It’s a new era for indie developers.
The days of rocking up on digital stores with your great game and getting thousands of sales are nearly gone. All platform holders want your games, and have opened up their marketplaces more than ever before to ensure your title, potentially the next big hit, is on their hardware or store.
But now there are more competitors than ever. Not only are there multi-billion dollar companies dominating the App Store and thousands of amateur and indie developers, some of the previously successful indies are getting more ambitious and ploughing more money into new, bigger games. And with them they’ll bring their fanbase.
So, ironically, does this mean the death of the indie scene is imminent? Not quite.
“I think a lot of devs are worried about the door slamming shut behind those of us who got through in the last few years,” says Thomas Was Alone and Volume developer Mike Bithell.
“It’s certainly hard to get noticed right now via the storefronts, but I hope that the next generation of indie devs are going to be far, far more innovative than we were. We already see folks targeting YouTube taste-makers, big mainstream sites, or even asking more established devs to raise the word. It’s going to be fascinating being outclassed and outpaced by the devs who work this stuff out.”
Maia creator Simon Roth – who successfully raised £140,481 for the god game and is now even setting up his own company, Machine Studios – thinks the games industry will see more indies break out, as “sales are rarely the single driving force in the core of the independent scene”.
“We might not witness as many rags-to-riches stories as we used to, but we will see a lot more modestly successful businesses spring up,” explains Roth.
“The marketplace is crowded, but a lot of it is dreck and, unlike a few years ago, savvy consumers have far more ways to filter through it and discover the games they might like. Not to mention there are far more people actively buying indie games now.”
Fight for survival
One way to get noticed comes from the creativity often found in the indie scene in the first place. Innovative, unique gameplay can make games stand out, whether for target niche audiences or mass market, but a great game may not always be enough. Though as Roth notes, while the number of game releases may have exploded, “the increase in quality titles has only grown slightly”.
Paul Kilduff-Taylor, MD of Frozen Cortex developer Mode 7 Games, says the most important thing for indies is that combination of concept and polish, but notes there are other areas to help maximise success should you find it.
“If you have a concept that is really attractive on a particular platform and you execute it so it’s visually appealing, that’s all you need to do if it’s compelling enough,” says Kilduff-Taylor.
“If you don’t magically come up with the secret formula, then I think platform diversification can be really important. It’s a double-edged sword though, as there’s no guarantee a game will work on any particular platform. Platform holder buy-in on anywhere other than PC is absolutely essential and you won’t get anywhere without it.
“Surviving is about planning well for disaster scenarios. Standing out is about – dishearteningly – being amazing, or amazingly lucky, and sometimes both.”
Bithell agrees on the importance of platform holder buy-in, and says if you can get it, then why not use it?
“It’s certainly possible to survive without platform holder help,” he states. “My question would be, why would you bother? Getting platforms on side is a massive help. They have access to an audience beyond anything any individual could ever achieve. Ultimately, everyone needs content, so if you’re producing content that you can convince platform holders there is an audience for, that puts you in an incredibly strong position.”
As indies look for the best ways to survive, is there an ideal platform to launch a game on? Of course, the platform can depend on the type of game an indie is making. What’s good for console may not be good for mobile, and what’s good for mobile and tablets may not work on PC. But finding the safest place where your game is most likely to succeed is a factor many indies will take into account when developing their title.
Steam is far from perfect. But it still offers better opportunities for an up-and-coming indie developer than any other platform.
Imre Jele, Bossa Studios
Imre Jele, co-founder of Surgeon Simulator developer Bossa Studios, says PC – particularly Steam – is the most important platform for indie developers right now, and believes it will remain that way for a while longer.
“When they were a closed platform, some people accused Valve of elitism as they rejected many games sent to them,” says Jele. “When they opened up to become more democratic, they were criticised for allowing bad games to appear on the shop. Even the latest range of community and discovery features got flack despite the fact that there isn’t any better solution out there to allow players find games they might like.
“Steam is far from perfect. But it still offers better opportunities for an up-and-coming indie developer than any other platform.”
Roth agrees, and says PC will “remain the bastion of indie development”, with the help of direct sales, Steam, Humble and GOG offering a varied and reliable revenue stream. He says, however, that other platforms such as the PlayStation 4 and Wii U are also good options for indies.
