|Writing this article really stressed me out. I reworked it over a dozen times. To calm down a little, I will intersperse this with image that came up when I Googled "Free cute animal clip art." Here, we see a teddy bear who is addicted to The Spice.|
First, a brief history of the Indie bubble. In 2008, big budget developers were doing fine, but they had mostly abandoned a lot of genres many gamers loved (puzzle games, adventure games, 2-D platformers, classic-style RPGs, Roguelikes, etc.)
A few young, hungry developers stepped in and showed that classics can be written on low budgets by young, plucky people with unruly facial hair. (Braid. World of Goo. Castle Crashers. Minecraft. And so on.) They were rewarded with huge accolades and many millions of dollars.
Shortly after, other developers stepped in with their own games. They weren't quite as classic, but they were decent, and these people made fewer millions of dollars. Some old super-niche developers (Hello!) were able to rerelease old games and get caught in the rising tide.
Then even more developers, sincere and hard-working, looked at this frenzy and said, "I'm sick of working for [insert huge corporation name here]. I would prefer to do what I want and also get rich." And they quit their jobs and joined the gold rush. Many of them. Many, many. Too many.
And now we are where we are today.
Indie gaming has seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. A deer rocketing through a forest powered by its own poop. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
|Is it me, or is this bunny totally murdering this other bunny? IT'S GETTING REAL!|
Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I am in love with games. Video games in particular. Indie video games in super-particular. I am more smitten with them than I should be.
(That’s why I’m not angry at the big mobile game makers. They found a way to get my parents to want to be gamers! That’s awesome. I could never do that, and I lived with them!)
The rise of indie gaming over the last few years has been fantastic. It’s given birth to a lot of good, well-funded companies, that have the chance to make great products. (Like Transistor, that, as I write this, just came out.) As long as these companies keep making top-quality work on a reasonable schedule, they’ll be fine.
But lots and lots of other companies are trying to enter the space, and I’m not sure how many of them are aware that things are changing rapidly. Strategies that were sold to them as the Way To Go are rapidly becoming less effective, while forgotten strategies from back in the day may deserve new consideration.
(Of course, I'm talking about PC indie gaming here. On mobile, big free-to-play stomped out the little guys years ago.)
So what this grumpy old fart is saying is that there are Issues. They should be discussed. There are new obstacles that should be planned for and forces you may blame for your problems that, in fact, you shouldn’t. If you are a green developer, face these facts, or I believe destruction awaits.
The easy money is off the street. If you want to make it in this business now, you have to earn it. It's a total bummer. Blaming Steam won't help.
Enough preamble. Let's get to the evidence, shall we?
|This adorable dinosaur is mocking your dreams.|
The problem is too many games.
How bad has the problem gotten? How towering, bleak, and painfully unavoidable? It's gotten so bad that even the gaming press has noticed it.
Steam released more games in the first 20 weeks of 2014 than in all of 2013. I don't know why anyone acts surprised. How many times last year did we see the article, "Another 100 Greenlight games OK'ed for publishing!"?
This wouldn't be a problem if there were a demand, but there's not. After all, almost 40% of games bought on Steam don't get tried. As in, never even launched once! At least the people who download free-to-play games try them.
(To be clear, this isn't a problem because these games will keep people from buying new ones, though there will be some of this. People mostly don't play these excess games because they didn't want them. The problem is that a business based on selling things people don't want is not a stable one.)
Because this flood of games is so unmanageable, Steam has been doing everything it can to throw open the gates and get out of the messy, stressful business of curation. This is absolutely inevitable. It's also going to winnow out a lot of small developers, who don't have the PR juice to get noticed in the crowd. (Think iTunes app store.)
With so much product, supply and demand kicks in. Indies now do a huge chunk (if not most) of their business through sales and bundles, elbowing each other out of the way for the chance to sell their game for a dollar or less. Making quick money by strip-mining their products, glutting game collections and making it more difficult for the developers who come after to make a sale. (I am NOT making a moral judgment here. It is the simple consequence of a long series of calm, rational business decisions.)
