There has been more than a few articles recently here , here , here and here about the "Indiepocalpyse", regarding the state of affairs for indie devs and the debate as to whether it's now become almost impossible to make money as an indie developer.
Ok so here's my half rant, half thought out jibber jabber based upon personal experience and observation of the indie game industry for many a year. I've written and rewritten it numerous times but it never felt "right", I couldn't quite make it coherent until it struck me what the true nature of the situation is we are all in.
If it's not already obvious, it's pretty much over for indie game developers.
The time when you could be an indie dev, make a half decent game with half decent graphics, nice gameplay, do some promotion on Facebook/Twitter and make some nice coin is well and truly behind us. There were a few glorious moments where the clouds cleared, the sun shone and a 1-2 person indie game dev team could make a lot of money, but unless you win the equivalent of the indie game development lottery (Flappy bird) those times are now over. Business models that worked, don't anymore.
For those of us of a certain age (*cough* 40's) who as kids saw the rise and success of the "bedroom" programmer, 7-8 years back it looked like that time had returned. And it had, Flash was booming, games portals were booming, Steam was showing that indies could do well on PC and a strange new world called the "App store" was giving lots of game dev's new opportunities. The sun was shining on us common folk, and some of us were making hay.
And it's fair to say it was a bubble, an indie game bubble. Everyone and their dog was making a Flash, PC or mobile game, not just in the "traditional" markets of the USA/western europe, but now eastern europe, India, Africa, South America. And why not? you just needed a PC/Mac, some rudimentary code/art skills and you could make money. Game development had truly been democratized.
In this mad scramble for money, some game developers weren't just making hay, they were making gold. This enabled them to grow fast, take on more people and use their positions wisely to lock down the markets they had their initial success in.
Meanwhile AAA game developers and global brands saw all the money being made, and wanted a piece of the pie (this process is still happening obviously) so they piled in as well, further pushing indie game devs out of the markets.
The amount of games now being made available to the public was so huge and the windows onto them so small that in the words of Jacques Attali who in the 70s, who wrote a book called "Noise: The Political Economy of Music", there had become a "crisis of proliferation", he went on to say (regarding the music industry) that soon "we would all have so much recorded music it would cease to have any value". This situation has happened x100000 in the games industry.
As the stores increased in size so inversely the exposure a game would get decreased. This is why "How do I make a good game?" started to be replaced with "how do I get my game discovered?".
I would say it's not that each game has no value, it's just that there's so much gaming content (let's leave to one side that it has to fight for mindshare with all other forms of entertainment) its "perceived" value is low. There are lots of films released each year for sure, but just what would the value of any film be if there were 15k released each month ? This is why it's almost impossible to get people to download premium games on the App stores. The only way you get your game to be downloaded is if it's perceived value is high. Perception is everything. Social proof is everything.
A lot of us are hanging onto a narrative which ran its course years back. The narrative of "Indie game developer makes game and get's rich!". This narrative will happen again but I think it's most likely that the times it does it won't have anything to do with the actual game, but be merely based upon the presses/public's perception of the situation (again Flappy bird). We are in an economy of perception.
But nobody wants to stand up and say "If you want to make games as a hobby fine, but if you want to make it a financial success? don't give up your day job."
Business reality has a way of destroying dreams and dreams and making games are closely related.
There's also this idea that if a game is brightly coloured and contains stars and flappy things or sickly coloured objects that drop and swirl that the company making it is an "indie gaming company", because they are not making a full on 3D virtual world with guns and monsters. But there was a great article on TouchArcade.com which gives you some idea of just how far the bigger "indie" development companies will go to succeed. If you want to have a big financially successful game (especially on mobile) THAT'S YOUR COMPETITION.
Whatever "indie" game you are working on, you are up against games that are being made with more people, who have more resources and who have 10000s of dollars (that's a low budget) to spend on advertising. They probably also have established networks and connections within the gaming media to push their game. Compared to all that, what do you have? Is your game really so great that it's going to beat those other games with all the money/time/work being spent on them?
Part of the reason I'm writing this article is because I'm still reading articles with a hopeful point to them, this is a very dangerous message to put out. We all can't be Don Quixote fighting windmills anymore.
If you're an indie game dev reading this I don't want you to think it's not worth it. But I do want you to appreciate that either you know someone with a lot of influence who can help you get your game that perception of high value or you need to make a game that is actually of high value (basically AAA). The mountains a lot easier to conquer if you start near the top.
As an industry we need to acknowledge that the 2nd age of the "indie/bedroom programmer" ended some years back, and we are now in a new age of AAA. You're either a hobbyist (true indies) making games in your spare time when you're not at your "real job" or you're working for an AAA company making AAA games, even if they are called "Indie".