There is a vast and widening dissonance between indie games and indie movies. In particular, 2018 saw the rise in popularity and profit of indie movies, but conversely a pessimistic outlook on the survivability of indie games. What lessons can we glean to revitalize the indie game community and galvanize a sense of optimism for 2019?
Here are a couple reasons why 2018 was the year for a perceived sense of video game “Indiepocalypse”:
1. There are too many games. Actually, the amount of indie games out there is staggering. What is happening is that the surplus of indie games dilutes the talent and desirability of other indie games. The supply is there, but the demand for them hasn’t changed. I would argue that, at least in my experience, the effects and residual trauma of playing a bad game trumps the desire to play or attempt another indie game. Steam boasts upwards of 19,000 Indie games on its steam store, but how many of those are quality, playable content?
2. The average financial return per year for an indie game is less than minimum wage (in most cases), ~$30,000. With an increasingly higher cost of living, how can someone, specifically a solo-developer who put their life and career on hold, be motivated by these odds? The risk is high and the return is more often than not too low.
3. On top of everything, solo-devs are having a difficult time securing funding. The nature of a highly-specialized discipline like game development is that it requires immense experience, time, and patience. Fledgling indie devs often don’t have the level of knowledge to pursue their ideas — and without the proper expertise (not to say this is a general trend, but with recent technology anyone can create a game, so average quality diminishes) funding won’t ever come their way. On the flip side, a Triple A (AAA) industry veteran will likely be able to secure funding for a new game development studio. The whole industry is whitespace when it comes to a new game. Give bright and creative stars the chance to be clumsy and they’ll be sure to find their way.
This isn’t to say all small companies aren’t able to overcome these problems. Bonfire Studios for instance, founded by seasoned industry veterans, has brought a myriad of experienced and not-so-experienced talent onto their team. They’ve managed to secure $25 million in funding from high caliber investors, the likes of a16z and Riot Games, and have begun to pass through all the necessary phases of a successful startup.
If we are to look at the success of indie movies in the past year, I think the continued growth of Netflix provides a revealing example: they constantly elevate the bar. Movie and TV Studios (fortunately or unfortunately) are trending toward the goal of being purchased by Netflix and integrated into their system, which means that to make the cut at Netflix, and to make the cut with a lot of money, the content has been elevated to new levels of quality because the barrier to entry is so high. Though it isn’t the case for all independently-produced watchable content, Netflix in this case is likened to a Private Equity firm that vets and brings their subsidiaries into the limelight to (more and more) critical acclaim.
The best part about the Netflix analogy is that it is coming to fruition in the gaming industry by way of Epic Games and Discord. With their new virtual stores, both companies have committed to developing games and propelling their sales forward. Discord in particular, with its 90/10 (90% revenue goes to the creator of the game bought on the Discord store while 10% goes to Discord, who hosts the game content and distributes it), has committed to bolstering indie developers, driving equitably in a previously inequitable 70/30 split. I don’t mean to hate on Steam, but as it stands today, Steam is like the attic where you throw and forget about all your stuff, whereas Discord is becoming more and more like a curated art museum, prioritizing quality over quantity.
The question remains, though, how do we get indie games the right amount of exposure for them to succeed? For games, critical acclaim, media reaction, and reviews are all received and discovered by the public in a very different way than movies. It’s less about a Rotten Tomatoes score and more about “hype” (and I bet, to generate hype, it’s most important from a streaming perspective to generate fan excitement and awareness). Are we creating indie content that is streamable and exciting to watch? I think this will be the true test for small developers in the coming year(s). Epic Games recently announced they would allow developers to share a referral code worth 5% of the company’s margins if they promote the game, incentivizing streamers to play games they perhaps would not normally have played. With a potential upside for streamable content, will devs alter their models of a pre-fabricated RPG plot to a more open, limitless structure (e.g. Stardew Valley, created by a solo developer, which sold over 3 million copies)? Or possibly adapt it it for other formats like speedrunning (e.g. Cuphead), essentially concepts that will make the game more digestible for its candidate viewership.
Moving forward into 2019, I suspect another exciting space for indie Games to grow will be the Nintendo Switch, and for a few reasons:
1. Key AAA games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate or Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild drive console sales, and this shows no signs of slowing. However….
2. There aren’t quite enough big brand titles available on the Switch for market saturation. This leaves an opening for small-scale developers.
3. There are likely numerous innovative ways for games to incorporate the joy cons (Switch Controllers) that people haven’t thought of yet which might create a new element of fun for the user; it’s a console that appeals to many types of games indie devs enjoy making, and Nintendo welcomes them with open arms.
Celeste is a great example of a game that worked on the Switch, selling better on the Switch than on all other systems. What is also interesting about Celeste compared to other games is that their announcements, such as free DLCs, are made via Twitter. In addition to making a stellar title, studio MattMakesGames substantiated a sense of hype through word-of-mouth marketing, making Celeste a hit game and ensuring their studio’s future in the process.
To me, the 90/10 revenue split is a clear indicator that the indie games scene is at a slow attrition with AAA games killing off the small-scale specialist and Steam controlling the virtual games market; yet, it also presents an ironic duality: nurture the solo developer and studio, but make some money doing it. 1. It’s certainly reassuring that powerful companies like Discord and Epic Games are taking measures to maintain an important sense of artistic curiosity, but 2. It’s also that there is an incredible upside and profit for companies that manage to snatch some of the Indie market share and support smaller scale developers.
Although, the gaming industry will continue to be pushed to the forefront by AAA studios because they’re the ones with resources to push the console boundaries and limits and make blockbuster hits, indie games are here to stay. The heart of gaming will always be indie games, for they leverage an unmatched creative and artistic intuition with personal computing power and limited resources — creativity stemming from the materials they have accessible to them. They’re right behind AAA and the movement, I believe, is growing. After all, not much is better than a good indie game.