Debbie Bestwick ponders what will happen if the indie sector doesn't avoid the mistakes of the past

Gold rush or fools’ gold? Dead Spanish philosophers and the future of indie games

This month we’ve spent a lot of time looking at potential titles for our 2016/17 portfolio and a common question keeps coming up, “Where will the market be in a year-to-eighteen-months time?”. There’s no denying that we’re currently in the middle of a boom for indie titles, self-publishing developers, and labels like Team17, but will these good times last forever?

Looking back at the history of our industry its cyclical nature becomes evermore apparent – not just in terms of hardware generations, but also in terms of software. Starting with the well-documented Atari crash, which in turn became a boom in development for home computers such as the Amiga and ST and then became a slump as the SNES and MegaDrive took over and many developers found themselves unable to compete against first parties.

Things seemed to boom again with the introduction of first PlayStation and then PS2 and Xbox but all to soon we saw another slump as budgets skyrocketed and the audience didn’t (honorable mention to the Wii here for at least trying…).

After that we saw “casual” PC games being touted as the next big thing, then – when that didn’t work out – mobile, then free-to-play (tried launching one of those without an eight-figure marketing budget recently?)… rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.

All of which brings me to our dead Spanish philosopher:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santanaya

But what does he know about indie development? Everything in the garden’s rosy, right? Steam is going great guns, the consoles are truly opening up to self-publishing, have you seen how many copies <insert hot indie title of the month> is selling? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, let’s take a look at a few of the dark clouds on the horizon…

Anybody can make a game – While this might sound like a good thing, the downside is that some days it seems like everybody is making one. The inconvenient truth is that a healthy market can only sustain a certain number of titles per year. Once we reach that threshold, titles are forced into massive competition for attention, which is invariably done by price-slashing. Also, as the gold rush mentality takes hold, lower-quality developers (usually ones who have failed elsewhere) are sucked in, overall title-quality goes down and consumers lose faith and ultimately look elsewhere for their entertainment.

The inconvenient truth is that a healthy market can only sustain a certain number of titles per year.

Subscription” services and sales culture – There’s no denying that services like PS+ and Games With Gold (usually padded out with Indie Games) offer great value to consumers but ultimately it’s not helping the indie cause as a whole. We talk to plenty of developers who’ve had their games signed up directly to go into these programs and it’s really no better than the old work-for-hire model and the subsistence-farming level of business it breeds.

On a wider point, I think it gives a perception of indie games as being of little-or-no value – I’m starting to lose count of how many times I see comments like “I’ll wait for it to be on Indies+ or Games With Indies” when a new title is announced. Likewise on PC, where massive discounting has become the norm, we see an expectation of titles having their prices cut quickly – of course this isn’t helped by some titles having first month “sales” of up to 70 per cent.

The triple-As are coming, for your lunch, at your price point – We have to assume that at some point in the next 12 months the console platform-holders will announce their Platinum/ Greatest Hits programs as a way of reaching out to an expanded audience and so the traditional ten-to- fifteen pound indie game will no longer have a large price difference to hide behind. These games will have massive marketing presence, high mass-market consumer awareness and the cachet of their respective program – a four million-selling franchise against your 2D pixel art platformer? That doesn’t sound like a fair fight.

Our demanding consumers – One thing that no hardware or software cycle can ignore is the constant upward pressure on production values, and the increase in team-size and budget that these demand. We do get the occasional reset (see “casual” PC games, the first wave of mobile titles, etc.) but inevitably they start to rise again, partly in response to consumer demands and also as a way of capturing their attention. Let’s be honest, no one ever accused a game of looking too good!

A four million-selling franchise against your 2D pixel art platformer? That doesn’t sound like a fair fight.

So, what’s the solution? Disruptive theory teaches us that disruptive companies invariably come in at the lower end of the value chain and then slowly move up, eating away at the incumbents business; should the new breed of games be any different? Ultimately the answer is “no”, consumer demands can’t be ignored – well, if you want to stay in business that is. So here’s a few tips for the future:

Double down on your creativity: The one advantage indie games still have is their ability to take risks that traditional publishers would never take. It’s the biggest single weapon in your armoury, so use it! If you’re making a game that is just like someone else’s then you’re dead before you begin.

Take inspiration from other industries: A possible solution is for indie developers to form short-term alliances. Banding together for individual projects as is common in the film industry would allow us to take on more ambitious projects with more scope and higher production values. Alternatively work with a partner (make that the right kind of partner) who can bring additional resources – whether it be development, marketing, PR, anything – to help your project compete.

Embrace change, while learning from the past: Change is good, if you’re an indie developer then change is what’s made your business viable but don’t assume that the indie revolution is over. As our philosopher says, learn from the past, apply it to the present and build a sustainable future.

These are all lessons that we’ve been putting into place at Team17 and the first results can be seen in our forthcoming game, Beyond Eyes. A startlingly innovative and creative concept backed with an absolute commitment to production values and made as collaboration between Tiger & Squid and our own internal studio. For us, Beyond Eyes is a baseline for all of our titles going forward.

So, is the indie goldrush over? I’d have to say a little bit yes, a little bit no. For those who take what they have, learn from the past, build on their strengths and move forward in the right direction there’s a rich vein to be mined and a bright future to be built. For those who can’t, well I’ll defer to Senor Santanaya

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