The nomination of Dave The Diver in the Best Independent Game category at the Game Awards has kicked off a storm.
The nominations for this year’s Game Awards were announced last night, with Alan Wake 2 and Baldur’s Gate 3 doing particularly well, both with eight nominations. But the thing that has really kicked off the arguments on the old interweb is the nomination of Dave the Diver for Best Independent Game.
The nominations in the Game Awards Best Independent Game category include Cocoon, Dredge, Sea Of Stars and Viewfinder, all from small, independent studios. But Dave The Diver is not like the others. It was made by Mintrocket, which is a 'sub-brand' of the huge Korean company Nexon. At the time of writing, Nexon has a net worth somewhere north of $19 billion, according to StockAnalysis.com.
People have been quick to point this out – there was even a community note pinned to the Game Awards announcement on X (Twitter), noting Mintrocket’s status as a subsidiary of Nexon. Right now, members of the games industry are earnestly discussing whether Dave The Diver should have been nominated in this category at all.
In my personal opinion, it seems incredibly unfair that Dave The Diver has been lumped in with other games whose studios had access to only a fraction of the resources that Mintrocket had. But really the problem comes down to the arbitrary definition of what constitutes an indie game.
This argument about what’s classed as ‘indie’ has been raging in the music industry for years. In strict terms, indie bands should belong to an independent label. But what if they later sign to a major label? Are they no longer indie? Technically, yes. But their music hasn’t changed – they still sound like an ‘indie’ band. So really it comes down to whether you describe indie as a status or a genre.
In terms of genre, Dave The Diver certainly feels like an indie game. It’s fairly small in scope, and most of all it’s brilliantly weird, telling the story of a portly diver who harpoons fish by day and sells sushi by night, while also happening to uncover evidence of a lost undersea civilisation. To categorise it next to a sprawling mainstream epic like Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 or Starfield just because of the financial status of its parent company would seem odd. They’re not really the same thing. Dave The Diver doesn’t feel like a mainstream game at all.
There are all sorts of cases where you could question the indie credentials of a game that certainly feels indie. For example, Killer Frequency from earlier this year is a wonderfully quirky little title that was made by a small in-house team at the long-running UK company Team17. But Team17 is listed on the stock market with a market capitalisation of more than half a billion dollars, so is Killer Frequency really an indie game? How exactly do you define an independent developer?
On the flipside, Baldur’s Gate 3 could technically be described as an indie game, since Larian is an independent studio – but this sprawling, lavish, epic adventure feels nothing like what you might consider as a traditional indie. And it would also seem a bit unfair to nominate it next to games like Viewfinder that have been made with tiny teams.
Most of the time, the definition of what constitutes an indie game doesn’t really matter very much. But it absolutely does when it comes to awards, since judging games made by a handful of developers on a tight budget next to a studio backed by almost endless wealth seems unfair to say the least.
What we need is more clearly defined terms. The music industry got around the ‘what constitutes indie’ argument by changing the category to ‘indie/alternative’, defining the music by its alternative sound. Perhaps we should do something similar in the games industry, but at the same time still celebrate those tiny, independent teams.
Perhaps what ceremonies like the Game Awards need are two categories. One could be for ‘Best Alternative Game’, celebrating titles that buck mainstream trends and explore new ideas. The other could be for ‘Best Game By A Small Studio’, with a strict definition of what that means. Perhaps it could be a developer with fewer than 20 full-time employees. Perhaps there should also be a stipulation that the studio must be independently owned. Perhaps both.
In short, perhaps the Game Awards should have a bit of a rethink for next year.