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Indie Bubble Buts: What Do We Do Now?
by Megan Fox on 05/27/14 09:53:00 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.


[I'm @glassbottommeg of Glass Bottom Games. Right now I'm working on Hot Tin Roof - check it out!]


I’m tired of Indie Bubble Buts. “This is an indie bubble! But it isn’t bad be-” “But this isn’t an indie bubble! Because you s-” and so on, back and forth.



Everyone’s making good points. Jeff Vogel is on the money as usual, Rob’s on point with an excellent counter, and this is all just lovely. People even asked me to kick the horse further, but, I have a better idea: let’s stop debating and but'ing, and start talking action.


Revenues for indie developers on desktop are falling. We know this, and the reasons are various and irrelevant, a fixed point in our recent past. To move on, there is one very specific myth we need to gut, here and now.


If you release on Steam, you will be a success.”


That’s a great story, and you should read it. Cook, Serve, Delicious is a fantastic indie rags-to-riches story, and it made a solid amount of money once it hit Steam. But, as Rob points out, Steam was simply never the gateway to success we imagine it was.


Just, no. In fact, hell no. Seriously, no. Lunar Flight released back at the dawn of 2012, when indies were raking in hundreds of thousands easily, right? Except they weren’t, and it at the very best did “adequately.” Waves? Similar story. Crasher? 2011, golden years, miserable failure so bad it doesn’t even exist on the site anymore.


Releasing on Steam is not a promotional strategy. It never was. So many convinced themselves that Steam was the only avenue to success (even though some people kept reminding everyone otherwise), that they completely forgot that there’s more to business than a single storefront.


So what can we do? The market is dead! THE INDIE BU-


Steam's opening up. Not having a Steam key used to be a barrier to sales (see Cook, Serve Delicious), but now it's increasingly not, so start thinking about more than releasing on Steam. Cliffski and Vogel have gone on for years about the importance of direct sales, and their efforts have won them revenue streams that are largely immune to fluctuations like this one. They ride a gold-rush, and when it ends, oh hey, they’re still actually fine.


Is your website good? Christ, do you even HAVE a website? Don’t laugh, you’d be surprised at how many flat out don’t. Are you on Twitter (this is super important)? How about advertising, are you researching it? It’s complicated, sure, but there are some really great articles on just that. Cliffski has written basically all of them.


Around here, I’m betting a few indie bubble but’s are forming. Advertising’s tricky, because it takes money, but - hold that thought. The other big thought is “but we’re in the post-Steam world, which means nobody will buy from anywhere but Steam, and that means you never get their contact details! You CAN’T build a direct-sales community anymore, Jeff and Cliffski just have one from the old days."




First of all, if you're only targetting Steam, that's a huge issue. is an increasingly important part of desktop gaming, and if you aren't short-sighted about your tech (ahem, seriously, please don't write your own engine, even for simple 2D games), mobile ports are probably a button push away. Note that "mobile" includes OUYA, Amazon Fire TV, and all those other microconsoles that are worth trying out. Niche markets are important, and maybe all you need to survive.


But even ignoring that, even just in desktop with Steam: I ran a (successful) Kickstarter last year, and on a lark, I added a field to the backer survey for a mailing list. It was optional, and I doubted many would use it, but I figured what the hell, people will probably just write funny things in that field. I like funny things.


It went… slightly better than expected. I got back nearly 1,000 email addresses for people interested in what I’m doing, and engaged with the success of our studio. And that was on a lark, in a survey. Even ignoring that, that group of backers is now vested in our success, and when we post a “WE RELEASED!” update, they’ll hopefully help us get the word out on release day.


As it happens, mobile developers have been figuring this out for years. Incentivized Twitter follows, for instance - “follow us for 5 fugu dollars!”. Yes, we know you probably just clicked that link and then didn’t actually follow us, but we don’t care - it cost us nothing, you’re happy with free stuff, and you at least considered engaging with what we’re doing as a studio on a long-term basis.


AAA’s been doing this for years too, and nobody’s said a thing. The entire front-end of Mass Effect 2 was this giant socially integrated thing, and it totally fit with the vibe of the world, and it “just worked.” Mass Effect 3 took it even further. Player perk programs, in-game rewards tied to playing other games, all of these are vectors you can use to create attachments with your players that last beyond the game in question.


(no, I have no idea what GoogleImages was thinking)


So you try these things. How hard could it possibly be for you to, say, add a mailing list signup to the main menu of your game? Why not give the player a silly hat if they follow (or at least pretend to follow) you on Twitter / pick your favored social tool? If you’re constantly patching your game, and doing the whole “games as a service” thing, a newsfeed probably makes sense too.


Actually, no, let’s take that further - you NEED to consider “games as a service” period. I don’t care what kind of game you’re making, you can probably figure out a way to create more exciting events in its life cycle than “release and done.” Yes, this applies even to single-player, once-through RPGs or platformers or the like.


