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Are the walls closing in on indie developers?

Steam sales, Kickstarter fails, and "mass extinction events" - indies felt the pinch in 2014

Editor's note: This is part of a series of features this week that look back at the biggest news trends of 2014.

For independent developers, the last decade has been an endless procession of migratory possibilities. The physical world was defined by compromise, dependence and strategically closed doors, but the rise of digital afforded freedom and flexibility in every direction. New platforms, new business models, new methods of distribution and communication; so many fresh options appeared in such a brief window of time that knowing where and when to place your bet was almost as important as having the best product. For a few years, right around 2008, there was promise almost everywhere you looked.

That has changed. No matter how pregnant with potential they once seemed, virtually every marketplace has proved unable to support the spiralling number of new releases. If the digital world is one with infinite shelf-space for games, it has offered no easy solutions on how to make them visible. Facebook, Android, iOS, Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network; all have proved to be less democratic than they first appeared, their inevitable flaws exposed as the weight of choice became heavier and heavier. As Spil Games' Eric Goossens explained to me at the very start of 2014: "It just doesn't pay the bills any more."

"If the digital world is one with infinite shelf-space for games, it has offered no easy solutions on how to make them visible"

Of course, Goossens was talking specifically about indie development of casual games. And at that point, with 2013 only just receding from view, I would probably have named one exception to the trend, one place where the balance between volume and visibility gave indies the chance to do unique and personal work and still make a decent living. That place would have been Steam, and if I was correct in my assessment for even one second, it wasn't too long before the harsher reality became clear.

After less than five months of 2014 had passed, Valve's platform had already added more new games than in the whole of the previous year. Initiatives like Greenlight and Early Access were designed to make Steam a more open and accessible platform, but they were so effective that some of what made it such a positive force for indies was lost in the process. Steam's culture of deep-discounting has become more pervasive and intense in the face of this chronic overcrowding, stirring up impassioned debate over what some believe will be profound long-term effects for the perceived value of PC games. Every discussion needs balance, but in this case the back-and-forth seemed purely academic: for a lot of developers steep discounts are simply a matter of survival, and precious few could even entertain the notion of focusing on the greater good instead.

And the indie pinch was felt beyond Steam's deliberately weakened walls. Kickstarter may be a relatively new phenomenon - even for the hyper-evolving landscape of the games industry - but it faced similar problems in 2014, blighted by the twin spectres of too much content and not enough money to go around. Anecdotally, the notion that something had changed was lurking in the back ground at the very start of the year, with several notable figures struggling to find enough backers within the crowd. The latter months of 2014 threw up a few more examples, but they also brought something close to hard evidence that 'peak Kickstarter' may already be behind us - fewer successful projects, lower funding targets, and less money flowing through the system in general. None of which was helped by a handful of disappointing failures, each one a blow for the public's already flagging interest in crowdfunding. Yet another promising road for indies had become more treacherous and uncertain.

"Peak Kickstarter may already be behind us - fewer successful projects, lower funding targets, and less money flowing through the system in general"

So are indies heading towards a "mass extinction event"? Overcrowding is certainly a key aspect of the overall picture, but the act of making and releasing a game is only getting easier, and the allure of development as a career choice seems to grow with each passing month. It stands to reason that there will continue to be a huge number of games jostling for position on every single platform - more than even a growing market can sustain - but there's only so much to be gained from griping about the few remaining gatekeepers. If the days when simply being on Steam or Kickstarter made a commercial difference are gone, and if existing discovery tools still lack the nuance to deal with all of that choice, then it just shifts the focus back to where it really belongs: talent, originality, and a product worth an investment of time and money.

