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Life getting harder for indies

Life getting harder for indies

Mon 18 Nov 2013 4:00pm GMT / 11:00am EST / 8:00am PST
PublishingDevelopment

Tom Ohle of upstart publisher Renegade Machine says getting a good game on Steam just isn't enough anymore

The downside of discovering an underserved market is that it tends not to stay underserved for long. The indie boom of recent years has shown that there's a lucrative market out there for smaller and more experimental games, but it has also attracted plenty of competition. That was one of the main reasons Evolve PR head Tom Ohle and Interceptor Entertainment partner Khaled Ibrahimi founded their own indie publisher, Renegade Machine (quickly re-named from its original Rebel Machine moniker under threat of legal action).

"I don't want to say the heyday is over, but there was a time even six months ago where if you made a really good game and got it on Steam, you had some level of a guarantee," Ohle told GamesIndustry International recently. "If you built your game on a smart budget, you could make your money back and sort of make a living off of one successful game. But I think it's a lot harder now, and it's going to get harder for those games to breakthrough. When Steam was Greenlighting a couple games every month, there was a certain luster to being on Steam. Now we're getting 30 games at a time and it's definitely a lot harder to rise above."

"When Steam was Greenlighting a couple games every month, there was a certain luster to being on Steam. Now we're getting 30 games at a time and it's definitely a lot harder to rise above."

Tom Ohle

The end result of all this competition is that a lot of indie developers will find themselves in the same situation they were in before the boom, Ohle said, struggling to get noticed by gamers. That potential crisis is where he saw an opportunity. Ohle has been trying to help small developers get their work noticed for years at Evolve, but he'd seen one key problem crop up repeatedly with new clients.

"We had a lot of indie developers who come to us and they have really good games, but they don't necessarily have a budget to hire an agency or the foresight to start planning campaigns well in advance, trying to build awareness and get some media attention as they build up toward launch," Ohle said, adding, "Ideally, we're looking at six to nine months before launch that you really want to start talking about the game. You can do less, but you're always going to be fighting to capture attention and get people, especially on the media side, to understand what the game's all about and get excited about it."

While Ohle's background is in PR, Renegade Machine will do more than just put together a campaign to get the word out about games. The outfit will also provide QA testing, production assistance, consulting, and help in securing distribution for titles, and developers will be able to enlist their aid for as many or as few of those services as needed. One thing Renegade Machine isn't really in a position to help with--yet, anyway--is capital. They are open to revenue-sharing deals for developers who don't happen to have the money up front, but Ohle recognizes financial limitations as one of the big challenges facing Renegade Machine in the early days.

"Most developers are seeing publishers as a way to get money to finish their games," Ohle said. "For us, we're starting this as an indie developer would. We're really bootstrapping this all and looking to grow the business organically, get some projects under our belt, start earning some revenue and reinvesting that back in the company."

Another hurdle for Renegade Machine comes in the fact that the Venn diagram of indie developers and highly motivated do-it-yourselfers is practically concentric circles. Still, Ohle said not every developer wants to wear every hat, and his company offers assistance in areas they might not be well-versed in.

"I think there are two breeds of indie developers," Ohle said. "There are the ones who say, 'We want to control everything and do everything ourselves, and we're willing to put in the extra time.' And there are others who are just willing to share some of the load. As far as we can tell, there's enough of a market there of developers who are interested and willing to get that sort of help."

30 Comments

Ruben Monteiro Engineer

84 203 2.4
There was a time when you didn't even need to be on Steam to make a living.
Indie success is going to be more about knowing the right people at the right places that can lead to funding and exposure.

Free tools + easy distribution = everybody can do it = market saturation = need to rise above increasing crowd = harder to make games.

The heyday is over.

Posted:A year ago

#1

Saehoon Lee Founder & CEO, Pixellore

60 41 0.7
I do agree with Ruben with some aspect. It never gets easier.

Posted:A year ago

#2

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
Marketing is the number one skill to succeed as an indie.

Posted:A year ago

#3
Popular Comment
@Bruce - I'm curious, trying to find the underlying logic to your hyper-super-always-on faith in marketing: In your opinion when working with a game developer client, are you the most responsible for any success they have? If not, what does "Marketing is the number one skill to succeed" mean?

Posted:A year ago

#4

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
Marketing means appraising both the core competences of your organisation and researching the potential customer base's requirements, then acting to gain strategic advantage.
Very few developers do this.
Those that do tend to succeed.

