The Indiepocalypse: Indie Gaming Vs The World
This story was originally published 20/10/2019
The indie gaming industry is so much bigger than you expect. Studios can range from one person hobbyists right the way up to Bungie and it’s juggernaut offering, Destiny 2, and literally everything in between.
Underneath the gloss and glamour of triple A titles like Spider-Man, God of War and the Call of Duty series, the industry is hammering its stake into the ground producing titles for Apple Arcade, Playstation and Xbox and the new crowd favourite, the Nintendo Switch.
The industry has its fair share of challenges — building studios from the ground up is an uphill battle, scale means selling hundreds or thousands of hours of work for as little as $4 and some indies take on corporate work to keep themselves afloat.
The State of Indie — the uphill battle
Tim Cullings is the Board Vice President for Seattle Indies, Seattle’s dedicated indie game network that supports the industry across education, meet ups and regular game jams.
At SIX, the annual Seattle Indies developer meet up, which runs alongside PAX West, Cullings tells me that the Seattle indie scene is huge and growing.
“We have our monthly meet ups on the third Tuesday of every month at Optimism Brewery up on Capitol Hill and we get between 100 and 125 people coming out. We also have a pretty regular crew that comes to our Saturday meet up, which is an Indie Support Group and…we have game jams that we do three times a year and a hundred or more people come out to those. It’s a huge scene, a great community.”
No matter where you go in the world, there’s an indie game studio staking its claim on a patch in the App Store, Google Play or Steam. The breadth and quality of the work is mind blowing — every platform from your phone to your PC to your console and Nintendo Switch family.
With all that’s going on, it’s no surprise that Cullings says standing out is a massive challenge, especially when your competition isn’t only the indie industry but triple A titles as well.
“You have to fight really hard to get into things like PAX 10 or Rising Indie to get your game to have any kind of traction among the hundreds of thousands of games that come out on Steam every week.”
SIX is designed to help with that. Tucked away in a hotel a stone’s throw from PAX West’s home at the Washington Convention Centre, SIX takes place in a conference room and gives indies of all sizes the opportunity to set up a booth for less than $100 and practice their show floor pitch on any and all comers.
This approach is popular all over the world — events run by indie associations for indie developers and fans of their games (and the curious). In Japan, Masahiko Murakami, CEO of Skeleton Crew Studio, runs Japan’s annual indie games event, called the BitSummit, which started in 2013.
“We had 17,000 visitors across two days this year,” Murakami says. “We had over a hundred games and 20 sponsors for the event and invited 30–40 western developers to make the Japanese developers feel like they were all on the same stage.
“A lot of Japanese developers [are] scared of going out from Japan, so we do BitSummit to have the opportunity for Japanese developers to have a Western-feel event in Japan.”
The Art of the Game
There are a lot of differences between an Indie studio and a juggernaut like UbiSoft or Activision Blizzard, not least of all the multi-million dollar developing and marketing budgets that the big boys have at their fingertips or the big teams that can pour hundreds of hours into games in a single week, let alone the entire development cycle.
But one of the main differences between them, according to the guys we spoke to, was the reason for creating the games in the first place. Free of needing to worry about massive corporate overhead and reaching annual sales targets.
Murakami says that the artform behind creating games is what drives the team at Skeleton Crew Studio, which draws most of its revenue from work with corporations, hospitals and universities looking for gamification and VR / AR experiences.
“There are a few different ways we want to use games to express ourselves.” Murakami says, telling a story about how when he arrived in San Francisco 15 years ago to learn about the gaming industry and concept art, he didn’t speak any English and games gave him away to interact with other people.
“I had no way to communicate with people but people communicated with me using games or anime, because I’m Japanese….I could actually communicate with them using games. If we fight using Street Fighter, we don’t really talk or do anything but we communicate, somehow.”
How games help us communicate and the passion for the gamer and the art is a strong theme in the indie space. Dinosaur Polo Club’s Mini Metro started life as a game jam idea before taking the Curry brothers into a life Robert Curry wasn’t sure he was ready for.