Hot Tin Roof? We’re planning on post-launch DLC. But we’re not going to charge for it. All charging for it does is fracture our community and make people feel like we held something back from release, and the press probably won’t give a damn to boot. But free DLC? Hey, now that’s actually pretty cool - it gives you that excuse you need to dive back in for your 100% run, it gives a YouTube’er something to cover when they’re enjoying your game and need an excuse to run another video. It’s just pretty damn cool all around. None of this should be surprising to anyone… seriously, just put “post release DLC” into google.


This sounds like BUSINESS?!


Yes. It sounds like business because making a living at making games is… about making a living. That means you probably can’t afford to approach it as perfect directionless fun times, you need to be thinking about what you’re making and who you’re making it for and how you’re going to get them to be aware that the thing you made for them even exists.


This doesn't have to change the game you're making, at all. It just means you can't disappear into a cave for 2 years, pop out the other end with a game, and expect to make a living at it. Unless it's a really, really cheap cave.


Over time, you’ll achieve greater success, and can apply more of these strategies. Some, like Kickstarter, are great at any time. Others, like buying advertising (see waaay back at the top), maybe become viable after an initial shaky success or two gives you a miniscule operating budget for the next game - which you then invest back in your game, rather than upgrading past ramen. Get used to the ramen, it’s your friend.


One last indie bubble but is going to hit now. “But what about before? Didn’t Cook, Serve, Delicious just hit Steam, and succeed? Can’t I just make a good game, and have it hit?”


You're doing it again...


Go back. Click that link again. See that “V”? That’s because it’s a five part story. David Galindo started his journey with The Oil Blue back in 2010 (hey, remember? the heyday of the indie bubble!), and hit failure after massive failure. But he kept trying. He built his network, got people to care about what he was doing, until finally on October 8th, 2013, he’s able to release the game on Steam. At which point, he reaps financial rewards.


There are no instant successes in our industry, outside of the odd lottery winner. There never were, and that hasn't changed. Steam may have provided a short-term aberration in sales figures, but even then, it only helped a lucky few. For the rest of us, there is only hard work, and the appearance of an instant success at the very end.


That's bidness.


[I'm @glassbottommeg of Glass Bottom Games. Right now I'm working on Hot Tin Roof - check it out!]

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Brian Stabile
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As a broke indie designer myself, I would like to just share with you all an industry secret: real pasta is only a few dimes more expensive than ramen, and is way better all around. Obtain some mayo, salt, and pepper packets from a fast food restaurant- presto - pasta salad!

Cook, Serve, Delicious.

Megan Fox
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Honestly, I don't do ramen either - rice and beans is where it's at. You can do SO much with rice and beans, with a little practice, and it's healthy and tastes good. And also dirt cheap.

... but "ramen" rolls off the tongue better, you know? :D

Patrick Casey
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I think it's clear we need a semiofficial Gamasutra indie dev recipe book/blog. I tried Brian's pasta/mayo recipe tonight & it was pretty good. My humble contribution would be sliced avocado with soy sauce drizzled on it.

Tadhg Kelly
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Eat some vegetables!

Megan Fox
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I eat spinach. SO MUCH spinach. Though Costco had some quinoa/kale things this time, so yay!

Luis Guimaraes
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Real indie devs only need coffee!!

Jokes aside, having flour and learning to make lots of things with is not only cheap and versatile, but also a good way to takes long breaks from the computer every once in a while.

Shawn Clapper
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My brother and I are devs on a budget and Peanut Butter sandwiches / Oatmeal meals is the cheapest foods we have found without sacrificing too much in nutrition or enjoyment.

Amir Barak
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I agree with most of it; really oppose this notion:
"and if you aren't short-sighted about your tech (ahem, seriously, please don't write your own engine, even for simple 2D games),"

I think you really hit the nail on the head with the bit about fail, fail, fail, try, try, try and build a network.

James McDermott
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In the interest of 'picking your brain', why do you oppose the notion of not writing your own engine? In my opinion, not every indie has a game whose features can't be reasonably (if not exceptionally) fulfilled by a pre-existing free or low-cost game engine. Pre-existing game engines can - and in the case of the major ones (UDK, UE4, Unity, etc.), do - have communities and resources which can help you navigate the engine's features and quirks, undocumented or otherwise, and get your ideas, features, and assets in the engine faster. Plus, there's a few free game engines, like Torque 3D and the aforementioned Futile, are fully open-source, so you can do as little or as much tweaking and changing to the underlying architecture as you want!

Ian Morrison
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I'd go as far as to say that almost no indie has something that can't be done faster and better in an engine like Unity or Unreal. I love engine development because it's a fun and rewarding task, but I could never recommend it as a solid business decision unless your game has some truly strange engine requirements AND you've got the technical competency and time to pull it off (and even then...) For my own part, I doubt I'd ever even consider developing my own engine again for any serious game development project, it's just too much time and energy wasted.

Making engines is a fantastic learning experience and a neat software development challenge, but with the proliferation of powerful, cheap and well-designed tools like Unity and Unreal then it's almost impossible to recommend engine development if your interest is in making games, not just making technology for its own sake.

James McDermott
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You make a good point, Mr. Morrison, but as a counter-point, I would argue that making your own game engine is useful for several reasons.

