Article start

What makes an indie game indie?

What makes an indie game indie?

Article first published April 2016.

A couple weeks ago, Fallout 4 won best game at the BAFTA Game Awards. Surprisingly though, it was indie gaming that stole the show, with Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Her Story each picking up 3 awards.

This got me thinking about the unique position of indie games in the gaming industry. Indie gaming has undergone an evolution over the last few years. Gone are the days of the ‘indie genre’: quirky 8-bit throwbacks to a simpler time. While this type of game is still being produced in abundance today, a new kind of indie has emerged, virtually indistinguishable from big-budget ‘Triple-A’ titles.

But some gamers aren’t happy about this transition. There has been a backlash against indie games like The Witness and Firewatch, with some gamers suggesting that they are ‘too expensive’ for indie games. But what does that really mean? With bigger and bigger budgets, and games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Her Story enjoying critical acclaim and mainstream success at the moment, how can we assign a one-size-fits-all price for indie games?

Maybe we shouldn’t. If we are to argue that some indie games are deserving of a price close to their Triple-A competitors, perhaps we need to change consumers’ perception of what ‘indie’ means. But how do we achieve this? Well, before we can challenge consumer perceptions, we need to understand what they think right now.

So, what do we know about gamers’ perception of indie?

Criticism surrounding price suggests that gamers perceive indie as being of lower quality than traditional, Triple A titles. But do these views represent the majority of gamers, or the loud minority? To find out, I ran a quick poll on QArk, Arkenford’s proprietary survey panel, amongst gamers in the UK. Respondents were presented with a list of statements about indie games, and were asked to pick the three statements they agreed with most.

The first finding that really leaps out of the data is that a surprisingly high proportion (51%) of gamers sampled don’t actually know what indie games are. When you think about it, that makes some sense. This sample wasn’t amongst indie gamers, or even PC gamers, but gamers of any genre and on any games system. This suggests that the concept of ‘indie’ hasn’t managed to permeate the mainstream just yet.

And even amongst the most committed and knowledgeable gamers, one could argue that the concept of ‘indie’ isn’t well defined. With more and more big-name publishers supporting indie titles, and the budget behind some indie titles growing, perhaps the line between indie and mainstream is becoming blurred?

So what of the other 49%? Can they tell us what it is about indie games that make them indie?

Statements most associated with indie games

The results of our poll suggest that gamers think indie games offer something different to the mainstream. Amongst respondents that know what indie games are, 39% think that indie games are creative/ innovative, and 35% think they are unique/ different. These two statements really stand out from the rest, suggesting that gamers are in agreement that these are the most important features of indie games.

There is a more balanced view, however, when it comes to value for money; 15% think indie games represent ‘great value for money’, and 11% think they represent ‘poor value for money’. This might suggest that the pricing model is about right. However, with such a huge discrepancy between the price of indie titles, it’s perhaps more likely that consumers are happy with the price point of some games, but not with others.

Where does the industry go from here?

Although gamers are divided on the price of indie titles, there can be no doubt that they offer something that Triple-A games don’t, as evidenced by the results I’ve outlined above, and by the burgeoning success of the indie games sector. If the games industry is to build a case for increasing the price of indie games, the messaging across the industry needs to focus on the core values that make indie games indie: Creativity, Innovation and Uniqueness.

Arkenford has been conducting research with gamers since 2003. We’ve worked with the biggest names in the industry, delivering insight that supports the entire game life-cycle, from concept testing to post-launch analysis.