"Discovery is difficult," Team17 creative director Kevin Carthew told GamesIndustry.biz in an interview at E3 last month. "It's an almost impossible thing to crack because what can you do apart from PR and marketing and spending a little bit more money on it?"
It's not a novel observation, but it is a relevant one in light of the company's current push as a games label trying to help indie developers turn promising projects like The Escapists into smashing successes. And while plenty of people would expect the subsequent sentiments from Carthew to be a bit bleak, he instead offered a bit of optimism.
"But you still see games being competitive just on the strength and the quality of the concepts," Carthew said. "There's more of an appetite in the marketplace for originality than maybe there ever has been. To find the kind of diversity on display in the market right now, you've got to go back to the home computer revolution of the '80s or something like that. It's a challenge, but I don't know if it's getting harder to develop games. I think it's probably just the case that it's always been hard to be a successful indie, and it continues to be hard to be a successful indie."
When asked what Team17 has to offer developers in its role as an indie publisher, Carthew is quick to offer a correction.
"It's not good to have all the wealth concentrated in a handful of companies, especially when that wealth isn't necessarily going back into supporting the developers..."
"We don't call ourselves a publisher, we call ourselves a games label," he said. "We call ourselves a games label because I think what we do is quite different to what a lot of publishers do... We've been in that chair before. We've had those experiences in the past where we worked with a publisher and it wasn't a satisfactory experience. Off the back of that learning, how we approach and work with our development partners is very different."
No doubt the landscape indie developers are coming into now is very different than it was when Team17 started in 1990. It's almost unrecognizable even from what it was 10 years ago.
"What we saw with the rise of the indies, that came about because of a combination of better tools making game development more accessible, and platforms like Steam, the App Store, Xbox Live Arcade, etc., offering a route to market for a lot of people who would not necessarily have had one before," Carthew said. "But at the same time, what we tend to see with some stores is there's not a lot of movement on the charts. They've become stagnant."
Part of that stagnation is due to the games-as-a-service approach extending the lifespan of a hit game; constant updates ensure that the playerbase sticks around and there's always something to convince new players to sign on. But there's also inertia at work; the stores tend to feature games that bring in the most money, which helps those games stay higher in the charts and continue earning their featured positioning. The result is an environment Carthew thinks won't do the industry many favors in the long run.
"It's not that big a deal for the guys who are making tons of money, but I think you also have got to look at where that money is going," Carthew said. "Is it going in to supporting other developers? Is it going to increasing the diversity of the kind of people who start to work in the games industry? Is it good for fans of games? Are we coming up with new content, new concepts? Are we keeping the games industry interesting?
"I don't think it's good for the industry as a whole, and I think that's basically because it's not good for gamers on the whole. It's not good to have all the wealth concentrated in a handful of companies, especially when that wealth isn't necessarily going back into supporting the developers and building new sustainable businesses creating whole new concepts and games."
"Steam has made steps in the right direction with its much more targeted advertising, and that's paid off for them"
As far as solutions go, Carthew thinks efforts to accommodate the Early Access model in the console market have been positive steps, but there are more fundamental problems to be addressed.
"A lot of the platforms really need a radical rethinking of their digital storefronts," he said. "Steam has made steps in the right direction with its much more targeted advertising, and that's paid off for them. But for a lot of these storefronts, they're kind of hidden away. I think they've gone backwards in a lot of regards, and they need to rethink discovery. Maybe they're happy with the status quo because, as we've seen, the home for indie games is much more found on mobiles and Steam, and much less so on consoles, where it's still more about the AAA space than anything."
Of course, indie developers can't sit around waiting for the storefronts to magically figure out the perfect discoverability mechanisms. They have to work with what's in front of them, and Carthew said the way indie games get discovered in the coming years will probably be much different than the ways they get noticed now.
"As people are wising up more and more to the power of social media, we'll see more of a focus on the Twitch platform, the rise and proliferation of influencers, and publishers as well as developers working more with influencers. Team17 has been doing it in a small way and will step that up; The Escapists benefited from a huge word of mouth social media campaign borne out of the gameplay mechanics, with very interesting [and shareable] video clips of the game.
"We're looking for a game we can genuinely add something to, and a little bit beyond that, we're looking to help build those guys into sustainable businesses"
"Whatever games we work on next, as part of the development process and the concept and design, we're thinking very carefully about features we might incorporate in order to capitalize on [social media and influencers], that might make the game more shareable. Because when it's done right, it's as powerful, if not more powerful, than a very expensive PR and marketing campaign."
The Escapists appears to be an ideal example of Team17's approach to indie publishing. While it isn't about to say no to established developers who could benefit from a little assistance in funding or PR (Team17 did publish Yooka-Laylee from ex-Rare devs Playtonic, after all), Carthew said the company is primarily looking to incubate projects from relatively inexperienced developers, as they did with The Escapists and Sheltered.
"Those are games that I think would not necessarily have made it out or been possible without Team 17's help," Carthew said. "So we're looking for a game we can genuinely add something to, and a little bit beyond that, we're looking to help build those guys into sustainable businesses so they can keep creating games."
Carthew also emphasized that the company treats those developers well and doesn't lock them up into contracts for their future projects.
"We just hope that by doing the right thing by them as developers is that they'll think of us the next time around, and it will lead to partnerships in the future," Carthew said.
That approach has already panned out at least once. After helping Chris Davis and his studio Mouldy Toof get The Escapists out the door and build the game into a brand, Team17 acquired the developer and is currently working on The Escapists 2 for release later this year.