“Sony has done a good job with encouraging established developers onto their platform and, thanks to some excellent first-party titles and recent price cut, the Wii U is now finally getting some decent market share so has become a serious consideration now too,” he says.
Bithell says a few reasons PC remains the safest place for a small indie developer to release their game are the specialist coverage, YouTubers and taste-makers that will drive an audience to your game in a way that mobile and console don’t approach yet. It should be noted though that both Microsoft and Sony are making this easier on their platforms, particularly when compared to last-gen.
“It’s also the easiest platform to get a game made for technically thanks to middleware,” he says.
“Finally, mobile games ported elsewhere carry a taboo for the platforms’ native audiences. It’s far more commercially viable to port a PC hit to mobile than the other way around. Apple loves a critical darling.”
The new mid-tier
For those small developers that saw early success a few years ago during the initial stages, and arguably the peak of the indie revolution, the money brought in has meant, if they choose to do so, these devs can expand their teams and invest more in new projects and ambitious projects.
Though still retaining the indie tag, many of these have now grown to employ a dozen or dozens of staff, working on one big project or multiple titles.As Jele says, these developers then go head-to-head against the new indies who still work from home alongside a full-time job, creating an extra challenge for the new generation. And this presents its own challenges to the world of indies and how those developers now define themselves and operate.
“The bigger budgets these developers can put behind their games can unlock new opportunities and better and bigger games, which is great,” says Jele.
“At the same time I see many of these indies struggle as they have to manage teams and act like a ‘proper’ business. Many of these great creators are also plagued by ‘impostor syndrome’ as they prepare for the dreaded second album. And at the end of the day, you are as good as your latest game.”
Developers have more power and control over the work they do than ever. I don’t think there’s any turning back from that.
Kilduff-Taylor says that when expanding the team for Frozen Synapse follow-up Frozen Cortex, the main change for him was the management of people who are working at the studio full-time.
“If you normally just work with contractors or on your own, that’s a big change that you have to get used to,” he says. “I think we’ll see some exciting games with a bigger scope from teams who are doing that.”
He adds however that he’s not sure if these indies will be forming the new ‘mid-tier’ as traditionally defined, given the variability of games in terms of profitability and development budget.
“I kind of think any idea of tiers has been blown apart at this point,” states Kilduff-Taylor. “You can make a multi-million selling title which just has very simple graphics and a very low art budget – look at something like Plague Inc., Democracy 3 or SpaceChem – so it’s really more about hunting for these concepts than it is about investing large amounts of money in art, sometimes.”
Bithell, perhaps one of the most recognisable indies around, says that if Volume does well he plans to expand the team and invest more in new projects, looking to the games companies of old for inspiration. He explains, however, that this will be a slower, steadier and altogether more conservative growth than what has often occurred before.
“I’d expect more indies to do the ‘breakout hit / more mainstream follow-up / mid-scale production’ progression over the coming years,” he says.
“I’d point to companies like Introversion and Mode 7 Games as folks way ahead of the curve on this. It’s not for everyone though, and we shouldn’t dismiss those who want to keep things small and focused. They’ll outlive us all.
“The vital difference is the changed relationship with publishers and platformers. Developers have more power and control over the work they do than ever. I don’t think there’s any turning back from that.”
What does ‘indie’ mean anyway?
But as indies take on new challenges, and the term stays attached to slightly bigger studios and even latched on to by large, triple-A firms for their smaller outings, what does indie even mean anymore? Has it lost any real definition?
Bithell says it’s a word he’s becoming less and less comfortable with using.
“Many of us are playing with budgets that are many times greater than what would be reasonably called ‘indie’,” he states.
“We got too successful. Right now the division on console and Steam is what? Triple-A – less than 20 games a year – and indie – more than 2,000. To me, that’s an indicator that we need to get better at differentiating our work, and invent some new – almost immediately outdated – categories.
“Right now ‘indie’ means Minecraft, No Man’s Sky, and a Twine game. That’s a pretty useless word. I feel like I’m stealing someone else’s word. It belongs to folks like the dude who made Thomas Was Alone.”