Chris Dahlen who appears in Indie Game the Movie defines an indie game as: “any game that a small team or individual creator worked on to their own vision” which is a pretty good definition.
It can be confusing classifying what is indie and what isn’t because there are some grey areas. Let’s explore:
Indie games usually are self funded (but don’t have to be)
Some people get a grant from the government or even big companies. It doesn’t feel right to compares these games with those that are self funded because those guys can afford more advertising/hire staff etc, but on the other hand if you won a competition that gives you a decent amount to develop your game, or you just happen to come from a rich family, who’s to stop you from making an indie game? Still, it’s hard to shake the idea that self funded games are ‘more indie’ or ‘true indies’.
Indie games tend to be different/pushing the envelope/bolder etc (but don’t have to be)
If you want to make your own first person shooter, that’s totally fine. Just know that it will be hard to compete against a larger team if you’re both offering similar experiences. It’s pretty common-knowledge that indie games can take more risks because they have less to lose financially, they don’t tend to have investors who have some power/control over them and sometimes people want to make a game a certain way because they’re really passionate about it and don’t care about making money. Still, not all indie games are ‘innovative’; some are just familiar games that are done well and that’s totally fine.
Indie games are made by an individual or small team
The question is: how small is small? 10? 20? How many people does it take for the game to not be personal anymore? Corporate games have a game director, can’t you argue that it’s an indie game because it’s his/her personal game? Another question arises, if you were really rich and you hired 100 people to make an awesome big title to your vision, is that an indie game? There are indie game studios that also make money from client jobs, making them a bit of a hybrid. I think it’s best for the developers to define whether they’re indie or not and rather than setting a finite number.
It’s safe to call myself an independent developer and Eternal Pain as an indie game. It’s self funded, I tried to make it different to what’s out there, even if just a little, and it’s mostly done by myself but mainly because it’s a game that I made to my own vision, and I’m proud of it. Rather than arguing about what is indie and what isn’t, it’s just nice to know that more people can be indie, make a game and release it to the world, and that thought makes me smile.