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Indie Game Market Difficulty Level: Rookie
by Javier Cabrera on 10/31/12 02:23:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


So I’ve read this post over about Joystick Labs shutting down. According to them, “It has become very difficult for an independent developer to get noticed”. Looks like the indie game market difficulty level is higher than we thought.

Some of the devs who commented on the post agreed on this. I think its nuts. Things are not difficult for indie developers, on the contrary, they are easier than they ever were; some people just like to see the glass half empty.

I’m not going to judge those who think the indie game market is hard. They have their reasons and I respect that. I’m just going to tell you why things are easier today than say, ten or twenty years ago and how you can take advantage of the free spot some devs leave when they walk away.

In the late 70′s, Al Lowe and his wife published their games by themselves. They invested in educational magazine ads, in a small stand on the apple fest. Apple was presenting their apple II to a small group of people. There wasn’t even 50,000 apple users in the market and Al Lowe had it rough.

He and his wife made the game packages in ziplock bags and floppy diskettes over their food table with love and passion. A true indie.

Al Lowe sold his company and became one of the faces of Sierra. Now how’s that for a tough market? Some people complain its difficult to get attention from the online media. When Al and his wife were around back in late 70′s, there was no online media. They had to put ads on educational magazines.

I will let everyone draw their own conclusions about why things are hard for indie developers in today’s market and will only focus on the positive side.

# Online E-commerce solutions make things easy

Back in the 90 I was asked to integrate a merchant account with a custom made online store when you had to call VISA and Mastercard to get approval of every sale online by phone. We didn’t had jQuery, ajax, php or anything like that. Most servers ran ASP back in those days and communications were slow as hell.

It was a gigantic task for a small group of web developers and it took a great deal of time. The online merchant even sent a guy from Miami to Buenos Aires to finish the setup of the online transactions. Yes, someone actually took a plan down here to Buenos Aires to help finish the process.

Today, you can setup your online store in 15 minutes and in less than 24hs be accepting not only all major credit cards but paypal and checks. Incredible.

We trust for our online transactions: they are the best there is out there. They are not only professionals but industry leaders. If you are going to sell a product online, you want the best and that’s why we decided to go with FastSpring. Their fame among indie devs is well deserved: they are not just easy to work with but also stand behind you 100%.

Do you know the Concierge Key Program some airlines have? These are exclusive exclusive frequent-flier programs where you get the best attention the airline can possible offer. Bad news is, you can’t ask them for a membership since its an invitation only club. From sending you a private jet so you don’t lose that conference to private reservation lines: the airlines know how to keep their VIP satisfied.

While FastSpring won’t send you a private jet, they will make sure you have everything you need from them to make things happen. You get VIP treatment with these guys without being a VIP and I’m not the only one saying it.

15 minutes. That’s all it takes these days to sell your product worldwide.Transactions have never been this easy.

# Fund your game without the middleman

If your idea is solid, then why are you waiting for? You can get funded people through indiegogo (outside the US) or KickStarter (US only). You don’t have to ask for 5 million to get funding. Back in the days I remember talking with a guy who ran a technology investment group. The guy was pretty smart, but his vision about what a good technology startup needed to be wasn’t (in my opinion) the best.

He never made it rough so he didn’t knew to recognize good ideas on sight. He needed at least 7 meetings to know for sure if the idea was worth considering. Can you imagine making seven different pitches to get your project approved by Kickstarter so you can start fundraising?

That’s what it took for some people back in the 90′s. Today, you click through an online form, upload a video and you are set to go to and the best of all: you can speak to your investors “face-to-face”, no middleman.Getting your indie game funded has never been this easy.

# Publishers are dead. Long live the Appstore, GamersGate, Zodiac.

While some people won’t agree with this, you can bet your sweet ass the appstore has made things easier for a lot of folks out there. Before Steve Jobs (RIP) made it available for everyone, this sort of platforms were actually closed to big time publishers who had the money to push the market the direction they better saw fit.

They were the ones who had the spotlight, no matter how hard you tried. Only chance was, partnering with one to get your product (maybe) noticed.

