Arthur “AJ” Low was ready to quit his full-time job and strike out on his own.
After over a decade of working within Madison’s games industry, developing commercial releases for larger local studios like Filament Games, Human Head Studios, and Lost Boys Interactive, he felt 2020 was the year to finally take the leap.
“It was that bucket list item for me,” Low said. “If you’re an artist, if you like creating things, I think you have this desire to create your own things instead of creating someone else’s.” He was preparing to start a family with his partner Julianne Low, and didn’t want to lose the opportunity to pursue their development dreams after the birth of their child.
And so, in February 2020, just a month before the pandemic was declared a national emergency, Aaron and Julianne formed their own company, Basementmode.
“And that was really just because I had the means, I had the ability at home here, I have a partner with a good job,” AJ Low said. “And that’s tough; not everybody has that.”
That doesn’t mean starting an independent game studio is easy. From securing funding, contracting art and other work from freelancers, to the sheer number of hours that go into creating a full-fledged title, operating an indie game studio is a full-time gig.
In fact, after spending about a year and a half working on his latest game, Low ended up taking another position as a technical director at the PUBG Corporation this year to help supplement income. “Ironically, I took a job about a month ago. It was just an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up at the time,” Low said.
“Game development is oftentimes very unglamorous, and there’s a lot of meticulous work and care that goes into creating them,” said Eric Francksen, CEO of Sky Ship Studios and former director of the Wisconsin Games Alliance, a network of developers, investors, faculty and economic development agencies dedicated to promoting Wisconsin as a hub for game development. For Francksen and his eight-person team, indie game development is one full-time gig on top of another; Sky Ship Studios acts as their moonlight work they maintain after they finish their shifts at their day jobs.
The scene has never been better for indie game studios, including Madison’s own rising indie scene. But industry observers say some glaring inequities when it comes to gaining access and industry connections create a bubble where developers of color and aspiring game designers aren’t given the same opportunities.
What makes it ‘indie’?
What makes a game an “indie” game? The slippery nature of the word indie isn’t confined to the video game industry, as it can just be as hard to define an “indie movie” or an “indie band.”
“It’s kind of a loaded word,” said Aaron San Filippo, co-founder of the independent studio Flippfly, “and people have been arguing about it for years, to be honest.”
Gregory Shives, founder and lead developer of High Iron Studios said the term “indie” originally referred to a team that wasn’t funded by a publisher or a major development studio. Since the boom of the video game industry in the 1980s, some games have been developed by one-man coding teams and groups of amateurs.
However, the term has evolved with the rise of digital distribution platforms like Steam in the early 2000s, allowing smaller developers to bypass brick-and-mortar stores to get their products into the hands of gamers, and game developers to share their game engine tools at reasonable prices. The indie video game genre has transformed into a sort of amalgamation of many different identifiers.
There are some basic commonalities between games identified as indie, but the primary component is, as the name suggests, independence. That can mean financial independence, where games are not largely funded by major game publishers like Microsoft and Nintendo and are instead crowdfunded using sites like Kickstarter or costs are handled by the small development team themselves. It can also mean creative independence, allowing smaller game studios to create what they want without the scrutiny or direction of a major corporate overlord.
However, this term has also evolved over the past decade or so to refer to titles made with a retro or minimalistic aesthetic, often featuring lo-fi graphics, pixel art, or quirky games with saturated color palettes.
The latest indie video game phenomenon Among Us, a whodunit mystery game similar to the party game Mafia that reached about a half billion players in November 2020, encapsulates that aesthetic well: simple visuals, a quirky sense of humor, and a range of colorful Teletubby-like space crew characters to choose from. Developed by a Washington-based four-person development team at Innersloth, the game, although released in 2018, reached a meteoric peak of popularity in 2020 when celebrities on the streaming site Twitch like Pewdiepie, Sykkuno and Ninja began playing the game that summer before their subscribers.
So, what truly makes a studio indie? Is it a company that creates a game that’s primarily crowdfunded? Is it the size of the team? Being creatively independent from a major developer? Or is it a focus on quirky, minimalistic games that might otherwise fall outside of mainstream appeal?
The answer seems to be a bit of everything. Minecraft, which became the single best-selling video game of all time after selling more than 180 million copies, was initially created by Swedish programmer Markus “Notch” Persson. But as the game grew in popularity, Persson founded the formal studio Mojang with colleagues Carl Manneh and Jakob Porser to accommodate the player base, and eventually sold the studio to Microsoft. Mojang now has a team of about 600 employees with the financial backing of an industry titan. Does that mean Minecraft shouldn’t be considered an indie game anymore?