The last few years have been great for indie developers.
They have gone from being bedroom coders hidden at the back of the big games expos to being placed front and centre in Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo’s press conferences.
Yet indie development hasn’t been without its challenges. Recently, the notion of the ‘indie apocalypse’ has arisen. This is the idea that it’s become increasingly difficult for indie developers to get their games out there. The sheer number of titles that are launching is making it difficult for smaller games to find an audience.
But ID@Xbox European boss Agostino Simonetta disagrees.
There’s never been a better time to be making games,” he tells MCV.
The other day, I found a picture from 1999 when I was running a small development team. When I look back and remember those challenges in those days, there’s never been a better time to try and work on your ideas.
Now even people who are not super ninja engineers or technical people can try and express their creativity in an interactive fashion. The platforms are more open than ever and digital distribution allows anyone to reach billions of people. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy. It’s just what is difficult has changed from the difficulties we had in 1999 when I was trying to have a great success with my first title.”
So if now is the best time to be making games, then why are so many developers saying proclaiming the death of indie games development?
There might have been an expectation that everybody would be successful,” Simonetta says.
During the previous console generation, we went through a phase where developing games was really hard.
There might have been a time when only a few studios were actually able to deliver indie games on PC or console. Maybe the ratio of commercial success was higher, but that was just the embryonic phase of this indie revolution.
Ultimately, it’s a creative endeavour, same as music, same as writing books. And in every other industry, not everyone will be successful. That’s where the indie apocalypse is coming from. There is an element of that. We should be careful how we measure success.
I was with a studio recently whose definition of success was the ability to be creative. They don’t need an enormous number of downloads to be successful as far as they’re concerned. We need to be much more mature and look at what’s happening in a very positive way. Sure, in any other business not everyone can be a winner. But saying there’s an apocalypse is looking at the wrong angle.
I’m a glass half full kind of guy. It excites me that my daughter at six-and-a-half years old is able to use Game Maker or one of those tools to create her first game. It’s much faster and less frustrating, with less of a learning curve than I went through.”
"Not everybody will make millions of dollars
in games development. No-one ever promised that."
Agostino Simonetta, ID@Xbox
If nothing else, the indie apocalypse argument proves that indie games development is no different to any business, and subject to the same cycles. A small number of companies have massive success; more firms want to get in on the action and after a while, we reach a saturation point and visibility of newer ideas becomes harder.
Developing games is a business, and in business there are companies that will succeed and ones that will fail,” Simonetta says.
What excites me is that there are more people looking at making games. Some people go travelling before university; some spend their gap year developing a game. It’s a commercial endeavour, but also it’s a creative effort, and a lot of people don’t measure success the same way a commercial team will. That’s the exciting thing. That’s where new ideas can be tackled.
We keep seeing new ideas that have never been tackled before from a game design and experience point of view. For some of the teams, the commercial success doesn’t need to be the same that bigger companies, or more established studios, need to have. It’s only positive, surely. Not everybody will make millions of dollars. I don’t think anyone ever promised that. Going into this business thinking you’ll do a game and know you are going to be rich – that doesn’t happen anywhere.”
"The fact we are talking about failure at the moment might help people understand that development is not easy."
Agostino Simonetta, ID@Xbox
Of course, it is still possible to have a hit. But developers need to consider more than just the actual development of the game to help make them a success.
The difficulty now is in visibility and marketing your product and getting the consumers to notice it,” Simonetta explains.
Every time I have a meeting with indie developers, I always say: ‘finishing your game and getting it approved for console and ready to launch is only 50 per cent of your job, if that’. The mindset needs to be there from day one.
If today I had to go out and set up my own studio, on day one I would not only focus on planning for finishing the product, but planning the six months before and after launch from a marketing and PR perspective.
It really affects the way you approach development. It’s important that indie devs that want to self-publish, or even if they are working with the publishers, know that there’s always something that creates new challenges.
There are constantly new issues that people have had no experience of in the past. Every time people ask: ‘what’s the next big trend?’, my answer is always that I wish I knew. Our industry is changing at such a fast pace and the trends come from nowhere. It’s very hard, even impossible, to predict what the next big thing is.”
He continues: Anybody going into this business needs to have a 360-degree understanding of what the industry is.
When I was in development, we had a publisher and they took care of everything. Now if you are independent, whether you are with a publisher or not, people now need to understand all aspects of the industry. We need to be realistic. It’s a business, and as such there are going to be winners and losers, but hopefully more of the former than the latter. We need to treat it as such.
Maybe we went through a phase where it was so difficult to launch an indie title that one having success was a big deal. As an industry we like to focus on success rather than failure.”
He concludes: Maybe the fact we are talking about failure at the moment will help people understand that it’s not easy.”
THE MANY ROADS TO MARKET
As the internet became more prevelant in video games, it became easier for developers