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Indie games are due for a downward correction
by Neil Sorens on 12/17/12 11:49:00 pm   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.

 

Edit: I use the term "indie" loosely.  "Indie developer" here refers to any self-publishing independent developer.

****

Although the past 5 years or so have been something of a renaissance for independent game developers, the other shoe is about to drop.  

First, the good: a wide variety of healthy digital platforms with relatively low barriers to entry have stimulated the growth of independent game development.  Small teams with big ideas have enjoyed success on the smallest gaming devices (mobile phones) and the biggest (PCs and game consoles). Revenue from digitally distributed games has increased dramatically over the past few years.  

Advanced tools, a growing base group of people possessing game creation skillsets, evolved digital platforms, alternate funding models, and booming demand for unique experiences and impulse-buy pricing have put indie games on the industry's biggest stage - literally, in the case of Telltalle's Walking Dead series at SpikeTV's annual awards show.

However, the boom, already starting to show signs of waning, is losing fuel, and cold water is coming from every direction.

1. Console slowdown

It used to be that you could put pretty much anything on Xbox Live Arcade and it would sell at least 25,000 units within a month.  These days, except for major brands, already-established franchises, and games with heavy promotion, even highly-rated games often struggle to sell that much in their release period.   Game sales on PS3 and Vita are certainly not any better.  

Will this change in the future? Enthusiasm for Wii U has been abnormally low for a new console, and despite its new developer-friendly policies, there has been relatively little indie content released or announced for the Wii U eShop.  It remains to be seen whether things will pick up there or on Microsoft and Sony's next-gen systems, or whether the decline is permanent.

2. Blockbuster competition

At first, the only games sold on digital platforms outside of PC were small in scope.  Now, however, some retail titles are launching day 1 on digital storefronts on consoles, taking up a lot of the oxygen that indie games used to have almost entirely to themselves.  Add that to the release of older retail games, large libraries of ports from previous console generations, etc., and it's not hard to see why indie games on these platforms are suffocating.  THQ Humble Bundle? This certainly isn't 2009 anymore.

The trend towards AAA games being digitally distributed isn't going away; in fact, it should only be magnified in coming years.  Likewise with legacy publishers digitally hawking their old wares at bargain prices.

3. A big Steaming mess

Once at the forefront of the indie game movement, Steam is now unreliable at best and a Waterloo at worst.  Steam Greenlight, like most policies born of populism, sounds good until you see it in action.  Sensible game approval requires experienced oversight and detailed submission materials.

The  Greenlight process involves neither, and as a result, the tribalism and groupthink that characterize low-information democracy have made a bad situation - Steam's previous arbitary and opaque approval process - even worse.  Indie developers who don't have an "in" - a prior relationship with Valve - must conduct a marketing campaign to drum up support to win a glorified popularity contest decided by a user base not prone to careful consideration or extensive research of the available choices.  And not every indie can hire David Axelrod to win those kinds of contests for them.

I'm hoping that it will be fixed eventually, but...who knows? The previous approvals administration didn't exactly have their stuff together, either. 

4. Immigration

It seems like I read a story every other day about an independent developer leaving the barren, impoverished land of consoles for endless bounty and golden streets of the App Store.

They may be in for a rude awakening once they launch a product, however, as income inequality for App Store is incredibly high, and the customer base is wildly different from that of consoles in their gaming and buying habits.  Less than half of developers who launch a product on the App Store recover their costs, and of course some fail even to get their product out.

The increased amount of product (from developers who lack expertise on the mobile market) with no corresponding increase in consumer dollars will result in lean times for all but the 1% (more like 0.01%).

5. Free to Play

And you thought 0.99 was the low water mark on the race to the bottom - nope.  Now you have to give your game away and make it fun, yet annoying.  Needless to say, encouraging people to pull out their wallets every time they play your game is not something that is going to work universally.  Just as Las Vegas was hit hard by their whales migrating as a wave of new casinos opened across the world, free-to-play games will wither as players get tired of having their wallets constantly fondled, whales become overfished and thus harder to land, and free players choose to move to the increasing supply of other F2P games rather than convert.  F2P is a legitimate business model, but it only fits naturally with certain kinds of games.  As those kinds of games get done to death, and other types of games try to shoehorn the model into games where it doesn't fit, there will be a crash.

The suits are still enamored of the F2P model, though, and will continue to chase it until Captain Hindsight points out their folly.

6. The Economy

The double-dip in Europe is surely going to crimp disposable income even further, and the U.S. may follow.  

Even the most optimistic projections show no substantial recovery for at least three years.  

7. Kickstartered

As mentioned in #3, crowdsourcing project approvals has its shortcomings.

On the plus side, crowdfunding adds the requirement that you vote with money, which encourages healthy skepticism.

