Size Does Matter: What "Indie" Really Means in Videogames

In June of 1992 the Journal of Human Evolution published an article by R.I.M Dunbar entitled, “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.”

Jargon-filled but widely cited, the scholarship established what is now known as Dunbar’s Number: the amount of people on average that a person can maintain strong social relationships with. Estimates vary, but the standard value is 150. From Facebook to corporations, this is what’s generally considered to be the upward limit on effective organization size.

Dunbar arrived at this number by comparing neocortex volume and group size. Primates with fewer neocortical neurons maintained group sizes that were correspondingly smaller. In other words, our neurobiology predetermines how many people we can meaningfully work with, be friends with, and otherwise socially relate to.

“It’s an inevitable consequence of having something so big. If it takes 100 or 200 people to make it, then it’s just not possible to work in the way that we used to.”

It’s not a terribly big leap then to wonder how development team sizes affect the videogames that are created. How does the number of people working on a game change the final product?

Not always positively, at least according to Free Radical Design co-founder, Steve Ellis. For Ellis, videogame development has become too anonymous. Speaking with Edge Online he said, “It’s an inevitable consequence of having something so big. If it takes 100 or 200 people to make it, then it’s just not possible to work in the way that we used to.”

In contrast, Ellis described his time working on Time Splitters 2. With just over 20 people on the team, “everybody knew everybody, and they all knew what everybody was doing and what they were capable of. It was a really good atmosphere because everyone had a shared vision that was easily understood and communicated without the need for team meetings and documentation and all the other things that bigger companies find themselves having to do in order to try and force this shared vision.”

Development teams have continued to grow in part because of the manpower needed to take full advantage of the graphical opportunities afforded by the most recent generation of videogame consoles. This is one possible reason why “indie” development has gained so much attention over the last few years.

People have always independently tried to make videogames, but the mix of personalities and retro nostalgia we’ve come to associate with titles like Super Meat Boy and Fez is a decidedly recent phenomenon. In this sense, “indie” has become associated with games that cut costs by using elegant but simple presentation in order to spend resources innovating on traditional gameplay tropes instead.

Of course, to limit the “indie” label by associating it with a certain retro art style or gameplay minimalism would exclude games like Journey, Dear Esther, and Minecraft. And yet it’s hard to believe that any single descriptor could include such disparate gaming experiences.

“The indie label doesn’t contribute anything to the discussion except a needless sense of distance”

This problem hasn’t gone unnoticed. As the “indie” moniker has become more prevalent, what exactly it means or refers to has become less clear. This has led some people to argue that we’d be better off dropping the loaded term all together.  Anna Anthropy, designer and author of Rise of the Video Game Zinesters, said as much when she spoke at 2011’s GDC.

“The indie label doesn’t contribute anything to the discussion except a needless sense of distance,” said Anthropy, “calling a game an indie game or an author an indie developer just enforces the illusion that it’s an exclusive club, an inner circle to which most people aren’t admitted.”

In an opinion piece at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Nathan Grayson wrote, “Ultimately, then, ‘indie’ – once a term that stood for freedom of expression and unbridled experimental spirit – has now become a ponderous yolk. In many ways, it limits developers and players alike just as much as labels like ‘triple-A,’ ‘first-person shooter,’ and ‘Zynga employee.’”

Grayson did not pen his critique in a vacuum though. It was inspired by mega publisher EA’s recent adoption of the phrase for its discount bundle. However, despite being peddled by a large corporation, the games included in the bundle like Shank and Warp were independently developed by small teams.

When asked what he thought about the marketing decision, Klei Entertainment technical designer Nels Anderson (involved in both of the Shank and Death Spank series) said, “I guess the problem is that we can say ‘EA,’ but it’s not really a single entity, right? It’s made up of a lot of different people with different perspectives and opinions. That’s kind of the problem with any large, publicly traded company. They’re beholden to all these different interests and it ends up influencing their decisions in ways that I’m not sure are always optimal long term. At least the point where I’d probably never be comfortable working for a publicly traded company.”

Here Anderson gets at something important, something that might yet keep “indie” meaningful and relevant: size.