Today, things are different. Today an indie developer, all by himself/herself, can get a game featured in the top 10 right on the home page of the Appstore. Before Steve Jobs gave all of us this opportunity, it didn’t existed. In fact, some big time publishers complained about it. They didn’t wanted us there. They didn’t wanted us to have the same opportunities than they had for years.

They lost. For the first time in history, they lost. For less than $100 bucks we can have our game displayed worldwide by a major portal.

If you are a PC only indie then things are also better than they were 10 years agoGamersGateZodiacDesura, AndroidMarket, GoogleMarket, you have an infinity of places to sell your product.

And that’s without mentioning Steam Greenlight. A friend of mine, Agustin Cordes, developer of award-winning Scratches is working on his second horror game, Asylum. In what, a month? He managed to get #20 in GreenLight. Steam is the honeypot, and he got it thanks to everyone who voted his game. People made the choice, not a publisher. Last year this was up to steam: today its up to the people. How cool is that?

Getting your indie game on a major portal has never been this easy.

# Conclusion

Yes, the indie game market is a tough racket. Some will complain. Some will quit. But most will stay and fight because if one thing is sure is this: you haven’t seen nothing yet.

UPDATE: Some devs have come forward since I posted this. They weren't the ones who quit, but the investors.

You can read the original article at 

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E McNeill
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> "I’m just going to tell you why things are easier today than say, ten or twenty years ago"

Pretty sure the Joystick guys were comparing today to the environment of 4-5 years ago, when the App Store was new and the big console portals were accelerating.

Also, you argue that it's easier to enter the market, whereas the Joystick guys are complaining that it's harder to get noticed. These ideas reinforce one another. I don't think you're actually disagreeing with them on anything. Am I wrong?

Lars Doucet
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Generally agree that the market is better now than even a few years ago.

Major complaint about FastSpring tho:

They make download links expire after a few days, and call this a "feature." I get emails EVERY DAY from customers needing me to reset their download links. This is a major pain for customers, and it costs me an enormous amount of time.

After constantly bugging FS' support department, they FINALLY agreed to let links last for a full year, but wouldn't do more than that. This feature is there to "reduce piracy," but it's my product so I should be able to decide how lenient I want to be with download links. It's already up on bittorent, after all. If they're worried about bandwidth, they can easily check if 100's of IP's from many different locations are hammering a single active link.

They do a lot of things really well, but this is a deal-breaker for me. I will gladly replace FastSpring with the first software provider I can find that provides comparable service without this enormous headache.

Certainly better than the old days, but seriously, FastSpring, get your act together or I'll go with your competition instead.

Javier Cabrera
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Agreed, that was a problem for us too at the beginning. They told me they were rolling something new next year to fix that (possibly) so it will be all matter of waiting and see. We are fixing this from our end by simply using our own download solution next time (Amazon).

Although it seems like a big issue first, any indie can really solve the problem with little help from his peers and friends (I got BIG HELP from another indie on this matter and we are now coming up with our own solution for downloads.)

Their support is the best though (at least from my own experience).

Lex Allen
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First, I will say that yes, of course it is easier to market games than it was in 1990, but...

This article is so out of touch, that I don't even know where to start.

Getting noticed is extremely difficult and is becoming increasingly so. Just check indie devs' twitter accounts on hard it is to get noticed. (@pcmacgames) These people make their living at this and they know because they are doing it and have been for a long time. We have too many games out there. We have a gaming bubble and it is popping. Well, maybe deflating...

Things are difficult for indie developers. This is true and the numbers prove it. Look at any report over the last few years on how much indies make per game.

Processing payments is of course easier then it was 20 years ago, but it's currently none of the battle. The most difficult part of making money on indie games is getting your game in front of people without losing your entire profit.

And most kickstarters for games are failing regardless of how “solid” the ideas are, so that's a moot point.

As for the appstore? There is nothing easy about succeeding there. If you're an indie with a ton of cash that you can use to get people to download your game into the top ten apps, then maybe it would be easier, but if you're indie, you probably don't have this kind of money.

Some people get lucky, but most people struggle as indie developers. If you're walking around telling people that it's easy, it is just completely out of touch with what most people are experiencing, and I am actually shocked that someone even has this perspective.