Indie gaming started out as games written with passion for people who embraced and loved them. Now too much of it is about churning out giant mounds of decent but undifferentiated product to be bought for pennies by people who don't give a crap either way.
It's not sustainable.
|When I asked this lion, "Will Steam Early Access make things better?", it made this face. And then it mauled me.|
It's simple math.
All gamers together have a huge pool of X dollars a year to spend on their hobby. It gets distributed among Y developers. X stays roughly constant (up a little, down a little), but Y is shooting up. A fixed pool of money, distributed among more and more hungry mouths.
Those mouths are your competitors. All your heroes? Notch, The Behemoth, J. Blow, etc? They’re your foes now. Are you ready to fight them?
You can talk all you want about how mean Steam was to you, or how much "discoverability" is a problem, or about how important it is for developers to go to GDC or the PAX Indie Warren or to cool game jams or whatever. It's all a distraction.
X dollars, Y developers. That's all that matters.
And if X stays constant, the only way to solve the problem is for Y to go down. I'll give you a second to work out the consequences of that for yourself.
Another Dimension To The Problem
I can already sense people are unconvinced with my "proof" of why a shakeout is ahead, so I need to point out something else. It's the problem with being a middle-sized developer (a problem that extends to many fields, not just games).
Suppose you are a super low-budget micro-developer like me. It's not super-hard to survive, because I can get enough sales to get by with a little cheap marketing and word of mouth advertising. I'll be all right.
Suppose, alternately, you are a huge AAA developer with massive budgets. You can afford the massive marketing necessary to generate the big sales you need to pay for your expensive games. You'll be all right, until you're not.
But suppose you're a mid-tier (sometimes called AAA Indie) developer, with $500K-$2 million budgets. You have a problem. You need advertising to get sales, as word-of-mouth won't cover it. But you can't afford a big campaign. The only way you will turn a profit is if you get huge free marketing from Steam/iTunes placement and press articles. (Which is why going to big trade shows and cozying up to the press is so important.)
But when there are so many games competing for free marketing, you have a serious problem. According to their site, the Indie Megabooth at the last PAX had 104 games. 104! At one PAX! Just indies! The games industry doesn't need that many games this year, period. #mildexaggeration
If you are an established developer journalists love, like Supergiant with Transistor, you have a chance to stand out from this horde. If you don't already have a hit, I don't know what to tell you. If I were you, I strongly suggest you write an utterly flawless, ground-breaking title and utterly blow everyone’s minds.
It's a rough spot to be in, and that's where a huge chunk of current indie development has placed itself. Some will shrink down, some will leap to the higher tier. But it's going to be super rough in the middle. Again, to see how this works in real life, look at iTunes.
Oh, and by the way? If you disagree with me on any of this? I HOPE I'm wrong! I want you to convince me I'm wrong!
|Um, I said "cute" animals. Come on, Google. YOU HAD ONE JOB!|
I am somewhat irked by developers blaming Steam for their problems. "Why don't they publish me? Why don't they feature me? Why won't Steam make me rich!?" All of it said in exactly the tone of voice my 8 year old uses when she's angry her older sister got a bigger piece of cake.
If there has been one true hero in this story, it has been Steam. If, in 2008, I'd written my dream list of what a publisher could provide to help the little developer, Steam would have done it all, and then some.
I have a private theory, that's really only in my own brain. It's this. Valve is full of really cool people, who truly love games. But, at some point, with Steam, these basically nice people suddenly found themselves in the position of deciding who lives and who dies. It's a stressful, miserable place, and they didn't like it. It just made it harder to get out of bed in the morning.
In the last few years, Steam workers were the ones who handed out the golden tickets. They gave one to me. (Everyone on Steam made a lot of money. Even niche-developer dingleberries like me. You could put Pong on the front page at $20 a copy and still make a fortune.) The guy next to me who didn't get the ticket? He was angry. At Steam, at me, at the world. But mostly Steam.
Steam found themselves in a position of being hated for something it could do nothing about. Not to mention the fact that the sort of curation they were doing was impossible in the long term. You shouldn't want the games you can buy to be controlled by some guy at a stand-up desk in Bellevue, WA. They aren't wizards. They can't tell what's going to be a hit any more than anyone else. The free market has to do that job.
