Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Indies, Evangelism, Tour Guides, and the Chatuchak Market

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 15, 2014

chatuchak-marketI was a cheerleader for the glut.

Back when indie games – as a whole – needed the attention because the mainstream titles were hogging the spotlight, I called myself an “indie evangelist.” I was a cheerleader for the indie revolution, in my own small way. We, the indies, were going to break the shackles of the mainstream game industry! No longer would game developers be cut off from their customers by the industry gatekeepers! No longer would customers be limited to a tiny cross-section of committee-designed, boardroom-approved, mass-market-optimized Pablum. No, the games of the indie revolution would be quirky, weird, niche, cool, innovative, rough, raw, and sometimes downright dangerous. A new golden age!

And here we are. The gold-paved roads (or at least gold-plated) of the brave new world are worn and covered with crap from a thousand new horses, mules, cows, chickens, and oxen every day. The industry has seen what happened to iOS, and see the same thing happening on Steam. And the weird, cool, niche little titles that couldn’t be made back in the old days simply cannot be found today. While they might be of decent quality, they are too often buried at the bottom of the river of crap.

And now many indies – particularly the ones from the pre-glut days, the ones who made some serious success by making it on certain platforms (like Steam) when it was new or rare – are getting a little grumpy about it. Their sales – or particularly their new titles – are struggling. And the folks trying to put out a decent game find themselves undercut by titles that are selling for not quit a dime a dozen, but often a half-dozen for less than three bucks in one of the tons of bundle deals.

I look at this situation, and I think, “Is this what I was cheering for? Is this what I was hoping for? This is my libertarian paradise, at last. Few barriers to entry, and a no-holds-barred free-for-all in the marketplace, where the survivors are… not usually the ones I would have chosen.”

Granted, going from “never even getting made” to “getting made but hardly selling” is something of a step up in the world. Many of my favorite games come from the ragged edge of the long tail, although I doubt that appreciation is enough to appease the developers who now have to figure out some way to pay off the debt incurred by the development of their game that only sold thirty-six copies.

And of course, it’s not just games. Books. Music. Even movies. The restrictions imposed by the technology of the last couple of centuries have been removed, and the business models that developed around the drastic economies of scale may have not crumbled completely, but they are definitely showing the cracks in their foundation. Welcome to the new world of media!

While my own role was small, I was one of the many, many hands opening Pandora’s Box, and one of the many voices cheering it on. Go indie! And now we have a glut. A truly amazing glut. It’s not just games, of course. The publishing industry is going through this right now, and is having just as hard a time of it. The word words “transitionary period” and “change” and “confusion” and “unknown” are frequently used to describe all this. How will it end up?

A couple of years ago, I was able to visit the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok, Thailand. Seriously, it was an amazing place. I have no idea how many stalls there were, but I almost got lost. We’re talking row upon row of dozens and dozens of stalls. I read that there are 15,000 stalls. This puts the biggest American mega-mall I ever visited to shame. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d probably find it. You’d find something. I found tons of gifts for friends and family members. But if you were looking for something more specific – like a funny T-shirt to fit a tall American male… you might be out of luck.  A lot of the vendors sold pretty much the same wares, at pretty much the same price. I don’t know how a vendor is supposed to run a profitable stall in the Chatuchak market, short of placement near the entrance. Perhaps there are guidebooks for the market – I can’t remember. I didn’t have one.

I think it would suck being one of the vendors sitting in the middle of the market, selling nothing but the same thing that a hundred other vendors sold. Or something so similar that it seemed indistinguishable to the average customer. Maybe they’ve figured out ways to drive extra traffic to their stall. But most of them… don’t.

All I can say is that I don’t want to be a vendor at Chatuchak. It’s kind of fun to enjoy the sensory overload as a customer there at least once, but it wouldn’t be a place I’d go shopping regularly, either.

Right now, if you are searching for fiction of a particular genre at Amazon, it’s starting to look a lot like the Chatuchak Market. Applications on the iOS App Store and Google Play stores are already there, and have been for a while. Steam is starting to get there with PC games. Placement and popularity on those sites are a lot like having a shop near the entrance at Chatuchak – it’s where most of the traffic is going to go. People will either already find what they want, or give up and go home long before they delve into the furthest reaches of the market.

I have a tough time with the term “curator.” It makes me think of stuffy museum curators (though I know plenty who aren’t at all stuffy) who pick and choose what the public can see in a sterile environment. I worry that the power of peer pressure will result in a whole lot of curators choosing the same things in an echo-chamber of official approval. The problem with that is that they pick the winners and the losers. You can only see what they curate, or go to another curator. Granted, that’s effectively how it works, but by default, I think that’s where we’ll be going. But I still have this irrational love for the wild, free, no-holds-barred, sometimes weed-choked openness of the grand old self-published, self-funded wilderness of indie-dom.

From a functional perspective, this may mean exactly what people say when they talk about “curatorship” in the indie media space. But for me, curatorship implies management and oversight, and that’s not what I want. I don’t want people in charge. I don’t want a curator, I want a tour guide. I don’t want a gatekeeper, I want an evangelist. I want a safari, not a zoo. I want people who will dig out the dusty crap from the attic, polish it up, and show it to me in its best light, but still point me to the attic and say, “Go on up there and see what you can find, but be sure and show me anything cool.”

