It was reported this week that video game giant EA had submitted their own Humble Indie Bundle to Steam. For those not familiar, the Humble Indie Bundle is typically a pack of games made by smaller developers that don’t have the money, resources or infrastructure to really compete with the big boys. The intention of the Indie Bundle was to get some high quality but not-so-well-known titles into the hands of gamers by allowing them to name their own price.
The first bundle hit record sales for those developers, and has become a regular package offered ever since. So when a big company capable of pushing out AAA titles of various sorts tries to put together a Humble Indie Bundle, well, it raises a few eyebrows. Most notably is Marcus “Notch” Peterson, creator of Minecraft and head of Mojang, criticizing EA of taking another step toward “destroying the games industry”.
There are a few reasons I find this interesting. The first is that one of the games in EA’s indie bundle, Shank, was already in Humble Indie Bundle #4. It was a title published by EA, yet no one had objections to it at the time. In fact, if EA’s name wasn’t attached to the Indie Bundle at all, would people be crying foul?
Which makes one wonder if any of those games are truly Indie after having EA distribute them. In fact, how does one define Indie?
This question was on my mind when I first began reading this news. What, exactly, makes a game “Indie”? Is it the size of the team? The amount of money they have? The style of game they create?
Before thinking on how Indie is defined in gaming, I thought about how it is defined in cinema. Big name corporations like Fox, Warner Bros. and Universal all have their own “Indie” branches. My original thought was perhaps that an “Indie” film was true to the word Independent, where the film was self-funded without any interference from the studio. So even if the big studios were distributing, they didn’t have any hand in the creative process.
Researching Independent Film on Wikipedia doesn’t really bring this to mind. Not exactly, at least. It seems the history of Independent Film is riddled with attempts to get away from more controlling corporations. At first the Edison patents, then the major studios of Hollywood. Yet the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film from New Line Cinema was considered an Independent film. Looking back, that seems an awfully high budget and high quality work to be called Indie.
It makes me wonder if a struggling publisher such as THQ may be comparable to New Line Cinema in that regard. They aren’t as big as EA, Activision or Ubisoft, though at the same time they’ve been around about as long as the other companies have. Could such a comparison truly be made?
In any event, the only real conclusion I can make is that an Indie film is simply a movie made outside of the influence of the major studios. With that in mind, an Indie game would allegedly be a title made outside of a major Publisher, or theoretically so. Yet this means Shank should have never been in the Humble Indie Bundle 4 to begin with, and games like Bastion or Scott Pilgrim vs. The World should not be counted as they were distributed by Warner Bros. Interactive and Ubisoft, respectively.
Or perhaps the truth of the matter is we don’t actually know what “Independent” means. Not clearly, at least. Much like the term hipster, it is a nebulous word tossed about the Internet used to describe a general idea of a person, place or thing, but doesn’t have an accurate definition of its own.
This is likely why everyone is complaining about EA stamping their logo onto a Humble Indie Bundle. EA is a massive corporation, one that is allegedly killing the industry. Of course, the fact that they promote a lot of these smaller games begs to differ. It may not have been much, but EA provided games like Shank and Deathspank marketing. They helped get the word out to publishers and got them known. Activision is doing no such thing.
In addition, while EA partners may not always be the best deal a more ambitious studio can get, it did bring us the likes of Dead Space, Brutal Legend and Mirror’s Edge. Maybe I’m biased as I loved each of those titles, but I cannot view EA as one giant company actively destroying this industry. This is a company that even took a chance on Mass Effect and Dragon Age while bringing Valve games to consoles. For as many Medal of Honor and Battlefield 3 games they push out, and for all the online activation passes they plug in, they release something interesting and worth playing.
I think what people really like is the idea of being a truly independent success. That anyone can do what Notch had with Minecraft and become a huge success out of nothing. Hence all these smaller games are labeled “Indie” regardless of quality, regardless of the team size and regardless of the platform or distributor. It allows us to feel as if the industry has opened up, as if we have a future with all these smaller and creative developers working outside the system.
The reality, and I think the EA Bundle highlights this, is that most of those developers will never become a success. They will never be noticed, will not make their money back, and may simply be hired on to a larger studio owned by EA, Ubisoft or Activision for hopes of a steady paycheck and ability to feed their family. Not unless you’re lucky or happen to have excellent timing, such as Notch and the folks at The Behemoth, or have a larger studio helping distribute and market your game, such as EA.
As such, I really can’t find much problem with EA having their own Indie Bundle. Sure, they themselves aren’t independent, but that’s precisely why it isn’t large games like Dead Space or Battlefield in there. It’s a group of interesting titles developed by smaller studios that you may have never heard of if it weren’t for EA at all.
Maybe we need to ditch this whole “Indie” idea and view these games more honestly.