So they stood aside and opened the floodgates. Supply shot up and demand stayed even, which means, by a certain law of economics (the first one, in fact), prices have to drop. Which brings us to the bundles.
|Christ. How long does this blog post go on for anyway?|
I've long been a vocal fan of Humble Bundle. They're good people who want to make the game industry cooler. Their sales widgets are an amazing tool. We use them ourselves. Their bundles started out as a fantastic way to showcase what our slice of the industry has to offer and help charity to boot.
Now, however, there are a lot of bundles. Many of them. Their main purpose: help established developers squeeze a few more dimes out of fading (or faded products). They are a product of the glut.
As I write this, Humble Bundle is running two weeks of DAILY bundles. That's, like, 3-10 full-length games a DAY. Spend a hundred bucks or so, and you'll get enough solid titles to keep you occupied for years. You should do it. It's a bargain. Then you'll only need to pay full price for the one game a year you really care about, and you won't need to worry about risking cash experimenting with new developers.
Then, give it 2-3 years, and you won't have to worry about new developers, because there won't be any.
Again, there is NO moral judgment here. We're all making calm, rational business decisions. I'm just saying where it's going. Where it has to go.
It just can't last. Bundles used to earn a ton, but they don't anymore. If making pennies a copy selling your games in 12 packs is the main source of a developer's income, that developer is going to disappear. Also, all of the bundles and sales encourage users to expect to pay a price too low to keep us in business. It’s just the same race to the bottom as in the iTunes store, except this time we were warned, and we did it anyway.
And hey, I’m not blameless in this. My games have been in a million sales and bundles. It’s what you have to do now, and I’m just as fault as everyone else.
If someone tells you this is the slightest bit sustainable, they are misleading you. There are lots of different reasons to do this. Maybe they need to fool you. Maybe they need to fool themselves. Just don't believe them. X dollars, Y developers. That's all that matters.
|"FTL, what is best in life?" "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to get sweet iTunes store placement."|
Actually, what drove me to write this, more than anything, was the first minute of last week's Zero Punctuation. It's kind of a gut punch.
It's the time of year when Yahtzee normally shines his giant flashlight on some under-noticed, deserving indie game and elevates it to the big leagues. Instead, he threw up his hands and reviewed the 2012 title FTL. FTL!
Seriously, what sort of review can you write about FTL in 2014? I can cover it in four words: "Yep. It's still FTL." What? There's an iPad version out? Fine. Ten words: "It's still FTL. Also, the iPad version doesn't crap itself."
(To be clear, FTL is a very good game. But I suspect that, at this point, its authors wouldn't mind sharing a smidge of the spotlight with a less established developer.)
With so many games out, picking the good ones out of the crowd is a huge job. As far as I can tell, nobody, and I mean nobody, is willing to do it. This is why, despite such a flood of product, so few games have broken out from the crowd so far this year.
If most of the indie developers went out of business, are we so sure that, outside of the game dev community, people would even notice? Are we so sure a hearty herd thinning isn't what they secretly want?
I Shouldn't Have Written This.
Because it's redundant. I mean, we knew all of this, right? Gamers certainly know. It's been a few years since looking at the new indie games went from, "Ooh! Let's see what treats await me today!" to "Aaaahhh! So much stuff! I am stressed out now!"
Also, it bums me out. I feel like some jerk who sees a guy's pants fall down and points and laughs and shouts, "HA HA! Your pants just fell down!" The pants-down guy has my sympathy. My sales are way down too, so if you hate me, I hope that fact gives you a little smile.
But all this stuff seems pretty obvious. Someday, as things shake out more, I want to try to get into a much more interesting, chewy topic: What happens next? And, if you still want to write indie games, perhaps a grizzled old survivor of multiple booms and busts can provide some helpful ideas.
Edit: I fixed a date and corrected the number of games in the Humble Daily Bundles. I swear I fixed that once, but the correction was lost in the flurry of rewrites. Also, anyone who wants to hear more of my natterings can follow me on teh Twitter.