Cover image for What makes an indie game "indie"?

What makes an indie game "indie"?

rcarlson profile image Robert Carlson ・1 min read

After watching the unreal 5 engine demo I can't help but feel we are going to see more indie game developers producing what I would consider to be AAA quality games.

This got me thinking, at what point do you cease being "indie" as a game developer?

I don't think its as simple as self publishing or not, because more and more larger studios are finding they simply don't need publishers (thinking of you psyonix before you sold your soul to epic games).

There is this hard to quantify but easy to sense element of indie game development. Will this element get more harder to distinguish as engines improve over time?


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One thought that comes to mind when defining indie vs AAA is the transparency of the development process.

AAA dev processes often seem behind closed doors and may only be revealed post development, at conferences, or through marketing channels.

Indie dev appears to have a more transparent view into the dev process, and at times a seemingly constant dialogue with the audience and even other studios.

It’s worth mentioning that this idea is only from my year or so of being on the indie scene and I don’t have much knowledge of AAA dev processes besides what I’ve heard in podcasts. Interested in hearing others’ first hand experiences!

Nice question!


I really like you hitting on the transparency aspect. I follow super giant games (who considers themselves to be indie) and they are what I would consider a well funded studio making some amazing AAA games. They embrace the transparency aspect when it comes to their creative process and community engagement very well.


Your point about transparency is interesting. Do you see more indie games open sourcing portions of their games? Or at least involving more of the community in the development process?


The latter is what I've seen the most of, primarily from Twitter or devlogs.

The draw to me is watching the studios/solo devs that post screenshots of testing new mechanics, general progress, new art assets, and sometimes even taking and incorporating feedback from comments.

Following the journey of a game from conception to reality might be a part of that magic of "indie", at least from what I've experienced!

Yeah, that is awesome. It's always cool to get a behind the scenes look at what people are doing and be able to follow along with the progress of a project!


Transparency is an interesting angle I never thought of that.


I don't think Indie games classification should depend on what engine they use or the graphic fidelity of their games. It just means independently-made video game not tied to a big studio. Now the exact number cutoff of members probably varies in each group so it's not a set definition.


Do you think mid-size studios abuse this word to help their brand?


I wouldn't be surprised if they did, there's a big hype around indie games currently. But I haven't searched around enough to see if a lot of mid-size studios have been doing that.


That's an interesting question.

There are a bunch of major game developers that woul still call themselves indie, but are obviously not comparable to a team of 2-5 people making a game on a shoestring budget.

We've now got a group of big devs that are sometimes called AA - the likes of Paradox. They're not quite at the $100m development + $100m marketing budget per game, but they are a big corporation with hundreds of employees.

But what about developers who have 20-50 people working for them, aren't quite the AA classification because they're not realy a corporation, but they're clearly also not comparable to the 2-5 person team we usually classify under indie?

I think we're done with classifying game developers based on what kind of publisher they have / don't have. It's more about the size of the team, the budget, the quality of the production and, perhaps most importanlty, the professionalisation of the business side of things.

Solo dev - self-explanatory. Could push "a couple of friends making a first game" under here too
Indie dev - Typically <10 people with small budgets, low marketing budget
Small to Medium Studio - 10-50 people, budget for everyone to have salaries throughout the dev process and a through through marketing campaign
AA - > 50 people in the company, working more as a corporation, but lacking the $100m+ marketing budget
AAA - To me, this is all about marketing budget. If you spend c $100m or more on marketing, you're AAA.


Is it simply down to numbers or is it based on spirit? I can't think of any examples but is it a possibility for larger studios make smaller teams with the spirit of being indie? Or by definition because they have that capability it eliminates them from that classification?

And by spirit of being indie, I'm thinking giving the team autonomy to experiment and have little oversight. I think that's one of the benefits of being indie is because you have total creative control.


Ah, I think the autonomy point is a very good one that I missed.

I guess in theory you could have a corporate structure where each project has full autonomy and they are run with smaller budgets, but can utilise the benefits of being part of a corporation. I could see this working quite well as a business model in the games industry. I don't know any examples of this though. It's probably more prevelant in the mobile games industry where a big firm can have a lot of projects going at the same time and they devote resoucres to the more sucessful ones as and when needed.


Sure Indies are bringing out AAA type games. But an AAA studio has immense funding with huge budgets.

I'd class Indie as any small team that brings in < $1mm. However there is a gap between Indie and AAA. I'm not sure what the group is called but there is a big difference.

I do feel people abuse "Solo dev" or "Indie". Especially when that Solo dev has an artist and a composer. That's not solo, that's Indie.

The engine doesn't determine the type of team you are, I'd say revenue is primarily.

This is a great question and I hope to listen to others and what their definitions are


100%, and also your revenue can actually drastically impact how you make the games too. I think of Unity where you potentially hit the revenue cap for free, and I honestly wonder if that's a challenge for teams when they just barely pass that threshold.

I would love to see more indie grant/mini publisher funding; where indies could really invest into the tools they use. I mean I know I've had to buy books, art software, recording equipment for SFX... Would be cool to see how indies bridge that gap, or if it's a priority at all 😄


I think indies have many challenges in terms of graphical fidelity, but with the new tools of today it's getting easier and easier to produce content that is higher quality than what we saw previously. In terms of graphics, Vulkan is becoming more widely adopted on some of the open source engines I've been looking at, and it's more widely supported on console & computer drivers. And with that comes the ability to add more detail w/ better performance.

I have always interpreted being Indie with having a more transparent process of development, like Brett mentioned. Though I think one other way to observe it is that Indies are building the games that they want to build as opposed to getting it approved by a publisher. So I guess more about the creative vision behind it?


Personally, I've always seen Indie games as smaller studios with not as much resources and smaller teams in general. I don't draw the line at a few people getting together to build a game because even a dozen or so people could still not have the resources a larger studio would have.


The games are made, or released in INDIE-a


haha, that made my day :)