First, you can be on the cutting edge - if not create it - without needing to pay source code access fees. For example, the indie game Project Temporality started implementing PBR (Physically-Based Rendering) into their custom engine in 2012 - long before Unity, CryTek, and Epic Games implemented it into their own engines. If they wanted to do that on Unity, or CryEngine 3, they'd have had pay some serious money for source code access - or, in the case of the UDK, buy a commercial license for UE3.

Second, building your own engine also allows you take risks and tap the cutting edge builds of open-source projects to potentially solve problems faster. For example, say SVN build #123,532 of SDL 2.0 has the code changes you need to fix a bug in gamepad handling on OSX and Linux versions. You go to test it in a code branch, and it works great - the only thing needed at this point is to fix some minor issues caused by the code change in Windows versions. While this ease-of-change might change in the future - the fixes to those minor problems might cause new, unforeseen issues later in development, for instance - you'd have to wait for a new stable version of SDL 2.0 to come out and be implemented in Unity (or another game engine utilizing SDL 2.0).

That being said, whether or not you go with a free or low-cost game engine versus making your own is, in my opinion, something which should be considered when the game is in its formative pre-development stages. Just as making a game engine might not be the best choice, the same may be said of using a free or low-cost game engine.

Pallav Nawani
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@Ian Morrison
Having used own engines exclusively for all our games, I mostly agree with you - except for one special case.

If I want to make a sequel to Pahelika ( asecretlegends.hd) series of ours - then neither Unity nor Unreal will come even close to the time savings offered by utilizing our already existing toolchain and the custom engine.

Private Private
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There are some instances where building your own, even if it's just cobbling preexisting modules into a full development suite, is a necessity.

For instance, some indie developers have a budget to work with. Not all of us do. I, for instance, am getting by on odd jobs and whatever scrap metal I can collect to take to the recycling center. One job may only pay for the gas I need to do a mowing job, which pays for my groceries with enough left over to get the gas to do the job that pays for my utilities. Another job buys the filament for my Solidoodle (which seems like a hobby to most people, but I'm trying to make a living off of it) and the silicone rubber and resin for low scale mass production. Sometimes I'll luck out and someone I'm doing work for has some scrap they want me to haul off. At 10.5¢ per pound for steel I can get me a carton of soda, but not much else.

In other words, not everyone has $19 per month to spend on Unreal 4 or however much Unity charges per month for professional features, and while the free version of Unity does everything I need for mobile development, for desktop development my aesthetic choices are limited and in one case the game I want to make simply can't be made with the free version of Unity, as it has a game play mechanic that depends on post processing effects.

That's when you roll your own engine. Grab a copy of Ogre for graphics, PhysX, Newton, or Bullet for physics, XAudio2 or OpenAL for sound, an input library, and you can put together an engine that gives you all of the stuff you'd get from paying for Unity or Unreal on a hobo's budget. Some may argue that it's not really creating your own engine but right on the Ogre site it makes the distinction between an individual module (such as Ogre) and a full engine, so it could be argued that you're still assembling an engine from prefab parts.

Armando Miguel Cerasoli Quintero
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Well I think that saying that a game developer needs an engine (Crytek, Unity, etc...) to be a game developer it's like saying that an illustrator needs and illustration program (Illustrator, Inkscape, etc...) to be an illustrator.

Imagine that you call yourself a game developer because you know how to use Unity so well that you can make a game in two days. What would happen if for some reason (money) Unity stops being developed? or Crytek or whatever, are you still being a game developer even if these tools doesn't exist anymore? I think that that person until doesn't learn how to use another engine with its UI and all the jazz is not a game developer anymore, because he simple couldn't create a videogame without those tools.

Imagine what would happen if one of these engines stop working the way it should or start getting behind other engines and you own a company with +50 employees working on different titles all depending of that engine. You would need to start learning another engine, is that really worth it for a company? I don't know to be honest, but something makes me think that having your own engine not only allows you to expand it and modify it all you want, but you could also sell it to others so they could call themselves "Game Developers" ;)

Amir Barak
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I take a few issues with this whole concept to be honest.
First of, not every game needs an engine.

Secondly, not everyone that wants to make a game should. And the proliferation of game engine abuse has flooded the market with shovelware from here to the moon.

Thirdly, Unity is a terrible engine. It's a good scene editor and nice deployment platform. There is no "one engine fits all" unless your game is a crappy clone or just crap. In the end you'll need to write your own tech and then force it into your engine of choice. I'm not a big believer in using so many off-the-shelf products to be honest.

Fourth, whether someone wants to write their own tech or not is not up to Megan to decide. She's an industry professional and has the responsibility to guide young developers. It'd be better not to belittle someone by calling them "short-sighted". Writing your own tech can be, in many cases, the right decision. If nothing else at least you're not dependent on 3rd party tools. I think the over-reliance on so called "engines" is detrimental to the industry and developers in the long run.

Five. Did I mention not every game needs an "engine". Christ, we're not building cars here.

Six. Ah yeah, writing your own tech is bad. Unless you're the Unity developers. Or the Unreal developers. Or any one of the numerous developers who write games without Unity or UE4 or whatever engine flavor we're enjoying that week.

Seven. There seems to be a confusing between frameworks, libraries and engines.

