Gone Home was a breakthrough indie success story last year, but it was far from the only one. As writer-producer Steve Gaynor explained in his talk at the DICE Summit today, stories like that of his four-person Fulbright Company are increasingly common in the indie landscape.
While the indie success stories are increasingly common, Gaynor said he's not about to tell everyone to quit their jobs and go indie because it's a sure thing. On the other hand, he's also dubious about hand-wringing of an indie bubble bursting. Instead, he suggests that the industry is undergoing a sea change.
Right now, we're on the crest of the first wave of breakthrough indie hits. When the first players in this trend hit around 2008 or 2009, the only competition in town was AAA. In such an environment, it has been easier for smaller titles like Braid or Bastion to stand out and entice gamers to buy them based on positive word of mouth and lower prices.
However, now we're at the point where the creators of that first wave of games are readying their follow-ups (The Witness and Transistor in the aforementioned cases). The difference is the way these games are being promoted and anticipated are changing. Transistor was debuted at Sony's E3 conference. The Witness was projected onto the side of a skyscraper. For Mike Bithell's announcement of the Robin Hood-inspired Volume, the Thomas Was Alone developer rented out a castle.
The success of these developers' previous games is allowing them to pour more resources not only into their promotion, but into their development budgets. For the unestablished indies today, this has created a new class of competition. And while the audience for these games is growing, Gaynor said the bandwidth of games the press can draw attention to isn't getting any larger.
"I don't think the bottom is falling out of the industry," Gaynor said, "but I do think the middle is falling out of it."
He pointed to mid-tier publisher-funded studios like Pandemic falling by the wayside as the blockbuster developers like BioWare have gotten bigger. Gaynor put his own former employer, the now-defunct 2K Marin, as another victim of that trend.
In the coming generation, Gaynor said the new indies, those without established reputations, will need to be "more indie than indie," showing audiences something completely different in order to get attention. And while he doesn't like the idea of indies fighting each other, there are market realities to consider.
When Fullbright Company was making Gone Home, Gaynor said the team applied for funding from an incubator. One of the questions he was asked in the application process was who he thought his biggest competitors were. He said he didn't think he had any, that indie developers in general want success for one another, not to gain at another's expense. (They did not get the funding.)
Despite that, Gaynor has stuck by that position, and suggests it is the way forward for the indie market. Those fortunate enough to have been part of that first wave of indie success stories should use their newfound fame to boost the profile of still unknown indies, to call attention to other worthy projects in desperate need of it.
"We are strangers in a strange land," Gaynor said. "This is unexplored territory, but we can figure out how to navigate it if we work together."