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Popping The Indie Bubble
by Robert Fearon on 05/26/14 03:47:00 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.


Recently, for the umpteenth time talk has turned to the idea of an indie bubble, which is really just short hand for the idea that indie as we know it and the successes it can bring are fleeting. The discussion this time has been spurred on by a blogpost by Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software warning us all of the hard times to come.

It's an interesting idea and talking point and it's good to pause and think of where we're at and consider what's coming next but really, it doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Like the idea of a second videogame crash, it's a prophecy of doom that never seems to deliver but is always on the horizon.

There is no indie bubble.

Is it going to be harder for developers as we go forward? Well, first we have to assume that right now the majority of developers have it easy and that's simply not the case. We have to assume that the majority of developers have had it easy for the past seven (or however many years since the golden age began) years and that's simply not the case. In the case of Vogel's Bubble, we have to assume that people can already just rely on "just Steam" for the money to roll in and that's a distortion at best. And we have to assume that for the duration of the bubble to date there's been constants. There's been surprisingly few when you look at how the past ten years of development has been shaped.

More egregiously, when it comes to Vogel's bubble we're asked to buy into a scenario where people want to be on Steam to emulate the successes of those already on the service.

Way back in 2008 (two years after the first public discussion over the indie bubble that I could find and according to Jeff Vogel, roughly the start of the indie bubble we're in. That's the problem with doomsday prophecies, no-one can ever make up their mind...) a number of successful and known indie devs raised a public petition with Valve asking them to open up their service to indie developers and to improve their communication. In 2008 it was fast becoming apparent that being on Steam wasn't going to be an option if you wanted to do business in the near future, too many people were asking "why isn't your game on Steam?" and "when is your game coming to Steam?". It was going to be essential.

Fast forward to 2014 and selling a videogame without a Steam key is an uphill struggle. Whilst there's still many people who prefer a DRM free option and will buy without, a Steam key isn't so much desired as expected as a baseline. Developers don't want to be on Steam to emulate the successes of their heroes (well, I'm sure they wouldn't object if someone dropped a few hundred grand in their laps), they want to be on a Steam because their customers expect to get a Steam key when they buy the game. We have entire bundles which are sold on the promise of future Steam keys.

They want to be on Steam because that's what's expected of them. Valve know this. Developers not on Steam known this. The public knows this as they're the ones requiring the Steam key. To paint this as anything but wanting the basics for survival, a necessity of doing business on the PC in 2014 is certainly an interesting angle. It makes for a good story I'm sure.

Another facet of the indie bubble we're supposed to buy into is the idea that small team development is something that's perhaps only been (and can be) sustainable and profitable for this brief period, that indie is a new force, indie as we have it now is special. Indie is a new name for it, sure. For the vast majority of the time we've been making games though, solo or small team development has been the norm. We went through a brief phase where the time and technology required to make a successful game shifted in both affordability and accessibility away from the smaller dev. AAA scale development has never really been responsible for the majority of games made (I'd argue AAA scale development being multi year sort of precludes that anyway) but for a brief, maybe around 10 year period it dominated our thoughts and even now it's difficult not to assume that it's the norm.

Yet from the seventies to the nineties, solo or small team development was the norm. During the nineties the shareware boom, the mod scene and increasing access to tools saw thousands of developers making games and making a living outside the studio system. The early two thousands saw massive amounts of shareware and freeware scattered across the internet. Casual saw hundreds of games released a week across many portals for years. Niche titles allowed developers to carve out a living and then XBLA offered access for a few to develop for consoles too with PSN hot on its heels.

Small team or lone development is and always has been the normal state for videogames. The internet, direct distribution, the comparatively barren release schedules of AAA, the rise of XBLA, PSN and much, much later Steam, accessible tools and a bunch of developers willing to make a noise and a lot of good games brought this back into focus and the media attention followed.

This is not a bubble, it's primarily enabled by one thing. Affordable access to tech. If, like during the nineties, essential tech both to play and make games becomes less affordable then we'll see a seismic shift in access and the viability of small development once more. Until then, this genie is not going back in the bottle. Indie or whatever name it might morph into is the normal state of affairs alongside AAA development.

But the market is, as it's always been, tough to survive in.

The indie bubble relies on developers who’ve found success at a certain time setting the narrative that it’s going to be harder for the next set of up and coming developers or studios and that’s not necessarily a truth, it’s going to be different but then it’s always different. It's always hard to get a break or get some money. The vast majority of developers barely scrape by, if at all.

The market hasn’t sat still for as long as I’ve been around videogames, it’s in a constant state of flux and evolution. There's been few constants for the past ten years.

In 2004, there was a now almost quaint casual vs hardcore divide amongst indies with casualties on all sides. When XBLA opened its doors we talked up its successes but we hushed away the ones who failed, we don't speak of the games that near bankrupt the devs or studios because they failed to make enough money to get by. We rarely spoke in public of the difficulties of getting games onto the service or, admittedly due to NDAs, the difficulties once you're on the service. We didn't speak of the barriers to PSN as much as we've talked up the successes. We've witnessed the fall of J2ME and the rise of and constant changes to the App Store, Android making phone development more accessible and both App Store development and Android coming with their own difficulties, successes and failures.

