11:30am // 3.29.2024

Warning: This is kind of a rambling and unfocused piece. I don't mean to be particularly incendiary with anything here either :-)

A few weeks ago I came across one of the dumbest tweets I have ever seen. Unfortunately, despite my attempts to save it in my bookmarks, I don't see it anymore. Perhaps the man was suspended? Who knows. Considering he was a Gamergate 2 guy, it wouldn't surprise me. However, the specifics of his wording don't matter, but his point does. Namely, that "indie" games are destroying the AAA scene. Fair thesis, but how does he back it up? With Stellar Blade, Helldivers 2 and Stellar Blade. The first, because you can play as a scantily clad woman (which AAA games don't let). The second and third, because they're actually fun and successful! But wait, there's a problem here - are any of these actually indie games?

Shift Up and Stellar Blade

Let's start with Stellar Blade. It's being developed by a South Korean company called Shift Up. While primarily known for mobile games in their home country, Stellar Blade represents their entry into console and PC gaming. In fact, they opened a subsidiary - Shift Up Second EVE Studio - to do so! And guess what, Sony bought the marketing rights and is publishing it! Some indie company.

Stellar Blade Screenshot
Huh, I wonder why people like this game...

So yeah, Shift Up is not an indie company. They're not even a small company. Tencent has a 20% stake in them and, as of 2021 (the latest figure I can find), they have 250+ employees. On top of that, they have an imminent IPO at a projected valuation of $2.3 billion and, according to Pitchbook, at least $26 million raised prior to their IPO. They are a major player in the Korean gaming market! And those mobile games they're known for? Well, one of them is Goddess of Victory: Nikke (2022), one of the biggest mobile games currently active.

Helldivers 2 - The Return of Sony!

Helldivers 2 was developed by Arrowhead Game Studios, who achieved success back in 2011 with Magicka, which was developed by a team of about 12 people on a low budget. While it was published by Paradox Interactive, it was considered somewhat of an indie success at the time. Fast-forward to 2024 and they have a team of over 100 people with one of the biggest games in the world. Both Helldivers 2 and the first game were published by Sony, just like Stellar Blade. The same Sony that many have railed against for producing basically nothing but AAA drivel, I remind you (I agree with this, for the record).

Helldivers 2 Screenshot
Obliterating space bugs in the name of Democracy - Source: Gameranx.com

Is Pocket Pair the Indie Hero We Need?

On the surface, Palworld seems to have more claim to being a true indie game. It came out in early access, has a high concept, and is pretty janky. Surely this was developed by a small team~!?? Sure, compared to something like The Witcher 3, but Pocket Pair is no small company either. The Wikipedia page for Palworld claims the game cost about 1 billion yen to develop (~$7 million) with a staff north of 40 employees (probably somewhere from 40-80 employees in total). So, once again, we have a moderately sized company with a decently budgeted game. They might publish their games themselves, but does that make them indie? They might be independent from the auspices of a larger company, but at what point does a company get large enough to be considered not indie?

Palworld Screenshot
Crafting with my pals in an exciting new world that is definitely not inspired by Pokemon!

WTF Even Is Indie?

I think I've pretty adequately conveyed how none of these games are indie, at least not how I would define it. All the teams are larger than 15 people, with significant financial backing or decent budgets, and they all have offices! These are not bedroom programmers working on a passion project, they have HR and meetings to determine if they're gonna hit their numbers this quarter. And don't get me wrong, I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, but I think accurate definitions are meaningful and we otherwise obfuscate actual independent productions that merit support.

The recent controversy over Dave the Diver, a Nexon published and developed game, getting nominated for an award for Best Independent Game is insane enough. Even the developer coming out and saying that they were not an independent company wasn't enough to stop bootlicker in chief Geoff Keighley from saying "independent can mean different things to different people and it's sort of a broad term, right?" All these big companies want to trick you into thinking they're putting out these nice little indie games. Like when you buy a product at a supermarket, thinking it is a small brand, but it's just from some huge company, trying to trick you into thinking you've supported a Mom and Pop company.

Dave The Diver Screenshot
Dave the Diver doing some diving - Source: IGN.com

Basically, indie as a term is meaningless. Even the actually indie trash Goodbye Volcano High still secured $1.2 million in funding from the Canadian government and contracted third party consultants to weigh in on their game. It's a visual novel with some animation and a bad rhythm game component! And it was still janky and ugly! Where is the money going! Gone are the days of Minecraft, Stardew Valley, and Cave Story. The vast majority of these commercial "indie" games all seem to have a ton of cash behind them with large teams. And many seem to be anything but a passion project - clearly developed as a PRODUCT first, not a game.

Why Do People Lie to Themselves?

People want to support the underdog and fit everything into some grand narrative. The resurgent Gamergate (rightly) believes that mainstream video game companies are filled with their political enemies and make games fit that worldview. The Gamergaters are the heroic heroes struggling against the titans! And yet, they still support those same companies by buying their games time and time again, but complaining when it has elements they don't like. In the case of Stellar Blade and Helldivers 2, by buying either, you are directly filling Sony's coffers and subsidizing their other game development/publishing efforts.

The way to project influence is to stop buying new games from such companies and to create your own games. The latter is not a path for everyone, but it's ground that people are all to ready to cede. Thankfully, some follow this path. The upcoming SSR Wives: The Murder Of My Winter Crush is one such example. A game bearing the distinct marks and influences of the creators, but not being overtly polemical garbage.

SSR Wives Screenshot
SSR Wives could be one of the games to watch in 2025!

Indie Games Still Live!

There are still plenty of small developers making cool stuff. Many of which I even disagree with on a personal or a political level, but still create interesting things that are worth playing. Take KIRA's Basilisk 2000 for example. It's a really innovative and compelling horror exploration game where you are exploring the dev tools for an unfinished, cancelled game with a dark secret. And it is genuinely scary at points! You feel like a real sleuth trawling through both the actual files of the game and the dev tool program, looking for any hints. I even kept notes in a physical notebook, just to keep track of all the clues. It comes highly recommended. And Itch.io is filled with experimental and cool things like this that are either free or pretty cheap.

Basilisk 2000 Screenshot
Exploring the depths of a cancelled video game in Basilisk 2000

And Steam obviously still has plenty of really cool projects. Take Blagmoz for example. It's a really fast and frenetic 2D PVP game in the vein of Towerfall Ascension or Duck Game. You play as wizards who use a variety of spells and movement options to one-hit-kill your opponents. The precision platforming is fun and games are often really close, as one wrong move can send you to your doom! I may in fact do an individual review for this one just because it's gotten so little attention. There are also games like Lunistice or Pseudoregalia that succeed where larger 3D platformers fail.

Blagmoz Screenshot
Get annoyed with your friends or kill them repeatedly in Blagmoz

We even get plenty of indie projects that aren't interested in any commercial aspect at all. The Doom WAD scene is still going strong, with MyHouse.wad getting plenty of attention last year. There are plenty of user-made games on platforms like Roblox or even Fortnite now. Tools like PICO-8 or Godot are either free or pretty damn cheap, significantly lowering the barrier of entry, enabling single programmers or small teams of developers to make more games more efficiently than ever. And hey, RPG Maker is still always an option too! And if you can't or don't want to make a game, it's easy to make a visual novel with free tools like Ren'Py.

Really, a lot of so-called "indie" games are AA games now. So let's return the term to where it belongs - with bedroom programmers and small, driven teams who lack the ongoing support of a publisher or significant financial backing. At the very least, lets not mischaracterize million dollar productions being published by Sony!

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