Indie music started out with independent labels. But then it became the indie music scene, a broad outsider genre that included a range of styles (Britpop, alt. rock, shoegaze, baroque pop, etc.). And by the time fans started picking sides between Blur and Oasis, “indie music” was clearly commercial and getting radio airplay.
Similarly, Indie RPGs are creator owned and independent; but the Indie RPG Scene is generally what people mean by an indie game — particularly the us-centric movement that gravitated around the Forge. Josh lists a bunch of very different games that fall under that moniker, partly in response to my trindie triangle post.
Some of the differences of opinion are semantic — in particular freeform which he’s taken to mean live action (or at least real-time, improv-style) play, but in my case I meant a negotiated rather than rules-bound system of adjudication. Both Ribbon Drive and Everway are negotiated — in the former you’re negotiating scene elements with the other players without any real weighting other than the precedent set by the fiction (and the music, yeah). In the latter you’re basically negotiating with the GM for advantage, with a side-order of random from the Fortune Deck draws.
And let’s not forget — this negotiating with the GM is a time-honoured practice that pervades nearly all RPGs where the central tenet is “if there’s no rule that applies, make something up” (with the exception of many self-identified indie games where the dogma is “if it’s not in the rules, it’s not in the game”). Negotiating is a cornerstone of OSR play, and it’s really the only way you can play Vampire and not get frustrated by the godawful d10 system. I’ve heard several people refer to Over The Edge as “the original indie game”, probably because so much of it is freeform, based only on a few character traits and one-line qualitative sentences. Though I have to say those people should seek out Ghostbusters International for its Tags and Goals — it beat OTE by 6 years.
“Trad” and “Indie” are terms of convenience for two very rough groups of products. Indie games largely define themselves as not Trad — not mainstream in marketing, not reliant on the tacit procedures that most mainstream games expect the players to know in order to play, but also not based on a supplement-driven publishing model that delivers metaplot and downstream rules fixes as long as the consumer subscribes to the game line.
Now, the “Trindie” moniker (as applied to FATE and Cortex) is being used not for marketing, but by players and fans (the same ones calling OTE “indie”). So while some might object that the mechanics in these games are only superficially “indie” and just don’t go far enough, this is largely an ideological divide between purists and people who have identified and are attracted to certain features. It’s a bit like people saying Suede aren’t Indie because they appeared on Top of the Pops. I had hoped we were over this kind of thing, with all the past accusations of gatekeeping and elitism. The fact that FATE is identified as like some indie games is overall good for indie games — well, except for those people who want to keep mainstream players out.
I have deep love for indie games, but the Indie movement means nothing to me; I do not identify with that culture. I was never there. And that’s cool: I can discuss games with other people and as long as I know what they mean by trad and indie and the bits in between.
But really I’d like a more functional taxonomy: if indie games really as functionally diverse as Josh points out, then clearly there is no specification for them and therefore no technical argument you can apply to what is indie or not (and to rag on people for calling a game trindie just makes you a hipster).