Selling games is not easy, and there is nothing "rookie" about the difficulty in marketing any games, let alone indie ones.

Javier Cabrera
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Yeah it's a though racket. Maybe some should quit.

Balls. Getting noticed has always been hard Lex ;-) (@pcmacgames) It's a constant struggle. No walk in the park. Not today, not back then.

Today, the main difference is you can get noticed pretty fast and right from home. World wide exposure. No PR firm needed. No "inside contacts" with the press needed. Its a rookie's game compared with what used to be. You still have to kill the enemies though. If you want God Mode, then you're out of luck.

For indies getting noticed its an ongoing job. Clicking "SEND" and getting your game in every news outlet its just a fools dream. Big publishers do that, indies work their way up. And they work hard.

I think people today get a lot of what's going on for granted. I know do sometimes, don't get me wrong. Often enough, I find myself having to take a moment and think about how things were back in the days and how easy things are getting for us today, just to have a healthy perspective on what I'm doing.

Today, for example, I have to write an interview for an online magazine about our game. That's something devs used to do over the phone (best case scenario) or after driving 4 hours to the magazine's office. Today, I can answer this magazine interview and get some work done while I'm at it right from home. Things have never been so easier.

About Kickstarter: there's your chance! I'm not in the US so its impossible to do a Kickstarter project. Indiegogo is out there but people don't really pay attention to it (yet). If a project fails, well, try again.

About the numbers: that's just the market adapting itself. People have seen tower defense already. They need to be surprised from time to time, that's all.

Same for the appstore. Another zombie game won't do right now. People want new games.

And I'm (and will) walk around telling people how easy it is, because I think it actually is.

I like to see the glass half full. Selling games is easy now that we have kickstarter, the appstore, payment processors, direct access to amazon like we never had before, social networks, a thriving pc market (remember when it was "dead"?), steam, zodiac-store, gamersgate, and a hell of a lot more places to get noticed. Complaining about how difficult things are for indies gets hard for me.

Javier Cabrera
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OH man you're the winterwolves guy? I love those games! Played some demos but I never got into buying one because I was always at the office when I visited your site!

Lex Allen
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I'm not the Winterwolves guy. (Tweeted you about it). He's probably going to be super confused. He's just one of many indies that complains about getting coverage.

I think Stephen has it right (below). Some things get easier and harder. The number of people competing in games right now is really crazy.

It's not easy to compete anywhere if you're not the current leader of the genre you're working in.

People simply don't have enough time to play all of the games that we're making.

Stephen Chin
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While on one hand, yes, there are many more methods of getting noticed and getting money, consider that this also means that many more are able to enter the race. So while one hurdle is lowered, it means the other hurdle of getting noticed is harder since there are so many more participants (and a much larger area to cover, informationally). I don't think I would say things are easier, but I don't think I would say they're harder either. Hard, just in different ways, and that's the challenge - figuring out what the current situation is.

Jane Castle
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Just once I would love to see a story about how hard it is with actually GOOD games to back up what is being said. I am sorry to say but Joy Stick Labs was marketing shovel ware. I looked at ALL their "games" and the only one I found that was close to professional quality was "M.U.S.E" a generic\bland shooter with bad controls.

I mean how can you not get noticed with Apps like "HOT GUY ALARM CLOCK"

It seems to me these "investors" wanted the next Angry Birds with minimal investment. I don't want to be overly harsh but the market dealt fairly with the games put out by this incubator. None of them are any good or remarkable so why should they expect the market to take any notice?

Ramon Carroll
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Seemed like more of a funny alarm clock app than a game to me. It was a bit awkward at first, but after forcing myself to watch it to the end, I found myself laughing. It think that is the intent. Not sure if they intended to profit big off of such stuff though...

Jane Castle
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@Ramon the point I was making is that you can't invest VC money in apps of this caliber and then turn around and complain that the market is difficult for indies....

The market is difficult for anyone in any business if they put out substandard products. These articles are always the same. It's always the market at fault when a developer fails and NEVER the fault of the developer or investor in this case.

Back in the day Id Software came out of nowhere. How did they do it? They released excellent games that weren't produced by the larger publishers at the time. The market then took notice in a big way. It's as simple as that.

