Making a living with indie games in 2014 (and beyond)
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
The games business is changing at a faster pace than ever. Not only are we in the midst of a console transition, but the mobile market has gone through a maturing phase, and a variety of new platforms have gained prominence. Indie games have gained mainstream relevance. New and veteran developers are entering the indie scene at a feverish pace, while some of the more successful indies are expanding into small studios.
As a full-time independent developer, we spend a lot of time at Flippfly thinking about the future and what will give us the best chances for financial success. Here are some thoughts on 2014 and beyond.
Quality is more important than ever
With every passing year, the bar for indie games is raised a bit higher, and 2013 is no exception. Games like Gone Home and Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons have showed players that games can provide emotional, mature narratives, while Kentucky Route Zero and others have continued in the tradition of Limbo, cementing the idea that an affordable indie game can have world-class production values.
There was a time on the App Store and the Steam marketplace where any decent game with good marketing could be a financial success. It seems those days are waning. As Valve slowly opens up the floodgates of Greenlight, the question is shifting from “How do I get on Steam?” to “How do I stand out on Steam”?
Nothing has really changed fundamentally here: The games that succeed are the ones that do something better than the rest of the competition, and where the developer markets them better than the rest. But 2014 will be more competitive than ever, and we would do well to think about how our products will stand apart.
There is no clear “best platform”
During a good part of the last few years, the Mobile app stores may have been the best platform for indie developers trying to get started. It seems this may no longer be the case. With the app store thoroughly saturated and big publishers focusing much more attention there, it seems that the best way to compete on mobile is to bring a known franchise there, or to be a developer who has a strong relationship with Apple or a strong reputation for quality. 2014 will favor established developers even more.
At the same time, creators of all 3 of the big consoles have made major efforts to get indies onto their respective platforms. It’s easier than ever to get a game into a living room without being an established publisher. The Microconsole revolution championed by Ouya in ‘13 seems to have fizzled somewhat, but we may see some big moves from more established companies this year.
Likewise, it’s becoming easier get onto the Steam platform, which means less visibility for each game on average, and less time on the front page where the revenue happens. A good relationship with Valve, and a game that’s proven to be popular seem to be big factors in success here.
Portals such as GOG.com are also growing, and while not the same size as Steam, other web distribution channels should not be ignored for PC game developers.
Flash portals such as newgrounds and Kongregate seem perhaps less explosive than they use to be as this audience is moving to mobile, but still have the ability to drive huge audiences, and great revenues for the right games. Kongregate’s Unity support makes it easy to get your Unity game in front of thousands of players. Many successful mobile games have built an audience on web platforms and then brought that audience to mobile. We’ll likely take advantage of this in the coming year in some form, if for nothing else, testing the waters on new game prototypes.
At the same time, Facebook is looking to get indies more involved, and with Unity’s partnership, this seems like a good avenue to explore, especially for those with a free-to-play model. For an indie game without a marketing/user acquisition budget, the ability to gain an audience here seems unproven, but for the right game, Facebook could be the perfect platform. Do your research, and if possible, talk to others who’ve tried this path already.
The takeaway here is: There are a lot of options for publishing your game, and the sands are shifting quickly. Don’t blindly jump into a plan without knowing what your potential audience size is there - talk with others who’ve tried it, read “numbers posts” and be realistic about your expectations. Get to know your distribution partners - their support is crucial to your success.
For Flippfly, we are happier than ever that we chose to use the cross-platform Unity engine. In theory, it will let us publish to any of these potential distribution channels. For Race The Sun, we plan to take advantage of this and port to additional platforms now that our Steam launch is complete. For our next game, we will have the freedom to develop and release it for whichever platforms make the most sense for the game - hopefully multiple platforms. In a market where the power is constantly shifting, agility is king.
Indie Development is growing up
Related to the last point, many indies are getting more business-savvy. A number of “Indie Publishers” have sprung up, putting marketing dollars and PR smarts behind projects. Successful individuals are teaming up, and indie games are finding their way into the mainstream. Many indies are diving into multi-platform development, and this will require increasingly larger teams and resources. At Flippfly, we are considering the opportunities of the various platforms, and thinking about how to take advantages of these revenue opportunities without spending all of our time on them.
PR has changed
Over the last year or so, we have seen a startling shift in the way consumers learn about their games. The last decade has seen the virtual death of print magazine’s relevance in favor of the web model. And over the past two years, it seems that the Youtube “let’s play” has become the preferred method to learn about games. We were covered by hundreds of press outlets in 2013 - but all of our biggest spikes in traffic came from Youtubers. In fact, when Dan Nerd Cubed covered Race The Sun a month after launch, we saw more sales and votes on our Greenlight campaign than during our entire launch week combined.
Indie game developers would do well not to ignore this. Getting the attention of the big Youtubers is not a trivial task - get to know them and what they like. Talk about your game everywhere you can. Don’t ignore the traditional games press. Get on Twitter and engage people. Look at smaller Youtube channels as stepping stones, and above all, don’t give up. Sometimes it takes months of hard work before people start taking notice of your game - this is the new norm in a world where dozens of quality indie games are released every month.
From a development point of view, forward-looking developers will be thinking about what makes their games not only fun to play, but fun to watch. It’s no accident that games like Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac have become staples of Youtubers - these games offer a fresh playing and viewing experience that directly affects their longevity. The idea that “The best PR is the game itself” has never been more true.
Customer behavior is evolving
It’s interesting to think back to when we were kids with a single game console. A SNES game cost something like $60, and when we got a new game, we would play it for dozens of hours. As massive Steam sales, bundles, and $0.99 mobile games have become the norm, our attention spans seem to have dwindled. I personally have dozens of games on my iDevices and Steam account that I’ve yet to play. Many players are focusing their time on free-to-play games, especially on mobile.
What does this mean for developers?
We should be thinking about making it as easy as possible for people to access our games. With the ability to buy and install a game with a couple clicks on the app store and on Steam, the idea of purchase and installation being a multi-step process is quickly becoming a foreign notion to players - especially those outside of a traditional gaming audience. Players may be buying games in sales and bundles at a feverish pace, but their actual play time is divided among an ever-increasing list of possibilities. It seems more important than ever that we find ways to make it easy for players to get into our games, engage them, and keep them engaged.
I believe 2014 will also be the year that many indies embrace the free-to-play model, and explore other monetization methods. It will be interesting to see more developers explore the possibilities in this space, and whether a balance can be struck that’s both financially viable, and ideologically acceptable to a crowd of developers and gamers that have traditionally resisted this model. This goes hand-in-hand with the maturation of the mobile market - a successful indie F2P game will require team members with business savvy, and for most indies, this will require either expanding team size, or skillsets.
With growing enthusiasm for e-sports and mass spectating of games, there may also be new revenue channels opening up for developers willing to think outside of the box. Pay-per-view multiplayer matches? premium-priced elite leaderboards? Sharing of Youtube revenue in exchange for exclusive content access for Youtube celebrities? The possibilities are endless.
Gaming is evolving at a rapid pace, and developers who succeed in 2014 and beyond will be the ones with a finger on the pulse of their players and where they are going. Our strategy for success at Flippfly is to continually focus on improving our games’ quality, accessibility, and presentation, and to find new ways to expand our audience.