However, there are a lot of wide-eyed gamers out there who don't understand the extensive risks of game development or realize how common it is for a game project to fail to reach completion.  The lack of an viable/equitable project cancellation mechanism paired with unrealistically high expectations from backers means that this funding mechanism will reap the whirlwind after a few high-profile failures and disappointments.

I still expect crowdfunding to be a viable way for indie developers to fund their games in the coming years, but those dollars will be far more difficult to coax from jaded gamers than they have been recently. 


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Comments


James Coote
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Going indie for many developers is about having a lifestyle business. They just want to be their own boss and make enough to keep their family fed. That wasn't really plausible until a few years ago.

I kept wondering how on earth indies keep going financially when I hear so many stories about their games that just never made it, drowning in the ocean of apps on the app store.

Eventually I realised they find other ways to make it happen. They take on contract work for a time, live with their parents to cut costs or have a part-time job. The fact people make those kind of choices indicate that they will still be making games whether they make money or not, because it is what they enjoy.

We should have already seen the indie scene peak if indies followed entirely hard-nosed business logic. Indies keep going despite everything you mention

Robert Boyd
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Walking Dead isn't an indie game. Telltale Games employs over 100 people and doesn't own most of their IPs.

Keith Thomson
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That does bring up the bigger question of just what is indie. Is telltale owned by a larger company or publically traded? Does the fact that they license the vast majority of their IPs mean they aren't? I know Stardock considers themselves indie because they're a privately owned company despite having more than 20 employees.

Neil Sorens
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I used "indie" to mean independent developers who self-publish on digital platforms. I probably should have included that in the blog entry, as everyone has their own idea of what "indie" means.

Robert Boyd
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It just seemed odd that you used The Walking Dead as an example for how indie games have been succeeding when it seems like a much better example of how becoming a successful indie developer is going to be come more difficult.

Back in the day, if you were selling games on a digital service like XBLA, you were up against old arcade ports & games made by tiny teams with limited resources. Now, you're up against games like The Walking Dead, Sine Mora, and Mark of the Ninja from small (but filled with industry veterans) or mid-sized companies which makes it much harder for single digit teams to compete. Not impossible (Dust: An Elysian Tail was primarily made by one person and it sold decently), just much harder.

Neil Sorens
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Awareness of digital platforms and name/brand recognition for independently developed games has increased - this is a good thing. The early challenge for digital platforms was simply consumer awareness. Big games like Minecraft and The Walking Dead increase that awareness. However, as you say, it is a double-edged sword. Once the increased competition outweighs the new users brought into the system by that competition, it is a net negative for the average game on those platforms. Awareness is no longer a big problem - as Tadhg Kelly states below (as an oversimplification of my arguments), too much supply is a bigger problem.

TC Weidner
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6. the economy, it will hit those with big overhead and too many good for nothing suits the hardest. Those indies and small privately held LLCs that dont have debt loads, are not leveraged, are nimble and easily adaptable and are willing to take risk, will live to fight another day. Large corps with tons of overhead, debt, leverage, suits, and little more than a few legacy games are going to get hit hard. You already see it happening.

Im not saying indies wont be hit hard, but needing little more than a desktop, some time, skill, and an idea, indies will keep popping up, and popping up and popping up. We arent going anywhere.

as noted above by James, For corps its all about the money, for many indies its about the art, the need to create. If money comes, great, if not.. so what. That's the difference, and its beginning to show.

Simon Roth
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Exactly. I couldn't of put it better myself.

Not to mention, historically, the entertainment industry usually booms during recession! And current figures indicate significant growth in the sector in the UK and US.

Neil Sorens
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Sure, it may hit the big companies harder, but many of them also have huge piles of cash and stacks of bankable IP to get them through rough times. Not so for independent developers. The weak economy is indisputably a bad thing for them, even if it is worse for some other group.

Even the guy making games in his spare time is going to be affected, because a weak economy means less spare time as people have to spend more time working extra jobs or looking for work (when the entire ecosystem is considered - of course some individuals who lose jobs may collect unemployment and have more time to work on personal projects, but this isn't the overall trend).

(By the way, I wrote the article using "indie" to refer to all types of independent, self-publishing developers, not just the garage type.)

Michael Wenk
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But if they don't have something now to pay for their costs, how will they survive to get the next game out? Of course they can use Kickstarter or other crowd funding, but I can't see this competing with publishers and other investors in the long term. We're only starting to see what happens when Kickstarters fail to produce, I really wonder if people will continue to put support into a project when they have either had one not produce crap or keep reading about such projects.

And while being all about the art is great, it only goes as long as you can put food on the table and live the sort of lifestyle you want to live. And that is why it is actually nice to deal with a big publisher, they pool the risk and you're likely to at least get paid for what you do.

Take the whole 38 Studios mess, an independent is much more likely to not have a paycheck than one of the bigs. And judging by that mess, people don't seem to understand the risk inherent to that situation.

