Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

How to Evangelize Indie Games

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 23, 2013

I saw what was supposedly an ad on YouTube for the Ouya a couple of days ago, and really wanted to believe Ouya had nothing to do with it. But apparently, they did. I don’t even want to link to it directly. It was revolting and embarrassing.

Gamasutra: In the hardware messaging war, Ouya’s playing the wrong notes

I wish I could disagree with the article. I like Ouya. I want to see them succeed. But I really don’t get this. Who is going to look at something like this and say, “Oh, boy, that over-the-top cartoon vomit and gore inspires me to buy an Ouya!” I mean, seriously, who is your target audience for something like this?

So I’ve got some advice to Ouya and others out there looking to go commercial with the indie message. I’m offering these absolutely free, and I’m sure it’s worth every penny. If I’m so smart, why aren’t I rich?

All I can point out is what works for me – as a consumer. And that, well, indies are winning, so the “indie message” is somehow working. Finally. So while the message may be slow and not too sexy, it’s worked. Here are some things anyone marketing or evangelizing indie should consider.

#1 – Indie is a marketing term. I don’t think this is a “dirty little secret” or anything.  It’s just what it is, and why it came to be in the first place. The bottom line is that indie was there to help reset customer expectations. In a world where gamers had been bombarded with the glitzy marketing message that quality could be determined by polygon count and expensive production values, something had to be done to encourage gamers to give themselves permission to look at these low-budget, often retro-appearing titles.

Yes, it encouraged a double standard. It had to.  ‘Cuz the indies were entering a game that was rigged against them from the get-go. We had to change the rules. That was what indie did.

#2 – Indies (and indie game fans) don’t hate mainstream games, nor will mainstream gamers be convinced to hate them. Frustration, boredom, annoyance, sure. But most indie developers were inspired by mainstream games of the past. As gamers, we love great games, regardless of whether they were built by a major studio or a no-name in their basement. We love games. We’re about making more of the games that we love, not about restricting options or hating things with higher production values.

You don’t villainize mainstream games. It’s fun to dig at the creators or publishers sometimes, sure, but don’t go too far. In many ways, they are reacting to economic realities. We may not agree with their approach, but indies have to deal with the same economic realities.  You aren’t going to win may converts by convincing them to hate mainstream games.

#3 – Indies can’t automatically compete on price. So new mainstream games are too expensive? Even back when mainstream games were exclusively on physical media, it didn’t take horrendously long for many games to get discounted to price ranges competitive with indie titles. With digital distribution taking over in the mainstream side as well, indies no longer enjoy that cost advantage over mainstream games – they can release games on Steam or the console stores almost as cheaply as an indie. Even as indies have been suffering a price war to go cheaper and cheaper, mainstream games aren’t too far behind. Give it  a year or so, and the right sale on Steam, and those of us who tend to sit in the cheap seats can enjoy a AAA masterpiece for the same price as a quality indie title. There are lots of ways indies can compete against the big-budget blockbusters, but price is a weak strategy.

#4 – Indie games are cool. Mainstream games put their “cool” up-front with incredible graphics and awesome soundtracks and cut-scenes that seem designed specifically to put into a trailer video. For indie games, you have to dig a little deeper.  But there are plenty of awesome indie games out there with plenty of cool to be shared.

#5 – Indie games are innovative. That’s not saying that all indie games are innovative (most aren’t), or that mainstream games never innovate. But between the sheer quantity of indie games coming out, and the lower cost & risk of innovation that comes with indie development, indie games are where most of the innovation is taking place these days. It’s actually kind of amusing to see the big studios and publishers “borrowing” ideas first proven by successful indies. But for people who are getting bored with the same ol’, same ol’ pushed by the big publishers, the indie scene is an incredibly fresh drink of water. Even something as overdone as a first person shooter gets radically transformed in the hands of indies. This is awesome.

#6 – Indie games offer variety. It goes with the innovation thing, and also the huge number of indie games coming out all the time. There are simply tons of indie games out there covering all kinds of genres. There’s always something different in the indie scene. Yes, it sometimes gets a little overwhelmed by a particular popular genre (these days it’s puzzle-platformers; for a while it was match-three or hidden object games), but those games are the attention-grabbing, popular minority.

#7 – Indie games are niche. Sometimes. Again, with the variety – there are indie games covering all kinds of obscure genres and unique interests out there. Sometimes they are just web games or extremely low-budget mobile games, but they are out there. As an exercise at a Utah Indie Night a couple of years ago, an iPhone developer suggested that if you do a search on any “unique” idea you had for a game on the App Store, you would have a very tough time not finding at least one (often two or three) games that have already done something with that idea. We tried it, choosing topics that were relatively bizarre and tasteless. Sure enough, so long as it wasn’t an area that was prohibited by Apple.

#8 – Supporting indies supports individual developers in a way that buying mainstream games doesn’t. In the mainstream world, developer royalties only come into play once a game has sold far into “hit” (or these days, “mega hit”) levels.  With indies, who have usually self-funded development (and I consider things like Kickstarter, where the funds are delivered with no strings attached, a variation on self-funding), the money starts going to the developers with the very first dollar. A lot of players feel good about this.

#9 – They make ’em like they used to! Except when they don’t. But with all that variety out there, indie games are thriving in once-barren genres: Point and click adventures? Space combat? Turn-based RPGs? Wargames? Side-scrolling platformers? 2D shoot-em-ups? The indies are there and thriving. This has a nostalgia factor, but new gamers are discovering the joys of these old game styles now – with the advantage of some more modern conveniences. This is awesome!

#10 – Indies are approachable. A player can actually get in contact with most indie developers. Their feedback goes straight to the guys developing the game. So does most of the tech support questions. If you aren’t a dickweed about it, most indie developers love this kind of interaction, and players do, too. This direct communication benefits game development in numerous ways, as the developer gets to know who their audience is and what they want to a level that bigger developers logistically can’t.

