"Indie" now includes "rockstar."
These five spoke at "Back to the Garage: The Return of Indie Development (From Those Who Were There and Some Who've Just Arrived)," and without specifically addressing the concrete idea behind what makes indie "indie," they helped define the term in its modern trappings. "Indie" involves listening to feedback from outside sources. "Indies" create AAA titles. "Indie" means talking to press, managing staff and marketing a game while respecting other people's time. "Indie" is about making money.
Being indie doesn't sound so different than standard publisher-style game creation, mostly because it's not -- indie is now a sub-genre of game development, rather than a separate enterprise. It's in the tone with which these developers speak about the business, their independent passion and the amount of risk they're willing to take that offers a clear distinction from the sterile PR BS often found in the campaigns from large publishers.
Three of them started programming on Apple IIs, and the other two are Saltsman and Notch. They broke into entirely different worlds: Mechner, Sweeney and Romero catalyzing 3D development and exploring new forms of a budding games industry, Saltsman and Notch playing with those existing parameters, and all of them getting at least a little lucky. One thing they all had was "permission," as Romero called it, the determination and dedication to work on their own projects to completion, either by quitting stable jobs or with every hour of their free time.
Mechner's idea of indie involves taking a leap of faith to make a dream game, not knowing if it will be published or if it will make a profit, but needing to do it. Saltsman agreed with that theme.
"My goal isn't to make $1 million with my next game," he said.
Being indie today is easier than ever, which may also be why its modern renaissance feels so overarching and swift -- technology is now an enabler rather than a barrier to development. Sweeney, who's successfully shipped AAA and iOS titles through Epic Games, said that Infinity Blade, Epic's mobile title, was more profitable than Gears of War, and Epic is currently looking to smaller (easily indie-able) games in the near future.
Companies -- we won't call them studios or developers -- such
For a community founded on the principles of open source and shareware, this shift is disconcerting, but it doesn't spell the end of indie. Times change and so do we, as the saying goes. Notch and Saltsman, the two newest inductees of the panel's indies, have both seen success in a market flooded with remakes and copy-fatcats.
After having one of the top 10 iPhone games, Saltsman is more confident in his own abilities to not only make a quality game, but to market it as well. Before Canabalt's release, he would have groveled to a public-relations agent, but now he could just as easily say "fuck you" and move on, he said. Notch has seen the benefits of building a company out of voxels, literally and figuratively.
"I get to tell other people to make me rich," he said.
All five developers agreed that being indie involves wearing many hats -- or just one very fancy hat, as Notch has found -- including developer, PR, marketing, human resources, accounting, IT and chef. Notch said that accidentally becoming a public figure takes a lot of time away from actually developing his next game, whatever that becomes.
"What do I do with the rest of my life?" he asks, considering the consequences of having created his "magnum opus" in Minecraft. "Minecraft 2?"
Sweeney's answer to staying relevant, in business and independent lies in adaptability, redefining yourself every few years. Epic's next title, Fortnite, certainly demonstrates its belief in that principle.
For many developers, being indie does still mean eating ramen every day and racking up thousands of dollars of debt, slaving away on a project that may not make any money in the end. But quantifying passion in monetary terms only makes sense for bankers and traders, not game developers or artists. Having no money doesn't make large companies indie, and generating millions from a game doesn't make indie developers AAA.
As Sweeney says, you have to adapt.