Coming Into 2024, What Exactly Is An Indie Game?

To indie, or not to indie. That is the question.

Story Highlights

  • Baldur’s Gate 3’s GOTY status has challenged the traditional definition of what an “indie game” is.
  • The win has caused a split in the community, divided over whether to categorize it as an indie game or a AAA title.
  • Even industry heads have highlighted the importance of coming up with a set standard definition.

2023’s Game Awards have given us some of the biggest moments in gaming. From Hollywood heartthrobs like Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Mackey, and Timothy Chalamet announcing the major developments and awards, to shocking reveals like Hideo Kojima returning to make a horror game with Jordan Peele, this event had it all.

However, despite all the highlights, The Game Awards presented the gaming community with a question that nobody had given much thought to before. That question of course is, what exactly determines a game as being “indie?” You’d think that there would be a simple answer, right? But if you’re reading this right now, clearly that’s not the case.

Where Did This Question Even Come From?

The main catalyst for this debate came from 2 things. Namely, the main event, the much-awaited crowning of the Game Of The Year, and nominees in the best indie game category itself. That former ended up going to none other than Larian Studio’s hit title, Baldur’s Gate 3. The latter was a bit of controversy over one of the nominees, Dave The Diver.

But why did this one announcement create such a split in the community? Well, for one, because people are divided over whether to categorize Baldur’s Gate 3 as a AAA title, or an indie one. And the other, Dave The Diver was made by Mintrocket, a sub-brand studio that’s owned by Nexon, an $18 Billion company.

Now, Larian Studio is an independent organization that financed the creation of the game from their own pocket. they paid for everything from salaries to development, and even marketing. So that’s that, right? That makes it an indie game. Not exactly. Despite coming from an independent studio, Baldur’s Gate 3 is very much a AAA title.

I mean, if there hadn’t been a debate at all, most people would’ve never even realized that the game came from one. The amazing story, the graphics, and not to mention the voice acting. Everything in the game screams AAA. It’s the same for Dave The Diver too. A quick glance at the game would make you think that it was probably made by a small studio.

If It Looks Like AAA, Plays Like AAA, Why Not AAA?

Nowadays, almost anyone with the relevant skills and expertise, and of course money, can make a “AAA-looking” game. On one hand, there are game engines like Unreal Engine 5 that bridge the gap between the uncanny valley and the realistic, and on the other, there’s an entire online library of resources that indie studios can make use of.

The old community-driven definitions of “indie games” also no longer hold much weight. Traditionally, indie games were categorized by their simple art style, often pixel, and niche storylines. Some examples like Undertale, Stardew Valley, Hollow Knight, and Papers Please perfectly represent this stream of thought.

Fast forward to the end of 2023, and an indie studio can make Baldur’s Gate 3. However, I must point out that it did take them 6 years to make it in the first place. Still, this jump in “quality” has caused many to call for a change in the way we determine what an indie game is.

Without such definitions, it’s going to become even more difficult for future potential nominees in the indie sector. They could end up stuck competing with much bigger studios without any of the resources to help even the playing field. This is something that even the supposed experts in the field are struggling to answer.

How Are Indie Developers Supposed To Compete With Industry Giants?
How Are Indie Developers Supposed To Compete With Industry Giants?

An Open-Ended Discussion, Or Evading The Question?

Geoff Keighley, the face of the annual Game Awards ceremony gave his two cents on the matter during a Twitch livestream a while back. But if you were expecting a clear answer, then I’m sorry to disappoint. He acknowledged that this wasn’t a simple question to answer, stating that the term “independent” can mean different things to different people.

However, he did highlight some of the categories they used for choosing the nominees for the indie category. He listed things like budget, where the studio gets the budget from, and also the size of the studio. Despite the categorizations though, he mentioned that the final say still laid with the 120 global media outlets who acted as the awards’ jury.

I mean, you could argue ‘Does independent mean the budget of the game? Does independent mean where the source of financing was? Is it based on the team size? Is it the kind of independent spirit of a game, meaning kind of a smaller game that’s different?’” – Geoff Keighley

Keighley also stated that it was important for the gaming industry to come up with a set definition. He exemplified this by giving the example of the film industry, which has rigorous standards for differentiating between indie and feature films, mostly involving their budgets and the size of the crew.

Still, the fact that Keighley acknowledges the ongoing debate suggests that a set definition is still an open-ended discussion. Take that with a grain of salt though because the guy also avoided talking about the record-high mass layoffs that rocked the industry in 2023, something that devs around the world didn’t take too kindly to.

Geoff Keighley Failed To Address 2023's Massive Wave Of Layoffs In The Gaming Industry
Geoff Keighley Failed To Address 2023’s Massive Wave Of Layoffs In The Gaming Industry

Baldur’s Gate 3 Isn’t The First AAA Indie Hit Though

That’s right, Larian isn’t the first indie studio that’s made a AAA game. Heck, they’re not even the first indie studio to create a GOTY-winning AAA game. Just last year Elden Ring won the same award, minus all the drama. Yup, FromSoftware too is an indie studio, and so is Kojima Productions, who announced their new project during the event.

In Kojima Productions’ case though, they’re bankrolled by Sony for their projects. Take Death Stranding for example, it was a Kojima project, but it was funded by Sony. This would explain how they managed to get Guillermo del Toro, Mads Mikkelson, Norman Reedus, and even Conan O’Brian in there.

Despite Being Funded By Sony, Death Stranding Was Made By An Indie Studio
Despite Being Funded By Sony, Death Stranding Was Made By An Indie Studio

When you add such established big-shots to the equation, coming up with a set definition becomes even harder. If games made by indie devs are going to be classified as AAA just because they look good, then would you consider something like Firewatch or What Remains Of Edith Finch as AAA? If you define it by popularity then would you consider Lethal Company or Undertale a AAA game?

Even if you were to define it as the amount of money put into it, then what about Minecraft? The game was originally an indie project and then purchased by Mojang for $2.5 billion. Did it lose it’s indie status because more money was put into it? If at this point you’re struggling to come up with a definition yourself, then we’re both in the same boat.

Is Minecraft No Longer An Indie Game Just Because It's Now Owned By A Big Studio
Is Minecraft No Longer An Indie Game Just Because It’s Now Owned By A Big Studio?

The Importance Of Set Standards

If there’s one thing to take away from all of this, it’s that the game industry really needs to explain what qualifies as an indie game once and for all. You’d think that an industry that’s been around for decades would’ve done something about it by now. Still, though, it’s obvious why this is an ongoing problem in the ever-expanding world of video gaming.

What if a definition set today gets outdated in a few years when new technology allows indie devs to create even more complex games with a team smaller than established studios? It’s already happened, so I don’t doubt that it’s going to happen again. Who knows? Maybe one day the entire concept of an “indie game” will stop existing altogether.

Till then though, let’s keep supporting the little guys.

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Najam Ul Hassan is a News Reporter on eXputer who enjoys investing hours in his favorite video game titles. When he’s not playing games, he’s practicing Journalism. He began his career on eXputer after combining his limitless love of video games and all things geek with his considerable writing experience. He has been cited numerous times by several noteworthy publications and sites such as Game Rant, Yahoo, PlayStation LifeStyle, VGC, VG247, TheGamer, among others. Experience: 2+ Years || Education: Masters in Mass Media Communication || Written 300+ News Stories.

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