#11 – Indies are the underdog. Everybody likes the underdog, right? Anybody who likes to see the little guy achieve their dreams can feel good about supporting indies.

#12 – Indie games have personality. Some mainstream games with a strong designer have this too, but with such huge teams the individual contributions tend to get suppressed, and much of the game ends up feeling like it was designed by committee. In the tiny teams creating indie games, the personalities and authorship of the developers can’t help but shine through. There’s true authorship there. In my opinion, it leads to a better connection between artist and audience that makes for a better game.

So – Ouya, Gamestick, Sony, Steam, all the rest of you guys out there capitalizing on the indie revolution – this is what you are offering. This is what you are supporting. Try not to screw it up too much, okay?

Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 11 Comments to Read

  • Xenovore said,

    I’m all in favor of indies, but I don’t buy games just because they are indie; I buy games that I might like. In the case of the Ouya, I have yet to see a game that I might like. Ergo, there’s no reason to purchase an Ouya. They can market it however they like, but until I see some games on there that I’d actually want to play. . . it’s all moot. But I will say, after seeing that video I was like “Seriously?! Grow the f*** up, people! And while you’re at it, fire anyone that thought that was a good idea!”

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    While I’ve bought several games for the Ouya and don’t share your opinion of the lineup, I completely agree with you. Indie, mainstream, I want good games.

    The point is getting people to pay attention to the indies. That’s always been my opinion on what this whole “indie evangelism” is about. It was cutting through the din of mainstream marketing to help people get aware of what was happening in the indie space.

    It’s not easy, on either end. When I first got involved in the whole “indie scene,” I discovered a whole bunch of games that were really awesome and unique, and I thought, “Why haven’t I ever heard of these before?” I was actually a little bit angry, because it felt like they’d been hidden from me all this time,though I knew I had nobody to blame but myself. I thought they’d all kinda died out after Duke Nukem 3D, but there was so much more to it that I’d never recognized or bothered to find out about.

    Now, at least, most gamers are at least aware of the indie scene and a few of the most popular titles out there. That’s awesome, and a nice improvement. But now it’s a trick to discover and publicize the hidden gems out there. ‘Cuz there are a lot.

  • Xenovore said,

    But now it’s a trick to discover and publicize the hidden gems out there.

    Yep, the crap is drowning out the gems. (And since I’m extra picky, there is a LOT of crap.) I’ll occasionally attempt to go find some decent indie games, but at some point I just throw in the towel rather than waste more time searching. So yeah, there are very likely a bunch of games out there that I would enjoy, but tracking ’em down? Naw, I have better things to do, like go play one of the bunch of games I already own.

  • Syl said,

    I love many indie titles “because they are actually great games”. I don’t love them because they are indie games. the same standards of quality must apply here as apply for mainstream titles. and games like Journey, Don’t Starve or Dust: an Elysian Tale etc. prove that this is a completely achievable goal.

    I feel strangely bemused by the unabashed and uncritical indie hype that’s currently happening in some circles. funny how the pendulum always swings from “that weirdo niche” to unconditional fandom. personally I consider myself a gamer, not a politician. which means I care for good games and systems first and foremost, no matter who creates them (okay, maybe not the devil). I support indie developers because some of them are incredibly creative and innovative, pushing boundaries and braving new avenues in terms of both format and gameplay (Dear Esther or Proteus to name just two more of many in this context). or then, they’re reviving the retro era in which I grew up in, shamelessly celebrating gaming history. they deserve praise for doing all of these things. and then, they also happen to be indie.

    Like for any market, competition and fresh concepts are a healthy thing to have. gamers can only win here (and yes, I also like paying the artists / designers / devs directly). but there’s no need whatsoever to romanticize something as plain broken and horrid as the current Ouya (my first session ended in woe both hard- and software wise). bad is still bad, indie or not. I don’t think we need to move backwards. 😉

  • Anon said,

    Couldn’t have said/wrote it better!

  • BarryB said,

    I’m all in favor of indies, but I don’t buy games just because they are indie; I buy games that I might like.

    I think this is a good point that is often lost. It explains not merely why waving an Indie banner doesn’t draw millions of buyers to everything under the sun, but why so many indie games fail: “What? You don’t want to get my 999th iteration of the same peasant-saving-the-universe in RPGmaker? Or my asteroids remake in up-to-date retro 8-bit graphics guaranteed to leave your eyes bleeding after an hour? WTF not???!?”

    There are some indie games I treasure, and as a rule, I prefer what’s coming out there instead of the Industry. But there’s also a lot of dreck in the field, and a lot of well-made lookalikes (HOGs, time management titles, etc), which have zero appeal to me. Just my opinion, but I wouldn’t make “indie” the primary push of a new title, then. It’s fine to state it as a secondary point for buying a game, but only after explaining what’s different, attractive, and replayable about the new product XYZ is trying to sell.

  • Xenovore said,

    @BarryB: Exactly.

  • Cuthalion said,

    I think the point is being missed here. Of course we support games because they’re good, not necessarily because they’re indie. The post is about how we convince other people they’re good, feel-good/interesting because they’re personal, or both.

  • Cuthalion said,

    I think I like the advice on how to better deliver the indie message — or how to use that status as a positive thing, as opposed to what Ouya did.

    Of course, everyone is quite right that just being indie doesn’t mean we’re all going to flock to it if it also happens to be crap.

  • Colter Cookson said,

    I doubt this will help with marketing, but personally, I like independent games because I can run many of them without upgrading my eight-year-old PC. That is true of older mainstream games as well, but it’s nice to play new games occasionally. I had a blast discussing Shadowrun Returns with friends the week after it came out.

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