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2014: Year of the Indie?

Being a successful indie developer is getting both easier and tougher

One of the big trends developing over the past year has been the rise of indie developers. Indies have been scratching out a living for years doing games in Flash in browsers, but the advent of mobile platforms opened up new territories. Some indies became big mobile developers, and many more people left the shrinking area of console development to start up new companies focusing on social, mobile, or browser games.

Fast-forward to 2013, and we see the emergence of crowdfunding as a viable financing method. At the high end, Chris Roberts has piled up more than $35 million in funds from an increasing audience of fans eager for his Star Citizen game. On Kickstarter alone, last year saw some $57 million in pledges, and the number is sure to grow. Now the last bastion of game development has been breached, with Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft all pledging to support indie developers much more than in the past. Console makers will no longer require developers to buy expensive development systems, and the bureaucracy to bring games to market is being reduced.

"Wait, why aren't they all downloading my game? Perhaps because they've never heard of it"

On the development side, tools like Unity are making it easier and less expensive than ever to support multiple platforms, as well as reducing development time and effort. The emergence of the Unity marketplace for 3D items has been a huge help to InXile's development of Wasteland II and Torment: Tides of Numenera, according to CEO Brian Fargo. Tools for creating iOS or Android games abound, and some of the most successful games have been created in a few months rather than a few years. If you're not trying to create cutting-edge graphics on the newest platforms, development can proceed more swiftly at less expense than ever before.

All this means 2014 is shaping up to be a great year for indie developers... or is it? Yes, more opportunities are opening up, but getting noticed will be harder than ever. Making a profitable living as an indie developer is going to be tougher, too.

For one thing, there are now hundreds of thousands of games out there. Apple recently noted there are more than one million apps in the App Store. Any week sees hundreds, if not thousands, of new games appearing on mobile platforms, consoles, PCs and online. The audience for gaming has expanded tremendously, with over a billion gamers worldwide - but the number of games to choose from has also grown, and will continue to do so.

The fundamental problems of game development (aside from getting the right team together) used to be access to distribution and capital. When the only viable way to make money on games was to sell it in a retail store, you needed to cut a deal with a publisher for funding, distribution, sales and the money to build inventory. Now, of course, access to distribution is easy. Just pop your game into an app store, and it's available to millions of people. Wait, why aren't they all downloading my game? Perhaps because they've never heard of it.

The new fundamental problem of game development is creating an audience. A lucky few indie developers already have an audience from past games, so they've got a head start. Everyone else has to begin from scratch, and often this effort only begins when the game is nearly done... which is far, far too late for most games.

More than one PR professional has told sad tales of developers coming to them for help with their Kickstarter. "When will that begin?" is the question usually asked. All too often the answer is "Oh, next week." Bzzt! Wrong answer. A Kickstarter campaign is about generating funding, yes, but it's really about building an audience that is interested enough in your game to put money down for it. You will have a much higher rate of success if you've started that process at the same time you began kicking around ideas for the game design.

"games these days are something that develops over time... Think of it like gardening - you need to prepare the soil for the seeds, then tend the garden over time to get the best yield from your crop"

We are seeing the emergence of services to help indie developers create or find an audience. Many of the companies who have built large game audiences (on mobile, social, or online) have begun efforts to find and distribute promising games from otherwise unknown developers. Of course, indie developers will have to give up some of their potential revenue for this help, but that's better than 100 percent of not very much.

2014 will be the best of times, and the worst of times for indie developers. Opportunities abound for new games and ideas to reach the market, but making good money from that effort will be harder than ever. Indies who desire to make a living from their craft need to think about marketing, about monetization early in their projects, or partner with someone who can help with those areas.

Lavish the kind of creativity and care you put into a game design on marketing and PR, and your odds of a successful game launch will go up. Remember, games these days are something that develops over time, it's not a fire-and-forget item like console games were ten years ago. Think of it like gardening - you need to prepare the soil for the seeds, then tend the garden over time to get the best yield from your crop. Some crops can provide bountiful harvests for many years if properly managed, and that's the sort of game you should be striving to create.

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Steve Peterson avatar
Steve Peterson: Steve Peterson has been in the game business for 30 years now as a designer (co-designer of the Champions RPG among others), a marketer (for various software companies) and a lecturer. Follow him on Twitter @20thLevel.
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