Indie Game Studios: A Bunch of Sellouts?

Indie Game Studios: A Bunch of Sellouts?

Xbox Live’s best-selling independent game of 2009 (based on connectivity) was Ska Studios’ I Made a Game With Zombies In It! Or, if you demand accuracy, “I MAED A GAM3 W1TH ZOMB1ES 1N IT!!!1.

Launched in August 2009, I Made a Game With Zombies In It! sold 160,000 copies by January 2010. Its popularity can be attributed to a winning mix of humor, mindless shooting, and an attractive price tag of $1. Ska Studios’ founder and the game’s programmer, James Silva, said he just wanted to make an enjoyably stupid game that people could relax with for a mere dollar. He delivered.

The merchandising machine works quickly. Now you can buy an I Made a Game With Zombies In It! T-shirt at Hot Topic’s website.

Fraternizing with Hot Topic is usually considered selling out hardcore. Given that all indie studios have to struggle to promote their products against huge corporations with enormous advertising budgets, do independent game developers have a moral responsibility to avoid surrendering their creative properties to The Man?

Some artists have an idealistic vision of the world where folks who live through their creative works join hands and would never give any corporation the time of day. Unfortunately for them, it’s never going to happen. Every artist has a different idea of what “selling out, maaaan!” means, and for some, it holds no negative connotations. And if the idea of selling out doesn’t bother an indie studio, why should it be that studio’s responsibility to avoid doing it for the sake of the community?

For instance, James Silva never expected I Made a Game With Zombies In It! to become a hit. In an October 2009 interview with Digital Spy, he says outright that he thought the game was “too stupid” to succeed on any level. Over 160,000 units later, he was proven wrong. He could be a hypocrite and go back on his opinion on the game, declaring it a triumph for independent developers. He hasn’t. No doubt he’s proud of his work, as he should be, but neither is he going to label it as a piece of fine art.

When Hot Topic approached him with their T-shirt deal, he probably just said, “Wow, okay!” How many of us get to have our work printed and distributed at major chain? It’s an admittedly exciting thing to happen to a person who makes a game simply for the sheer hell of it.

If, on the other hand, an artist, writer, or independent game developer decides firmly against selling out, they should be applauded and admired if they stick to their guns. If they fold faster than Superman on laundry day (to quote Bart Simpson), then the artist, writer, or independent game studio is deserving of scorn, sadness, and frowns from mother simply because they weren’t truthful to themselves and their work.

But overall, worse things can happen to an independent studio than a T-shirt deal. One example is a quick trip to oblivion. If an indie game succeeds, it does so because something about it is special enough to stand out from the crowd. A T-shirt is a cost-effective means of advertising (hey, it’s the wearer who’s paying for it). It raises questions, which helps point people to XBLA. Which calls to mind the modern tree-falling-in-the-forest type paradox: What good is a fun game if nobody knows it exists? As always, we invite you to opine in the comments section below.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.


  1. This is a nice article except it misses a few key facts.

    “I MAED A GAM3 W1TH ZOMB1ES 1N IT!!!1 is not on XBLA. It’s available on the XBLIG marketplace. The XBLA and XBLIG marketplaces are completely seperate places of business and completely seperate marketplaces. The pricing models, review/approval models and promotional models are completely different. Sure they are both available on the XBOX 360. But other than that, there are no similarities at all.
    It’s a very important distinction. If you do some research on the different business models of XBLA and XBLIG, I think you’ll agree that for a game to succeed on XBLIG is almost impossible thus making James’ achievemment even more remarkable…and in my opinion that’s the real story here.


  2. “Selling out” isn’t supposed to be intended for merchandising and advertising. “Selling out” is about creativity and independence.
    The people who say making a T-shirt deal with Hot Topic is selling out are a bunch of elitist kids who are detached from reality.

    “Selling out” is only for selling your mind, not your property.

  3. Nadia Oxford

    Thanks for pointing out the difference, Allan! There’d been some rumblings of “selling out” amongst people here and there and I thought to address it, but you’re right: James’ achievement is a story on its own.

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