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Marketing, Dumb Luck, and the Popping of the Indie Bubble.
by Jeff Vogel on 11/06/13 01:13:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.

 
This article is kind of depressing, so here is a puppy hugging a kitten.
Sigh. I hate writing articles like this. Even if I’m right (and I really think I am), nobody thanks the bringer of bad news. If what I predict does come to pass, people will resent me more, not less. But I really think what I have to say should be considered by the jillions of ambitious game devs who are quitting their day jobs to go indie. So here goes.

Interesting game article in the news recently. This guy named Alexander Bruce wrote a puzzle game called Antichamber. It did very well. He just did an interview (written by Brendan Sinclair) about how it’s very important to do marketing and develop a good relationship with the press and your players.

The article contains a lot of questionable statements (by the writer, not Bruce) like …
"Just a few years ago, developers didn't need to worry so much about their relationship with the end users."
Does this match the experience of anyone trying to keep a small software company alive in the last few decades? The ability to keep a good relationship with end users was our best tool for staying alive. But I digress.

(Edit: Just to be clear, a lot of stuff Bruce says is very sharp and worth heeding, especially about how dealing with limited resources forces you to be clever.)

Despite the weird stuff, Bruce gets a bit of good advice in too. To a point.

Now, first, it's evidence how amazingly sweet things have been for indie devs for the last few years that anyone would even think "You should do marketing." is news. When I started out writing shareware in 1994, the first piece of advice anyone ever gave anyone about anything was, "Yeah. Marketing. Do that."
 
Not the right way to market your game.
But, Um, Duh, Right?

Isn't it kind of an obvious bit of advice? When you finish your game, you'll tell people, won't you? Is anyone trying to succeed at business by finishing their game, putting it in a lead box, and burying it in the backyard?

But here is where the article sort of falls apart. There are many paths to success in the indie biz, and each needs its own marketing plan. Each developer has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, both mental and in cash and time resources.

Just because one path (Hint: Steam) has been popular of late doesn't mean it's the right one for that particular game (since the genre you are working in will require its own strategy, depending on how niche you are), or that it will be a plausible path forever. If you are trying to make it writing high-cost, boutique games in a serious niche field like, say, turn-based wargaming, following the strategy Alexander Bruce used for his puzzle game will lead to ruin.

You see, the conventional wisdom now is that, to make it in indie games, you need to blow it all on one big, flashy title. Spend all your time at GDC giving the gaming press hot oil massages. Then release it on Steam, get fifty articles written about you, and make meelions of dollars. Buy a Tesla, give interviews, have your next game be a 2-D platformer, and die happy.

But buried in the article is the real news. The little tidbit that really says where things are going ...
 
"Even being featured in a coveted place like the Steam Daily Deals doesn't mean as much as it used to."

Yes. This is true. A Steam Daily Deal used to mean doing a happy dance and putting on your Super Money Pants. What? That's fading? Uh oh. And this is the beginning of the real story.

By The Way …

I’m not happy about any of this. A few years ago, there was a huge demand for indie content, my company, Spiderweb Software, had a bunch of quality role-playing games ready to go. I profited from this temporary state of affairs far more than I deserved. I am not gloating about sweet times coming to an end. My modest games will be the first on the chopping block.
 
I can't get rich selling THIS anymore? NO FAIR!
When Can We Start Using the Term "Indie Bubble"?

On October 29, Steam accepted 100 titles for publishing from their Greenlight system. A HUNDRED. IN ONE DAY. JUST ON STEAM.

This is the problem with so many indie devs cozying up to the Escapist and Kotaku and the PA Report. There is a flood of new titles, so many that Humble Bundle sells them in Costco-sized bundles of a dozen for a dollar. A lot of good titles won't ever get that press. They just can't. There's not room.

And that's just for the flashy titles (the "AAA Indies"). My turn-based, low-budget, word-heavy RPGs are a lot of fun and have a real audience, but nobody at Kotaku gives a crap about them, nor should they. Why would a Let's Play channel on YouTube want to do one of my games? It'd be like putting up a movie of someone reading a book. Alexander Bruce's marketing path is useless to me, but my business is still valid. Has been for 20 years.

Also, the gaming community doesn't care about indies as much as we like to think they do. (Minecraft is an ultra-mega-uber hit, right? Well, Grand Theft Auto V made more than it in like 18 seconds.) The gaming press knows that gamers only want to hear about so many indies. Soon, they'll start picking who lives and who dies.

The point? Any article about marketing indies that doesn't mention the word "luck" is lying to you.
 