Alan Barton
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@James McDermott: "First, you can be on the cutting edge - if not create it"

Cutting Edge? How? Just because you can compete at that technical level, to write a cutting edge engine, there isn't enough time in one lifetime to compete with the amount of work pouring into the main engines. You don't have the time to write it, even if you can.

For example:
Epic/Unreal have 100+ programmers.
Unity have 150+ programmers.

So in one year, these programmers will put in more work than you can put do in one lifetime! Plus how many hundreds of man-years have already been put into these engines! ... and that is before you also add in how many in the community are now freely adding to these engines.

I love writing engines and I've spent the past 3 decades writing engines and it pains me greatly to think that era of games development is now over, but I cannot compete now Unreal 4 is available for $19 per month. Suddenly that $19 a month has turned near photo realistic results from years of research and development that few can do, into a point and click operation, that anyone can do and many will do!

If you think making a living selling games is hard now, imagine what is to come!

Alan Barton
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@Amir Barak

Writing a game that doesn't need much of an engine, e.g. 2D games may well be the last hope for us old timers who love writing engines now Unreal is $19 a month. Its kind of ironic, having to switch from spending so many years thinking and dreaming about the state of the art of engines, to have to now think about retro games, but it is a way forward I guess.

It kind of makes sense though. Low level coding kind of went the same way, where embedded because the last hope for people who knew and loved low level. Now it looks like low level graphics coding is going the same way into retro graphics.

James McDermott
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@Alan Barton

By "cutting edge", I didn't mean the whole engine - that would indeed take more time than any indie team has! I also never implied you can compete with the major engines. However, you can still jump ahead of their development time for the cost of electricity and basic necessities (assuming you're exclusively using free libraries, frameworks, etc.) in very specific areas by implementing at least one new feature. Using my Project Temporality example - which, by the way, is a real game ( ) - I'd be willing to bet the engine the indie team behind the game built is only cutting-edge in terms of PBR (which they talk about here:
a-physically-based-rendering ) which - and I must stress this - wasn't used in any publicly-available game engines at the time; beyond that, they probably use a lot of free third-party libraries and frameworks.

However, you do make a good point - many game engines nowadays are so advanced (and automatically include source code access in UE4's case) that it's quite difficult to make a good case for making your own code.

Megan Fox
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... hey Gamasutra, can we get threaded replies good for more than 2-deep? Heh.

Anyways, this is to @amir, mostly, but probably applies to a few of the above: You're right, I do have a responsibility to guide young developers - and that's why I harp on the "don't write your own tech" thing.

The big, huge, critical reason for this at this point has nothing to do with featuresets. Indies can't trade on being cutting edge anyways, because of the amount of work and art budget that takes, but what we CAN do is be everywhere... so long as our tech supports it.

If you write custom tech? Odds are very good you'll have difficulty porting it outside of desktop ecosystem. If you don't? Odds are very good it's viable.

Now, that said, Unity and UE4 aren't the only options, by any stretch. Stencyl, Moia, LOVE, one of the HTML5 libraries (Node.js? Not sure what's "hip" lately), one of the many monogame-powered approaches, etc. But you should definitely pick one of those, instead of rolling you own from the ground up.

Now, none of this means that indies CAN'T write their own tech. Sometimes they even have to, depending on the game design (as @James mentions - it's a call to make in the earliest of design phases). But there is zero, absolute zero, reason to have "make my own tech" as your default position. It just doesn't help you on average, if your goal is "to survive financially as an indie." That's my focus, that's what the above advice is for.

Hobbyists? Folks that are learning? Folks that are needing to make a living, but thanks to budgetting, have a "free" year to play with? Yeah, totally, make your own tech, do whatever you want. I'm a programmer too, I love writing new tech. Just - if you're sitting down to plan a project, and that project has to pay rent? "Custom tech" should not be on your feature list, and should only get added to the list AFTER a long discussion about whether porting will be important to you (don't neglect it, seriously), and the featureset required of the game VS the featureset offered by one of the various paid or free engines already out there. Snagging one of the open-source options and modifying it is often a fantastic strategy for that "our game concept ALMOST fits, except for this one weird requirement" edge case.

Eric Harris
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@ Megan
Very good points. I like that you took the entire project into consideration with your response. I agree that it depends on the games design, and lets face it, most mobile games and indie stuff is not in need of custom tech.

Ian Morrison
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@ Pallav

Definitely a special case if you've already invested the time and effort in getting something that works. I just don't think it's usually a good investment from the get-go if you don't have that advantage already.

@ Amir

I don't agree with you on a few points here.

First off, every game needs an "engine", or at the very least something that looks very similar to it. The difference is whether it's generic, reusable tech or just custom one-offs for the project in question. One way or another, the plumbing for dealing with the graphics, sound and everything else needs to get done somehow. I know you're trying to draw some distinctions between engines, libraries, etc, but I'm not sure that the distinction is really meaningful in the context of this advice. Ultimately, you need a fair amount of tech under the hood for your game, and it's tough to justify reinventing the wheel because it's usually been done better already. The further you get into those weeds, the more time you're wasting that could have gone into making the game itself.

