlight the good stuff. The selection for them is a bigger problem than making games for games. the problem is how to make sure people see them.

NC (Moderator): Do you think micro-transactions will help indie games?

MM: Hopefully one of those days that will a feature

NC (Moderator): Derek, what do you think of add-in sales?

DY: If an independent developer finds an interesting way to sell their game and keep on going, I’m not one way or another. As long as the motives are pure.

NC (Moderator): Do you believe indie games is overused?

DY: It runs the risk. People are going to latch on to it and run with it. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. The people for that the label is genuinely important and whom it means something to and to whom the recognition is important, those people should work hard to define it for themselves by the kind of work that they do.

SC: We’ll step in if someone is egregiously not indie. But otherwise it’s a label that people associate themselves with. For example, Pixel Junk Eden was a bit of a controversy. They are based in japan and 30 people. In terms of intentionality, it was self-funded, completely on the side, and it was published on the side. Some people had a problem with the fact that the guy worked on the original starfox and have been in the industry for quite a long time.

NC (Moderator): What would you want to see more of to see indie games thrive?

MM: It would be awesome if there were more ways to help fund and find ways for more people to get started on indie games. Micro-financing for games to help encourage people to publish their games.

BM: For independent games and to raise the overall awareness, I want to see a couple more hits come out of it. I’m still waiting for the game that comes through and everyone wants to play it. When everyone knows about the space, there’s money there, there’s audience there, it’s a virtuous cycle and you’ll see more games.

DY: More hits would be fine but I’d like to see more people making games and getting involved in communities. The big surprise for me out of the whole indie scene is that the people who are involved are so tightly knit. Everyone loves what they do. I would like to see more indie games. Games are a great way to deliver educational topics and to get people to learn things without them getting to know it.

This is a re-post of an article I wrote last week on MochiLand. Original post linked here.