Game discovery is a problem. It’s at the heart of why the “Indiepocalypse” was a real event. Despite all the seemingly easy access to large numbers of players, the reality is that access is now more limited than it’s ever been for indie game developers. It’s a problem for game players to find games that are ideally suited to their tastes and it’s a problem for game developers to find the right audience for their games.
A perfect example of this is the top 10 games in the highest grossing chart for the App store. Most of those games I have no interest in playing, that grossing chart does not reflect my game playing choices, and therein lies the problem.
But it wasn’t always like this, there was a time 10 or so years ago when all indie game developers would have an equal chance of discovery, when the whole web was your store and websites even helped get your game discovered, this was the era of Flash web games. We didn’t realize at the time just how easy it was for our games to be discovered, we took it for granted, in comparison we can see just how bad game discovery is nowadays for indie game developers. Before I continue I should say, there's no stats and pie charts here to back up this article, it's just based upon my own personal experience and observation of the indie game scene over a number of years.
I spent a large part of the past 10 years making Flash web games. This is roughly what would happen after a Flash game was created.
Putting your game on a high traffic site got you a lot of views and Newgrounds especially worked on a completely fair and democratic system, which meant your game was guaranteed views for a limited amount of time and more if lots of people liked your game. Your game would be visible on one of the main pages of the website for a limited amount of time, getting you a lot of exposure regardless of the quality of your game, i.e. it gave everyone a chance.
Because there were so many distribution points, games websites wanted games, so much so that they would take your game file from a large games portal and put it on their own. This was probably a completely accidently side effect of making Flash web games, but it meant your game had a group of people who actively wanted to give your game more plays/views and they would do all the hard work to make it happen. You didn’t need to give much thought to discovery.
The interesting thing about this business model is that there were hardly any review sites for Flash games because they weren’t needed. The games sites themselves acted as filters of quality, with the higher quality games getting the most plays and being featured by the sites themselves.
This I believe was the golden age for game discovery, but nothing good lasts forever and so this time came to an end and the power shifted from a huge number of places to show your game to a few.
The first knock to this balanced system was the rise of games on Facebook. This was the first real big funnel to take traffic away from games portals and focus them on one website. Even on Facebook, the early days of having easy access to users stopped after a while as Facebook tightened up access to the various channels that were available. By that point a certain few companies had made a lot of money but the ladder had been drawn up and it was too late for anyone else to replicate that success, note that those companies success came because of the access they could have to users via the viral channels available to them. As soon as that situation changed, so did the ease of success for many gaming companies on Facebook and that particular gaming bubble came to an end. It wasn’t that the games got worse or that there were fewer of them, it was because the free access to users had been restricted.
Next came the mobile game revolution which pretty much ended the dominance of games portals as a means to play “casual” games, and in doing so focused even more players attention on just one place, whether it be the Apple store of Google’s. In both the above situations game discovery got proportionately harder when the “early” days of easy free access to many users ended. The power of discovery on those networks laid squarely with the platform holders themselves, they had the power to make the game visible to many players, or by lack of promotion the opposite. Of course in the Flash web days getting front paged on Newgrounds or similar sites had a big effect on your number of plays, but there were so many sites that if you didn’t succeed on one you could on another, but either way your game could find an audience.
Running alongside this all the time of course was Steam, which was still a place for AAA or mid-core games until indie devs started seeing it as a place to release indie games, this meant there were too many games for Valve to curate so Greenlight was created as a means for the community to curate itself. Greenlight has its detractors but it’s still better than the situation on the App stores and that means less games fighting for attention.
All of these developments in game distribution resulted in more power of discovery being concentrated in fewer companies’ hands. Now most people discover games through the following platforms…
Leaving the consoles to one side, that’s the equivalent to all Flash web games only being available on 3 websites. If that were the case would as many Flash devs had achieved success as they did? And from that went on to build a whole game making ecosystem? I doubt it. When you have a situation with such limited/narrow access to what games are available, without serious curation, all the quality games get completely eclipsed by the lower quality games just by sheer weight of volume.
The point here is things got more difficult because of the platform holders changing the situation. When all the power of discovery is in the hands of the few, they control what happens in the indie game market, not indie game developers and not players. When people argue against the “Indiepocalypse” they seem to continually miss that point, by saying things like “Oh there’s lots of tools now available to make games, it’s so easy!” or “There’s so many ways to get your game out there! Steam, app stores, social networks!” Or my favourite “It’s always been like this! Always been difficult to do well, stop complaining!”. None of these arguments take into account the prior access to large numbers of users and the very real ways by which that's changed.
If you already have a large network (and by large I mean multiple thousands) then you are set, if you don’t, then trying to get to the stage of having that, which wasn’t that hard some years back is now very very difficult, and that’s for a number of reasons. One of which being that people (understandably) are a lot more wary of who they allow into their own network, whether it be for play or business. The other of course is that the networks need to make money, so free ways of getting large-scale promotion have largely gone.
Those things together form I think the “Indiepocalypse”. It’s not that it’s harder to make games, or course it’s actually easier now, it’s not that you can’t publish your game, of course now you can, it’s that nobody will know your game ever exists and even if they get a hint that it does, they won’t care because your game probably doesn’t stand out enough. Doesn’t mean it’s a bad game, doesn’t mean there’s people who won’t enjoying playing it, but it won’t succeed or make anywhere near the revenue back compared to what you spent making it. The problem is discovery, or lack of.
I’ll add that of course there are some examples of indies that have done well, had successful games without having large networks/cash for promotion, but we are seeing that less and less and I would argue that’s not by chance.
We are now (and have been for some time) in a post-indiepocalyptic world. Unless the platform holders/social networks free up access to large numbers of users, life is just going to get even more difficult for indie game developers, to the point where there will be game developers who spend a fortune on getting noticed (i.e. the devs who have already made lots of money) and everyone else who is doing it as a hobby (with some of them getting lucky and getting some attention by sheer luck). The most likely outcome is that the platform holders/social networks are going to go in the other direction and restrict access to large numbers of users even more.
So is there an answer? I think there is, I firmly believe the following…
There is an audience for every game.
What really brought it home to me was Flappy bird. This game did as well as it did when the App store was already saturated with low “quality” games, and yes it did what it did most likely due to a certain Youtuber, however that still doesn’t explain why millions played again and again a simple non-descript game, i.e. a game like 1000s of others already there. So what does that tell us? It told me that there is an audience for every game, that every game can have lots of people playing (let’s say enough for it to make some money) it; the problem is just connecting those people to the game.
I’m currently planning/working on something that I’m hoping will help solve the discovery issue for all of us and it would be great to get everyone’s thoughts on the above and possible solutions to the discovery issue.