essay

Am I an indie developer? Are you?

One of these days, I’m going to scan and post some of the pages in the small Moleskin notebook I carry around with me nearly everywhere I go. It’s the place where I’ve been writing down my game ideas, notes to myself, and general thoughts for future projects. It exists as an external memory device and a collection of drawings I’ve made while I was standing in lines or waiting for events to happen.

Many of the pages are filled with short phrases or bits of conversation I’ve overheard. Some, looking at them days or week later, don’t even make sense to me anymore. However, others still resonate and remind me to think about issues or questions I might still be trying to understand.

Such was the case tonight as I rediscovered the page where I had written a single question I still struggle to answer: “Am I an indie developer?

For weeks now, I’ve been trying to figure this out. What makes an indie developer? What are the signs of being a developer who is indie? What constitutes the performance of an “indie developer”?

It may seem strange to worry about that given that, at least on Twitter, I’ve been labeled as being prolific, but I now spend more of my time trying to follow the scene than I did in recent years. I look at Free Indie Gam.es every few days to see whose new work might be getting that blessing and participate in game jams when I can. I make cultural artifacts that many consider games.

Yet, I don’t feel particularly “indie”. At least, not in the sense of being part of any one community. I don’t feel like I fit in with the zinesters and I can easily pass for what might be thought of as a formalist sometimes. As for being a part of either though? No, I don’t label myself that way.

In fact, most days I rarely bring up that I make things at all. In my everyday life, it’s not something I talk about with others. Videogames themselves aren’t even a frequent discussion topic.

When I tell people that, I’m usually greeted with surprise. That somehow I can make things on a daily if not weekly basis and not have conversations about them seems strange. For me though, it’s how I live. My conversations center around grading, small moments of teaching, and whatever classes I might be in at the time. Academia is an all-consuming time-sink.

I’m actually rather envious of those people who have friends with whom they can talk about videogames on any regular basis. As I approach 30, it’s gotten to the point where I have to schedule a few hours here or there weeks in advance with my friends. And even though I am more connected to the wider world through the iPhone I carry with me, I often feel as if I am more isolated than I have ever been before.

Being an independent developer, I have decided, might be more of the first word and less of the second. It’s trying to figure out how to solve a problem through reading poor documentation at 2 AM. It’s debugging between washing clothes. It’s staying up a couple extra hours each night putting in a few extra lines of code.

It’s also knowing that your project will probably be ignored. Unless you are known and established, the chances of breaking into the scene are slim. There is a glut of mediocre as many flood to make their second, fourth, and twelve first games. All of which enriches the community overall, but can often decrease what makes any individual project special.

I’ve come to think about it as the same as the games journalism community which, while there are many fine people doing fantastic work, is too frequently overrun with anyone who has ever played a videogame expressing their opinion on each and every new game released. I experienced a small slice of it firsthand and it’s left me with the knowledge that its darkness far too often outweighs its light.

Did I jump ships then? I was known as a writer a couple years ago before people started using the term developer for me. Yet, before that I was a programmer, hacker, and even for a few years a cracker too. The laws have changed and there are things now that, if I did them again, would probably put me in jail. I still remember where some of the seedier parts of the Internet are.

Given the words, I don’t know, it seems odd that there are a set of people labeled as “indie developers”. Have some given up the punk? Is there less screaming and more whispering now? I’m not sure. Nor do I know if that matters anyway. Where’s the line? Is there one? Was there ever one?

What exactly is an “indie developer” anyway? What does that even mean now? With 50 person teams called “indie” and single person development studies giving talks to thousands, it’s very hard to tell the difference.

Depending on who you ask, personal games are the new and hit thing now. Which seems odd given that games are personal statements anyway. All games are personal games. Even with a team, it’s a message crafted by group consensus or lead by a creative director. Systems are statements, as are artifacts.

The more I think I know, the more I know I don’t. Am I an indie developer? Are you? Does that matter? Should it? The answers might very well be on those next pages, those not filled in yet in my notebook. Maybe I’ll write the answer in one of these day should I ever figure it out myself.