Posted:A year ago

#5

Lindsay Cox Unity Developer, Mediatonic

28 48 1.7
I think having a good game is the number one skill to succeed as an indie and then if it is really good info usually gets around by word of mouth, etc.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Lindsay Cox on 19th November 2013 11:55am

Posted:A year ago

#6
@Bruce - Sure it helps to do marketing, sometimes it helps a huge amount, I certainly accept that. But lumping devs efforts in with yours to create some vague holistic overview-type definition of marketing is even more confusing. It doesn't explain your constant refrain that in video games - an entertainment business like music or movies or novels - marketing matters *most of all*, such as today's version: "Marketing is the number one skill to succeed". Because I can't quite believe you mean it, the way for me to understand what you mean is to ask: At the moment you start planning a marketing campaign, are your marketing efforts more important to any success than your clients development efforts?

Posted:A year ago

#7

Rafa Ferrer Localisation Manager, Red Comet Media

68 131 1.9
@Bruce (also RE Lindsay's comment) - The question then is "Can marketing-driven design make a game better in terms of quality?"

Posted:A year ago

#8

Keldon Alleyne Handheld Developer, Avasopht Ltd

472 480 1.0
Every step is important, but I'd imagine that marketing is the easiest to neglect and for that reason its importance is overstressed, just like music mastering and film grading - they are easily overlooked and so overcompensation kicks in, making people herald it as the most important step when in fact it's just one of many important steps.

Also marketing can be used to describe anything. R&D can be viewed as a marketing task if it is part of a process to experiment and test prototypes against a target market, yet at the same time I'd just call that experimenting. If you let it, marketing can become omnipresent and appear to be an important part of every step. Discussing the colours of the UI, "that's a marketing decision that could allow us to appeal to different markets," when in reality it can also just be a discussion on colours (if you get what I mean).

Posted:A year ago

#9

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
@Lindsay Cox
I think having a good game is the number one skill to succeed as an indie and then if it is really good info usually gets around by word of mouth, etc.
It is this delusion that sees most indies fail.

Posted:A year ago

#10

Tom Ohle Director, Evolve PR

1 1 1.0
Marketing is important -- very much so -- but I agree with others here who've said that having a great game is the most important thing. With a good product, good marketing is immensely valuable. With a crap product, you're always going to be fighting an uphill battle. Hell, even with an okay product, you're always fighting an uphill battle on the marketing front. We see it all the time on the agency side: media, YouTubers and gamers just don't really have time to play/cover everything, so naturally certain things rise to the top and fight for most of the attention... AAA devs can command a lot of attention simply because of the budgets or studios involved... but for indies, in particular, and any other devs who aren't working with $10m+ budgets, you need a fantastic product. Once you have that, it's a matter of marketing effectively to get as many people as possible to see and play the game.

Posted:A year ago

#11

Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve

342 293 0.9
I would like to say that development counts for far more, but I've seen far less good games doing well despite bad marketing than I have bad games doing well because of good marketing.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Thomas Dolby on 19th November 2013 1:33pm

Posted:A year ago

#12

Lindsay Cox Unity Developer, Mediatonic

28 48 1.7
@Bruce maybe in mobile because the marketplace is so crowded now and it is a lot more likely your app will get buried, on the other platforms it is not so bad

Posted:A year ago

#13

Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.

2,287 2,507 1.1
Popular Comment
The number one skill to succeed is to understand that there is no number one skill to succeed.

As soon as you put emphasis on something, that means you are neglecting something else.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jim Webb on 19th November 2013 3:41pm

Posted:A year ago

#14

Simon Butler Computer Games

5 5 1.0
For the love of god, have none of you learned yet?
DON'T FEED THE TROLL!
Ex-Imagine. Need I say more?

Posted:A year ago

#15

Simon Butler Computer Games

5 5 1.0
Marketing is the number one skill the same way that piracy killed Imagine software.

Posted:A year ago

#16

Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend

292 704 2.4
Lol, don't worry Simon, we keep him around for the entertainment value. ;)

Posted:A year ago

#17

Ruben Monteiro Engineer

84 203 2.4
I think having a good game is the number one skill to succeed as an indie and then if it is really good info usually gets around by word of mouth, etc.
This is so naive it almost seems sarcastic. Indie success by this means is about as likely as winning the lottery. For every game you know that succeeds by this formula, 1000 remain in obscurity.

Posted:A year ago

#18

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

961 1,759 1.8
I think having a good game is the number one skill to succeed as an indie and then if it is really good info usually gets around by word of mouth, etc.
I think you will make a good game, see it fail, then get a job at a large studio. Relying on word of mouth is almost a guaranteed fail unless you make something truly, truly noteworthy. According to someone else, not you.

