What counts as an indie game?


Hi everyone!

What do you think qualifies something as an indie game? Is it the material development situation? The aesthetic of the game? Public perception? Or something else?

I’m writing a paper for school and I’m interested in public perception of independent gaming and what qualifies as an independent game. Please check out my survey at the following link, and discuss in the comments below what you consider qualifying attributes for indie-ness. This survey is by no means scientific, but it will help me understand the landscape of opinions. Thanks!



Definitely less than 15 (most-/full-time) developers… [maybe less than 10?]
who are working independent of a larger studio or publisher contract/funding…
on a game project for public release.

The game may be helped onto distribution platforms by a publisher, but one wasn’t core to funding the project.


Usually a game with a modest budget and a small team. It’s possible for an indie game to have a somewhat larger budget due to crowdfunding, but that doesn’t make it any less of an indie game.

  • game’s twitter is just the creator’s twitter
  • 1:3 publicity / dev posts to shitposts ratio
  • followers slowly come to understand creator’s fetishes


Yikes but true tbh


I think “indie” denotes an expectation of scope somewhere between hobbyist-games and Budget-games.
Instances like Grow Home and Chime are indie as far as I’m concerned even though they are made by established commercial studios. Something like Naut or a game-jam game with a lot of participants or a chain-game, I wouldn’t think of as indie. To me it basically denotes a game of similar scope to what you would find on Xbox Live Arcade circa 2010.


The english language is a beautiful messy thing, as such Indie has a lot of meanings, and they’re all to broad to be useful.

An Indie game could be a game made by an independent developer, that is a dev that is self publishing their game. That covers a whole lot of games. Too many for it to be a useful descriptor in this regard. Warframe is an indie game for example.

But Indie is also thrown around as a genre that covers tons of games. Too many for it to be a useful descriptor in this regard. Hotline Miami might be called an indie game, despite being published by Devolver, or DUCKGAME could be called indie despite being published by adult swim.

For what it’s worth, I lean more toward the second use of the term in day to day conversation. Kinda as a modifier for whatever other genre the game is. I can call Rainworld an indie platformer (despite adult swim backing) and someone would understand what I mean, whereas I wouldn’t call Divinity: Original Sin an indie RPG.

EDIT: more thoughts

I think the way people usually use it is as a marker for a games scope or if it’s in a genre that isn’t easily describable. Occasionally I hear it used as an insult too like “oh, it’s an indie game” and that’s always kind of sad.


I think that any game made by a team that is not affiliated with a AAA game development company and is putting the game on platforms themselves can be called indie. I don’t think the size of the team should matter as much as the separation from a major company. There are also indie studios, which can be kind of an in-between.

Similar to what happened in music, “indie” has kind of become a style classifier as well. I can look at a game like Unravel and say, oh, that’s taking after indie games very heavily, it’s indie-looking. But it’s published by EA.

“Indie” also has a stigma to it in some very sad circles. If you ever want to feel like leaving video games behind forever, go look at the comments on the Playstation blog when the Plus games are announced each month.


It seems like I’m finding opportunities to dust off my language philosophy quite often in this theory, but hey, I’ll go for it one more time.

I think trying to answer the question by providing a set of criteria creates problems that don’t really exist.

For example:
number of developers - who decides what the boundary is?
independent of a larger studio - does that mean, for example, that all games published under Double Fine Presents stop being indie games? Why, when they seem a lot like what would be described as an indie game in all other respects?

etc. etc.

The reason for this is that there’s no real one set of criteria that counts as what we think of indie games. Nobody cooked up a set of rules for how the term was supposed to be used when it first came into usage, so it’s no use trying to apply one now.

It may be more of a case of what Wittgenstein calls ‘family resemblance’ where, for example:

game A is made with a small studio, free of publisher funding, on a relatively small budget, with a niche appeal, and it seems to be more or less what we think of as an indie game.
game B is made with a small studio, but has some publisher help, still a small budget, but it’s designed with a broad appeal.
game C is made with a bigger team, but they don’t have publisher funding, and they are making a small niche appeal game.

All of these things might reasonably be thought of someone as indie games, but they don’t all share the same traits that we might think of as typically indie. Just like how 3 people might share a family resemblance, even though individual traits might differ (A and B have father’s eyes, B and C have mother’s nose, etc etc)

So what counts as an indie game is basically any game that could reasonably be recognised as belonging to that family, and the meaning of indie is constructed by how we use it, and therefore a little fuzzy and always shifting.