I also agree that the big companies will weather the storm much easier than the little guys because of the shared risk.

TC Weidner
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@michael I disagree. I come from a wall street background, and I see another credit crisis coming down the road, its the debt heavy leveraged large corps that will be hit the hardest. No one will be unscathed but it will be the big slow leveraged " dinosaurs" that go extinct first.

example, some of these firms even pushing out million units still are having to layoff people, what will happen if and when credit dries up again? or the world hits a recession?

Low overhead, small and nimble. Very few firms outside of Apple and a few others are actually swimming in cash. Other industries have the govt as a backstop, this industry, not so much.

ian stansbury
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Gotta disagree...Well, with this whole article actually.

1. Console Slowdown, last time I checked this was good for indies. Besides the boost it gives to steam and pc gaming, less AAA titles lets the big publishers push smaller indie titles. There may be push back when the new set of consoles come out but thats a minimum of a year away.

2. Besides the counter points you made in your own #1, I dont think either older games or AAA are really "drowning out" indie games. The best will rise to the top same as always, but now with people spending money on the AAA digital copies there is much larger amount of money to be divided up. Plus who says "Oh I can't buy this copy of FTL, I need that six bucks to pay for this copy of Farcry 3"

3. I like green light. Some of the games on there are crap and it doesn't work quite right yet but still I've seen some neat games on it. Biggest issue is that it does not determine who steam puts on the for sale list. Major titles, both publisher and indie, are gonna be there. Greenlight is meant to find those couple of games a month that might have slipped by steam. Which doesn't really happen, its really about giving a voice to players and not discoverability at all but that's a different issue.

4.Mobile may have a bust coming but there is going to still be a ton of money out there to be made. I predict a lot of big mobile companies are going to crash and burn and replaced by more indies who will do the same.

5. GW2 anybody? LOTRO? heck even Angry Birds. There's good f2p and bad f2p. If its annoying to play for free its bad f2p. If it fun to play for free but awesome to play when paying a bit its good f2p. There will not be a swing back to subs as long as good f2p are there.

6. Meh, people play games, economy or no. It's cheaper than most things you can do. You kinda phone this one in so I'm not even sure what to respond to.

7. Legitimate one, not sure that it will really effect indie games as the kickstarter was pretty much just late 11 and 12 while indie growth has been for the last few years.

Neil Sorens
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1. The AAA games still do fine on consoles. It's the games made by small independent developers that are experiencing the brunt of the slowdown. That is good for independent developers and encourages big publishers to push indie games...why?

2. Money spent on entertainment is pretty fungible, whether it's a conscious decision or not. And discoverability problems (discoverability is a huge factor in sales of indie games) resulting from small games having to share virtual shelf space with larger games (and ports of old games, e.g., PS1 classics, etc.) is a problem.

3. "Greenlight is meant to find those couple of games a month that might have slipped by steam." Nope. It's the sole approval mechanism for companies that have not yet published on Steam.

4. The existing mobile platforms heavily favor the entrenched players. I think there was an article that said the top 25 publishers (which of course includes self-publishing developers) make half the App Store revenue. That's a very small percentage earning a very large percentage. It's far more likely that indies will fail to break in than existing companies crashing and burning, although I think we'll see some of that, too.

5. Most F2P models these days simply unbalance rewards and progression to the point that they are annoyingly slow, to the point where people are willing to pay to speed it up. Guild Wars is not F2P - you have to buy the game. Their model would not work if they gave the game away, because their in-game purchases are not going to be a large enough revenue stream to make the money balance out. And I'm not saying there will be a swing back to subscriptions on MMOs. I'm just talking about regular games across all genres - developers/publishers think that F2P is some panacea that can be applied to any and every non-AAA game. It will not end well.

6. I don't belabor the point because it's such an obvious thing. Video games aren't a necessity and thus suffer when people can only afford necessities (or can afford games but decide that saving against emergency would be the wiser choice). Counting inflation, worldwide video game revenues have been nearly flat for the past four years, despite the resurgence of the PC market, the growth of the App Store, the ubiquity of gaming-capable smartphones, the rise of tablets, the increase in impulse-buy opportunities, the success of F2P games, the introduction of new gaming handhelds, etc.

Celso Riva
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Heh a rather pessimistic view of the situation :) I think the article is partly right, but even years ago when I started, is not like it was so easy either.
In short, if you make an awesome game, you WILL make money.
If you make a good game but nothing special, you'll make less money or need more luck.
If you make a bad game, not even with luck you'll make decent money.

You can make a living either with 1 awesome game, or several good but not exceptional ones. Also depends on your costs. Are you alone or in a team? I think teams are those who are going to be mostly in danger. Indies working alone will have more safety margins.