Bruce is right. Lots of shit games make millions, lots of great games make (literally) nothing.

The number of examples in both those pools are surely much greater than the pool of people who just did "build it and they will come", so it really is all in the marketing. Anyone that does not agree is in denial, even if this starkly obvious fact is distasteful - as it surely is to me.

I've been "building it and they will come" for a decade as an indie, and I've never once earned more money than I could make being cog #452 at EA etc. and I've often gone without pay at all. Some of those games have nominated or won major awards. Everyone I speak with regularly at an indie level has a similar story. This is an accurate picture, painted by someone at the coal face.

Posted:A year ago

#19

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
What people don't seem to understand is that good marketing is very creative. Often more creative than the game development.
With indies this marketing creativity should be built into everything they do.
No line of code should be written without thinking about the marketing implications.
We make our games for customers and marketing means thinking about these customers when we make stuff for them.

So developers should not waste their time on cool ideas that the world doesn't want.
Everything, the game genre, game mechanic, graphics, game name, everything, should all be driven by what the customer wants.
Even the smallest company should do real research into this.
At Kwalee we brought in groups of students from the college and got their feedback on things we were working on.

Not to do this kind of stuff is pure stupidity and vanity and will lead to guaranteed failure.
In the indie world there is a vast amount of this vanity around. But it won't last for long because it is just throwing money away.

If any indy wants to pay my train fare and buy me a beer I will happily look at what they are doing and give them some considered input. I might add nothing. But maybe I could add value.

Posted:A year ago

#20

Keldon Alleyne Handheld Developer, Avasopht Ltd

472 480 1.0
@Bruce: granted. So what would you say is the bare minimum unit size and investments required to prudently set up a marketing based operation?

@Paul: very true what you've said about crap games with good marketing doing well, though I have to wonder about the long term implications in terms of buyer's remorse, and also what will happen with the supply of marketing effort exceeds its relevance, which then leads to the inevitable coming era of visibility determined purely by who buys shelf positions.

Posted:A year ago

#21

Tom Keresztes Programmer

700 354 0.5
So developers should not waste their time on cool ideas that the world doesn't want.
According to marketing analysts an Steve Ballmer, the world did not want a touch-screen based smartphone.

"
In a 2007 Bloomberg article, Matt Lynn predicted that Apple Inc. "…will sell a few to its fans, but the iPhone won't make a long-term mark on the industry.
"

Posted:A year ago

#22
We all have our own experiences, that's kinda the point. You can't reduce the entire industry down to a single picture and then claim 'this is it folks, nothing more to learn here'. I find my teams experience constantly written out of 90% of the descriptions of the mobile world. It's perfectly natural for devs who don't see themselves in these explanations to come back and question if this is the total truth. There's lots of things about what we do we all agree on. But when you say "the world is like this.." Try to remember what you mean is "My world is like this"

Posted:A year ago

#23

Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd

343 812 2.4
Lots of shit games make millions
Name one.

Posted:A year ago

#24
And Can we also disregard those who say making a game other than what the audience already knows and likes is doomed? Games like this are the apex of our industry in terms if revenue, respect, creativity and fan love. Any who claim that trying to make something new and original is a mugs game, I guarantee you that the games they are busy copying are exactly the kind of game they are claiming can't be done.

Posted:A year ago

#25

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
@Bruce: granted. So what would you say is the bare minimum unit size and investments required to prudently set up a marketing based operation?
Marketing is not about investing. It is about attitude.
In small developers everyone is in marketing now.
It really is just a matter of thinking about the customer and being creative.

Vanity projects are the surest way of flushing money down the toilet. I have seen it many times.

Posted:A year ago

#26

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
You can't reduce the entire industry down to a single picture and then claim 'this is it folks, nothing more to learn here'. I find my teams experience constantly written out of 90% of the descriptions of the mobile world.
Sounds like good creative marketing to me.

Posted:A year ago

#27

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
Name one.
A massive publisher based in California did this many times.
Take the Christmas charts going back 20 years and then look the titles up in Metacritic.

Posted:A year ago

#28

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

961 1,759 1.8
Lots of shit games make millions

Name one.
Candy Crush Saga.

Posted:A year ago

#29

Justin Biddle Software Developer

163 493 3.0
@Paul Johnson

How dare you besmirch the might game of Candy Crush! It is an amazing game full of nuance, flare...... Oh alright. It's upper crap :D

Posted:A year ago

#30

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