Some people say indie has lost all meaning, but if that were true we’d have stopped using it - since meaning emerges from usage. So it must still mean something, even if that meaning has in reality become quite broad and vague.

Of course, this is just my own view of meaning, but I think it’s quite a defensible one.


Less “lost all meaning” and more “a cynical marketing point for divisions of mega-corps and extremely well-off large studios outside of the publisher system”.

No one thinks Valve is an indie.

Lots of people have said that obviously TTG can’t make a game with a decent engine/reliability because they’re an indie. Benefit of the doubt must be given. Only that’s a studio that’s got twice as many people as Quantic Dream. No one thinks David Cage is indie [which seems fair/true], although he clearly fits the auteur mold and has a much smaller studio than Telltale have access to (even if the projects generally have an external publisher).

“Oh I love those plucky indies behind Surgeon Simulator and I Am Bread”. A subsidiary of Endemol, aka a part of the Murdoch empire including Fox. So… about as far from indie as you could get.

That’s why I like to build the indie thing around scale and support. It makes it easier to understand where “indie jank” is a corporate excuse or genuinely because this is a small independent team who are clearly not going to be building things indistinguishable from major publisher projects. Not a perfect rule but I think if indie is to have a meaning then it should be more than an aesthetic or branding exercise; about nurturing new talent and groups who are going a very different path to 100+ staff studios.


Well hang on though, this is a different discussion now.

If we’re talking about whether indie is being used in ways that corporations are taking advantage of, or that can perhaps excuse sloppy work, then yes - I think those are problems worth discussing. But that doesn’t get us any closer to being able to make the rules about what people understand as ‘indie’, or having a set of criteria that isn’t problematic in its own way.

It’s like ‘liberal’ - a few years ago I probably would have maintained, caveat-free, that being liberal was a good thing. But especially in recent times that term has picked up all sorts of baggage that wasn’t widely recognised before. I can claim that the type of liberalism people criticise isn’t the same as the liberal values I recognise all I like, but that’s not going to get rid of the baggage, and so I have a choice of whether to keep the label and accept the baggage, or find another label.

With games, I’m still happy to call what I do indie, despite the baggage, because I think it’s fairly clear cut in my case as a hobbyist developer and nobody is going to mistake what I do as some corporate marketing thing, and if they do it would be easy to set them straight.


I think the border between indie and non-indie games is going to always be a hazy thing. Smaller teams and low budgets are usually strong indicators of indie games, but I think it’s still possible for an indie game to have a high budget or a larger team, especially if the developers were really successful with a previous game. Additionally, I don’t really like to go by team size or budget because in that regard nearly every game to come out on older systems could be considered ‘indie’ compared to the massive teams and budgets of today. You could try to add a time element into it (ex: “it’s indie if it has this team size and this budget starting from so-and-so year”), but that just makes things even messier because now there’s a third element in play which nobody will be able to agree on, especially if you’re comparing console games to computer games as the two have taken very different paths through history.

The one hard line I draw on defining indie games involves intellectual property rights. I think if the people primarily and directly responsible for developing a game do not have the rights to the game it is not an indie game. For example, Shigeru Miyamoto may work on a Mario game, but the rights to both the game and Mario himself belong to Nintendo, which he is not the head of, so he would not be able to legally go off on his own and independently make another Mario game. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as in the case of fan games where the developers definitely don’t have the rights to the characters or in cases where a programmer and an artist make a game using characters belonging to the artist, but I still think this rule holds up more consistently than trying to look at team sizes or budgets.

Keep in mind that this rule serves only as a way of helping to filter out some things which aren’t indie games rather than a concrete way of defining indie games themselves. That said, I think trying to figure out which games we think are definitely not indie games and then looking at exactly why most of us can agree on them not being indie games is a good approach because it allows us to gradually edge closer to that hazy defining line and get a better idea of where things start to blur for people.


These are great responses everybody. I’m interested how people consider tiny games—twine games, flash games, basic apps, flappy bird. Are these “indie games?” Is there a certain kind of polish or presentation that we typically assign to “indie games,” even if that polish is qualitatively different from AAA games?