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Independency: Is Star Citizen Indie?

By Shannon Doyle on January 13, 2015 | Columns | Comments

Is Star Citizen Indie?

What defines an indie game? This is a question that has many answers depending on who you ask. To some it’s indie if it has a tiny budget and non-traditional funding source. To others a game can be considered indie if the studio that made it was put together specifically to make that game. While others will disqualify a game from being indie simply because it has a major industry veteran at the helm. What indie means is different for every person. This brings me to a question I’ve had on my mind for some time. Can we really still call Star Citizen indie?

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Star Citizen started with a modest Kickstarter goal of just $500,000. Today, as the funding has continued they’re over the 69 million dollar mark and they show no signs of stopping. It also has Chris Roberts of Wing Commander fame running the show. I say Wing Commander fame but now wonder if perhaps Star Citizen is now more popular than Wing Commander was. An interesting thought and question for another time. Back to the question at hand, is Star Citizen still an indie game?

To get a basis of what other people consider indie I went to the internet’s best source for all articles, school assignments, and loss of productivity, Wikipedia. Before you start saying that wiki isn’t a reliable source ask yourself, how many reports in High School/College have you done with help from wiki? The Wikipedia entry has this to say about indie games:

There is no exact widely accepted definition of what constitutes an "indie game".However, indie games generally share certain characteristics. Indie games are developed by individuals, small teams, or small independent companies; such companies are often specifically formed for the development of one specific game. Typically, indie games are smaller than mainstream titles. Indie game developers are generally not financially backed by video game publishers (as these are risk averse and prefer big budget games) and usually have little to no budget available.

So lets go through each part of the above quote and see how Star Citizen comes out on the other side.

Developed by Individual, Small Team, or Small Independent Company: According to Chris Roberts there is a team of 300 developers working on Star Citizen. So, while it is an independent company, meaning it doesn’t have a publisher looking over its shoulder, it doesn’t really meet the small requirement. Going by this standard alone Star Citizen could not be considered indie.

Often formed for the development of one game: Yes! Cloud Imperium Games was put together specifically for Star Citizen and, unless there are any unannounced surprises, which there’s no evidence to show that there is, Star Citizen is the only project they’re working on.

Smaller than mainstream titles: I can’t give Star Citizen this one. Going just by the funding page on the Star Citizen website there are 722,000 people who have invested. Sure, it isn’t the millions that WoW has but it isn’t small by any means.

Not financially backed by video game publishers: Star Citizen is backed by the players. There is no publisher involved in the process whatsoever. Another yes for Star Citizen!

Little to no budget: This is where that 69,000,000 dollars comes back into play. That isn’t the budget of an indie game. That’s something you’d expect to see on a massive, publisher backed MMO. Another no for Star Citizen.

Of the five things listed in wiki to define what an indie game is Star Citizen only meets two of them, not being financially backed by a publisher, and the studio being formed specifically to make the game. These, to me at least are both the most important and least important features in trying to decide if Star Citizen is indie or not.

The least important of the five is if the studio was made to make that game. Studios often make smaller games before making their big one. While to many the most important thing that makes an indie game is that it is not financially backed by a publisher. In fact I feel confident in saying that this would be the basis of nearly everyone’s definition of what is an indie game.

If it is indeed the basis for many people’s definition of what is indie and they only add on additional requirements perhaps they’re over complicating matters. Perhaps not having a publisher really is the only definition we need. If that is the case then the amount of money they’ve raised, and the success they’ve had in creating a large community don’t matter. It doesn’t matter that Chris Roberts has experience in gaming.

And yet, I keep coming back to the idea of 69 million dollars. A number so large it’s hard to actually imagine it in any way other than this:

Is Star Citizen an indie game? I still can’t decide. On the one hand, most certainly yes because they’re doing it on their own. They have no oversight from a parent company, no one looking over their shoulder and telling them they can’t do something because it won’t bring them money. This makes it indie. Yet at the same time I still can’t ignore the money. That isn’t the kind of money any other indie game has ever had.

Maybe I’m looking at it wrong though. Maybe there’s a third option I hadn’t considered until now. Have the Star Citizen backers become the publishers? When you have that kind of cash being thrown around you have high expectations. There are high expectations for Star Citizen. They’ll be able to take risks, but ultimately they’ll have to answer to the backers.

Which of these is the right answer? Is it possible that they all are? I still don’t know, I’m torn. All three options are valid which makes this even more difficult. Is Star Citizen still an indie MMO? I can’t say for certain.