Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Indie Gold Rush: Ending with a Bang or a Whimper?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 20, 2015

There have been a few articles recently about the demise of the small indie game developer. Jeff Wofford’s “The Rise and Fall of the Lone Game Developer” probably made the most rounds last week, but “How Do You Make Money Making Games Again?” is another excellent post on the subject.  At Gamasutra.com, Kris Graft notes in “As the Game Market Floods, Publishers are Back in Style” that in the most recent developer surveys, there’s been a very notable drop in self-published titles this last year.

This is all stuff I have talked about before. And I’m hardly the only one. The bubble pops in slow motion.

I noted last week that many of the “best” indie RPGs last year were made by moderately-sized “big indie” studios, often those that have worked with publishers in the past. I worry about the little indie studios (which would include me) getting crowded out, even as much as I’m impressed by these higher-budget offerings that have made a larger-scale effort to bypass traditional publishers.

It’s a quandary. The market is deluged with games, and as Woffword says, on some platforms (like mobile) it’s so crowded that you can’t give your game away. Even on PC, bundle deals and steep discounts rule the market. There’s a race to the bottom on price, which is driving the creation of very small, short games. But the popular buzzword of the day is “sustainability,” and this sort of trend is not sustainable.

I can’t pretend I’m an expert. I’m a part-timer, though I have been somewhat “involved” in the whole indie thing for a while. While in some ways it’s tempting to despair in my discovery of all of the unanticipated consequences of the indie revolution, and there’s no doubt it makes things rough, I think I can also provide a few glimmers of hope.

First of all – this isn’t the second time of the “fall” of the lone (or small-team) game developer. I’m not sure how many times it has happened, but I saw it happen in the shareware space in the early 90s, and in the casual space around 2004 – 2005. In being involved with the “indie community” for so many years I have often seen posts about how the best time to be an indie was… two or three years ago. It’s the same story, every time. There’s some new way or niche for the tiny developer to actually get their games to their audience and make enough money doing it to make it worthwhile. Once word gets out, there’s a pile-on. The channel / niche gets crowded, and then only the top-tier games actually make any profit at all. So then the race gets on to improve quality to better the chances of becoming one of the top 5% that makes 95% of the money. This means bigger budgets, bigger teams, and more vicious competition. The little guy gets squeezed out, again and again.

We’ve seen this happen several times, at different levels. I have no reason to believe it won’t happen again. Opportunities come and go, and if you are quick enough to cash in while the getting is good, you can do pretty well for a while. This industry is cyclical.

Secondly, even in the darkest days of the giant studios with deep pockets ruling the marketplace, exceptions have always existed. Some little guys manage to keep cranking out the titles and make consistent money so they can afford to keep doing what they do. Long after the gold rush ends, some settlers remain. Some do quite well.

Thirdly – well, the nice thing about the post-gold-rush era is that the folks who stick around are the ones who have a real reason to do so, beyond a simple desire to line their pockets. While I’m not seeing much of that in certain game genres (particularly the ones that are harder to create), a lot of the crap out there – especially for IOS – reek of by-the-numbers cash grab. Not that their employees might not love making games for a living (remember, that was exactly what Notch was doing in the years before Minecraft, during the height of the web-game popularity). Sadly, not all of the companies that fail to survive extinction will be the ones deserving a quiet death, but many of the ones that will disappear will the riff-raff heading for the exits to pursue the next Big Thing, or the ones that were never serious about it in the first place. That leaves slightly more breathing room for the dedicated few several many.

So yeah – maybe I don’t have the unbridled optimism about the indie world that I once did. It’s definitely frustrating. But I don’t see the end of the world, either. Indies will still be here. Honestly, I think the really cheap prices will stay with us, too, although maybe not quite to the give-away levels they are at now.  Things will stabilize. And yeah, I think there’ll be room for the low-budget indie to thrive, too. But it won’t be so “easy” (as if it were ever easy). At least not until the Next Big Thing hits.


Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

  • GI_Sveny's Weekly Link Roundup On Friday - SVENSWORKERS.COMSVENSWORKERS.COM said,

    […] The Indie Fold Rush: Ending with a Bang or a Whimper – Times are changing and while some game devs fail other developers look forward to success. But does that really mean the end of the classically one-man game studio? […]

  • Xenovore said,

    Quote: “The market is deluged with games. . .”

    True, but for me, most are not worth my time; even if they were free I wouldn’t bother.

    If devs are going to keep churning out the same quasi-retro crap, of course they’re not going to make any money. For one thing, we expect retro stuff to be cheap or free, so if it looks retro: no cash-flow for you.

    It’s simple really: devs these days need to be exceptional. You can’t just re-tread the flavor of the month any more.

    * Do things that haven’t been done (in a while at least).

    * Take the best, current UI techniques. I’ve run across so many games with huge potential that were saddled with a crap UI (e.g. Arma).

    * Ditto for game-play mechanisms. It’s mostly been done before; play games similar to what you want to make and see how they work. (E.g. play the hell out of Mirror’s Edge if you’re making a parkour game.)

    * Have a well-defined, good-looking art style that stands out. (No, “8-bit” or “16-bit” retro pixelly junk does not qualify.)

    * Polish the hell out of it! (No polish means you end up looking/playing like the other 80% on Greenlight.)

    * After the game is complete, show potential customers the damn game-play up front! I’m sick and tired of game trailers hyping setting and story, but never (or minimally) showing actual game-play. I’m not going to bother with a game if I don’t know exactly how it’s going to play.