Mediocre free Flash game websites are all too common. Many of them thrive off peddling the same few popular games to fans who have slim cause to pick one over the other. They thrive off the indifference of casual gamers and an environment that does not have to stand out to survive, only appeal to the lowest common gaming denominator with tower defense clones and brightly colored Peggle knockoffs. In that context, what Nitrome is doing seems downright commendable.
Nitrome, a British Flash game company, started off with two people in 2005 who wanted to make mobile phone games. Soon they shifted their focus away from mobile phone to Flash games, hired one of the founder's brother to do the awesome pixel art that has become their trademark, and Nitrome was a go. They had previously done commission Flash game production for advertisers, and have continued to do that work throughout the lifespan of Nitrome for supplemental income.
Their site, however, contains only the copious fruit of their labors. The company produces at least one game per month, a turnaround time not seen since the Atari 2600 days. Some of these wind up on sites like MTV Games as promotional items, but the ones that Nitrome host themselves are distinctive, fun, and perhaps even worth sitting through some short ads for.
That's where Nitrome's case gets more muddled and interesting. Their founder once said in an interview that he considers the company an indie game developer, and their Wikipedia page (written by him perhaps?) agrees. The company is privately owned by its founders, which does mean it is technically independent. But boy, there sure are a lot of huge banner ads on Nitrome. And tedious video ads one has to sit through before starting any game. And there remains the fact that they continue to do contract work for big companies like MTV.
Which gives rise to a question: how much does income have to do with being indie?
It costs Nitrome a fair share of money to make their games. The production value is high and the designs are top notch. It requires more money than a typical Flash game site spends acquiring cheap games to host. If the games are distrbuted for free, the only way to get that additional money is to sell a stake in the company, do commissioned work on the side, or take on advertising. Doing the former disqualifies you from being labeled "indie", that much seems clear. But do the latter two, both of which Nitrome engages in wholeheartedly?
In Nitrome's case, I would say they get to keep the indie title. I haven't seen any evidence of their corporate ties having a meddling effect on their work, and to me that's the defining characterisitc of indie. It doesn't matter whether you have money or distribute your game on a large scale or not. It's whether anyone other than those at the company control their own destiny, whether they are building the games of their dreams or compromising those dreams for money and fame. Nitrome seems to be doing the former, at least so far.