We've seen all stores change over the years, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Even our indie bubble golden goose, Steam, has saw a myriad of changes. From no indie games to some indie games to Mac games to Linux to building communities into the client to big picture to SteamOS and beyond. We speak loudly of how successful Steam is for everyone that's on it but that's far from a universal truth, same as the idea that there's only good games, Valve quality games on Steam, it's a convenient thing to believe but it's not the reality.

The reality is that Steam isn't a golden goose, Valve don't hand out golden tickets to success. Games fail on there and they always have. Only yesterday I was chatting to someone who contributed to a game released onto Steam in 2008 who is still waiting for his moneyhat to arrive. His situation far from unique, just generally not spoken of. It's true that the victors write our history but even then, it's a selective view. There's rarely any mention of those who made a substantial amount of money in XBLIG because hey, isn't that a wasteland where games go to die?

The successful write the story and for them, an influx of games and developers onto Steam can seem destablising, a sign of oncoming hardships. For the majority of devs who have Steam keys demanded from them and have no ability to provide them, access to Steam makes their life a bit easier, their chances of surviving in videogames increases. At least, until the next big change.

Is this the sound of everything going wrong? No, it’s business as usual in games. The crucial thing to remember is that whilst each and every shift and contortion in the world of making games takes place, there has been one constant. That with each push in recent years we're making the making of games more accessible, we're making selling games more viable for more people. It's never going to be perfect, it's never going to be good for everyone or even the majority but it's all progress. There will be casualties, there's always casualties. It'd be lovely to live in a world where everyone who wants or needs success sees that success but we don't live in that world. The indie bubble relies on us believing that this isn't happening, that what we have now is abnormal, not right, a glitch and it will correct and things will become harder for everyone, invariably as we open the doors to more people. That's not true. Some will struggle, some will wing it with ease. Pretty much the same as now.

There aren't too many games, that's silly. There aren't too many developers, that's silly. There's just people trying to get by.

Right now it’s just another time where people are making videogames and most fail to make substantial amounts of money but some do.

And that's no indie bubble, that's life in videogames.

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Rafael Vazquez
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I could have not put my own thoughts in better words.... I totally agree. The only constant in game dev is change. There has never been a moment when the industry is in flux. There's always a new gold rush on the horizon, an old platform dieing out, a wave of new ideas, a retreading of the old ones. Some manage to change with the times (or where born with the new era's sensibilities) and some struggle to adapt, but that's the way it's always been. I find the thought some have of 'too many developers' scary. If we close up unto ourselves, how will we bring in new ideas, new perspectives, allow the industry to grow. Yes most games will be of low quality, but who has made only hits. We all learned making mistakes, and from that we grew. I think its a bit two-faced to say that now that we're here we should let other out. Anyone who has a dream for development is entitled to a chance.

Daniel Gutierrez
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I don't understand how this is a rebuttal to Vogel's article. You supply a large number of (fairly unconnected) points about past development, but they don't tie to his primary point.

In his article his argument is quite simply there are more games being developed, and the demand ($) for games is remaining static. This makes it tough for middle sized tiers of developers ($500k budgets) to survive. He even says that we'll see a higher frequency of 1-3 man teams... which seems to be your eventual point that that is the natural state of the industry for non-AAA studios.

If anything, your article only makes it sound like to me that things were really good for a while (where we weren't limited to 80s & 90s style development) and a lot of different sizes of teams and methodologies produced games. But now those aren't possible... so I pretty much conclude that not only is the Indie Bubble a real thing, but we actually have already seen it burst.

Robert Fearon
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"In his article his argument is quite simply there are more games being developed, and the demand ($) for games is remaining static."

Well, that's just not true at all. There is literally no evidence that this is the case. Sales are up, the audience is broader and widening all the time. There is not a single thing pointing to the limit of a finite pool of money being reached, nothing pointing towards demand staying static whatsoever. There is no more too many developers or games than at ANY point in the history of videogames. It's a convenient construct but it's not true and videogame sales do not work like that because it's -always- about the next thing. Always.

"If anything, your article only makes it sound like to me that things were really good for a while (where we weren't limited to 80s & 90s style development) and a lot of different sizes of teams and methodologies produced games. But now those aren't possible..."

Except we're seeing games being made by all manner of team sizes. From solo developers to indies filling out what would have previously been producer/publisher backed mid tier and we're seeing massive successes from all of corners.

I know people really want to believe this but right now it's like, "indie games have more in common with crabs and that's scientific fact. There's no proof of it but that's science!" stuff out the wazoo.

