The definition of “indie game” has become increasingly blurred. With mid-tier game publishers dying out and console makers embracing independent studios like never before, indie games have had unprecedented exposure and opportunity. August’s highest profile release, No Man’s Sky, is a game that is hard to define as indie or not. It was made by a tiny British studio, Hello Games, but the game was also published by Sony, given a full AAA price, and considerable high-profile marketing.
No Man’s Sky is a survival/crafting title in the vein of Minecraft. This is a standard and fairly common genre for small indie games. However, No Man’s Sky also has a good claim of being the largest game ever made, with a universe of 18,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets. How do you classify a game like this?
If No Man’s Sky counts as an indie release, it was probably the most anticipated indie game ever. Since its trailer debut at E3 2014, millions of fans have eagerly awaited its arrival. Leading up to its launch, fans were anxious to find out whether it would live up to their expectations. When it finally came out, No Man’s Sky owned August. Few games, even AAA games, get to dominate the conversation about gaming for an entire month.
As the weeks wore on, however, the game suffered a slow but intense backlash. Considering the levels of hype, No Man’s Sky was destined to disappoint, no matter what. But the game has now created palpable rage in what was once an adoring fanbase. A lot of that rage seems to stem from the confusion as to what this game really was.
So, is No Man’s Sky an indie game? And if it is, should we have treated it more like one?
First off, some context. “Indie” is short for “independent,” which means they’re independent of console manufacturers and major publishers. “Indie” is also a cultural movement, and not just in games. There are indie movies, indie comics, indie music, indie everything.
Before the 2000s, for a video game to reach a wide audience, you needed a publisher. Publishers were the only companies large enough to make contacts with retailers, pass through console approvals, and effectively market any title on a global basis. By the mid-2000s that started to change. Digital distribution became a viable alternative to physical media on a mass scale. Almost anybody — no matter the size of the development team — could self-publish a game and spread it around the globe through XBox Live or Steam. Now, with recent crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, unusual and niche projects can be funded directly by fans, with no need for large investors or publishers.
Indie games can be completely unlike the typical FPS or action-adventure title of a mainstream publisher. They have the potential to innovate in fascinating, artistic ways. Esoteric narrative-driven games like Gone Home would never get off the ground at a large AAA game publisher. Instead, they were the brainchild of small developers pushing the envelope in interesting ways. Games like Undertale are fascinating pieces of art that break the expectation of a JRPG. They can become cult objects for small fandoms or grow into unbelievably huge mega-hits. Minecraft, for example, was something completely new in 2009, a procedurally generated open world sandbox survival/creation title. It had a unique art style and unlimited LEGO-like options to create and mold structures.
Blurring the Lines of What Is Indie
Just to show how difficult it is to define “indie,” Minecraft is no longer considered an indie game. Microsoft bought it for $2.5 billion, turning it into a first-party title by a console manufacturer that also has a major presence in the PC gaming space. It’s far from the only game sitting on the fence of what is indie or not.
Both Sony and Microsoft have invested heavily in indie games. These console manufacturers want to be seen as the best home for indie titles, especially when competing against Steam and GOG.com. Relatively small investments in small developers can secure exclusives that raise the profile of a console. Axiom Verge, for example, spent a year and change off the XBox One and the WiiU thanks to Sony’s Pub Fund. The game may not have been finished at all if not for what amounts to a small investment (about half a million dollars) for a major corporation like Sony.
But other games are even more closely tied to publishers. Take the completely drop-dead gorgeous game, Journey from 2012. Its developer, thatgamecompany, has had a very close relationship with Sony over the years. Sony money is what largely made the company possible. All three of their games are Sony exclusives. Journey is an ethereal experience unlike anything in any mainstream video game. But is it still an indie game?
The waters get muddied even further when AAA publishers develop small titles that look and feel like indie games. Ubisoft has games like Grow Home, Valiant Hearts, and Child of Light. They’re pretty, cheap, and distributed digitally. Few would call these indie games, yet they are trying to capture the same audience.
No Indie’s Sky
Up until 2016, No Man’s Sky looked like a typical indie game with a small price tag and a small launch. Then earlier this year, No Man’s Sky was revealed to cost a full $60, and would be Sony’s biggest release of the summer. Some fans were furious. They thought this was an unfair price for an indie game. But for others, it seemed to only increase expectations. If the game carried a AAA price tag, it must be AAA quality, right?
All this speculation was happening before extensive gameplay footage was shown. The hype was massive before anybody really knew what No Man’s Sky really was. Heck, it was massive because nobody knew what this thing was. Just about everything Hello Games’ Sean Murray said — or didn’t say — built up the anticipation further and further.
No Man’s Sky‘s marketing intentionally showed very little, coyly teasing so much without actually showing anything of substance. Things like multiplayer were hinted at or referenced, but it was never spelled out how they would actually work it into the final product. It was because Hello Games was this little-known developer with this cool-looking game that people were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Fans would have cynically torn apart Electronic Arts if they had tried this kind of marketing. But an indie game with AAA ambitions? That’s something to believe in.
Was It All a No Man’s Lie?
No Man’s Sky had a difficult launch and an even worse next few weeks. The game may not have been a proper AAA title, but it definitely felt the backlash worthy of any AAA release. Right now in certain circles, the game is already an easy punchline. Given that the game came with a AAA price tag, players expected a AAA experience. No big budget title would have such limited options and as little of a storyline as No Man’s Sky does. Indie game or not, No Man’s Sky loses either way.
The question of whether No Man’s Sky was an indie game was a lot of the problem. Indie doesn’t just refer to a game’s dev team size or source of funding. The term “indie” carries with it a sort of promise. It is the expectation that the game you are playing is something cool and innovative and original. No Man’s Sky was ultimately just another survival/crafting game. Those things are a dime a dozen on Steam. For a game advertised with infinite possibilities to end up being “just another” anything is disappointing.
No Man’s Sky did not meet its expectations. When all is said and done, it may not even be a very good game. But it is a game that is the result of an insane dream created by an unexpected developer. Hello Games created something truly new, which is rare in the games industry.
Sony or not, $60 or not, indie or not, No Man’s Sky was willing to try something crazy that no standard mainstream game would have ever attempted. Critics now talk of the game being a different existential experience. Its scale has an emotional effect on its own. By this standard, No Man’s Sky upholds its indie spirit. Should this change the critical scrutiny that players have demolished the game with? That’s up to the audience to decide.
Whether you think No Man’s Sky is indie or not, some may argue that the game’s possibilities aren’t properly realized. We delved deep into the game and explored whether this is actually an unfinished game.