Sometime in the early 2010s, two drunken baristas film a social media video with a phone camera. They place an instant macaroni and cheese container you’d find at any convenience store atop of a glass pour-over brewing system, and in the ultimate piss take of the ‘artisnal’ commodities market and foodie culture, they began to brew their starchy swill. As they narrate each step in painful detail, they increasingly start to giggle and crack up as they realize how closely they’re mimicing the absurd pomp of coffee’s specialty tropes.
The video may be long gone now, but the humor still resonates with relevance to anyone who has spent long enough in any field
Since that video and that era, video games have undergone many changes, particularly in how we perceive the clout of indie games. Like the music and film industry, ‘Indie’ is a term that brings to mind pop folksy tunes and relatable low-budget productions about small towns, the themes are small, the production is cheap, yet the techniques used set precedence that reverberates across the industry’s future trends.
That’s how some developers and audiences would like to see Indie Games too, but instead of ukeleles or relatable millenial struggles, games have… Pixels? Big Budgets? Teams in the hundreds? What exactly defines an indie game? The discourse has made it incredibly difficult to come to a consensus in all three industries. One could argue that in music it’s an aesthetic choice, in film, it’s the size of the crew and the tools used, in games it’s… Hideo Kojima declaring himself an indie? Which isn’t that different from referring to Radiohead as Indie; technically true yet feels wrong.
However, if we contrast this with the food commodity industry, we find quickly that ‘Indie’ operations are sought after and looked up to for trend-setting. A $10,000 food cart run by a solo owner can set the gold standard for the newest practice, method, or recipe that quickly gains adoption across the entire market. Craft Coffee cocktails, Farm-To-Table food sourcing, Espresso in Whiskey Sniffers, Microbrews, each example started out in small businesses with small staff and distinct vision prior to rippling out across global trends.
Suddenly, everything in food is small-focused, local and regional. It’s artisanal to a point that large scale companies try to get in on the game with high-end ingredients in order to seem like a response to the increasingly shifting landscape. Sometimes, it’s simply the brand flipping to a new folksy design; a tactic that intentionally reflects the same trend elsewhere of a larger production team emulating lo-fi or low-budget aesthetics to remain relevant to consumers.
People are quick to notice in food, both within the industry and on the other side of the counter. The Artisanal label was quickly rendered just as meaningless as indie — yet specific sub-descriptors remain: Gastropubs, Barcades, Boutique, Microbrews, Craft Coffee, Specialty Coffee, Whiskey Library. It’s the enduring appeal of twisting etymology inside out, to touch on the subconcious currents within the mind that lurk beneath the surface. We do it in our food, our games, and even social media with the rise of personal branding as a meaningful way of shaping a streaming career or any other online foray. Once the domain of Hollywood and real estate agents, the increasing complexity of the sales geography demands everyone step up to perpetually innovate.
We can observe the interplay of words over the years, and their implicit secret meanings instead of their explicit ones. We capitalize on this with trademark terms and the popularization of a product or service that comes with them. There are many lessons to learn here, and at REBIND we have put a word into the vernacular: Microindies.
We purposefully intend this term to be vague in definition, yet narrow in scope. It need not have any specific aesthetics, nor be purely defined by obscure technicalities, like a food cart it is a matter of operational scale and vision. A hundred person studio will inevitably design a title far more differently than a ten person, five person, or a two person team. The auteur is a notoriously controversial topic in film, and in games it’s similarly an outlandish concept given the incompatible labor structure that prevents it from truly taking place. Yet, a microindie can be the solo auteur without the exploitation, providing a different kind of vision from the corporate monomyth popularized in the massive cinematic industry, wherein the “auteur” and their associated clout is used as a marketing trick for name recognition.
However, there are plenty of incredibly small studios or solo developers that have an overbearing degree of influence. The overwhelming recognition of an artist like Brain Eno or Trent Reznor, despite their methodologies, give them an incredible advantage within the music industry. Ergo, a microindie can’t be defined by the number of people involved in the project on its own, but if you included the proportion of reach and resources as a factor, the term starts to fall into place.
On the surface, the term does very little to establish anything new, in a sense it just means ‘small indie’, a pleasant way to distinguish between the “Triple I” or AA side of the game industry where large independent studios tread the same circles as the fringe developer designing watershed moments out of her garage. Yet there is a hidden element here, an implicit association with the term Microbrew, an intentional one at that to see if the enduring terminology of the commodity industries can take root within video games and hopefully serve as a practical tool for increasing visibility.
Perhaps one day the distance between the direct inspiration of products pumped out for the mass market and those visionaries who initiate those trends can decrease, reuniting the reputation with the author. In time, like in food, it may be the microindies who lead the industry, instead of just being left to obscurity and ultimately lost to history.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice