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How indie games took on the world (and won)

What happened to gaming? The past two years haven’t been about blockbuster games. The most exciting, most innovative, most playable games aren’t from the usual suspects. Instead, they’re being made by coffee-shop artists who are absolutely outclassing the establishment. Who are these heroes? Where did they come from? How did they do it? And, anyway, what the hell is indie gaming?

It’s a term so overused it’s lost its meaning. It means ‘independent’, obviously – but, by that token, Valve is indie. Is that a term that sits comfortably on a multi-million dollar studio? Or is indie more of a statement, an ethos where profit plays second fiddle to creativity?

Yet even the folk making these titles don’t agree on an all-encompassing definition. 2D Boy’s Ron Carmel (World of Goo), sums it up thusly: “I think that when a developer, be it an individual or a team, values design over profit, they produce an indie game. In theory, you could have a team of 50 people create an indie game, but in reality, if a company needs to pay salaries to 50 people they most likely are very careful with budgeting and scheduling and design might need to take a back seat a lot of the time.”

Dylan Fitterer, the brain behind surprise smash-hitAudiosurf, believes it’s about scale rather than intent: “It just means games made on the cheap. I kind of don’t like that, because many games can come under that definition and not be interesting at all. I’d rather think of indie games as those made through experimentation that tightly focus on a new concept. It seems to work out though, because inexpensive games need to make their mark somehow. It won’t be with hordes of content or amazing polish, so it has to be with new gameplay.”

Edmund McMillen, one of the crazily inventive madmen behind Independent Games Festival grand prize-winner Gish and currently working onSuper Meat Boyand No Quarter, has a different take still: “Well, to me an indie game would be a self funded videogame with a small team of 2-3 people, where the designer(s) have complete control over the project in every aspect. I guess indie gaming would be the scene of people who are into playing those games.”

Vic Davis, aka CrypticComet, and responsible for awesome turn-based strategy gameArmageddon Empires, has a more esoteric definition: “Indie means freedom, pure and simple. It’s the freedom to be your own boss and chart your own course. It’s exhilarating, frankly, to have almost no constraints on you besides the consequences of failure. It’s the freedom the internet provides to cut out the middle man and own the customer yourself. It means that you can take risks that the big developers can’t afford to take. Indie to me means that you grab your surfboard and ride the ‘Long Tail’ as far as it will take you.”

Above: Ever heard of black balls? Edmund McMullen has plenty

Differing takes they may be, but a common belief shines through: freedom and control are more important than commercialism.McMillen is a stand-out example of that. This is, after all, a man who infamously devised a game called C*nt, a shooter centered around attacking monsterized, anthropomorphized lady parts – purely because he could.