On Being an Indie Developer

It’s almost taboo to be talking about being a “type” of developer, especially when it comes to anything close to “indie” – developers are super-sensitive to the term (overly-sensitive perhaps).

Depending on who you talk to the perspective span the gamut of the internet where, on one hand, talking about being indie automatically disqualifies you from being indie (because others must call you that as you must never self-identify) and on the other where anyone at any time can call themselves indie and get away with it.

Semantics? For some, the answer is a resounding “Yes” while others will crucify you for saying such things as being indie has a clear and definitive definition.

It’s all to heady for me and all the depth required to near-infinite amount of opinions is a colossal waste of time. And… yet… I’m going to take a stab at talking through it a bit.

So much hypocrisy…

As far as I can tell (and the original definition that I was taught when I was young) is that an “indie developer” or “indie game” or “indie app” is one built by a single person or a small team and that they have very little (if any) outside financial support.

There are many who will then attempt to define “team” by size and that there is an exact threshold of the financial support but I think these things are (and should be) more fluid than people make it up to be.

Especially now with a ton of different ways to build games, from community-lead and based development (i.e. open source) and also just as many ways to finance a project like crowd-funding and a ton of micro-financing alternatives.

If I were to add anything super-squishy it would have to be on the side of fence that allows a bit of self-identification. It is a worldview, a value system, a focus on quality, and an independence that is most important. Are you building for the love of building or are you building to create wealth? The lines are not always so easy to draw.

Being indie, as far as I was taught and now since adopted, is about just that: Being independent. You can be an independent (and thus indie) developer by living  and working in your parent’s garage and/or basement even though you are clearly dependent on them for your living arrangement.

You can also be an independent (and thus indie) developer by working a corporate nine-to-fiver at a Fortune 500 company but finding time during your lunch-break (and then some) and after-hours to work on your own little passion project.

The circumstance of life is of less importance than the freedom to execute in a context that makes the most sense for the individual at that given time. Do you have to work full-time on your project to be “indie”? I don’t think so. I think independent game and app development happens on all sorts of time tables.

When I built my first app that eventually led to my first startup I was working for one of the largest computer companies in the world (the largest at the time) and I was building the app nights and on the weekends. On occasion I would bring my notebook computer to work on particular days that I knew were going to be “light” and plugged away a few lines when things got boring. I felt independent and building the app was a commitment I made to myself and no one else.

Did the app have some innovative implementation or was it contrary to popular thinking? Not a chance. There are some, though, that only consider projects and the developers behind them “indie” if the projects themselves are grossly counter-cultural. I think that’s a shame since I see the app and project secondary to the person and team behind it.

I mean, besides, without the developer(s) the development would never happen. Independence starts with an independent person who then births and independent project.

Does fame or fortune also disqualify someone or something from being indie? I don’t think so although it can be definitely a challenge for the individual to retain the level of independence that they may internally feel when these things become part of the equation.

A good example is marriage: The individual is still very much an individual but is now thrust into a context that is altogether different. Now they are part of something much bigger, much greater and their opinion and perspective of independence has now dramatically changed.

It has, ultimately, evolved. But, independence can and should be maintained to some degree just as a couple should not necessarily share each other’s shoes (unless they are, for some reason, the exact same size and fit… all metaphors fail at some point).

If you become a wealthy indie developer then I applaud that greatly. I think they deserve it. Fame, on the other hand, is a very tricky thing. I do not have any experience in either of these things (e.g. overwhelming wealth nor fame) and so I cannot speak deeply about these things.

But I can say, with confidence, that I am an indie developer and I honestly relish the title. I have almost always built projects for myself first and then the market second. Strangely, the one time where I built a project for the market first is both my least favorite project and the most financially successful.

Go figure.

[Please check out my small app that’s soon to be released, affectionately called Desk.]