What makes a game company “indie?”

Lamentations of the Flame Princess only has a few people on a salary. It has international distribution. They publish books that are offset print runs with sumptuous production quality. They sell thousands of copies of their biggest products. Lets say LotfP grows at 10% a year for the next decade. In 7 years he would double. That would put LotFP into the category of selling 10,000 copies of most of their books. Would LotfP no longer be indie?

What’s the threshold? You might say Paizo isn’t indie but it isn’t publicly traded. It isn’t a subsidiary of another company. It is a privately held business with a few partners. Most of the indie game people would argue that Paizo isn’t indie. Why not? Is it because they are in the distro and retail chain? LotFP is in distro and retail.

I bought my copy of Apocalypse World at a game shop. Lumpley must have sold that book to a distributor who in turn sold it to a retailer. Powered by Apocalypse games have become quite popular on Roll20 and growing in numbers and breadth. Does that knock them out of indie status? I suspect few people would argue that.

A company made of just a few people and a some freelancers can produce table top games that are better in every way than the biggest company in the business. The internet has made it easier for that to happen but this isn’t new. Indie book publishers have made waves for decades. Arkham House, Feral House, The Permanent Press.

TSR, Chaosium, Flying Buffalo, FASA… These were all indie companies and they changed tabletop gaming forever. Some of them survived. Others failed. Some morphed.

Keeping your focus on purpose and priorities is difficult.

If your highest priority is make the best work in a niche instead of the most accessible, most convenient, appealing to the largest possible audience , your products may not be very popular.

TSR started as an indie company making a game for wargamers and fans of sword and sorcery fiction. At some point, it became a company trying to make a game for a much larger group of people because that would increase revenue. It stopped being about the game and went to being about the money.

They didn’t expect the success they had. Once you have a taste of success, it’s hard to leave money on the table. You start looking for ways to expand it.

There is a great temptation to set aside purpose and principle in favor of profit.

A good way to make a lot of money fast is to make things that are like everything else but cheaper, faster, easier, or more convenient. Sell people things that will make them feel good, safe, comfortable, and press that dopamine button if you want to make a bundle of cash.

Good music, good stories, and good games are not about cheaper, faster, easier, or making you feel good or comfortable.

The best art makes you squirm in your seat and challenges what you believed yesterday so you can be a better human tomorrow. In my experience, most people don’t want that kind of discomfort.

And so, the people who make and sell that kind of work are probably never going to be wealthy but they might do something worthy. Sometimes something bizarre happens and you do something with principle first and it ends up being popular. That’s rare though.

“Independent” means principle over profit.

Speaking specifically about tabletop games, books and music (the things I write about on this blog), the big difference between Indie and Corporate is what the people running the business value most.

Corporations place profit at or near the top of the list in their value structure. Whatever they believe will bring in the most money in the shortest amount of time is what they do. It’s what they are built for.

People are what they are. Watch what they do. Listen to what they say and see if it matches up.

My definition does get a little messy. There are small seemingly independent companies that put profit at or near the top of their value list. I don’t know how to categorize those companies. Often, those companies end up dying if they don’t succeed in fairly short order. Their reputations are quickly destroyed by obvious money grubbing.

It can work. Not always but it can.

A principled independent publisher can make a profit, its owners can make a living while producing good work.

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