But with that said, if/when he sits down and writes his survival advice, I'm willing to bet it'll be solid gold. He might make a rubbish oracle but he knows all the best ways to keep your head down and survive through rough times and I look forward to reading and learning from those pieces because they'll be relevant at any time someone is making games, I'm sure.

Michael Fitch
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I'd be a little wary of accusing others of playing fast and loose with the facts. Where is the citation that shows that "During the nineties the shareware boom, the mod scene and increasing access to tools saw thousands of developers making games and making a living outside the studio system." I suppose they may have been making a living in the sense of day jobs, but even today, "thousands" of indie developers breaking even seems like an exaggeration.

I'm outside of the indie scene, so I don't have a dog in this fight, and I'm not trying to protect any territory. What I've seen over the last few years is a lot of people migrating from "the studio system" into indie. Along with this migration has come a collapse of the support the publishing system used to provide for up-and-coming, experimental, and high-risk teams. To me, that looks a lot like the risk (capital) that used to come from publishing being outsourced into indie.

What percentage of indie developers are going to break even? 80%? That would be phenomenal, but not realistic. 50%? 20%? 10%? Given the discoverability problems that everyone is running into on mobile (and is increasingly becoming a problem on other platforms), the likelihood of any given independent game being successful gets smaller with every new release. You can point to outliers, but they represent less than 1% of the published games; let's not even consider the indies who never make it to ship.

Even if the reality is brighter than it looks to me (and I may well be biased), if 20% of indie developers break even - and I think that's highly optimistic - it's still going to be a bloodbath. You're talking about hundreds (or thousands, possibly tens of thousands) of developers who are going to go through the process of self-funding, crowd-funding, or family-funding a game project only to release it, have it fail, and never recoup. That's what a bubble bursting looks like. BTW, every bubble shows growth right up until it bursts; that's what makes it a bubble.

It's possible that the reality out there is rosier than it looks to me, but I honestly think that the indie scene is in for a very rough ride over the next few years. Some people are going to be successful, sure, and more power to them; however, a lot of people are going to fail and either go back into "the studio system" - such as it exists these days - or get out of game development. That doesn't mean they're not talented, hard-working, effective people, but financial success in this market is hard to come by and takes as much luck as anything else. That risk, which used to be absorbed by larger entities, is now on the shoulders of the game devs themselves. It's going to turn out to be a great bet for those who are successful, but for the rest, it's going to be a tragedy.

Sorry, didn't mean to turn this into a rant.


David Paris
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Just wanted to grab this quote: "Along with this migration has come a collapse of the support the publishing system used to provide for up-and-coming, experimental, and high-risk teams. " and mention it because I think it largely is the opposite of how indie vs publisher-backed titles work.

My experience was that publishers largely wanted nothing to do with anything experimental or high-risk, because they were much more focused on predictable sustainable profit. You don't get that with these factors, and as such, these are exactly the kind of projects that big publishers avoided like the plague.

It was the indie teams (small) that could build these products, because they were willing to take the risks, get themselves in hot water, and go for it anyways because they were overflowing with the drive to build something new. This was always the lure of being an indie dev - you were _allowed_ to do stuff that was outside the norm.

Robert Fearon
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I think if you've come away with the idea that I have a rosy view of things then I've probably failed somewhere down the line to be absolutely clear that the reason I'm confident that this isn't a bubble is that when you look at everything going on outside the success of a few (and they're the few that get the chance to write the story), there's nothing especially more rosy about now aside from our continued push towards accessibility of and access to tech.

Like, I'm not going to put arbitrary constraints on what could be considered making it here, there are and always have been large amounts of people getting by. I'll confidently stand by thousands at any one time over hundreds because videogames is a broad church and what people spend and need to get by varies massively. If we're going to be silly and assume videogames are a certain narrow segment then that'll push the number down but I think to get a more accurate view of where we are, it's really important to not do that. We are pushing outwards with many more kinds of game appealing to different people. That's not going to stop in a hurry. We just sort of go through spurts where we push a bit more but we're always at it.

And when you put where we are in any sort of historical context, when you look out across all the people making games now, what they're making and how they perform, it's really difficult to see an oncoming storm or bloodbath on the horizon without resorting to scares or "I believe". The truth is that this isn't a golden age or an inflated age for the vast majority of people making videogames and anyone who tells you that it is, isn't paying proper attention to the trials of those around them and in some cases (like with the 'tourists coming in' or 'here for the goldrush' arguments) are presenting a distorted view of the hows and whys of most people making games now. We have the most accessible tech we have ever had and a massive continuing push to make more accessible tools, right? If that stops, maaaaybe. Until then? People are gonna make games because they can. And that is OK.

Because the reality is that once again there are a few people sitting pretty on money mountains, a few people doing very well indeed (and these are the focus) whilst most people either just get by or fail. If you're waiting for a bloodbath, we've been sitting in it splashing around for years now but no-one wants to talk about how tough it is for the failures, we judge on the successes and build our stories around that. It's business as usual, really, y'know?

Bruno Xavier
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Now this is an article I agree with.