While working on my final editing pass for the book this week, I recognized a spot that’s likely to stir up a little controversy–two if you count where Assassin’s Creed Odyssey writer Jordan Mychal Lemos mentions that everyone thought Socrates was a dick. The passage that really got me thinking came from my chat with Gearbox’s now-lead sound designer, Joshua Davidson. Particularly, that he considers himself an indie.
Davidson has certainly passed the threshold into industry veteran status. He left one of Full Sail’s audio engineering programs for a two-year stint at Volition before moving over to Gearbox’s Austin studio where he’s remained for over ten years now, contributing to the full Borderlands series as well as the ill-fated Battleborn. During his career, he’s gone out of his way to speak to many aspiring game audio folks on social, through content creation, and in a number of popular presentations. He’s a straight shooter who doesn’t mind making the occasional bold claim or dropping a rare glimpse behind the curtain–his explanation of Borderlands 3’s weapon sound system on the podcast (and later his Twitter account) was interesting enough for outlets across the industry to pick it up, eventually attracting a pre-launch comment from Gearbox CEO, Randy Pitchford.
Still, when he mentioned that Gearbox was independent because 2K didn’t own it outright, I should have stopped our flow to discuss it a bit.
I let it go for several reasons. First, he was doing me a favor by appearing on the podcast at a precarious pre-launch point in time, and I didn’t want to be the reason he was crucified on social over this silly ongoing debate. I also suspected this wasn’t an idea he came up with by himself, and indeed, Gearbox’s official position
is that it is an independent studio. Finally, it had somewhat limited bearing on the point he was making.
“I feel like the culture at Gearbox is really amazing,” Davidson said in our interview. “It feels like a big family. It’s an independent studio, so it’s not owned by a publisher. A lot of people think that it is, but it’s still a private company, so it still has that independent spirit and vibe to it which translates better into the creative process of what we’re making. We don’t really have this publisher that’s just trying to control everything. We’re making the fun, and then the publisher figures out how to pay for it, market it, and everything else.”
It should be noted here that the dynamic has changed now that the Embracer Group has officially acquired Gearbox
to the tune of $1.3 billion.
There’s also plenty of room to discuss whether this perspective is any less valid than the other popular definitions of indie-ness, all of which seem to leave room for extremely bizarre examples of who is and is not indie. If direct ownership by the publisher is the bar, then yes, the 450 folks that were working on Borderlands 3 when I spoke to Davidson were part of a cozy indie family. If technical or financial support from any publisher revokes your indie card, some very small and low-budget mobile operations are no longer indie while Activision Blizzard is as indie as it gets. As the sole developer, publisher, and promoter of my last game, I think there’s a big difference between me and all of these organizations, but I don’t believe it makes my projects any more or less worthwhile than theirs. I was comfortable doing my project my way and picking up the tab. I’m sure I’ll do it the same way again.
So, what are we actually measuring when we say “indie,” and how does it change our perspectives? Players tend to use the term to identify games and studios they generally prefer (or avoid) by default. Some maintain it indicates a reliable difference in quality while others believe “indie” games need and deserve more support. In Davidson’s case, he mentions that Gearbox isn’t owned by its publisher, but more importantly, he emphasizes his team’s creative freedom as evidence of the indie spirit.
In reality, every video game is created somewhere on a spectrum. On one far end is absolute creative freedom at the expense of any outside support whatsoever. On the opposite end exists virtually unlimited resources in a tightly controlled environment where risk is avoided and proven methods reign supreme. Every developer operates where they’re able. A few fortunate creators get to choose their preferred balance while most others settle on one side and imagine life on the other.
Ultimately, games of all shapes and sizes have an audience and the opportunity to succeed. Deliberate efforts to support small operations are noble, but there’s also something to be said for career grinders who manage to blend job security with the freedom to contribute legitimate creativity to major releases. The industry may have outgrown a simple litmus test for who or what is indie, but the concept may have already outstayed its usefulness. As value and creativity take center stage, they’ll continue to gain traction at all levels of game development.