Matthew Burns
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Well stated James. The fact we indies can find as many different ways as possible to stay afloat, gives us an unique position within the gaming community. As TC writes above:

"Those indies and small privately held LLCs that dont have debt loads, are not leveraged, are nimble and easily adaptable and are willing to take risk, will live to fight another day."

It is our lifestyle (as stated by James) and yes there are many failures, but in the end an indie does have a more flexible financial situation than, let us say a large corporation which puts out a $100,000,000 game that fails. We answer to ourselves.

In no way am I dismissing the brutality of the gaming market, but I do agree with Ian's point #6. It is so much cheaper than most "activities" out there.

From what I have seen and experienced, indies are not losing steam but continue to chug away. However, it must be stated I am an optimist.

Daniel Cook
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So the general idea is correct. The exact reasons listed are a little off. Various new markets are maturing and this is closing down opportunities for smaller developers. Cheap distribution is getting either expensive or is heavily gated.

There are notable exceptions to all these trends, but the numbers show:
- Consoles as a space for indies stopped being viable a few years ago with rare exceptions.
- Steam is still viable, if you can get past the gates.
- Mobile is closing off quickly. These are heavily gated markets with high paid acquisition costs.
- Kickstarter is not yet and may never be more than a niche funding option. It is growing, but tends to favor established audiences, not new audiences.
- F2P. Most indies are being priced out of this market (they can't acquire customers at going rates) and there is a massive skill barrier that the majority of indies haven't attempted overcoming. Expect a lot of big money to move into this space over the coming years.
- Social network. Same issues as F2P in general, though much further along the maturation curve.
- Direct PC downloadable has not proven able to sustain a large population of developers since the smaller fish can't get the distribution.

Currently the only meritocratic platform remaining are Flash portals. This is bound to shut down as soon as suits figure out reliable ways of making vast sums, but so far the fragmented nature has stumped the herd (if not individuals). I can see these portals eventually morphing into supplying HTML games which tap into mobile growth via the browser back door. However this is still a few years off since the supply of such games is limited.

The one area I think indies will continue to thrive is as hobbyists. Tool are cheap, feeder schools are churning out partially skilled game labor, and unemployment is high for new graduates. Much like there is a constant population of hobbyist musicians, we'll have a constant population of hobbyist game developers. A very tiny percentage will 'make it big' and the story of these outliers will be repeated again and again to new hungry generations.

And some of those indies may stumble upon new ways of making money.

take care,
Danc.

Saul Gonzalez
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I'm a college professor in Venezuela spearheading a postgraduate program on multidisciplinary game development. For various reasons, it is highly unlikely we will have AAA or middle-tier studios in the country within the foreseeable future. I think the only way to have something resembling a local game industry is to have a bunch of indie studios (indiebits.com is inspirational).

For that reason I'm focusing the program on indie development, meaning small-team, self-funded, digitally-distributed games. I wouldn't graduates to have outsourced work and leaving the country as the only viable career moves. Hope to cover not just dev but some of business and marketing side as well.

However, it is discouraging to consider that the era of being able to make a living as an independent game developer may be coming to a close instead of just getting started. Do you have any advice regarding an enterprise like this? (Hopefully other than "don't do it". :)

Dave Ingram
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Good points - but I believe the indie segment will survive and find it's proper place.

Remember the "dot com" bubble of 2000? In the run-up to 2000, there were tons of new online startups, and most of them didn't make any sense. When the bubble burst, very many dot-com entrepreneurs and companies went bust. But that didn't mean that online businesses died - it simply meant that online companies had to be more savvy, think more clearly about their products and services, and understand the market better. The world we live in today is filled with useful online businesses, despite the fact that the bottom dropped out for this type of business in 2000.

The same may happen to indie devs. Perhaps the days of everyone and their grandmother starting a game studio in their parent's basement will fade, but the industry will eventually emerge stronger and more mature (with fewer and higher-quality studios).

Neil Sorens
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Hence, "downward correction". I thought that "bust" or "crash" was probably too strong a term, and I certainly don't think independent developers will die off, just that the majority are in for tough times.

Tadhg Kelly
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Yes, oversupply (points 1 to 4) is a problem, especially when the target market is not really growing. (Gaming in general is growing, but indie/core channels are not really). Free-to-playing is potentially a solution to that problem though. At the moment, granted, various f2p titles are on the cheap side, but then you have games like Triple Town which maybe show the way. As for The Economy, barring a fiscal cliff it's on the mend.

Can't agree on the Kickstarter point though. Crowdfunding is a key part of the future, whether on Kickstarter or somewhere else. This is why I've been a vocal proponent of the idea that Steam needs to get into the Kickstarter business rather than the Like business.

Jane Castle
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Starting your own business (or going "indie") is fraught with risk in either good times and in bad. This is true for video games as well as starting a hot dog cart business.