At GDC Europe this summer, I was involved in a private meeting with a group of Dutch independent game developers, all sharing knowledge and perspective on how to find success. We finished that hour agreeing on much the same thing. There are few guarantees in this or any other business, but the conditions have also never been more appropriate for personality and individuality to be the smartest commercial strategy. The world has a preponderance of puzzle-platformers, but there's only one Monument Valley. We're drowning in games about combat, but This War of Mine took a small step to the left and was greeted with every kind of success. Hell, Lucas Pope made an entire game about working as a border control officer and walked away with not just a hit, but a mantelpiece teeming with the highest honours.

No matter how crowded the market has become, strong ideas executed with care are still able to rise above the clamour, no huge marketing spend required. As long as that's still possible, indies have all of the control they need.

Latest comments (25)

Dan Tubb Investment manager, Edge4 years ago
I got caught up in the greenlight thing and bought a whole bunch of titles, only 1 of which actually delivered a full game in the last year. Sadly too many developers put out half-baked ideas and have ruined it with poor delivery. Now, like many people, I wonít touch greenlight for fear of getting burned.

My highest hope was the Theme Hospital inspired Prison Architect. That I must admit is shaping up well, but oh so slowly. Those guys have raised $10m and still no game; did they bring in extra resource with the cash?

Not wanting to slam any one studio, and like I say the above game I (for the time being) still hold in high regard. But I think there has been a shift in gamers mind. At first we thought we thought our money would be put directly into development to make a better game. Now I suspect many people think early access is just very expensive pre-orders and the money goes straight into the developerís personal accounts and they carry on with whatever speed and inclination they had anyway.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Dan Tubb on 16th December 2014 2:16pm

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Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments4 years ago
If the days when simply being on Steam or Kickstarter made a commercial difference are gone, and if existing discovery tools still lack the nuance to deal with all of that choice, then it just shifts the focus back to where it really belongs: talent, originality, and a product worth an investment of time and money.
Not sure how that follows?
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Traditional investment funding probably stands the test of time
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Show all comments (25)
Jason A Bentley Owner, Hemlock Games4 years ago
then it just shifts the focus back to where it really belongs: talent, originality, and a product worth an investment of time and money.
Not sure how that follows?

Agreed.

It seems to have put the power right back where it was previously; in the hands of entities that can advertise enough to rise above the rest. Typically that means big pockets and that means established developers/publishers.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jason A Bentley on 16th December 2014 2:40pm

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Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship4 years ago
@Dan - Prior to Prison Architect, Introversion had come through some really tough times. Their previous couple of releases had not done as well as expected, development of their current title was in the doldrums. and they had to lay off a bunch of staff and drop the company to two people (and almost shut it altogether). Indeed, Prison Architect came about because Chris Delay wanted a break from their long-running and ultimately canned development of Subversion.

Basically, I'm saying I can see why they're really unwilling to staff up the company again, having just come through the grinder with laying people off and being stuck in development hell for years.

Hadn't realised they'd made $10m in sales, though! Delighted for them if that's the case!

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Nick McCrea on 16th December 2014 3:49pm

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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios4 years ago
On top of this, the new EU VAT rules make it extremely onerous to sell direct from your own website as some indies such as Introversion and Positech do:
http://techcrunch.com/2014/11/25/eus-new-vatmoss-rules-could-create-a-vatmess-for-startups/

This means indies are pretty much forced to sell through a third party, unless they can afford to set up the necessary infrastructure to comply - or ignore the legislation and risk an unspecified fine. I don't even know if a small indie store like itch.io will be able to meet these requirements, or if they'll have to deny sales to the EU :(

As far as I know UKIE and TIGA are both still investigating this legislation...
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Martin Appleton Artists 4 years ago
With the initial hype of Kickstarter I backed probably more projects than I should have. Some have really delivered on their promises, even if a little late - just recently Dungeonmans was released and continues to get regular developer support; Shovel Knight was a big success too.

