Most people understand what indie movies or songs are, but when it comes to games, there is still much debate on what “indie” actually means. Whether a game is considered indie or not is largely based on how much creative control the developer has. Creative control is almost entirely based on funding. Whoever puts up the money has the final say on what gets released. In general the more funding a game gets, the harder it is to call it an indie game. There is no consensus within the game industry on what an indie game is. What I have listed here are the most common definitions.
indie game – a game made without publisher funding of any kind
This is the most pure definition. Without any outside stakeholders, the developer has absolute control over what gets added to the game and what does not. Usually, the funding will come from the developers themselves (their bank accounts and other assets) or a crowdsourced funding campaign such as Kickstarter.
Minecraft is a good example. Minecraft‘s success is seen as the prime example that this definition is the most fitting. There was no precedent for a game like Minecraft. No publisher would have funded it at the time. It could only be done by an indie developer.
indie game – a game made without funding from a major publisher such as Electronic Arts (third-party) or Sony (console-exclusive)
In this definition, the game is allowed to have a publisher but it cannot be a large publisher. Large publishers have been known to influence development of games by requiring changes for sales and marketing reasons. Small publishers are more likely to let developers do their thing after providing the funding. Some people will consider this enough to call it an indie game.
One example is Torchlight 2. Runic Games, the developer, is owned by Perfect World Entertainment, and PWE published Torchlight 2. I read many articles during the game’s development describing it as an indie game despite having a publisher, so for some people a publisher is okay as long as it is not too big.
indie game – a game whose development is funded without a publisher but whose marketing or distribution may be handled by a publisher
This is a more recent definition that has sprung up with all the crowdsourced funding that is happening these days. It leaves open the possibility of hiring a publisher solely to market and distribute the game. Most developers are specialists in developing, not these other activities, but those activities can greatly increase sales of a game. The developer has creative control for the entire development phase. The publisher just helps with a few things at the end. Of course, the publisher can still cause problems. Bad marketing has killed many games, such as Spec Ops: The Line.
Electronic Arts used to have a publishing label named EA Partners that was specifically for this purpose. A third-party developer could make a game on their own and hire EA solely to help with marketing or distribution. This arrangement was used most commonly to get games on retail store shelves. With digital sales becoming more popular, there is less demand for this service. Electronic Arts closed the EA Partners program. However, marketing is still important for a game’s success, and a publisher might be better suited to it than a stressed out developer trying to finish their game on time.