I really don't understand the point of this article. The article just states common realities of trying to start a new business. With minor reworkings this article could easily be applied to a plumber that wants to go "indie".

I guess these types of articles are written because the bulk of "indies" don't have a clue as to what they are getting into. Or perhaps they somehow think that developing games is "special" and the trials of starting a business will not apply to them, so these articles are written to inform them of the obvious.

If you go "indie" you will encounter competition, will be subject to the whims of the economy, will need to do PR & marketing, deal with customers, manage cash flow, deal with taxes etc. etc. just like starting any OTHER business...... video games are just another product to be sold, there is nothing special involved that differentiates them from any other product.

TC Weidner
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well, its a little different. I cant imagine a plumber saying I'm a free plumber, he does the work and then says, well if you want hot water, that option will actually cost you. And if you want more than 30 gallons of water to come out each day, well that option can be purchased as well. ;)

Neil Sorens
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It's not just about people with no experience getting into the business having a hard time. It's about new challenges and unexpected pitfalls that the bulk of independent developers, including ones large enough that people call them "independent developers" rather than "indie developers," are going to face.

Like I said in the blog entry, there are changes - some that have already occurred, some that are in the process of occurring, and some that will occur - in the market (supply and demand), the available platforms and their associated policies, the funding and business models...these are dramatic changes with dramatic effects that certainly do not have analogues in the plumbing industry. When a toilet breaks, people don't decide that they'll simply forego pooping or use public restrooms instead. The "indie plumber" doesn't have competing plumbers offering to fix it for free in the hope that the customer will spend money with them later. Plumbers don't crowdfund their projects. Plumbers don't have to be voted into the Yellow Pages. Should I go on?

Jane Castle
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@Sorens

Now I know why you wrote this article. You think you're "special".....

As for your plumber retort.....

If a toilet breaks or require expensive repairs and you have no money, you will have to make due. Sure it isn't as easy as not purchasing a game, but if price is an issue you will shop around for the best price you can afford or work with the plumber to lower the price...... Again this is the market at work, be it plumbing or games.

The "indie" plumber will have to charge competive rates in the hopes of attracting new customers and\or developing a client base. They also have to compete with established mega chains (Roto Rooter) that have vastly more resources and marketing budgets and a national reach. They may also have to provide extra services at cost in order to build up or differentiate their business from the pack. The issues of customer acquisition and the challenges involved are the same.

Also NO ONE is forcing you to make your games and sell them for free. F2P is the latest buzzword in this industry. Just like social games, cloud gaming and MMORPGs before it. If you make a good game with perceived value people will pay for it. And don't bother with how plumbers don't have piracy to deal with. I can assure you they have other issues to deal with that make piracy in the game industry a non issue....

Plumbers have expensive tools, insurance and licenses that they need to invest in as well as a working truck. While they don't crowd fund they need access to capital just like any other business. This capital comes from personal savings and\or perhaps a loan. The issues with cash flow are the SAME crowd funding or otherwise.

While they may not be voted into the Yellow Pages the results are the same as for indies. Also that is ONLY Steam so your example is perhaps a bit biased don't you think?

Discoverability is an issue in the Yellow pages. Open up any phone book, search for plumbers and you will see a great example of market saturation. Actually plumbers are at a major disadvantage as they only have access to a local customer base whereas an indie developer has a much greater reach.

Again your response backed up my suspicions, ie. you think video games are "special" and that these market forces you speak of only apply to games. I can assure you they do not.

Like many, you delude yourself into thinking these are "issues" that are particular to the games industry. Hence why I thought the article was pointless.

Neil Sorens
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"Actually plumbers are at a major disadvantage as they only have access to a local customer base whereas an indie developer has a much greater reach."

No, according to you, all challenges faced by all types of business at all time periods are all exactly the same. There is never any disruption unique to a specific industry or a subset of businesses within that industry because of changing technology, regulation, or market trends. Independent video game developers in 2012, Kodak in 2000, typewriter manufacturers in 1975, stenographers in 1950, ocean liners in 1925, carriage makers in 1900...all with the same challenges and obstacles.

Thank you for your insight. You should consider going into venture capital or opening your own business.

Jane Castle
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Actually I have my own successful business and have faced many of the game specific challenges you describe. So unlike many on here I have the experience of running a business and all that is involved, from software development, right down to making and designing my own hardware.

Also the challenges\changes you describe are nothing new, so why write this article... tell people something they don't already know.

I checked your bio and you do not own your own studio but instead work for one (correct me if I am wrong) If things are so bad and a correction is about to take place, then why don't you quit?

Also we are to believe there is a correction in indie games just because YOU say so. Your article is wild conjecture at best.

Please don't twist what I said in order to make your argument. I NEVER said all challenges faced by all types of businesses are EXACTLY the same. I merely stated there are similarities (plumber example) and the topics you touched on are not anything new or that isn't obvious to anyone in any industry. Disruption happens in ANY industry and in many varied forms but the gist of these challenges is the same. Again what is your point?, besides twisting what I said to suit your agenda.

