New York celebrates a decade of independent design

The definition of "Indie Game" has changed over the last decade. The term originally referred to games created by developers and distributed independently, without the aid of a publishing partner. In the old days that meant game makers were responsible for pressing CDs, printing manuals, and pushing product to retailers. Over the last ten years, that process has changed drastically; digital distribution, crowdfunding and social media allow "indie" games to have multi-million dollar budgets and pre-sell to customers who never need to set foot in a store. Indie games have come a long way, but have humble beginnings.

At New York's Museum of The Moving Image, that humble spirit is on display at a new exhibit: Indie Essential – 25 Must-Play Games.

"Indie games are not 'Products first'. They are modes of expression or modes of creativity first," says Jason Eppink, the Associate Curator of Digital Media at the museum. "The non-indie attitude is 'What's a commercial product that we can sell?' They're thinking 'We need smarter AI, we need faster frame rates' whereas indie developers are stepping back and saying, 'What's a way that we can use a game to express ourselves? Approaching a game that way is an attitude that, in general, indie developers have."

The exhibit is a mix of titles honored in the 2013 IndieCade Festival along with noteworthy games from the last ten years. These include some blockbuster hits like Braid, Diner Dash and Minecraft, alongside some recent releases that are just beginning to make a name for themselves like Gone Home. There are even some yet-to-be-released gems like Quadrilateral Cowboy, and every one of them is fully playable to attendees.

The oldest game in the exhibit is Alien Hominid by The Behemoth who created that game in 2002 when the Games As Art debate was just beginning. "Video games are art!" says Tom Fulp, co-owner of The Behemoth. "They use art, logic and sound to create experiences and communicate ideas."

Another of The Behemoth's co-owners, John Baez, has a slightly different view. "It is kind of like saying 'Is paint art?' Well, some things done with paint are art and some not so much. The medium or material itself doesn't make it art, it is what you do with it."

Several of the games in the exhibit, like Passage, can be played from beginning to end in a few minutes, allowing players to experience the artist's message while at the exhibit, but quite a few of them don't follow traditional ideas of narrative. Games like Canabalt, which started the "Endless Runner" genre, can be played indefinitely, and the surreal nature of The Path can leave players wandering through its virtual woods for hours without fully understanding it.

While most of the games on display can be downloaded by curious players at home, several of them can only be played at The Museum of the Moving Image. A notable example is Killer Queen Arcade, a ten-player game that requires two custom arcade cabinets to play.

Joshua DeBonis (co-designer of Killer Queen with Nikita Mikros) says the game is a reaction to the indie trend of digital distribution. "Most of the games that Nik and I make are digitally distributed. But for Killer Queen, you must physically travel to a location and play with your friends – like the good old days."

The Behemoth views digital distribution somewhat differently, according to Baez: "After shipping Alien Hominid on PS2 and GCN we switched to making only downloadable games. With only one entity – the hardware manufacturer – to keep happy, it simplified the process tremendously. And while this simplification of the process has been a boon for developers, we have noted that in the last couple of years, super creepy publisher types are once again hitting up smaller developers for content, trying to make it sound like having a publisher is a necessary thing again. It's not. Independent developers can and should do it on their own."

DeBonis also sees Killer Queen Arcade as a chance to avoid the use of funding sources like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. "It's also a bit of reaction against crowdfunding, as we purposely decided that we wanted to write every line of code and push every pixel ourselves. We're used to working with small teams that do all the dirty work for us, and we miss the days when we had absolutely no budgets and got to do all the fun stuff ourselves. So we did all the fun stuff ourselves."

When asked about the definition of an indie game DeBonis says he can't define it, "but I know it when I see it." Nik dislikes the term, but I think it's very useful to quickly convey certain information about a game. It indicates to players that a game is probably at least one of the following: small, low-budget, experimental, driven by creativity rather than profitability. For Killer Queen I guess all those are true!"

Other games in the exhibit, like the starship crew simulator Space Team, also require players to be in the same room. In the case of Space Team, this is so players can scream "Technobabble" orders at each other while each player works on their own tablet. There's even a tabletop pen-and-paper game called Dog Eat Dog in the gallery, and it is set up with a table and a box of dice so that attendees have everything they need to play right in the museum.

The installations are spread across a large gallery and the games that are most likely to cause a ruckus (like Space Team) are placed on one side of the gallery while smaller workstations are on the other end so that players can experience dialog-driven games like Dear Esther and Gone Home without interruption.

About the exhibit's layout Eppink says, "I look at exhibition design as interaction design. I believe that watching people play games is just as important a part of playing games as actually interacting with the games. Minecraft is a great example; with Minecraft it is hard to tell people how to start, so when there are people in the gallery and then someone who knows what they're doing jumps on, it's a great way for the uninitiated to actually see what can happen."

Proving this to be true, certain games drew crowds anytime they were played, especially Everyday Shooter, whose brightly-colored explosions were projected across an entire wall, while its guitar riff sound effects played gently in the room around spectators.

The Indie Essentials exhibit is a way for gamers to teach their non-gaming friends about the cutting edge of game design, and it's worth a visit for those in the New York area, especially since the museum houses several other non-gaming exhibits.

"What we wanted to show with this exhibition is all of the ways that indie games are being used as a space for innovating how video games can be used for creating new gameplay mechanics or experimenting with new visual aesthetics or sound design," Eppink says. "There is still a lot of ground to cover and indie games are at the vanguard of what games can become."

Baez points out, "It is easy to forget how hard it was to be an independent game developer just ten years ago. The licensing process to become a developer was long and difficult, hardware manufacturers went out of their way to keep smaller studios out of the mix ... Publishers wouldn't talk to you unless you agreed to sign over your IP (in some cases even before the game was made). There were so many middlemen in the ecosystem that if you were the developer you knew going in that you'd be the last one paid and you'd never make more than you were advanced by the publisher. Terms like 'right of first refusal,' 'cross collateralization', 'time is of the essence' and 'material breach' left many developers wondering why they were in the industry after they had been repeatedly ground down and spit out by the system."

That is a far cry from today's environment where small teams frequently end up with critical and commercial success alongside the enjoyment of making a game they love.
Charles Battersby is a video game journalist, a playwright, actor and theater critic. He has written about games for websites and publications including,,, and the satire site U.S. Department of Electronic Entertainment. He is also the creator of Theater for Nerds, the only website dedicated to covering nerdy theater. Follow him on Twitter.

Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games is running through March 2nd, which coincides with the IndieCade East Festival at the same museum in February. More on the Museum of the Moving image can be found at, and more on IndieCade is available at Joystiq will have more coverage on IndieCade East as it approaches.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.