The Daily Grind: What exactly defines an ‘indie’ MMORPG studio?

Earlier this week, I happened to see a mainstream website refer to ArtCraft as an indie studio, and it jolted me. ArtCraft, as anybody reading MOP knows, is working on Crowfall, which at least in my estimation is a high-quality, graphics-intensive MMORPG from hardcore MMORPG veterans who’ve been in the business as long as anyone alive. The game has raised at least $12M or maybe $15M, at least counting up what we know about.

When I think of indie studios, I think of the tiny outfits working on games like Project Gorgon, Ever, Jane, and Ascent the Space Game. But of course Crowfall is also an indie, right? It’s not running a $500M budget; it’s not ensconced under a cozy AAA publisher umbrella. It crowdfunds.

Then again, aside from the budget/wealth, its profile looks like a bit like Epic Games’ – it even has an engine to vend now. So is it really just about money? Is Star Citizen, with its multiple studios and AAA budget, an indie because of crowdfunding? Camelot Unchained studio CSE has multiple studios – does that factor in?

I’m curious what you folks think. What exactly defines an indie MMO studio? What characteristics must an indie studio have or not have?

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!
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mysecretid

If the game company is based in the state of Indiana, it’s obviously “indie”, right?

(I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist)

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Alex

Pretty easy question. Any studio without outside influence on direction.

If governed by a board, parent company or fund it’s not indie.

Doesnt matter how big or small it is.

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Adri

The word independent says it all: If you have someone who wants you to do something (most likely because of cash) you don’t want to you are not independent.

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Bryan Correll

I don’t think it’s particularly complex question. Is there someone outside the studio that can dictate it’s action? If the answer is ‘No,” then the studio is independent no matter how big it is. If the answer is yes, even if the outside parties never actually exert their authority, then the studio is not an indie.

For example, Grinding Gear Games was an indie. Now they are not even if Tencent never makes so much as a suggestion about POE>

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Ken from Chicago

Money or the lack thereof. Also the lack of a publisher? Are their indie mmos that have publishers?

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Utakata

I am really not sure that’s an important question though. As I tend to stay away from anything that attaches “indy” to itself. Not because I have an issue with them being “independent”…but rather none of the indy games out there have appealed to me as something I would want to play. So it seems the bigger studios/publishers are the ones hitting it home for me…

Conversely though, unless they are being built on government subsidies, arn’t all gaming studios and publishers independent? o.O

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Schmidt.Capela

IMHO, it technically means a studio that isn’t beholden to a publisher or some other kind of corporate overlord. Size, the existence or not of shareholders, having other products, owning a publishing division, etc, none of this matters.

The issue, though, is that we came to associate “indie game” not with games made by indie studios, but with low budget games with total creative freedom. Not all games made by an indie studio — and in particular a large, rich, successful indie studio — are going to look like that, and not every game that is low budget with complete creative freedom comes from an indie studio. Take the first Dead Space, for example; I consider it very much akin to an indie game, in that “low budget, creative freedom” definition, and it came from a studio beholden to EA.

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Sally Bowls

Cynical pre-coffee: “Ultimately, isn’t everything about money?”

So, in my taxonomy, Crowfall and CU are clearly indie; it would never occur to me to not call them that. Their pedigrees are clearly first-world and I assume their passion and hard-work are as well. Their budget would dramatically change my bank account and would be large for a board/card game, but not for a MMO – AAA MMOs have launch/marketing budgets in excess of CF & CU’s total budgets combined.

I do like the nuance that evolved in the comments and that Todd used: calling them independent not indie.

You can go all in and say it is about philosophy not money – so MJ & Bree spending three million of their own money making a straight-up WoW clone is mainstream not indie and Epic spending $50M on some sci-fi, groundbreaking AR VR is indie,

The outliers are CIG and Valve.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

there’s indie and there’ s independent. back when bioware was independent before selling out to EA, no one would confuse them with an indie studio.

i feel like kickstarter and like scenario companies could be a middle ground between the “independent but clealrly too large and etc etc to be “indie”” areas. but ultimately, calling a company like CIG for example “indie” does a disservice to what the term is communicating and if you want o specify that CIG is “independent” than use that word, not *indie*.

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Reht

Yeah, that’s kind of my take, kind of like with Movies, there’s mainstream mega studio stuff, “indie” (low budget, many need to raise their own funding – not necessarily low quality) and then there’s stuff in the middle which we could call Independent (smaller studios not affiliated with a mega studio but who have their own funding).

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Alex

I have to disagree. Independant and Indie are the same thing. It comes down to who is making the decision and paying the employees.

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angrakhan

I agree but think we need a different term for “independent” in this scenario. “Indie” is just an abbreviation of “independent” after all, so to try and differentiate between the two terms is confusing. I like “too-big-for-their-britches” but doubt it will catch on.

Siphaed
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Siphaed

Epic games is 40% owned by Tencent, a publicly traded company.

Basically……an “Indie” MMO doesn’t answer to shareholders. It is independent of a pyramid style corporate latter system where the top manager/CEO is managing the managers rather than managing the actual game. A system of excessive budget meetings, bloated advertisement costs, and hard deadlines in order to meet a Quarterly profit report to save face in the wake of pushy investors wanting to see constant return Q over Q.

HOWEVER, the down side is that Indies get carried away. Without an overhead ‘drive’ to get things done, bloated feature lists and high-in-the-sky dreams seem to drag on a development cycle. So release expectations and the scope of reality don’t really meet eye to eye when it comes to giving communities estimated deadlines that aren’t set in stone (see recent Crowfall and Camelot Unchained beta delays).

Indies are also a lot more open publicly on the development of their games in order to utilize a free version of marketing through crowdsourcing and social media (as well as sites like MassivelyOP giving the occasional nod their way). Which cycles back through to delays and development seeming far longer than non-Indie MMOs; something that is sometimes true and not true at the same time. Some games announce in concept, which means no actual work to outside the whiteboards have taken place and any “footage” is usually using a completely different engine to make CGI videos to visually represent the ideas being put forth (for reference, see Camelot Unchained’s 2013 Kickstarter videos). Others announce less than a year or two before bucking out the door (see Ashes of Creation….assuming it doesn’t delay).