Lately though I've become much more selective in what I back as some projects have left me feeling somewhat burnt as a customer. Projects where the developers have over-promised then significantly change features or remove them leave the customer with little option for redress at the end.
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Tom Pickard Founder and Creative Director, Knifey Spoonie Games4 years ago
As someone who has Just quit his safe studio Job, I still believe in the Indie market and it's ability to deliver high quality games that sell well... I've done my research, made good contacts, saved enough money to self fund my first product should I choose not to look for further investment, and am prepared to be flexible and do contract work etc should good a opportunity arise etc.

The current turmoil we're seeing is the ripples of the 2010-2012 funding boom.. Where a lot of people backed a lot and gave away money easy, the "gold rush" as it was.. Now a lot of people who learnt how to get easy money are either failing to deliver, or taking ages to deliver and it's knocked that confidence. Not to mention the flooding of the market with Devs with cool ideas. Some of the studios that have fallen have fallen through Naivety, some through bad luck, some through sheer bad management. It's totally expected though. As you get more studios and solo developers making games you're naturally going to see more failures.

I still totally trust the market as a force to weed out poor products or badly marketed products. I also think as things like Kickstarter and indiegogo mature, good products by developers with the right pitch and background will get funded, and with Early Access we will see more rules come in to make sure it's not abused (I want all Early access titles to have "developer surveys" where the buyers are sent a survey every few months asking questions like "do you feel the developers are making progress at a fair pace" "do you feel the community is being listened to?" seeing as part of the EA rules is it's for helping shape a title, not just Beta testing etc) Ultimately I think this will allow the situation to form into a more robust market where funding is still accessible but you come under tighter scrutiny by taking the money upfront etc.

Anyways. Ive still backed 11 Successful pitches on KS including Eminence, Armello and Bedlam, and have about 5 Early Access titles such as Radial G and Satellite Reign both bought in the last week.... Basically.. The market will always right itself, currently it's got growing pains, that's all.
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"No matter how crowded the market has become, strong ideas executed with care are still able to rise above the clamour, no huge marketing spend required. As long as that's still possible, indies have all of the control they need."

No. Just had a talk about this at the office today. The notion that "some indies are making it big time = we can make it too is flawed. It is naiive actually. If Apple does not happen to choose your game for promotion, then no amount of strong ideas with high quality will save you.

If the above quote would be correct, then it would also be correct to say that the same has been true all the time: strong ideas and quality are enough. They were not and they certainly are not.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 4 years ago
Indies are just miniature factory studios anyway.
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Mike Amerson President & Co-Founder, Wet productions Inc4 years ago
What its saying is that when indie developers put their best foot forward and create a high quality product - if they are to come out ahead.
As an indie developer who has his share of both successes and failures, I completely agree. For a while anyone could put nearly anything out and it could get downloads because we had an explosion of new platforms in which people were hungry for content, but now it's swaying back to quality over quantity.
The market is flooded with games. Few are excellent, some are good - but the majority are poor or lacking in some ways. To sustain in this industry as an indie developer, we must adapt to the changing landscape. We can no longer get by with creating a clone of flappy birds or another "meh" game. The indie industry is following the course of the traditional industry in that it is a hit driven business and the new currency is player attention. You either engage and delight them or you lose their interest.
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Mike Amerson President & Co-Founder, Wet productions Inc4 years ago
I agree,
It's unfortunate but i also think many developers do treat their "early-access" programs as a pre-order and not reinvest the money back into the game wisely.
I'm inspired by the sim-business type games as well. I've had an idea for one for some time and I'll be putting it into motion after the first of this new year. I'm excited for it, its an original and has all the ingredients to be a fantastic success.
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Mike Amerson President & Co-Founder, Wet productions Inc4 years ago
Yes, we certainly are.
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its just hard because indies need to excel at a handful of disciplines, ones that often conflict with one another. Businesses minded people are often not the most creative, and vice versa. Now not only do indies need to be business minded, and creative, they also have to be great marketers and sales people to boot, and Sales is really really hard. So now you have to be able to be all three, or find three people who each can excel at one of these disciplines while also getting along during the days of little to no pay.
Making the game itself it sometimes the easiest part of the process, and making games as we all know is HARD.

