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Indie devs facing "mass extinction event" - Prince

Puppy Games co-founder says price erosion will catch up to the industry, suggests a path to survival

Earlier this week, Puppy Games co-founder Caspian Prince published an intentionally antagonistic blog post on his company's official website, telling customers, "You are worthless to us."

"It has been said that it was a desperate bid for attention disguised as truth," Prince later told GamesIndustry.biz. "But in fact, it was actually the truth disguised as a desperate bid for attention."

Prince said the truth he wanted to bring up and have discussed was that the success of Steam and Humble Bundle-style name-your-price packages have de-valued games. And because players were paying so much less for games than they used to, their value as customers had similarly plummeted. As a result, the industry was incentivizing indie developers to ignore things like customer support, because each individual customer wasn't worth the effort.

"There's the customer, there's Valve, the Humble Bundle, and all of their followers, we've all managed to put ourselves into this spiral of price erosion."

"The post was deliberately written in the most incendiary way possible knowing full well that Angry Internet Man would pick up on the article, read it entirely wrongly, and then try to pick a fight over it, which then means swarms of people who had actually read and understood it would argue back," Prince said.

On that front, he considered the objective achieved. The original blog post drew hundreds of responses and flattened the company's servers for a time. It also went more viral than Prince had expected, spawning numerous tweets, message board threads, and news stories.

However, there were a couple things about the post Prince might change if he had the chance to do it over again. First, he said he would try harder to underscore that the article was not about Puppy Games specifically.

"It's about the industry, all of the other developers as well," Prince said. "We're all in the same boat, and we've all helped ourselves get into this boat. We're one actor amongst many. There's the customer, there's Valve, the Humble Bundle, and all of their followers, we've all managed to put ourselves into this spiral of price erosion."

Second, he would think twice about mentioning Fez developer Phil Fish.

"I didn't realize that you shouldn't invoke Phil Fish, and he's like some kind of boogeyman now," Prince said. "Because it unfortunately did deflect a lot of the discussion away just onto Phil Fish. Maybe I should have picked someone slightly less high profile."

"It doesn't matter how much money we spend on trying to advertise or market [our games]. It's nothing compared to what Valve can do on a whim."

That aside, Prince said the post was "the tip of the iceberg," and that there are a number of interesting developments he wants to tackle on the blog in the future. And while he might have been fearless when it came to potentially alienating customers, there are posts he's considered about Valve and Steam that he doesn't think he'll ever dare publish.

"Our customers may seem like ants to us, but we are the ants to Valve," Prince said. "For every indie developer that turns up, pours their heart and soul into something that's taken them all their lives to achieve and then throws it out onto the merciless shores of Steam's ocean, there's another one going to come along five minutes later that's done exactly the same. They have an effectively infinite supply of suppliers."

Valve are "king-makers," Prince said. He estimated that if Steam featured one of Puppy Games' years-old titles on the top slot of the store, it could bring in $200,000 overnight.

"People turn up and buy stuff whether we promote them or not. It doesn't seem like we've got much effect on it," Prince said. "We don't really have a lot of control over who's buying our games anymore... It doesn't matter how much money we spend on trying to advertise or market [our games]. It's nothing compared to what Valve can do on a whim."

And while Prince doesn't put a lot of stock in his own ability to predict the future--he says Puppy Games would be doing better than just getting by if he could--he has some clear expectations of where this trend is leading.

"I think the next thing that will happen is there will be a mass extinction event, basically," Prince said. "There's got to be a consolidation. I can't see many other developers putting up with the status quo. Another year of this and a whole load of studios are just simply going to give up because it's a waste of time... A lot of people are going to have to stop making games because they can't afford to do it anymore. The dream is burned."

The App Store and Google Play serve as a poster child for the problem, Prince said. Fortunately, the current trend on those storefronts also points the way to a possible solution.

"It is in fact harmless, and I dare say it's done more good than harm to get in massive slinging matches. It's like walking a tightrope. The important thing is just not to look down."

"We've got a solution, which has been shown to be a way out of the situation: the Battledroid free-to-play game we're working on very slowly in the background," Prince said. "That's been shown to be a workable alternative model to the race to zero. Well, we'll start at zero and work upwards, rather than start at $20 and work down. But it's a totally different world out there with free-to-play. We've no idea whether it will be successful or not, but you've got to try."

Getting back to his blog post, Prince acknowledged it as an example of the changing dynamic between developers and players. Recent years have seen an abundance of new channels for direct communication between the two parties, but it's been something of a two-edged sword.

"On balance, I'm not sure whether it's really worked out any better at all," Prince said. "It feels like it does, but I think it's actually a waste of everybody's time at the end of the day if developers engage fans too much. On the other hand, that's one of the things I've really enjoyed about making games, the occasional email we get from someone who will just write to us and say, 'I love your games, I'm so happy I got them.' And that absolutely makes your day, because in every other computing job I've ever had, you just sat there while people complained about how shit your code was and how nothing worked."

Obviously, Prince still gets complaints in his current role, but he's found the recent approach of dealing with them to be its own form of entertainment.

"It is in fact harmless, and I dare say it's done more good than harm to get in massive slinging matches," Prince said. "It's like walking a tightrope. The important thing is just not to look down. Nothing dangerous is going to happen, nothing bad's going to happen. Just keep walking on the tightrope. Many people make the mistake of taking the insults and so on personally. But there comes a point where you realize, 'I don't care what you think.' And as soon as you realize that, you can ignore everything if you feel like it and just say what the hell you like."

When asked about developers who have had their personal information stolen and publicized online, Prince said, "There's a difference between mob attacks and just arguing with individuals," and noted that Puppy Games' own site had been the subject of attacks.

"On a personal level, I'd like to tell anyone who read my incendiary article to understand that I'm not being a dick to you the listener, you the reader," Prince said. "I'm not deliberately trolling you; I'm trying to tell people what's actually going on here. Because I'm quite personable in real life. I'll even buy you a drink if you say hello."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry International in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at CBS-owned GameSpot in the US.

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