“For me [going full time] was a difficult decision because I was in a pretty good team at work and…I was happy there. I had already done my dash with games, I was in the industry for six years and preferred having an ordinary job that paid well…And then, as I worked on Mini Metro more and more, I was like, yeah, I’m going to regret it if I don’t jump into this. It’s a rare thing being handed the opportunity to become a full time indie.”
It took Curry six months to make the jump from full time employee to running Dinosaur Polo Club with his brother.
SIX seems to capture both the essence of what the BitSummit stands for and the mental preparation that comes with going full time indie.
The small show floor is packed with developers sporting everything from novelty collector’s items, to roleplaying games and anime-style-choose-your-own-adventure novels.
Cullings is proud of the environment they’ve created both at SIX and in their regular meet ups that draw some big names looking to support the talent in the indie scene.
“People from Valve come [to our meet ups], people from Microsoft come. It’s a good way to meet people and that they can potentially hire into their companies. Seattle Indies serves two purposes and one is the professional indie developer that wants to come and make a network and learn how to make games and make their games better and then there are the people that come to make a pathway into the bigger companies in the industry. Here in Seattle we have Microsoft and Bungie and people can hone their skills with us and then go and work there if they’re interested.”
The Financial Struggle
Skeleton Crew pays its bills through contract work. Murakami and his team are evangelists for AR and VR and Murkamai believes that we’re still to see the best of the technology. He sells their skills in VR and AR to fund the development of the other games Skeleton Crew works on.
It’s a fine balance but the situation in Japan, according to Murakami, is complicated. Before he was the CEO of Skeleton Crew Studio, Murakami worked as a concept artist for an independent studio directly contracted to Nintendo.
“f your company contracts solely with Nintendo, Nintendo doesn’t want your studio to work on additional games with other companies, like Sony or Microsoft, or with other distributors or publishers…We tried to talk to Nintendo and said that we were developing a VR game and there was no market yet, but we knew it would be something. Nintendo said no. They didn’t care about it. We had to find a different publisher because we wanted to keep developing these new VR contents…We actually signed a contract with Santa Monica Studio, which is Sony. However, like I said, Nintendo didn’t want our studio to work with another company, so we created a subsidiary to create this new VR game.”
Curry and his team are in a slightly different situation. Mini Metro wasn’t necessarily a runaway success but its success did mean that the Curry brothers could start a studio off the back of it.
“We didn’t hire anyone until after the iOS release,” Curry says from Dinosaur Polo Club’s studio in Wellington, New Zealand. “I didn’t actually come on full time until it was already earning a decent amount, whereas Pete [Curry] went on pretty soon. He was dipping into savings and [Mini Metro] was being sold on the website for $4 and on Steam…It’s a very dangerous thing to do but we went into early access because the orders were already starting to dry up a bit and he was like, we have to start selling more stuff. It was the worst idea but it did work out.”
Lack of resources can breed innovation and Curry says one of the ways it helped Dinosaur Polo Club was that it was forced them to focus on the scope of a game, what they could actually make and how it could be relatable and enjoyable for people playing it.
The size of the indie industry also means that where studios like Skeleton Crew Studio and Dinosaur Polo Club have about 10 employees each, there are studios on a much smaller scale.
“We have a lot of one person studios and then some that are ten people on average…” says Cullings. “A lot of people will put their game out and then take a bit of time off and as an indie, if you’re working by yourself or a really small team, it can take a lot out of you with the number of hours you have to put in and then ship the game on a large scale. It can be intense so a lot of people will take time off and then start thinking about their next project.”
Across the world, the indie scene continues to face challenges but, as Curry says towards the end of our interview, the “indiepocalypse” is overstated — there are just as many games as there always was, competing for the same amount of screen time but Apple Arcade and the Nintendo Switch have given Indies new opportunities to reach new audiences. If one thing is clear, it’s that there’s still a lot to come from indie game studios.