I also disagree that Unity is anything even REMOTELY like a "terrible" engine. I've been inside and out of that thing for the last two years and it's solid, flexible, a designer's dream, and wonderfully extensible... once you grasp its particular brand of moon logic. It's missing a few features and it's got some idiosyncrasies, but most people out to make games would be well served by its feature set. The fact that it's a very generic sort of engine doesn't actually work against it because it handles 99% of your use cases pretty gracefully. It only becomes an issue if you're really pushing against the limits of the tech (in particular, performance), and even then is something that you can usually resolve reasonably. It's a good platform and very good work can be done on it.

As for point #6, obviously engine development is paying off for Unity and Unreal; they've built their entire business, their 100+ staffs, and years of technical investment around making engines (Unity doesn't even make their own games, and Epic has been in AAA engine development for a very, very long time). The degree of development effort involved in making either of those products is staggeringly far beyond what a small development team could hope to achieve given a lifetime of effort. Competing against that isn't usually a particular productive endeavour without similarly impressive resources.

It's not universal advice, but no advice is, and it's pretty good advice for the majority of small game developers, especially ones whose strengths lie more on the artistic or design side instead of feats of technical wizardry.

Benjamin McCallister
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Of course you're still a game developer. How much of your time is REALLY spent mucking about in the engine itself?

Some of it to be sure. I would say that the amount of time you spend working IN the engine becomes less and less as your game grows.

When you have your models, your materials, your normal maps, your height maps, your splat maps, your audio files, your bipeds, your rigging, your skinned meshes, the pre made animations, the terrains, the C# or JS (lol) scripts that drive the whole thing, the web api if there is one, the save game structure, the AI state machine, the logic center, the custom shaders, the dialog, the game play, the storyline, the voice over, the music, the background sounds, etc etc etc. (Get the point yet?) You can easily move that into any other engine.

Sorry, but when you first start using an engine you're completely at the mercy of the default shaders and lighting etc. Every single thing you add or change is one step away from being engine dependent and more agnostic.

If unity stopped being developed tomorrow, I would find the quickest next engine to move into. Having all the assets done would make up 90% of the work, easy.

Amir Barak
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That's partially my point, although I think we come from different points of view there.

Unity (not just Unity obviously) is a terrible engine when you use it as an "Engine" and can we please stop calling things engines, really, that's just misleading. Unity is a good tool for scene editing (sort of maybe) some basic external importers and a deployment platform.

Any reliance on Unity or ANY OTHER so called engine working towards your game flow/control is asking for trouble.

Daniel Pang
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This is the single best article I've read on this site all week.

Steam are not the gatekeepers of success! Steam is merely a content delivery system.

Relying completely on one content delivery system is like leaving your fate in their hands.

The best arbitrators of a game's quality are not the designer, or even self-styled game critics masquerading as journalists. They are the market, and the amount the market is willing to pay for that title. Get your work out there and learn the art of self-promotion. Stan Lee was great at this.

Andrew Pellerano
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Nice article. The only people who believe in an indie bubble are the people who think there is a blueprint for success

Terry Matthes
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The idea of your game being an project that needs support throughout it's post launch life is spot on!

Dane MacMahon
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Very good stuff.

I follow developers like Cliffski on Twitter so I can find out what's next for Democracy. I get emails from several indie developers because I bought games directly off their site before. I bought those games off the website because I was sent there by people talking about games on forums, or in blog articles. I check forums dedicated to my genres every few days to see the news, and often get tips and links out of it which lead to me spending money, signing up or bookmarking. A lot of times, especially on RPG sites and forums, developers participate in discussion, spread the word and get rewarded. RPG Codex recently raised $10,000 for a $25,000 Kickstarter RPG, almost doubling what it would have received otherwise.

In short: awareness. Spread the word, get a following of people who will spread the word for you. Steam is not building awareness for games anymore, if they ever did. Goat Simulator was a fad before it ever launched on Steam, the high Steam sales were a result of previous exposure. There are niches of people who will worship any quality game in their wheelhouse and spread the word about it to others outside the niche. It's almost essential marketing at this point. Volgar the Viking for example, word was spread around the hardcore 2D platformer niche that it was a solid title. Before you know it those people are proselytizing the game on forums, youtube, etc.

Awareness, awareness, awareness. Difficult but essential! Hopefully it gets easier if Valve actually introduce the user storefronts they talk about, so people super into X games can find Y release on their niche storefront and start preaching.

Adam Bishop
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This may seem like a needless semantic point, but I feel the need to make it anyway: describing what's going on with indie games right now as a "bubble" is a misuse of the term. A bubble is an unsustainable and unwarranted run up in the valuation of an asset. The housing bubble was about the price/value of houses rising to levels that were not supported by the underlying economics. Tulip Mania was a run up in the value of a flower that had no rational basis (

But that's not what we're talking about with indie games right now. No one, to the best of my knowledge, is arguing that indie games as an asset are being overvalued relative to what the market would suggest; if anything, the cost of indie games is going down!

