Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Indie Games and the Gold Rush Mentality

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 21, 2014

PanningForGoldIn 1846, San Francisco was a tiny settlement of around 200 people. Then the California Gold Rush happened. The population exploded to 36,000 within six years.  Tons of people came to strike it rich. Some did. Most didn’t. Then a few years later, the whole thing petered out. The gold rush ended. Some people left. Others stayed. A lot of businesses that didn’t have anything directly to do with the gold rush prospered. Not all of them, of course. But that ruins my analogy, so I’d rather talk about how the city and surrounding area is now home to about 800,000 people, many of whom are only vaguely (if at all) aware of the history of the city as a boom-town during the gold rush.

I entered the games biz as an eager college grad during one “boom phase” of the gaming industry – one of many “gold rushes” that have occurred in the biz. Video games had recently exceeded Hollywood box office revenues (who remembers when that was an achievement?), which attracted a lot of attention – and money. The kids at id Software – not much older than me – had just taken the world by storm with Doom. The Sega / Nintendo war was in full swing, and nobody knew or suspected that Sony was quietly preparing to shake everything up. The industry was exciting, growing, and everything was awesome.

Well, okay, no, it wasn’t perfectly awesome or anything. But again, it’s my freaking analogy! I’ll overgeneralize and apply rose-colored glasses at my own discretion!

doomcoverEveryone wanted to be the next Doom, or the next Sonic, or the next Street Fighter II. Well, things eventually went south, and some investors discovered that it wasn’t the easy path to riches. And the competition was fierce! The thing is… the industry didn’t collapse after that. It shrank, sure. And then grew at a more subdued pace. Until the next boom.

Massively Multiplayer Gaming! Wow. From Ultima Online and Everquest to World of Warcraft, that was the thing. Remember Second Life? (Well, okay, I never actually played it, but for a while it seemed like the thing, too). That part of the industry never really died out, but it sure contracted, didn’t it?

We had a casual game boom. Everybody trying to be the next Bejeweled. Even the guys who made Bejeweled. That eventually tapered off. Lots of companies went bust. But a lot of others are still out there, still cranking out that kind of game.

Mobile! Big boom there! Angry Birds! Only, sure enough, it’s gotten crazy saturated and almost impossible to get noticed. Except for those very few that are. Yet… it keeps going. I can’t imagine it stopping.

More “core” indie games? Becoming the next Braid / Minecraft / Super Meat Boy / etc.? Ditto.

bubblepopThe cycles keep going. So it has been since the days of Pong and Pac-Man. There’s a boom, way too many people swooping in with dreams of making it big than the boom could possibly sustain. The “bubble” pops, leaving lots of closed businesses and crushed dreams. Yet… the industry keeps growing, keeps expanding, albeit in fits and starts.

Indie gaming – it’s here to stay. Yes, we’re facing (yet again) a bunch of crushed hopes and dreams, as we’ve got a glut of content, a race to the bottom in prices, and a world where a team can invest their life savings and two years of their lives into a title that, in the end, they might have trouble even giving away for free. It sucks, but it’s nothing new.

If you set out with dreams of making the next Minecraft, you are doomed. I don’t think even Notch himself could make the next Minecraft (unless, literally, he sets to work on Minecraft II). But like San Francisco in the 1860s, there’s still room to not only survive, but grow and thrive. It’s not easy. I certainly haven’t figured it out yet, so I’m basing this entirely upon evidence from others. And from history. Maybe one day I’ll be able to talk about how I achieved such great success in spite of the boom & bust cycle, but I’m not there yet. Maybe I never will. But I won’t quit trying.

And that’s the point. You can’t be in it for the gold rush. You can’t be in it for a single game. You can’t depend on that element of luck that determines that game A is going to be a hit while games B,C, and D – all of which are of equal or even better quality – will languish in obscurity.  You’ve got to work it and be prepared to capitalize on a hit, sure, but you can’t survive on a business plan that only works if you happen to get lucky.

And ultimately – talking to a lot of writers who are in the same boat with their craft – it really comes down to doing it because it’s in your DNA. Writers write because it’s who they are. Game developers make games, because they can’t help it. In a previous era, they’d have had to find some other outlet to express themselves. I’ve made a living making games in the past, but nowadays I make games because it’s simply what I love to do. It’s pain, frustration, hard work, lost sleep, but also immense satisfaction. I can’t help it.

So I guess I’m like one of those guys who stayed in California after the gold rush was over. I keep at it between booms. Most of the game devs I am friends with are the same. We’re permanent residents of GameDevVille. We’re game developers at heart, and we’ve watched the boom and bust cycle repeat many times. Sure, we keep looking to capitalize on the next big thing. Sure, we want to build up our little businesses so that we’re actually support our game-making habit. And that will be the same after the next big boom. And the next. And the next.

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