Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Jeff Vogel Reminds Indies That Reality Is Inevitable

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 6, 2013

It’s funny — I didn’t think of this article as depressing at all. I actually find it somewhat refreshing….

The Bottom Feeder: Marketing, Dumb Luck, and the Popping of the Indie Bubble

At this point, I’d say, just read it. Come back here if you want to later, but really… read what Vogel has to say.

I like that he is speaking to this interview with Antichamber’s Alexander Bruce, which made me think exactly the same things when I read it. One of Bruce’s quotes – which is the signature blurb for the piece, is that exposure “is becoming more and more the dominant problem that people are having to solve.”

When I read that, my thought was, “Since when was it NOT the most dominant problem people had to solve?”

I like that Jeff Vogel has this long view – he’s been doing indie games since … well, since I got my first game dev job right out of college (which was most definitely NOT indie). This is far from his first rodeo. He’s seen trends and fads come and go, and he’s seen the changes in the industry first-hand for a couple of decades now. Let me tell you – in the days before Steam hit critical mass, exposure was an even more dominant problem people had to solve.

For a very short time, casual portals solved the problem for certain kinds of indie games. Just get your game on Big Fish Games, and all your problems go away! I remember those days all too well, and the arguments that would erupt on certain forums over this. Some people still sold direct. But as the big casual portals gained dominance, it seemed that almost all “new” indie game developers (and a large number of the old vets) were focusing entirely on the casual portals for their marketing strategy. It worked for a while. For two or three years, it was an amazing time — for casual game makers who had a high enough quality, the right contacts, and / or – let’s face it – luck, to get a fast track to a featured slot on the big portals.

And then something happened. As demand exploded for these casual games (supplied primarily by these portals), supply rushed to catch up. And then… inevitably…  supply surpassed demand. The portals started releasing a new game every day. Price wars happened, with the attendant “race to the bottom” on game pricing. Studios which had spent the previous three years expanding and showing off their money hats now folded.  The boom had gone bust.

Now here’s the thing: It’s not like the casual portals went anywhere. Big Fish Games is still there, still advertising a new game every day.  They’ve had to consolidate in some places (mainly where they’ve expanded into areas that haven’t been growing), but they keep reporting record earnings and decent profitability. So it’s not like the “bust” was a collapse or anything like that. It’s simply that the unsustainable growth rate… didn’t sustain itself. SHOCK!

I could argue for pages and pages that the whole rise of the casual portals – in spite of no longer being the force they once were – permanently changed the indie gaming landscape, and their impact / legacy remains. Yet – after the boom – the more that things changed, the more they stayed the same. Anyone who argued that the fundamentals had changed was proven wrong.

The “Social Gaming” thing was another boom that has lost a lot of its momentum lately (most notably telegraphed by the much-diminished Zynga, which is still quite mighty in spite of peaking out on its growth). It’s still with us, and it has permanently changed the landscape of indie gaming forever, yet now that the boom is stalling out, we discover that… games are games. Our horizons have been broadened, and there’s more opportunity (and competition) out there than ever before. But the fundamentals remain the same.

It’ll be the same thing with Steam. And Kickstarter. And mobile. And indies on the consoles. These are all fascinating changes – and, in the long run, good ones. But they do not alter the basics. For a brief period of time, during the “boom,” it may appear that they do… like it might finally be time to chuck the old rulebook. It can be wonderful or frustrating depending upon what side you are on. But when the boom settles down into a mature growth curve, and the dust all settles… the fundamentals remain unchanged.

That’s what I think Vogel is arguing here. As I understand it, guys like Alexander Bruce got things rolling shortly after the IGF started becoming a “big deal” outside of the indie community, and Steam started becoming a major force for non-casual PC gaming. These guys managed to jump onto the beginning of a “spike” in the growth curve and ride it up. That’s awesome, and I’m happy for them, but they may not have the perspective to recognize it as an aberration.

That’s not to say that Bruce’s advice – and that of others who have kinda come into their own during the current gold rush – should be discarded. He speaks a lot of timeless truths. He talks about variations of advice that successful indies have been saying for years, even before Steam was a significant indie portal.

But Vogel has the advantage of perspective and a longer-term view.

Getting featured on Big Fish Games used to be a ticket to the big-time. Ditto for the App Store. Not anymore. That’s becoming true of Steam, as well. It’s just how it reality works. To be honest, as a guy who’s been most attracted to the “independent” part of being an indie – not beholden to any other entity for success – I don’t find Vogel’s predictions to be “bad news” at all.  Just an acknowledgement that history tends to repeat itself.

Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • MalcolmM said,

    Yes, unfortunately Big Fish Games is still here.

    I bought an “on sale” adventure game from them about a year ago, they signed me up for a $8/month membership that offered no benefits. It didn’t show up anywhere on the receipt. Fortunately I always check my credit card statements so they only got me for one month.

    I enjoy reading Jeff’s articles. Only one thing I don’t understand about how Jeff markets his games – if you buy his latest game, Avadon 2, on Steam is cost $10 (and Jeff gets about $7 of that). If you want to support Jeff and buy direct from Spiderweb, the game costs you $20. Why wouldn’t Jeff want to encourage people to buy direct, so he doesn’t have to pay Steam?

  • espectra said,

    I found Jeff’s post to be a nice dose of realism as well.

    The response on reddit was mixed (isn’t it always). And Andy Moore’s response on Twitter was even more puzzling, particularly the Coke vending machine/asteroid analogy.


  • Cuthalion said,

    Here’s hoping the next spike comes right about when the game I’m working on finally releases. 😛