It may very well be the case that due to ease of entry there are more people creating games than can make a living at it, but so what? Most restaurants fail and no one believes there's a "restaurant bubble". In any industry where people see a chance to make money they try to do so. But that's not a bubble. A bubble is an overvaluation of an asset signified by a run up in prices. When the bubble bursts, people lose a ton of money because the value of what they currently hold collapses. That's not what's happening with indie games.

Alan Barton
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"A bubble is an overvaluation of an asset signified by a run up in prices."

By that definition, if the asset being sought is potential customers, then it is a bubble. (The more games that are made, then the fewer customers per game, so the harder it gets to earn a living making an increasing number of different types of games).

The numbers of games being made is a gold rush bubble. The decades long belief in making a profit from games development combined with ever easier to make games, means more games being made. And every success story fuels the gold rush more. Ironically in a gold rush, most of the income goes to the tools suppliers. Centuries ago, it was tools like Shovels and Buckets ... now its game engine tools.

Adam Bishop
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"By that definition, if the asset being sought is potential customers, then it is a bubble."

This doesn't make any sense. When the housing bubble burst, people who owned houses lost money because they were in possession of an asset whose value plummetted. A customer is not an "asset" that a person owns and it doesn't have a value. If the indie "bubble" bursts, no one is stuck holding on to customers that they have to sell off at a huge loss.

Mike Kasprzak
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Bubbles are these round floaty things that pop when you touch them.

Alan Barton
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"Bubbles are these round floaty things"

No that's a ...

Whereas we are talking about a ...

And yes I did take the time to look them up ;)

@"If the indie "bubble" bursts, no one is stuck holding on to customers that they have to sell off at a huge loss."

Is this take it literal day? ... Maybe I didn't get the memo? ;) ... Or is it just wilful denial and rhetoric, because really you don't like what it means, so denial feels better than acceptance?

An *Economic* Bubble *implies* belief in prosperity from some action, which is unsustainable and will not in fact be as prosperous as people want to believe. When reality finally gets accepted *by the majority* the bubble will finally burst. See previous gold rushes and *Economic* Bubbles in history as reference and use them as a suitable metaphor for the current unsustainable growth in numbers of new games being developed.

What you do with this information is up to you. You can try denial. Frankly that won't work, but you are welcome to try. Me, I think it means we must try even harder and work longer to make better games to rise above the flood of lower quality games, but hey if denial works for you, go for it.

Jim Bo
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NOTE: I am not arguing that there is a bubble!

The bubble in this case would not be the expected value of a single copy of an indie game, but the value of owning the IP over it's entire lifetime.

So for example, IF people right now see small indie titles net 200K, they may expect that they themselves could earn 200K if they wrote their own.

But Steam opening up and floods of new indie developers could permanently change the underlying economics (supply/demand). Given the new economics maybe the value of that small indie game is only 50K and that is a relatively permanent change.

Robert Fearon
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"Me, I think it means we must try even harder and work longer to make better games to rise above the flood of lower quality games"

And then once we've worked longer and harder, then the next generation of developers that come along have to work longer and harder still and then the next generation work even longer and harder until we're all working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, sleeping at our desks just to get by. But won't you think how amazing it'll be when everyone is taking 4 years over a game? Has anyone ever tested this theory to see if it works? Like, I dunno, maybe some AAA studios?

Looking at making games in terms of an arms race or as attrition is a madness. Work to make your game the best it can be with the best of what you've got access to. Talk about that game as loudly as possible (and nicely) and to as many people as you can. Show people out there that game.

Making you game better is always going to trump working longer and harder. That making your game better can and often does involve hard work doesn't mean you can't do it sensibly and healthily and relaxed. Or that many games can and will need to exist that don't require long development schedules.

Which, should the madness ever set in and everyone started working longer and harder, people would soon discover that the hard way when the guy, girl, kid who made a game in a day scoots in and does grandly.

Mike Kasprzak
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Economic Bubbles are these round floaty things that are debated about as an alternative to work.

Alan Barton
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Economic Bubbles said to be floaty things is an interesting misdirection strawman tactic repeated by you Mike Kasprzak ... the question is why?

Why do you want to misdirect a discussion about it being an Economic Bubble? What do you hope to gain from that?

Isaiah Taylor
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Aside from this topic being super relevant right now given the many directions indie games are going ... I'd like to state the obvious:

This is the best gamasutra article based soley on butts and cat pics being in it. Props to Fox.

Tyler King
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I think people worried about selling the games they are working on now are going to have heart attacks when there is 0 barrier to entry to selling on Steam. Steam will become flooded even more so just as the app store has. Accept that the day is coming when you have to compete with hundreds of new titles every day. Most of them probably developed over the course of a couple of days/weeks.

Megan Fox
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That will almost certainly not happen. The PC market isn't like the mobile market, for a variety of reasons. Mobile is a whole other magnitude of flooding.

Dane MacMahon
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Valve have clearly said once they are opening the floodgates they are also going to introduce various methods of user-curation. If you're making a 2D sidescroller your goal will be to get it on Dave's Store of Awesome 2D Sidescroller Games storefront, not Steam itself.

Megan Fox
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Yup. There's also the tagging system, and a variety of other schemes - and even once "getting on Steam" is a foregone conclusion, it's unlikely Steam will literally throw open the floodgates to the cloners and spammers that glut mobile stores.