Neil Sorens
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So, "Jane Castle", my predictions are simultaneously so inane that they "are obvious to everyone in any industry" and so off-the-wall that they are best described as "wild conjecture"?

You do realize that you're arguing that two completely contradictory and opposite things are both true?

Matthew Smith
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Jane do you have a twitter account? I'd like to follow what you're doing. I'm a repeat entrepreneur and am currently starting a game company. I like your no bullshit attitude. (Or is Jane your nom de guerre?)

Jane Castle
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Hi Matthew,

I will send you an email.....

Michael Joseph
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Indies games have gained popularity because of their original gameplay and style combined with QUALITY (crappy games don't succeed just because they're indie) and a personal connection to the community. In other words, successful indie products are being made by TALENTED and passionate indie developers.

Beyond continuing to do those things, I really don't see any other points being critically important.

Are non indies capable of creating the types of original games that customers want? If they are, then it's still a good thing for games. All that matters is that somebody is filling that void. But if they are unable to make that transition due to internal politics, ingrained attitudes, lack of outside the box thinkers, massive overhead, etc, then indies are going to continue to find success.

I for one think that this indie success window will beget more indie successes both from those that have made it and those who've been inspired. I don't see how that window gets closed now that it's been opened.

p.s. It's true that there are probably more indies working on games than ever before in history. Some insecure developers see the increased competition as bad for trying to make a living. I see it as GREAT for gamers. That is the only score that matters.

Jane Castle
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Indies have been around in one form or another since the dawn of time. That will NEVER go away. As for the downward correction, I don't see that happening. There are VERY FEW successful indie developers to begin with. So I guess by correction perhaps the article states that fewer crappy developers will decide to become indie.

If anything Steam GreenLight showed just how many sub standard indie games are out there. If anything there is more shovel ware out there than ever before. So I would welcome a correction in this regard.

As for successful indies they will be around same as they were before.......

Adam Bishop
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"The market will be like [X] in a few years" is a fool's game.

For example, I didn't see anyone predict the sudden Kickstarter explosion. Then when it happenned instead of adjusting their ideas to take what had happenned into account, people immediately started trying to find ways to explain Kickstarter away so that their ideas would remain valid. Now we're hearing that Kickstarter is just a fad, and we're hearing it from people who didn't predict it would break out in the first place and whose ideas about where the market is heading require a Kickstarter failure.

I'm just using Kickstarter as an example here, it would be relatively easy to do this with all sorts of other segments of the game industry. People who are heavily invested in F2P are (stunningly!) convinced that F2P is the future. And so on.

Subscription based MMOs are the future. F2P is the future. Indies are dying. PC is dying. No one will buy a Wii. The games press is full of people who love to predict, but I've not seen a very good history of anyone being especially right. No one knows what's coming.

Jane Castle
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The game industry is also full of people that once they make a prediction that never pans out, never write a follow up article as to why they were so wrong in their prediction....

Neil Sorens
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Yes, predictions are difficult because it is a chaotic industry with a far greater amount and frequency of disruptive technology than most (despite Jane's arguments that plumbing faces the same kind of challenges).

I'd argue that the best predictors are those running the companies that have successfully and consistently negotiated the never-ending gauntlet of changing trends. For them, anticipating market trends isn't a fool's game; it's a basic element of survival.

Mike Jenkins
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Neil your take on Greenlight is hyper negative as well as condescending. It also goes out of its way to not name names, when 50~ titles have been accepted. I would be interested in your opinion if you were to point out examples of games that are being ignored but deserve attention, and games which were greenlit but didn't deserve it.

Neil Sorens
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Off the top of my head:
- Our competitor, Farsight, has attempted, without success, to get approval for the Pinball Arcade, a highly reviewed game with a profitable business model. They've shipped on multiple platforms and have an experienced studio and enthusiastic fanbase. Steam has no high-quality pinball games. It should be a no-brainer.
- Towns is a clunky, half-done game with loads of missing features and bugs. It should not be for sale on Steam. It probably should not have been approved, since the developers have no professional game development experience, without at least an alpha-level build (all functionality in place, assets locked). But I don't know for sure, since I don't have access to all the information that someone making that decision should have.
- WarZ is a blantant ripoff of DayZ and a pathetic mod of War Inc. It is an unfinished game with lots of missing features. It should not be for sale on Steam. Because War Inc. was on Steam, I am assuming that they were able to bypass the approval process. That shouldn't happen.

Mike Jenkins
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Neil, this is why I disagree with you on Greenlight. Just because the games you like aren't getting voted in, doesn't mean you are right. You remind me of one of those "he's not mah president" people. I purchased Towns well over a year ago when it was in alpha testing, and I quite enjoy it. Whether or not it is ready to be sold on Steam is debatable, however, you don't not need to be ready for release to be greenlit. It's a different argument.