Its a good thing game makers are passionate, cause otherwise no one would be nuts enough to attempt it.

anyway , I toast all you crazy bastards nuts enough to make games, Happy Holidays
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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios4 years ago
I don't know about other people, but I'm shocked at some of the games that people contribute money to. Thousands of dollars, and the game is just some crap moving around on screen. Is it family members, friends, people just have disposable incomes?

Today, anyone can cobble together something and get funding. Its amazing. But as the article says, it's starting to diminish.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Marty Howe on 17th December 2014 2:18am

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
We've just seen what you can raise $10M against so I'd say the future is pretty rosy. Put away your deep and complex ideas and just go find some VC money. It seems to be becoming the norm so get it before it bursts.
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George Williams Owner 4 years ago
Its a crowded market now and trying to stand out becomes harder and harder. Flappy Bird was a classic example. Laying dorment, rejected by the gaming media because it wasn't a Triple A product, then exposed by a Youtuber and all hell broke loose.

Personally, I feel that the gaming media who started off supporting Indies have forgotten their roots and like mainstream games media are chasing that all important dollar. Even if you look at some of the big hitters like Rovio, it was their 52nd or 53rd attempt before Angry Birds took over the world.

Banished is another classic example of an Indie turning the 'norm' on its head. A one man band had a #1 hit on Steam this year with a very good game. So even in 2014, it can still be done.
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Agreed. Amongst all the blather we throw out at conferences the most unsung & unreported rule for success that start up devs don't hear is that the games business always was and remains chiefly a battle of ideas. You might reply "Everyone says you need a good game though" right? Well not really. Because if you say that then go on to talk up ten other areas we also need to nail, it's clear that our meaning of "you really need a good game" diverges. To us, anything we could buy off the shelf or as a service was of secondary importance by default, even when taken all together.

Some would advise otherwise and that's cool, we're all chasing our own goals for success. But we don't and didn't think being Indie meant anything other than being independent and doing without AAA budgets or AAA bullshit. Other than that we were in the same bucket as everyone else in the industry and making our game for £70k we accepted we were competing with games that cost from 70p to $70m. The audience wouldn't care where any of us come from or what we thought we're doing in the industry anyway, they only wanted to play the best games out there.

Though nothing was guaranteed, the way we saw it the quality we could reach in our work was more than important, it virtually dictated our chances. But as I said at the start, as far as we knew in video games it always has.
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic keyboard basher, Avasopht Ltd4 years ago
I think indie developers are not thinking indie enough.

Indie is going out on the street and approaching customers to buy your game, shifting units out of your car boot!!

The App store is Walmart, and indie titles think they're in the store but they're in the market stalls outside in the rain as the supermarket shelves only stock top ten products (places bought by advertising and the occasional lottery win like fluke).

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Keldon Alleyne on 17th December 2014 12:26pm

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Mark South COO, Double Eleven4 years ago
Interesting article and got me thinking. In my opinion, it would be that more than quality games and personalities as the core of a developer's commercial strategy that will keep us safe - the sales platforms need to make significant changes. They are currently physically designed to service customers mainly via discounting. Therefore their customers have developed an associated set of behaviours as a response. I believe the way things are going right now weíre going to see a host of studios closures, where most wonít make the headlines as we continue to evolve as an industry and these businesses are incentivised by better discovery.

For example, if I know I could buy a train ticket for the exact same price at any point up to the point of travel I expect most people like myself, without any incentive would buy a train ticket at the station or on the train. If that became the rule, physically you would then see a massive increase in the number of ticket machines at the station, and potentially new jobs on the train just to ensure tickets are sold to everyone. Of course thatís not the case, and iíd assume by offering a flexible decision that says the earlier you buy your ticket the cheaper it is, it is a profit maximising strategy. The point is, as a consumer, I know if Iím going to travel by train Iíll either book the tickets early to save money, or buy late, pay more and possibly look at alternate means.