I'd lay fairly good odds on Greenlight itself never actually going away. Valve's put too much work into it, and they don't often abandon things. It'd probably get retasked into "the process by which they choose who gets featured on the BIG store" or something similar.

Or maybe it just keeps operating as it does now, where getting through it isn't super hard, but just hard enough to block cloners/spammers. Who knows!

Tanya X Short
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Steam isn't the App Store, IF Valve provide better ways for customers to find games they might like -- which they already do.

Through seeing what your friends are playing, to trading cards, to crowd-sourced genre tags, they have already shown they are interested in helping people find their niche games.

Contrast this with the App Store, which literally just has "these sell the best" and "we like these" -- that's it! Android is somewhere in the middle, with a Netflix-style algorithm using what your friends play, but it's still nowhere near as advanced as Steam ALREADY is, never mind what they may or may not change when they "open the floodgates".

Chillllllll ouuuuuuttttt.

Tyler King
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Right that's the whole curation aspect. I'm not saying that Valve does a worse job than Apple at this, because they aren't. I'm simply saying the flood will come and it will be very easy for anyone to get a game onto Steam. Already the Greenlight system is pushing through tons of games that are no where near release ready, a lot of them still in very early prototype stages. Also correct if I'm wrong but Greenlight is ONLY for new developers, once you go through that process the first time you don't have to submit future games through the process. So you would then be free to take a "digital dump" of all of your other titles that might not have passed the Greenlight process for whatever reason. Again please correct me if I'm wrong on that one.

Also maybe I'm understanding this incorrectly, but "Dave's Store of Awesome 2D Sidescroller Games" storefront is still Steam. Its just a different store front that still gets all of its information from Steam and its databases. So from a developers perspective the goal is still to get on Steam itself, just now with the added focus of targeting specific store fronts for marketing.

Robert Fearon
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"Contrast this with the App Store, which literally just has "these sell the best" and "we like these" -- that's it! Android is somewhere in the middle, with a Netflix-style algorithm using what your friends play, but it's still nowhere near as advanced as Steam ALREADY is, never mind what they may or may not change when they "open the floodgates"."


When people speak of the problems with the app store, it's way way too easy to say "it's because there's too many games" but that's not really the problem. The problem is there's no good way to find the games in the flood. It's like walking into a massive supermarket and nothing is labelled, all the shelves are all over the shop and there's just a small shelf at the front with a few things they want you to see when you walk in.

I don't know how successful Valve will be at solving this but they're already light years ahead of where app stores are right now and that's a great sign.

Dane MacMahon
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@ Tyler

The user storefront is about discovering what you want on a Steam that allows almost anything on the store. Once such a thing exists I would check a few stores that cater to my tastes specifically... "The RPG Watch Quality RPG Store"... "Total Biscuit's Competent PC Ports Store"... "Jim's Stealth First Store"... "RPG Codex Store of Only Old School Quality"... etc. etc.

So as a developer making an indie stealth game, like say Betrayer, your job would be getting on the highest rated and viewed stealth game storefronts on Steam, more than on Steam itself, which should be a given at that point.

Jennis Kartens
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Regarding Steam: Should not be the only road, definitively.

But think of another aspect here: Steam nowadays is not just a store, but a library for many players. I tend to actually forget installations of non-steam games because I barely look for my games outside of steam anymore (and I tend not to add third party software).

I also look first in the steam store to see if a game is available there. If not, I often stop looking immediately unless it is something I really really want which is almost never the case because I already own more games as I have liftetime left to play.

So just from the point of convenience for players: Don't ignore it entirely.

Adam Bishop
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This is definitely true of me personally. I've bought more games this year through Humble Bundle than through Steam, but I always redeem them on Steam because it offers a number of benefits that I enjoy: fast, reliable servers; library management; cloud saving.

Dane MacMahon
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Valve were smart to build Steam in a way where people treat it like their library, and thus want everything on it. I've been lucky to avoid this mindset, but it's very common.

Nathan Mates
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You can quickly/easily add installed non-Steam games to Steam. Any executable really -- you can add Firefox, Chrome, or Microsoft Visual Studio to Steam.

Until Steam allows sub-accounts, I'm looking more to GOG and/or Humble Bundle for games. Reason being, I've got a HTPC hooked up in the living room and kids. I'd love to be able to authorize that HTPC for various games out of my account -- e.g. Bejeweled, other kid-friendly games -- but not give access to the full set of games in my account (not kid friendly). I've got a Steam account with enough games that I'd accept being locked out of game XYZ if the kids were playing it on the HTPC, simply because I don't think that would happen more than a few times a year.

With Gog/DRM-free titles in Humble Bundle, I can install on multiple PCs and not worry about the lockouts/etc.

Jennis Kartens
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The recently introduced Family Sharing feature allows you to share specific games and comes even with a "parental lock" option (PIN required for access).