I will agree with you on War Z completely. I actually had no idea that was a Greenlight success.

With a pinball game, you may be onto something. I don't believe there is a large market for pinball simulators, and I am a fan of pinball. Because of that, of course it would be hard for a pinball simulator to succeed in this type of system. Is that a bad thing? That is hard to say. If a mediocre indie FPS is going to sell 10,000 copies, and the best indie pinball simulator is going to sell 5,000 copies, who are you to say that the pinball simulator deserves a place on Steam? If Steam as an entity believes a genre is under represented on its store, it should do something about it. I don't see how that is an issue with the Greenlight program.

Neil Sorens
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It's not a case of a game I personally like not getting in. I mean, after all, it's my competitor. All the points I listed in favor of it are objectively measurable. It's the process that's subjective, not me. And it's a process that puts a huge emphasis on high concept and little else - which is not a recipe for success, as any publisher or approvals department at a console maker can tell you. It's letting the inmates run the asylum.

And you list "I quite enjoy it" as an argument in favor of a game. Can I say "just because the games you like ARE getting voted in, doesn't mean you are right"? There are objective measures that a game should pass, factors that are obscure or irrelevant to the average gamer, but extremely relevant to the likelihood that a team will be able to execute well on its idea, know when to launch its product, and provide a minimum level of support for the game after it is released.

Greenlight approval doesn't necessarily have any bearing on number of copies that will be sold. You know what would be better indicators? Copies sold on other platforms. Metacritic scores. Results of games done by the same team. None of which are factors - only the silly popularity contest.

"If Steam as an entity believes a genre is under represented on its store, it should do something about it." But it can't under the Greenlight program. "I don't see how that is an issue with the Greenlight program." Because the Greenlight program prevents Valve from doing something about it.

Michiel Hendriks
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Indie games are not going away, they have been here for over 20 years. Id Software and Epic Games used to be indie studios in the early 90s, they moved on, others took their place.
You can't stop people from trying to do their own thing.

Neil Sorens
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"Downward correction" is a far cry from "going away"

Alfe Clemencio
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Well hey... I make more money off boxed copies as an Indie Dev anyways.

Jarod Smiley
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This is fascinating...I have no chops to make them myself, but I am a somewhat critical gamer nowadays as I find much of the highly rated/reviewed titles unappealing. But it's just awesome seeing people who actually make games comment and discuss here...

@Jane Castle, I would love to support whatever your company is doing (if it's passionate/good of course '-) so please send me your twitter or Facebook so I can keep up-to-date with any projects your involved with. Like your swag...

I donated $15 to a Kickstarter project called Sports Friends...there's tons of gamers a lot more dedicated than me and supported it more heavily...So regardless of where the economy goes, and how flooded markets get, I think support for quality content will always be there, and there will always be people to create it.

Still a cool article though, and much interesting discussion resulted.

james sadler
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You paint a very bleak picture of not only "indie" games but the games industry in general. We are at a crossroads of many things. Console changing or going away, the mobile market, the end of the mid tier, yadda yadda yadda. The reality of the situation is that things are just changing and its scary. I've written about my thoughts on Greenlight whenever someone posts an anti-Greenlight article. The truth is we just don't know what's going to happen with it yet. Indies also need to get over the idea that they're making games for themselves and are going to make a billion dollars from it. Too often I see developers whine about how their project didn't sell on iOS when it was a clone of another game, was terrible, very niche, or just another drop in the app store bucket. If a developer is putting their game out to sell, and maybe even make money off of, then some research into what they are selling and to whom is necessary.

Personally I see things changing for the better in the indie universe. Eventually developers are going to get tired of making F2P games because it just isn't financially viable without in-game ads or adding payment features. The audience doesn't really like this either so they'll walk away too. Now that things have pretty much hit rock bottom price wise I really think we'll start seeing developers putting higher price tags on their products and sticking to them. Its a smart thing really. Since everything is in the gutter a buyer may look at it and say "I wonder why they're charging so much when everything else is so cheap. That might mean its better quality than all this free crap." Then we begin the climb back out of the gutter into the normal space. Things will still be different though. There will still be the free stuff, but people will begin to again pay for quality.

I really don't see the mobile market being a huge contender for the core gaming audience. Mobile games are limited in content, size, and depth. Yes there are some exceptions to the rule, but there always will be. The core audience will still want high graphics, depth of content, and physical controls. If anything I see more games that have mobile branches so that the player can take their game that they have on their console or PC anywhere with limited access, graphics, and content.

This whole downturn in the industry isn't as bleak as it seems. Really it is just a greater opportunity to offer the players more for their money and innovation in what games are.

