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.