Michael Joseph
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Indeed. No one is entitled to make a living selling underpants. Selling underpants is hard. It's even harder if you're just ripping off other peoples underpants and trying to profit from that.

Maurício Gomes
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I still think it is hard to get noticed...

Not because lack of tools, but the opposite, it is so easy to get into the market, that it is flooded with crap.

My lastest release is consistently hitting 4/5 or 5/5 in critic reviews and user reviews.

Also it hit top10 in several countries (including my own, Brazil, and my associate, France).

Yet, we spend about 1.3 USD to get a install of the free version (using various marketing tools).

It is not like people are hating our product, or that it is totally not interesting, but the fact that there are so much crap that or you get featured in apple and android stores, or you are screwed.

If you look at downloads stats of all apps, this is kinda obvious (you see that the top 5% apps or something like that gobble 90% of the money, if you are in the top 5% you get rich, if you aren't, you are screwed).

Michael O'Hair
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"You don’t have to ask for 5 million to get funding."
That's right... unless you have a big team building a high-fidelity clone of an antique game that was done half a dozen times over a decade ago...

(On the App Store and other digital distribution platforms) "Steve Jobs (RIP) made it available for everyone"
Minus anyone creating controversial content that might offend any iPhone owners, or Apple itself...

"Getting your indie game funded has never been this easy."
Especially when you plan and build it on weekends, using tools available for free...

"Today an indie developer, all by himself/herself, can get a game featured in the top 10 right on the home page of the Appstore."
Which is just as possible as anyone winning a spin on a roulette wheel. There are things developers can do to increase their odds, however. Might I suggest making clones of Flash games featuring colorful cartoon characters?

(On the previous note) "Before Steve Jobs gave all of us this opportunity, it didn’t existed."
Except, for example: coding a game, copying it to a five-and-a-quarter floppy, putting it in a plastic sandwich bag with some crude illustrations, and dangling it from a ceiling light fixture. The history of independent games and Apple platforms didn't begin recently.

With so many competitors and a low barrier for entry, the market is hard. It would seem like the biggest obstacle is getting noticed, right? When every mobile game looks very much the same and features the play of many games before it, yes, it's very difficult to stand out.

Michael O'Hair
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Apple App Store, Exhibit A. Thank you to Jordan Fehr for the bootleg recording and Tommy Refenes for the ability to form words in such an eloquent manner.
Tommy Refenes @ Indie Game Maker Rant GDC2010

Javier Cabrera
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>>>"Might I suggest making clones of Flash games featuring colorful cartoon characters?"

Not really.

Jane Castle
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@Michael O'Hair then the answer to you is QUIT.... This isn't the game for you...

If the barrier to entry on the iPhone is too low then raise the bar. Make high quality iPhone games that compete with the top tier like Infinity Blade to separate yourself from the low end competitors. If you can't I have no sympathy for you. Making games on your own is like running a plumbing company, there are tons of competitors. What are you going to do to stand out?

Javier Cabrera
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Jane has a good rock solid point here. Some people complain they can't sell the next angry birds and be the next rich kid in the block. Do games YOU want to play. People will come.

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There are very tough competing motivations at work.

Indies want to make games, but if you want to sell a commercial product you have to sell it.

While development is a lot of work, you really have to put in a similar amount of effort on the selling side if you want to make it. You might argue that big developers spend far more time on development, but if aggregated, the actions across their publishers including retail and online promotions may end up taking more actual person hours.

Indies who are successful market well. They may not call it that and may even dislike the idea of marketing in the abstract, but they do exactly what good marketing is by communicating openly, honestly and consistently. Edward McMillen may say he doesn't like people, but you can see he really made the effort to talk to a lot of different podcasts and sites, and really went deep into his personal experiences. Jon Blow as well. I hope Keith Burgun is on the same path to success =D

Javier Cabrera
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That's right. You need to do everything. Sometimes is hard when you have to pay the bills. In my persona case, we don't only have any budget for CYPHER but we are also having a lot of financial problems, so we don't really have the time to do marketing or sales properly.

But still, it's a walk in the park compared with what it was before our days.