The Game Awards got it wrong this year. One of the titles nominated for Best Independent Game, Dave the Diver, was produced by Nexon, one of the largest video game studios in South Korea. No matter how hard you squint, it is not indie. Dave the Diver is an excellent pixel-art game about deep-sea fishing and restaurant management, but it was commissioned and bankrolled by Nexon subsidiary Mintrocket, with billions of dollars and decades of experience at its back.
When The Game Awards nominees were announced on November 13, fans were quick to point out the error, and the recurring debate over what “indie” means was reignited. Taehwan Kim, Nexon’s overseer of Mintrocket, weighed in on November 14, saying Dave the Diver “may look like an indie, but it's not necessarily the case.” The official tweet listing the nominees for Best Independent Game now carries a reader-generated context tag reading, “Dave the Diver is not an indie game. Mintrocket, the game's developer, is a subsidiary of Korea's biggest game company Nexon. They are not independent in any sense of the word.”
A discussion around the definition of “indie” bubbled up throughout November, but it raised more questions than it answered. One common conclusion was that the media outlets who voted Dave the Diver into the independent category were fooled by its pixel art, a style that’s associated with indie games. During a live Q&A on Twitch on November 26, The Game Awards organizer Geoff Keighley argued that “independent” was a broad term with an unknowable definition, before essentially saying Dave the Diver’s inclusion in the indie category was the jury’s fault.
Specifically, Keighley said the following: “It’s independent in spirit and [it’s] a small game with a, I don’t know what the budget is, but it's probably a relatively small-budget game. But it is from a larger entity, whereas there are other games on that list that are from much smaller studios. Even like Dredge I think is published by Team17, so is that independent or not because you have a publisher? It’s a really complicated thing to figure out and come up with strict rules around it, so kinda we let people use their best judgment. And you can agree or disagree with the choices, but the fact that Dave the Diver was on that list meant that, out of all the independent games the jury looked at, or what they thought were independent games, that was one of the top five they looked at this year.”
The jury comprises 120 media outlets (Engadget has traditionally been one of these, but we did not participate in voting this year and look what happened), so Keighley is chalking the mistake up to mass hysteria and moving on. Meanwhile, there’s still little consensus on what constitutes an indie game, at The Game Awards or elsewhere.
I’ve reported on video games for 13 years and indies are a central theme of my coverage. I ran The Joystiq Indie Pitch back in the day, and I’ve made a concerted effort to write about smaller games from creators working outside of the mainstream machine, because these are the experiences that speak to me personally. The indie scene is the source of the industry’s magic. This isn’t just a debate about language — “indie” is a distinction that identifies which games and teams need outside support to survive and expand on their innovations. Understanding the label can help players make decisions about where to spend their money, the lifeblood of any game-development studio.
All that to say, the debate over the definition of “indie” is not new, but it is constantly changing, and it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating. So, I’m here to offer guidance on the question of what makes an indie game or studio indie. It is a weirdly complicated topic and my approach is one of many, but the loose framework I use could help resolve some common, recurring arguments.
Basically — it’s all about the system, man.
I’m joking, but also I’m not. Generally, when I’m trying to decide whether something is actually indie, I rotate through three questions:
Is the team on the mainstream system’s payroll?
Is the game or team owned by a platform holder?
Do the artists have creative control?
The first question is about identifying where a studio’s money is coming from and what kind of support a game has outside of sales. If a team is wholly owned by another company of any size, it is not indie. We’re not talking about publishing deals; this opening question is about acquisitions or subsidiaries of bigger studios. Dave the Diver is a prime example here — it’s developed by Mintrocket, a subsidiary of Nexon that was created just to develop more contained, experimental games for the publisher. Dave the Diver is definitely not indie, and we’re only on question one.