Sadly, I realize that wishing won’t make it so. I keep telling myself that I don’t have time for helping to make these things happen — I need to spend my time making content. I can’t be a reviewer and a game developer. But the truth is, in the indie world, you have to wear a lot of hats. We don’t have the luxury of specialization.

I think in my own mind, “indie evangelism” may have to change from simply evangelizing the whole indie “thing” – in its incomprehensible size and embodiment of Sturgeon’s Law – and really focus on the parts worthy of evangelizing. And not just what the whole world has already heard about, the indie darlings – because 99% of indie is still unknown and well off the beaten path.

I’m still noodling on exactly what form this is going to take. It’s been made remarkably clear to me that my marketing skills suck, and I’m never going to be able to make it happen by myself.

And so I’m evangelizing to the faithful here, and wondering what I can personally do about it. I’m fishing for ideas, here. And help.

With a primary emphasis on RPGs, followed by adventure games and strategy games (all three genres have a tendency to blur into each other pretty consistently) – and granted, a bit more focus on books (because I’m increasingly involved in that world, too) – what would be useful to you?

What would you like to see in a tour guide for virtual worlds? While I’m not ruling out the possibility of reviews (knowing that there’s potential for conflict-of-interest there), what other kinds of information would be useful to you, gamers (and readers) who perhaps feel likewise overwhelmed by the indie glut?

Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Noumenon72 said,

    Two thoughts I had. Now that music is free, concerts are what pay. So if you could make indie games a spectacle (like Twitch?) that would help.

    Another: you can’t promote all indie games now, only the ones you like. This will only be a tiny amount. If you can make a platform that promotes to people the ones *they’ll* like (eg, what their friends like) they will promote the indie games for you, to each other.

  • ShadowTiger said,

    I personally have no problem finding the best games that I would enjoy. I mostly play rpgs and strategy games. I am very engaged with the industry and the developers though. I knew Age of Wonders 3 started production years ago because they started posting job positions. However, There should be enough niche blogs, podcasts and other media that points out most of the games you need to know about.

    The issue is that occasionally there will be a few, as in one or two per year, that slip through the cracks in a major way. Not sure how to solve that problem really.

    The market is so saturated that the number of games will hopefully start shrinking soon as people who quit their job have to abandon their indie dreams. Even that might not be enough, and we need new and better filtration systems. Not necessarily curators, automated recomendation engines have a long way to go.

  • Rachel said,

    I think it’s great that the market for videogames is so saturated right now. I think more people will have to go through a genre-based selection process (like when you go to the library, and saying “I like books” isn’t enough for a good recommendation). I find it interesting that I can enjoy an indie videogame made by one person about as much as I enjoy a AAA game.

    And yeah, I agree that the echo chamber effect happens. One person starts talking about a videogame and everyone else wants to play it and see how their opinion of the game compares. But somehow I keep finding out about relatively obscure games (sometimes I even play them)!

    As far as your blog, I like it when you spotlight indie RPGs, especially if they have something to offer that other RPGs don’t (like a cool branching story or a flexible fighting system).

  • galenloke said,

    One thing that comes to mind was the old Nintendo Power magazine reviews. The thing that stuck out to me was that each game would get reviewed by a few (I think 5) reviewers and each would give just a paragraph about their thoughts. The catch was that each reviewer had a segment about them at the beginning. I think it was just a list of genres rated by their preference, but you could find the one closest (and furthest) from your own preferences, and use that as a guide for what you would actually find fun (not just what was a good game for it’s kind).

    I like the idea of a set group of reviewers who rate games purely subjectively. There’s a lot of games, and a lot of reviewers, but they all tend to say the same things “this game is pretty good, this game is okay” in the hope that they’re the first voice in your head. One review doesn’t really differ from another.

    So if I were to offer up a general idea, I think a group of the same subjective critics working together would be an improvement. I would also suggest that these reviews came out quickly (multiple a week) and categorized according to (admittedly subjective) genre. Maybe an rpg on mondays, a shooter on wednesdays, a platformer on fridays, etc.

    Of course, that’s really a whole enterprise on it’s own, and maybe it exists somewhere else, but that would be my first potential solution for the glut.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Maybe it’s not quite the enterprise for this site, but that’s definitely the kind of ideas I’m fishing for, galenoke.

    And yeah, I totally expect the market to contract soon. But it’s not going to contract down to it’s pre-revolution levels. The problems will remain. Don’t get me wrong – these are the right kinds of problems to have, for most of us (that don’t work for a major game publisher, at least). We just need to figure out how the rest of the marketplace can adapt to the new reality.

  • Brian said,

    What I would like to see is a definitive search engine for indie titles, including (especially) Those that are f2p or have an F2p demo.
    I cannot tell you how hard I have searched for a specific type of game because I didn’t understand the industry-specific terminology for the game type, genre, playstyle, story style, etc. What’s the difference between ‘adventure’ and ‘rpg’? Is a city-building game with some combat a simulator, or is it an RTS?

    Maybe a ‘music map’ style indie indexer?