Game Awards Controversy: The Term “Indie Game” Has Been Broken

Game Awards Controversy: The Term “Indie Game” Has Been Broken


Is Dave the Diver an independent game? The nomination for the mix of genres in the indie category of the Game Awards 2023 is causing discussions in the gaming community. “Dave the Diver” is creative, idiosyncratic and unique. But it’s not a standalone game, many argue.

“Dave the Diver” was developed by Mintrocket, a subsidiary brand of South Korean publisher Nexon, which recorded sales of more than 700 million euros in the third quarter of 2023. Nexon’s own management distanced itself from calling “Dave the Diver” a game indie in a previous interview. Even so, a jury of more than 100 international media outlets decided to nominate “Dave the Diver” as best indie game at the most important gaming awards ceremony.

Heise online also called “Dave the Diver” an “indie game” in a brief test and even extolled Mintrocket as an “independent studio,” even though it was founded by Nexon and remains entirely part of South Korea’s largest publisher. “It’s clear that indie games are chosen based on vibes and pixel art,” comments gaming journalist Ash Parrish the nomination on Twitter.

It’s true: with its pixel graphics, unusual game concept and obvious attention to detail, “Dave the Diver” fits perfectly into the indie category. These are characteristics that we have learned to associate with the term “indie”. But the actual definition is different. “Indie” means “independent”. Indies are games created by independent studios without money, support or influence from major publishers. Games like “Celeste”, “Stardew Valley”, “Papers Please” and “Baldur’s Gate 3”.

Wait, “Baldur’s Gate 3”? With a million-dollar budget and 450 employees, the Belgian Larian Studios does not necessarily correspond to the indie ideal. And yet “Baldur’s Gate 3” was created independently of a major publisher and is therefore “indie” according to the strict definition of the term. This doesn’t fit in the image. So do we need a new definition? And how can that be? What exactly is a “major publisher”? Nobody really knows all this.

Studios like to dress as “indie”. Indie games are enjoyable, modern and creative, an alternative to supposedly soulless and money-hungry AAA productions. Indie fans consider themselves connoisseurs of high-end games. Anyone who puts their game on the market with the independent label enjoys goodwill and can expect more leniency if problems arise. And in the awards, some of which are highly valued, it doesn’t have to compete with “Spider-Man 2” and “The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom” like “Baldur’s Gate 3”, but with “Cocoon”, “Draga” and “Visor “.

These are all tangible benefits that come with an independent label. The term has become largely meaningless. It’s loosely about small teams, limited budgets, bold game ideas. But the reality is that even large publishers regularly bring indie games to the market: Microsoft with the great “Pentiment” or “Ori and the Will of the Wisps”, EA with “Unravel”, Ubisoft with “Child of Light”. ” – and Nexon with “Dave the Diver.” Independent studios don’t have a monopoly on small teams and good ideas.

Even within indisputable indie games, the term has only a limited meaning: “Stardew Valley” and “Papers Please” were developed by individuals, “Hollow Knight” developer Team Cherry essentially consisted of three people, the “Disco Elysium” studio ZA/UM comprised of up to 30 permanent employees. Indie game budgets also vary greatly, from free open source developments to productions costing millions. Publishers like Team17, Annapurna Interactive, and Daedalic specialize in providing financial support to small teams. They are often called “independent publishers” – actually an oxymoron.

While the term “indie” is difficult to define, it doesn’t have to be useless. The word “indie” derives its practical meaning mainly from its definition. Indie are games that are not AAA. From studios that not only pay attention to mass suitability and market maximization, but also try something new.

That’s not fair. But it’s not about competition or performance evaluation, or who achieved what results with how many employees and how much budget. We intuitively understand the term “indie game” as a signal: here someone has been given free rein to pursue their true passion and uncompromisingly pursue their own ideas. These vibrations, gut feelings, and hard-to-define hunches form a vague consensus that can still be useful for communication. Because we immediately have an idea in our head.

From this perspective, “Pentiment”, “It Takes Two” and “Dave the Diver” also seem like indie games – even if the actual definition doesn’t give you the best will in the world.


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