So when does a Steam/online consumer decide to buy? Not factoring pre order/launch discounts, as late as possible - as it will be the cheapest possible price - and they can certainly wait because of their backlog of games. Granted that's true for most content we consume, however I believe it's most prevalent in games.

The past autumn sale had almost 6000 titles on sale - to devs this is an activity designed to raise visibility of their games - yet I was started asking myself how do I gain visibility within this sale. Looking at the new steam customised home page (itís infrastruture) aside of the new curated elements, itís by and large designed to sell discounted product to gamers. They are very successful from it, but a business that looked at how to maximise profit from say itís 85%+ rated back catalog games would look very different in my opinion. They would focus more on player analytics, and sell me games based on my 5 minute attention span, that I can play with a partner or go deeper and see how I play games. Or perhaps provide more mechanisms for gifting/trading games that have sat dormant in a gamer's backlog for a year to earn credit on other Ďundiscoveredí content. Thereís a hundred things that COULD be done, and that business's challenge would be about finding the mix that makes them profitable (if it exists) by influencing purchaser's behaviours.

Fortunately, some of this is already happening with some online retailers - most likely out of necessity. Certainly an area of our industry to watch - again, all in my opinion.
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The thing is, with the indie movement and lack of gating, there is no one to police a quality product except the customer. And traditionally, that was through expensive demos or trials....resulting ins oversaturation of products, its hard to pick out a gem here and there....without burning the customer

Maybe we can get regional peer reviews before releasing our products from early on, in a open manner...so that products with real potential can receive the backing/support needed, and ideas that are not great can be cautioned by fellow devs in a open honest way?

just thinking outside the box
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 4 years ago
@Dr. Chee Ming Wong

You know, that could work - peer review worked out pretty well for science journals
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief4 years ago
Except, Bonnie, that the publishes of science journals made all the money. The contributors not so much.
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Stephen Richards Game Deisgner 4 years ago
Except, Nicholas, those publishers which are non-profit organisations ;)

Everyone thinks their own game is the gem amongst the clutter. The hard and brutal fact of the matter may be that there are simply more developers than the market can support, both on the indie and AAA end. It's great that there's a spirit of inclusiveness and mutual support in the indie community, as well as a number of growing markets but at the end of the day consumers only have so much cash they're willing to spend on games. Every new developer that pops up has to take a slice of the pie and there's no guarantee the pie will grow at a rate faster than it's being cut up. (Might have over extended a metaphor there: the market is growing, but perhaps not as fast as the industry.)
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Maged Hamdy Studying Computer Science, Rochester Institute of Technology4 years ago
On steam there are currently 6224 items on sale.

Okay, here's the deal: We are not seeing the death of indies. We are seeing the death of UNCREATIVE indies. I've seen so many people lament about how it's so hard to get noticed, then tell me they're working on a farm animal puzzle game. Well, what do you think is gonna happen?

Indies were successful not just because it was 'easy' to get noticed, but because they were innovative. Now indies are becoming more like 2nd rate shovelware developers - all templates, no originality.

Kickstarter was successful because for the first while, it was one giant nostalgia trip. Wouldn't it be cool if Tim Schafer did another RPG? Or we did Wasteland 2? How about another classic brawler? Now it's none of the above - it's all zombie cthulhu games or 'breathtaking' RPGs. Bring up something unique, though, like Five Nights at Freddy's and the money is gonna come.

What we're seeing right now is ALSO a Youtube Renaissance. The last year has shown us who's really in control - and quite frankly, it's those Youtube guys pulling in more a day than _______ gets in a week. Five Nights at Freddy's was covered by Markatplier and boom - runaway success. Why? Because it was different, it was unique (and it was also a horror game.)

Indies need to stop playing the game other indies are playing, 2008 was a breakout year because they weren't. Now they are, and they're getting the smackdown handed to them.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Maged Hamdy on 19th December 2014 1:12am

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