Bob Johnson
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starving artist is a phrase that applies here. I think you'll always see a glut of games because enough young people will always want to be the next great game designer and because it doesn't cost much to try. You just need a computer and internet connection in a room not too hot or cold with a pillow, water, a set of clothes, and some water and ramen or beans & rice. Deordorant, sunlight,comb, toothbrush etc optional.

Bob Johnson
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Starving artist is a term that applies here.

I think you'll always see a glut of games because enough young people will always want to be the next great game designer and because it doesn't cost much to try. You just need a computer and internet connection in a room not too hot or cold with a pillow, water, a set of clothes, and some water and ramen or beans & rice. Deordorant, sunlight,comb, toothbrush etc optional.

Colm Larkin
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Excellent article Megan!

Megan Fox
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Thanks! :D

Judy Tyrer
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Excellent article. I just advised a team on their upcoming kickstarter and felt like hanging my head in shame. I thought we were handling our company very professionally and like a business, but this team was amazing. They had their process nailed and could talk about it effectively, they knew their user base, they had even run user testing on their art! I haven't seen the actual project yet, but I'll be shocked if they don't succeed because their attitude and the way they approach their work as professionals is amazing.

Sadly, not all teams are there yet.

Jeff Leigh
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"please don't write your own engine"

I wrote my own engine. I have no regrets whatsoever. Our custom engine solves problems for my team things which Unity has made quite clear they are not interested in solving.

If Notch waited for Unity to make an optimized voxel-engine its priority - we may never have seen Minecraft.

If the generic engines don't cut it - I say go for it! You might actually be on to something unique and interesting. Engines like Unity only work "inside the box" - games that conform to the 90% most common use cases. Want to use shaders in an unconventional way that nobody has thought of before? Want to use procedural geometry in new ways that require insanely optimized C++ code?...

Does it make the job harder? Maybe... a custom engine starts at what, 300,000 lines of code? Some of us buy our hot-rods, some of us build them custom. Personally I like knowing every bolt and every weld on my ship.

edwin zeng
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I fully agree with you on this issue of building a custom-tech engine. I will share what strategy I am currently using.

Honestly, I have been building my own custom optimised voxel system for several years already. Today I have a sufficiently integrated engine to deploy my first mobile game-app. And I even planned to have a whole series of apps to be released incrementally as new features , content and narrative scale up. And all these efforts are geared towards one target app that is meant to get infinite development and updates. Side apps using the custom-tech engine can be used to test specific features too.

Nobody said that building our own engine needs to replicate the features that existing pre-bundled engines already does. Also, we get the first bite of any innovative features that we develop. Additionally, the custom-tech engine need NOT be solely catered for only one game application. And not forgetting content reuse which is an important part of this strategy.

Hence, keep building features and mechanics, scale and reuse content appropriately. I would also like to point out that mobile is a perfect platform for such a strategy. Have some or lots of side apps while building for the target app, all built from the custom-tech engine!

Jeff Leigh
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Nice! I wrote a voxel engine myself ( I played around a bit with multiple levels of LOD while working on it.

I don't really have any plans for a voxel game right now myself, it was simply a case of seeing voxel-based games and thinking "wow, I bet the algorithms behind that are fun to know and experiment with!".

They are. :) So often that is where the best games are born - someone just having fun exploring algorithms.

Ian Morrison
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Fantastic article. I'll admit that, though I knew that it certainly wasn't the case now, I still held the misconception that at some point being on Steam WAS tantamount to having "made it", and that it had changed as the floodgates had opened. On reflection, I'm a little embarrassed to have held such a naive notion at all! Survivorship bias is a real issue when searching for information about the business side of indie games. The people who don't make it don't usually have their experiences featured, often because of the same lack of visibility that dooms their game. It makes finding reliable data a real challenge. No-nonsense wake-up calls like this article are appreciated.

The part where you talked about mailing list signups is an interesting one. From our own experience mailing lists have been the highest conversion rate for sales and such. On reflection, it's not a surprise--these are the people who've explicitly asked to be kept in the loop, after all!--but it definitely highlights the importance of HAVING such a mailing list. In particular, it allows you to capture people before you actually have a salable product, and that's such an enormously helpful thing.

Lucas Zanenga
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"It just means you can't disappear into a cave for 2 years, pop out the other end with a game, and expect to make a living at it."

I agree with this wholeheartedly. Developers (myself included), must build their own communities. Their own group of fans. Once those fans are invested, doesn't matter in which store the game is at or how many new games have launched on that day. Because they will be searching for you and for your game.

Jim Thompson
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Make fun games or die.

Curtiss Murphy
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Fantastic article and love the advice to aspiring devs - "please don't write your own engine". So true for those wanting to build games for a living. As Joel Spolsky said, "Shipping is a feature. A really important feature. Your product must have it."

Rayco Santana
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You are an indie developer, why the hell are you worrying about money??, Go make something you are proud of, it doesn't matter you don't make any money out of it, the feeling of satisfaction is better than all the money in the world. I'm serious.

Megan Fox
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The feeling of satisfaction (for me) derives from being able to work full-time and be my own boss. Choose my projects, choose what themes are important to me, etc. To make the game I want to make, and to not have to worry about anything but making that game the best it can be. That... kinda requires that I make enough money from said work to pay my bills. ;)