Editor's Note: This is one in a series of year-end stories to be published daily leading up to Christmas that include analysis, opinion and insights into the biggest news and trends of 2015.
There's been a lot of talk this year about an indiepocalypse. An indie bubble bursting. An indie extinction event. It's been a recurring theme in 2015, just like it was in 2014, and you can bet it's going to come up time and again in 2016 as well.
You can look at this a few different ways. You can think of the indiepocalypse as an Armageddon-like event, and those warning it is nigh are like doomsday cultists who keep pushing back their "end of the world" dates because they forgot to carry the one or divide by two. Or you can think of it like global warming, a process that will happen over many years, gradually making the world a less hospitable place for life, but one that is frequently dismissed because today is not much different than yesterday, we still have cold weather on occasion, and a lot of people have a lot of money at stake in maintaining the status quo. In that scenario, the indiepocalypse is not marked by a climactic inflection point or an industry-wide collapse; it is just a prolonged process that happens over many years as a result of some simple but important shifts in the industry. And it impacts a lot more than just indie developers.
"We are by no means worthless, but we are unquestionably worth less."
I've written about this before, but the barriers to entry in gaming have come tumbling down in the last decade thanks to digital distribution. Ultimately, this is a good thing, as it opens us up to the widest possible variety of perspectives and expands the talent pool beyond those with the connections, money, geographic proximity, or any other form of privilege that used to dictate whose voices could be heard. But as more and more people become developers, press, or even players, the importance of your average individual in any of those roles is necessarily lessened. We are by no means worthless, but we are unquestionably worth less.
For developers who are part of larger organizations, that means less job security, which is pretty stunning when one considers what a horror show job security in the field was like before everyone had access to the tools of production and inexpensive ways to distribute their finished products. When there is an effectively limitless pool of people interested in these jobs and few barriers to entry in the way, the supply of competent workers in those fields will inevitably outstrip the demand. The most talented and gifted will always have the best chance of standing out from the crowd (assuming we have ways to properly evaluate such talent), and "rock star" developers will still have leverage to push the financial, creative, and technical envelopes of the medium. But the vast majority will see a relative erosion of their importance to their employers as the supply of qualified candidates for each job increases. They will be more replaceable, with less leverage to command things like fair compensation or a reasonable work-life balance.
In the world of indie games specifically, there was never really any job security to begin with. Their financial health is directly determined by the sales performance of their games. As of this writing, SteamSpy stats say 2,680 titles (including non-game software, but not DLC) hit Steam in 2015, up from 1,787 in 2014 and 575 in 2013, when many of the indiepocalypse concerns we see today were starting to bubble up in then-novel headlines. It's also concerning that the average selling price of non-free-to-play games on Steam has also been trending downward ($12.09 this year, compared to $14.59 for those released in 2013), when one would expect more recent games to be less subject to deep discounts and bundle offerings. Of course, those numbers in and of themselves don't tell the entire story--a downturn in the number of full-priced AAA games being launched might have had some impact--but they are exactly what we would expect to see in a market where the supply of games is outstripping the demand.
"The market for games is still growing; it's just not growing as fast as the number of people willing and able to work in the industry."
Things aren't much better outside of the PC. The console markets are certainly less saturated with indie offerings than Steam is, but Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have all made strides this generation to lower the barriers to entry for small developers. They've also become more accepting of business models like free-to-play, and Microsoft has even embraced the Early Access model with its Xbox One Preview Program. If indie developers find consoles to be a more attractive offering, it's only to the extent that the platform holders have lagged behind PC and mobile in their efforts to open up to more developers. The gatekeepers are unlikely to open their platforms up as wide as Valve, Google, or Apple, but they're still pushing in the same direction. Consoles aren't immune to the indiepocalypse; they're just a little behind the curve.
For an idea of what happens when we extrapolate this trend out into the future, look at the mobile market. The hard barriers to entry in mobile are as close to non-existent as they're likely to get, but the barriers to success for small developers only seem to be rising. Discoverability is still the main challenge for mobile developers, and Google and Apple seem as ambivalent as ever in tackling the problem. The difference is that now we have King, Machine Zone, and Supercell carpet bombing popular media with ads for their own entrenched hits and new efforts. Meanwhile, the channels of virality that at one time could produce a breakout hit like Flappy Bird are now (predictably) looking to monetize that influence rather than give it away. And if a small developer does get traction in the free-to-play-dominated field, can they keep up with the increasingly sophisticated acquisition, retention, and monetization techniques used by the big players in a maturing mobile market?
So that's where we are as 2015 draws to a close. All indications are that the market for games is still growing; it's just not growing as fast enough to support the number of people willing and able to work in the industry. As a result, we're winding up with a smaller percentage of people making a sustainable living off their work. This is, has been, and will continue to be ground zero of the "indiepocalypse." It's not a single catastrophic event, some seismic upheaval that can be traced back to a specific tipping point. It is instead an ongoing challenge, a simple confluence of market conditions that are combining to make the industry a more difficult place to succeed for most individuals. Now whether or not you see that as a problem in need of solving is a different discussion.