Even if she was alive, she still wouldn't want to play your 2-D platformer.
By the Way, Luck Exists

I know all you young developers are brash libertarians who believe in a just, deterministic universe. So feel free to get angry at me for this part: Unless times are really good, you need luck for your business to succeed. You need the rare sort of good times where there's a ton of demand and very little product. A time like the period that is now ending.

Yes, Luck: Getting a good break. Meeting the right editor who will champion you or making the right publisher connection. My company, Spiderweb Software, has been lucky. Many times. I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Worthy titles sometimes fall by the wayside now. There is no inherent universal justice that decides that the "best" games succeed, whatever you mean by "best". Some gamers will love you, and some won’t. You have to hang on until one of those gamers becomes an editor somewhere. The more niche your product is, the longer you will have to wait.

Disagree? Think that everyone who fails only fails because they were lazy or stupid or just suck? Fine with me. It's your call if you need to believe in a universe based on justice and fairness. I hope someday to join you there.
 
This article is kind of depressing, so here is a puppy.
Can There Only Ever Be One Path?

Here's how it works now. Everyone makes a team, puts something together with flash, pushes the heck out of it at GDC/PAX/whatever, and waits for Steam to wave its magic fairy dust wand and make them rich.

Which is great. If it works. But there's a problem. There's still a lot of fairy dust in that wand, but it's getting spread awful thin.

Is there another route to success in this business?

You could try what I did to make a long career. You could pick a neglected genre, write the best games you can for it on a limited budget in your spare time, release one game after another, and push your work where you can to build a loyal audience with word-of-mouth and good customer support. Then, maybe, years later, thanks to your persistence and hard work, you might go full time. A loyal audience can keep you in business through good times and lean.

All you need to make a game is a $299 computer, a chair, time, and some software which we'll pretend for the moment you didn't get on BitTorrent. It will probably look cruddy, but a lot of people don't care (and many people get off on the rough DIY thing). You won't be on Steam, but there are plenty of ways to sell it like on your own site. It'll be tough, but starting a new business is never easy.

When I did it (shut up, grandpa), there wasn't even the web. Now there are forums and communities galore. There are a million places to start assembling that customer base, and you don't even need to say the word Steam.

Is this possible? It should be. It happens. I'm not the only small dev who has made a living this way. But, sadly, there aren't many. I don't know how feasible the slow and steady building of a clientele is in indie gaming. I am, however, confident that we're going to need to start finding out.
 
Dear God, please let Polygon notice meeeeeee!
But What About the Future?

I think we're in for an interesting few years in the computer game industry. I have my own opinion about the future of small game development, and it's this:
If your game can't succeed based on word-of-mouth marketing, unless you get real lucky, you need to adjust your budget, your quality, or both.
I know, I know. "Jeff Vogel is just being a crazy old coot again." Sure. Nobody wants to hear a whole business model being called into question.

But I've lived through rich times and lean times, several of each. Small-scale software development is a rough business, and you need to operate lean and mean to live in the long term.

Some indie devs will use their bubble money to get big and survive. Anyone who can't grow huge and doesn't have the patience and persistence to go the small company path will have to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to see anyone lose their jobs. I've actively enjoyed seeing people who do what I do getting rich.

However, Microeconomics 101 is still true. When people start making a ton of money, they will attract competitors until nobody makes easy money anymore. It’s an iron law of capitalism.

Congrats on your success, Alexander Bruce, but not everyone can market their way to victory.

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Comments


Peter Eisenmann
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I believe the problem is that so many people today want (indie) game development to be their job, when for most, it really should be a hobby. A time-consuming, challenging and rewarding hobby, that may even make you a few bucks, but usually won't earn a living.
Games are oversupplied not because people think they are an easy path to richness, but because game development is just so much fun (most of the time!) Which is a good thing. But I guess we can't have the cake (a fun, cheap and damn creative activity) and eat it (everyone getting lots of money out of it).

Eric Hambright
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All is not doom and gloom. Kickstarter and crowd funding for Indie games have nowhere near reached critical mass. In fact more games are getting funded than ever. Tools such as Unity and the Unity asset store are helping to improve indie quality and let developers target multiple platforms, which traditionally was much harder to do. Steambox is likely to greatly increase the number of people who purchase games on Steam. The rise of smartphones and tablets (aka Mobile) means more people than ever are playing games and thus are purchasing games (or powerups, playtime, and in game currency..but don't get me started on how detrimental F2P is to the game industry). In fact the only point of this post that I agree with is that luck is a large portion of the equation.


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