Calling a game “indie” has certain connotations, but what does indie really mean? This thought came to me the other day when I was reading through a conversation on a message board about what people’s preferred games were. I kept on seeing people who said they liked “indie” games and started wondering, what is an indie game?

It’s probably useful to consider context. Video games, for example, have a different scale when it comes to the sizes of the organizations that produce them. Don’t believe me, then just look up the credits for the people that create games. Lots and lots of people create games, and in a capacity akin to filmmaking. Revenues are often tallied in 10s of millions of dollars. The world of tabletop gaming is much smaller, and by all measures.

Therefore, indie in video games will probably fit what I suspect is the definition of the term in the popular imagination. Connotations for indie are generally assumed to be a small organization, and team, of people operating their own little entity that produces games. There are no shareholders to appease, and it is likely the that games produced, as well as the company itself are relatively small organizations. This is where indie lives up to the term it is an abbreviation of, independent. In this case, independent of corporate influence.

When it comes to the world of tabletop games, the concept of indie is less obvious. For all intents and purposes, I’d estimate that 99% of the tabletop industry qualifies as being “indie”. (I have no official stats to back this up.)This makes the term almost meaningless for tabletop games because it can be applied to pretty much everyone. What would be the exception were publishers that didn’t qualify as indie. Yet, the term persists, and I’m not always clear on what it is supposed to mean.

Some ideas that could be applied would have to be assumptions that the number of people involved in the production of a product (game or supplement) would probably be fairly small. Additionally, the associated revenues of the products are probably small as well. It would also be presumable that the audience for those products is proportionally small as well. The repeated term “small” is relative, but tabletop gaming, especially role-playing games, is a niche hobby. If we apply the admittedly vague criteria above, then indie games are essentially a niche within a niche. So, very small.

Ultimately, the sticking point for me is that games shouldn’t be described as an indie. There needs to be a different term because indie is largely meaningless. While it is possible to infer meaning when the term indie is used, it isn’t a clearly defined concept.

There’s one other dimension to this, marketing. Calling a game “indie” brings with it connotations of its own, often about attitude. Indie games can buck corporate directives, which is positive, but it’s the concept of “cool” that also is associated with “indie”. Those small companies and products are given different considerations and have different expectations of them. These can be dubious associations, but they are just as prevalent as any other idea lumped into the definition of “indie”.

Nothing really needs to change in the industries I touched on here, at least as far as operations are concerned. What would be nice is perhaps a different approach to discussing organizations of different sizes. Indie is a catch all term that people assume has more meaning than it actually in fact does. We need some new semantics in gaming. While I’m all for supporting smaller creators, I think it’s time to think up a new vernacular for having those conversations.

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