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"The era of 'break-out indie success' is long dead"

Indie developers share their thoughts on the greatest challenges facing the industry in 2018

The current climate is a tough one for indie developers. While it's easy to get wrapped up in the narrative of smash hits emerging from nowhere, picking up major awards and selling millions of units, those cases are anomalous in comparison to the experience of your average indie developer.

In order to build a picture of what life as an indie developer in 2018 looks like, and what the biggest challenges in that corner of the industry might be, GamesIndustry.biz carried out a survey of over 60 developers at this year's EGX Rezzed.

Common themes included the more immediately obvious issues such as visibility, overcrowded and uncurated storefronts, and lack of access to funding. These issues are often self-replicating, because developers who struggle to gain exposure with their first game have no established platform from which to launch the second. With the number of games available on Steam having doubled in the last two years, smaller developers are struggling to breathe in the crush.

"The era of 'break-out indie success' is long dead and developers entering the market need to consider long-term strategy, distribution and funding from the get-go," said Table Flip Games co-founder Tommy Thompson.

"Steam is a hot mess right now; Direct has accelerated the degradation of the platform into something akin to mobile app stores. Small studios/bedroom programmers who only target that market will fail to succeed. Whether via publisher or otherwise, we need to be thinking about distribution on consoles and on mobile.

"The era of 'break-out indie success' is long dead and developers entering the market need to consider long-term strategy, distribution and funding from the get-go"

Tommy Thompson, Table Flip Games co-founder

"We need to be aiming for larger and more ambitious projects to secure funding from publishers. To suggest the oft-quoted 'indiepocalypse' is coming I feel is an exaggeration, but measurable success within the market is going to change drastically in the next five years."

The extent to which funding is an issue for developers was highlighted earlier this year by a TIGA survey, which found that 38 per cent of games companies listed it as the main thing holding their business back.

Of the indie developers surveyed at Rezzed, only 16 were receiving any funding from an investor or publisher, while only two had access to public funding, and one was through an incubator scheme.

In total, 29 developers were funding their projects from personal savings, 21 were working a day job, and six were receiving support from family or a spouse. Previous game sales were another common revenue stream, with 24 developers relying on that money to at least part-fund their game.

According to Kate Goode, creative director at Cornish indie Triangular Pixels, the industry is losing creative talent due to the lack of personal security that comes with such restrictive access to finance.

"Funding is always a challenge, but a big problem is stable income," she said. "We're lucky we do, but to have it long enough to be able to get a mortgage is really hard.

"Young indies probably don't worry about it, but as you get older you start trying to buy a house, or have kids, those responsibilities make being indie a risk to not just yourself, but your family. It's up to each developer where the line is, but as our industry gets older there will be more and more of us.

"I've already seen too many games developers leave for better pay and more stable positions in order to support family."

“I've already seen too many games developers leave for better pay and more stable positions in order to support family”

Kate Goode, Triangular Pixels creative director

Tying into the issue of funding is the difficulty indies face working on their pitches and building relationships with publishers; the one-sided power dynamic in a publisher/fledgling indie developer relationship can easily leave young talent out in the cold.

As Beta Jesta co-founder Adam Boyne noted: "There is funding out there, but so many publishers fail to provide feedback on applications and pitches to indie devs that they can't iterate and improve to the point where they can get the finance they so desperately need."

As with finance, the issue of visibility and discoverability is a complicated and multifaceted one that is increasingly worrying developers, irrespective of how well they may be established within the industry.

Developer Inkle, which not only has the four-part Sorcery franchise to its name, but also the critically acclaimed narrative adventure 80 Days, fears the "indiepocalypse" just as much as any other developer.

"The term has become a cliché that evokes some strong opinions, but from my point of view it's very real," said studio co-founder Joseph Humfrey. "The number of indie games out there and the increasingly high quality of them makes it harder and harder to get noticed... While I don't think any individual indie games are really directly competing with each other, the sheer number of games out there is causing a problem.

"Is it better for consumers? I hope so, though I also worry that the glut of games also makes all of them seem disposable, since yet another 'next cool little thing' will always be on the horizon. Simply walking around the show floor at Rezzed makes me feel daunted as an indie developer."

Another recent environmental shift facing indie developers surrounds the visibility of games that are not "YouTuber friendly". As Tom Malinowski, lead developer at Whoop Group Games noted, Steam no longer guarantees significant traffic, and many consumers have moved from written media outlets to YouTube.

“The number of indie games out there and the increasingly high quality of them makes it harder and harder to get noticed”

Joseph Humfrey, Inkle co-founder

"The amount of potential exposure a game can expect from Youtube is highly dependent on it's entertainment value as a video rather than as a game," he said. "Complex or non-visual mechanics which aren't immediately understandable or recognisable to an uninitiated viewer will likely make for boring content compared to intense, simple gameplay with wacky physics.

"There's nothing wrong with this type of game, but I feel this trend will negatively impact games which lack these instantly approachable concepts, and instead are attempting to do things which aren't conducive to entertaining short, fast-paced, quickly-cut videos, and artificially skews successes towards one group in a way which may not happen in a different form."

SteamSpy's position within the indie ecosystem raised conflicting opinions among developers. Some argued that the restriction was damaging to the industry, while others suggested that it was good for the long-term health of the market.

"The market is polluted by the ease of access to sales data," said Playright Digital founder Evtim Trenkov. "There has been a trend of replicating 'proven formulas' which actually economically create risk-averse dev culture."

However, others were quick to defend the tool, arguing that it helped developers set prices for their games as well as benchmarking production budgets.

As No More Robots founder Mike Rose recently suggested to GamesIndustry.biz, the demise of SteamSpy may not be such a bad thing, but as far as most indie developers are concerned, it's a loss to the industry and presents yet another challenge to overcome.

Despite all of these challenges, managing expectations is perhaps the most important thing any indie developer can do in the current environment.

As Useful Slug technical director Vegard Myklebust said: "[Consider] how are you going to reach each order of magnitude of people? Example: One? I'll buy the game. Ten? My closest friends will buy the game. 100? All my Twitter followers and all my Facebook friends combined might make this number. 1,000? 10,000? 100,000? What are your plans to get to these levels? If there's no answer to those questions, there's a good chance there might never be."

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