The second query feeds into the first, and it’s helpful in making fine distinctions about games that exist in gray areas. What about something like Cyberpunk 2077? It’s a big-budget game built by CD Projekt RED (CDPR) — a studio that, at first glance, seems like it could be indie. However, there are two factors that take it out of the running for me. First, CD Projekt, the umbrella organization that supports CDPR’s game-making, is a publicly traded company with shareholders and a board to answer to. Second, CD Projekt is the owner of GOG, a distribution hub that allows the studio to sell its own games and DLC outside of Steam and the Epic Games Store. This ability to sell directly to players at massive scale takes CD Projekt out of the indie realm. Generally, companies with the most influence and money are console makers and platform holders like Valve, Xbox, PlayStation, Epic Games, Ubisoft, EA, and, yes, CD Projekt. They are the AAA system, and anything they own is not indie.
Lastly, on to publishers. Sorry, Keighley, but securing a publisher has very little to do with whether a game is indie nowadays. We’re blessed in 2023 to have a thriving indie industry constantly pushing against the AAA complex with different goals, more diverse voices and a broader sense of innovation — and publishing is a big part of this system. Today, indie-focused publishers (of which there are many) tend to include clauses that protect a developer’s creative vision, preventing the larger company from interfering with artistic decisions and keeping the game indie to the core. Once upon a time, it might’ve made sense to only consider self-published games indie, but that era is long gone.
The indie scene has evolved massively since the early 2010s, when games like Braid, Super Meat Boy and Fez were carving out the market’s modern form. Back then, self-publishing was all the rage for independent developers because it was often their only option, and as a result there were more distinct lines between AAA, AA and indie games. Devolver Digital found its first breakout hit as an indie publisher with Hotline Miami in 2012, and that’s around the time the floodgates opened. In 2014, as the industry’s largest companies started funding and publishing programs for them, the number of indie games skyrocketed across platforms including Steam (remember Greenlight?), the App Store, Xbox, PlayStation and Ouya (RIP).
Today, indie games come standard on every console. There are multiple indie-focused publishers, including Devolver, Annapurna Interactive, Panic, Raw Fury, Team17 and Netflix, and most of them offer complete creative freedom as a main selling point. Meanwhile, platform holders like Sony and Xbox are hungry to sign distribution deals with developers of all sizes in an effort to score exclusives and pad their streaming libraries. It’s the most stable (and crowded) the indie scene has ever been. Having a publisher has no bearing on whether a game is indie.
Being owned by a publisher, however, changes everything (see question one). This is more of a concern than ever, as platform holders like Microsoft, Sony and Epic Games have recently been buying studios they like, no matter their size. Hell, even Devolver has dipped its toes in the acquisition pond recently — which, yeah, means those teams are no longer indie.
The “indie” label is transitory. Certain studios can be indie but an individual game may not be, and plenty of small companies flow between states as they age and take advantage of growth opportunities. Bungie, for example, started out as an independent outfit, then it was absorbed by the AAA complex under Xbox, and then it broke free and was briefly indie again, before Sony pulled it back into the mainstream system’s cold embrace.
So, yeah, that's my way of determining if a game or studio is indie. By all means, take my triplet of questions and have fun trying to break the logic — it probably won't take long. There is no perfect structure here and there are plenty of outliers within my own framework. Alan Wake II, according to my questions, would be considered an indie game — but its developer, Remedy Entertainment, is a publicly traded company, which brings shareholders and a board of directors. This pushes the studio and the game into The System for me, but honestly, I’m still unsure about those labels as I type this. That’s OK — when all else fails, look inside your game-loving soul and ask, can this team exist without my support? (Alan Wake II, for what it’s worth, is a delicious and unique experience that’s worth playing, regardless of your feelings on Remedy's shareholders).
Does Mintrocket need my support to keep Dave the Diver and its creative team going? Probably not, and definitely not in the same way as Larian Studios, the independent developer and publisher of Baldur’s Gate 3. Baldur’s Gate 3 is an excellent, expansive 3D adventure from an indie studio and it’s up for Game of the Year at The Game Awards, but it was snubbed in the Best Independent Game category. Meanwhile, Dave the Diver, a cute title backed by billions of dollars, is up for the indie award, but not Game of the Year. It seems like The Game Awards jury made the classic mistake of seeing pixel art and immediately calling it indie. That’s an unforced error, but it reveals one point where we can all agree:
Indie is not an aesthetic.