“Being ‘indie’ frees you from creative or directive forces that aren’t your own.”

“Indie” might apply to games as different as Braid and Rock of Ages, but what titles like these share are small team sizes (as few as two people). It’s Dunbar’s number. It’s what Anderson, Ellis, and others have been talking about: smaller teams mean closer personal relationships, better communication, and a clearer goal. This might not be what “indie” means in film or music, but it’s the most useful way to think about it when it comes to videogames.

Solo developer Greg Lobanov has created nine games and is now working on his tenth. He’s young, still in school, and his upcoming title Phantasmaburbia will be the first one he’s ever attached a price tag to. For Lobanov, “Being ‘indie’ frees you from creative or directive forces that aren’t your own. It’s about making personal, noncommercial games. It’s about making games out of a love for making games, and not much more.”

The problem isn’t just trying to balance corporate goals with creative ones though. It goes deeper than that into the very nature of how organizations function and how they are maintained. As Dunbar’s research made plain, humans only have a finite amount of cognitive energy to go around. More relationships mean weaker ones, and weaker ones mean less clarity and cohesion surrounding a project.

 “‘Indie'” to me is pretty synonymous with what used to be called garage developers back in the day.”

Mark Rein might think Epic Games still embodies the “indie spirit,” but “big indie” is a contradiction. Even though Epic is independent from outside influences, the company is still subject to conflicting goals, passions and personalities internally.

As Notch, creator of Minecraft and owner of Mojang, told Nightmare Mode in an email, “‘Indie'” to me is pretty synonymous with what used to be called garage developers back in the day. It’s one person or a very small team that makes games for the sake of making games, and not just to make money.”

Derek Yu, the creator of Aquaria and many other titles, said team size was important as well, “[A] company is indie if it’s small (1-20 members) and independent (not owned or published through another company). Small team size is an important factor that changes the nature of game development and the resulting games significantly. It’s also the quantifiable factor that is behind the more nebulous terms like ‘indie spirit.’”

 In each case the point is generally the same: smaller development teams craft videogames whereas larger studios produce them. Team size might seem arbitrary, and the cut-off between indie and non-indie isn’t hard and fast, but there’s clearly a difference in mindset and process between AAA titles produced by large teams, and “indie” titles created by only a few people. If you can fit all of your designers into a regular grade school classroom you might be indie. If you can’t then you’re probably not (sorry Mark Rein).

As with any craft, the more people who are involved the less intimate and authored the final creation will be. Even the creative visions of Ken Levine and Hideo Kojima eventually get funneled through elaborate networks of individuals and processes, and their auteur choices are ultimately contingent upon the intricate production systems they oversee.

Super Meat Boy didn’t come from a system though, just Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes. And while that doesn’t mean their game is necessarily better because of it, it does result in a tangible difference, both for those who created the game, and for those of us who play it. A raw energy and purity results from the intimate relationship that differentiates “indie” games from other ones. Larger teams are no less devoted to their products, but more people do mean more friction. The next time you want to know if a game is “indie,” don’t pay attention to EA’s marketing or a news headline. Instead, look at how many people worked on it. Size isn’t everything, but it does matter.


  1. I wrote an article on this topic for Medium Difficulty a few weeks ago that I’d like to contribute to the discussion here.
    I think this is a great, well researched take on a very slippery term. I do want to raise a minor quibble, though, and point out that while you place “indie” in more scientific terms with Dunbar’s Number, the suggestion that indie is primarily based on size doesn’t really seem to stick. Timesplitters 2 may have had a small group of people working on it, but I’ve never seen the term “indie” applied to it. Certainly, there are no 100+ member indie studios, but the use of the term nevertheless doesn’t simply apply to small teams – and the “spirit of garage development” as an added definition doesn’t really help make it more precise either. I admire your attempt to make the term a quantifiable one, but I’m not sure that numbers will untie this cultural knot.For my part, I boiled it down via the work of the Birmingham school and Dick Hebdige, looking at the way that the aesthetic addresses certain economic conditions. I’d love to hear what you think!

  2. Pingback: Indie Devs vs New Games Journalism [Feedback Loop] | Nightmare Mode