Lin Bang
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@Jane Castle Some excellent points. Please could you also send me your Twitter address if you have one, as I would also like to hear more of your views?

Dimitri Del Castillo
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I agree with #3. Steam is in the driver seat right now for PC games. They need to take on more normal publisher responsibilities like making 1st party test passes to see if the product actually works and isn't a heap of poop like War Z. Now that they have the mandate, they need to step up and improve the quality of the product.

Greenlight is just a nightmare. It's disorganized and clunky to browse through. I've given up on checking out the titles in it. If some good squeeks out of Greenlight, I'll see a friend playing it and I'll just ask them if it's any good.

I'm not sure if Steam has the bucks to expand into a more traditional publisher role but they really ought to look into it. They need a formal submission process that vets content for release and while I'm at it, they could use better support as well.

Henrik Strandberg
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Neil, thanks for some well-formulated opinions! I agree with most all of them - sadly - and while plumbing is a far-fetched analogy, I think Jane Castle has a point also that it's not all that different from other businesses. What IS different with the gaming industry that DOES make it special, is that technology, distribution and consumption patterns are changing at a very rapid pace. What we're seeing is more analogous to there suddenly being dozens of Water & Sewer providers available, with widely varying reach, rates, delivery methods, and quality of water. As a plumber, how do you deal with that?

However, there's a flip side to everything, and I think it's also prudent to point out all the reasons why the opportunities for indies have never been greater!

1. Console Is Losing Mindshare
Consoles have the highest barriers of entry of all platforms (development hardware, HD asset budgets, concept approvals, distribution dynamics, etc.), but truth is gamers are increasingly spending more time on other platforms, that have much lower barriers for developers. This is a good thing for indies.

2. Blockbuster Competition
Competition is (almost) never a bad thing. It raises quality, awareness and grows the size of the pie. While it makes it harder to compete, still this is a good thing for indies.

3. Steam Greenlight
While today it's less than perfect for sure, it exists, and surely that is a good thing for indies?! Look at how Steamworks has evolved over the years - it's safe to assume Valve do not consider the current Greenlight "done" in any way, shape or form. Go Valve!

4. Platform Migration
See #1. No one said it's easy to make it big - the blue oceans on facebook and mobile are long gone - but the lower barriers of entry are still there, and that's a good thing for indies.

5. Free to Play
In my mind this is the one REAL challenge for "indies" - F2P involves so much more than just making a great game and give it away for free. Fully understanding how to set up, launch, and operate a successful F2P business is hard, still maturing, paradigms are rapidly mutating, and it's expensive. CACs have tripled or quadrupled over the past few years, there are still no or very few off-the-shelf products available for fundamental stuff like identity management, B.I. solutions, virtual curency stores, offers and promotions engines, campiagn management, community management, etc. and what's available is not necessarily well-suited for games.

Ian Stansbury brings up GW2 and LoTRO as good F2P examples above. They are good examples in the sense they illustrate what indies are up against... launched by mature digital publishers able to sink many millions of dollars into building the organization and infrastructure required to launch and operate a successful freemium (LoTRO) or paymium (GW2) MMO business. Plus, they don't have to pay Apple or facebook 20-30% of their gross revenue, as they have the marketing muscle and existing customer base to drive millions of qualified prospects into *their own* acquisition funnels.

Bottom line I'm not certain F2P is a viable business model for indies. It's tempting, but unless you REALLY know what you're doing and have the resources to execute, chances to succeed are slim. You're probably better off signing with an established digital publisher if F2P is at the core of your game design.

6. Economy
The flip side is there's more development talent floating around, and VCs and angels are looking for things outside-the-box as more established games stocks and studios stutter. The democratization of the publishing process combined with lower dev costs (=smaller up-front investments) has likewise lowered the barrier of entry for investors. This is a good thing for indies.

7. Crowd-funding
I think the word is still out whether Kickstarter is a Groupon thing that will rapidly contract due to user backlash, or if they (or a similar site) can come up with a tweaked model that can increase user confidence about donating $$ into a black hole and hope for the best... Just like succeeding in F2P though, succeeding with crowd-funding requires a great deal of skill and bandwidth (http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-07/06/stainless-games-ki
ckstarter)

Making great games is really hard, and making a (good) living out of it as an entrepreneur is even harder. That has always been true and I doubt it will ever change. There's however a relatively small number of wicked smart indies who have made it look easy in the past few years, who've had the foresight (and possibly a little luck :) to predict market and consumer patterns and reap the rewards. Now, the herd is catching up - so thanks Neil for the words of caution.

Matt Cratty
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Its much more likely the gold rush of the app market will die soon than the PC indie movement.

I do agree wholeheartedly that steam needs to actually manage the indie submission system instead of passing the buck to group think (idiocy). But, I can't believe they'd be so stupid as to continue letting some true quality products waste away.


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