What Games Are: Worrying About Indie Games

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer and the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. He manages developer relations at OUYA. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Of the many changes that have happened to the gaming market since 2008, none is more welcome than the liberation of indie game developers. 2008 was the year that Xbox Live published Braid, as well as the year that Apple launched the App Store on iPhone. It was also around that time that Steam really started to take off, that Unity3D gained significant traction, and that everybody really started to understand what the Facebook Platform might do.

The Golden Age

One major shift was how the economics of digital distribution shifted in favor of the game developer. Great tools was one thing, but the ability to capture 70% of the revenue on an ongoing basis was something else. For a long time it had been essentially reversed. Flash gaming portals, for example, commonly used to keep the lion’s share of advertising revenue, or simply buy games outright for small amounts and run them in perpetuity. Pre-iPhone mobile operators used to do something similar, and consoles struggled to make their digital economics make sense.

The other major shift was in market access. In the pre-revolutionary era management of a digital platform tended to take the shape of a boutique publisher. In the interactive TV space, for example, we used to run a catalog of games like a magazine and cycle through the best performers to maximize audience retention and revenue. The same practice was true in most venues, but over time digital platforms moved into curation or aggregation. Rather than deal with iPhone as a publisher, for example, you simply submitted your game to a clearing house and got access to the market as long as you didn’t break the rules (admittedly with some bumps). This change was huge.

The two shifts combined to create an open marketplace where the major platforms were no longer trying to wedge profits out of a relationship and instead facilitating one. You got many a surprise hit game surging through platforms and a sense of occasional market hysteria. You got a whole cornucopia of service markets (monetization tools, analytics, etc) becoming available to any who wanted them. And you got lots of indies coming to join the party, making a quirky game in their spare time and going onto becoming worldwide successes.

I don’t think it’s out of line to retroactively use the phrase “golden age” to describe how much more refreshing the game development scene is today compared to where it was. A whole new generation of stars has emerged off the back of these shifts, as well as new ecosystems of games. These days the cool and interesting game, whether it be a Threes or a Rust, feels like it can come from anywhere. The way that game makers communicate with their audience is now much more direct, to the point that some are even live-streaming the act of making games.

The golden age has also empowered content makers at all levels. There have been some very high-powered successes, companies that came from nowhere and exited or IPO’d for hundreds of millions of dollars. And there have been some powerful and personal successes, many indie game makers who managed to find an audience and make good (games like Gone Home).

One interesting difference between the two ends of the spectrum is how they’ve tended to happen in slightly different spaces. The large scale digital distribution publisher tended to come out of Facebook or mobile directly, for example, while indies tended to come through on PC first. Either way it’s been good times for many participants, regardless of their origins. But lately I find myself worried about the indies.

Everybody Dives In

I keep hearing an opinion in conversation with notable indies that the most pressing need in the space is to curtail “the crap”. By this they mean the second- and third-rate game makers who tend to flood into any open market with clones and knock-offs and charge cheap. Indies of a certain caliber hang out and support each other, and they tend to view crapware as threatening to their whole scene. Lately that’s starting to make their argument sound an awful lot like advocating to pull up the ladder, about the fear of everybody.

It’s a justifiable, if not defensible, fear. One of the common effects of liberalizing any market is that lots of people dive in, but the resulting wall of content has some side effects. When your highly-designed Threes can be easily gazumped by your simpler 2048’s, there’s a point where platform holders in particular start to ask the question of whether it’s more important to have games from star developers, or rather to have games representative of a certain types. The latter tend to be cheaper and easier to control.

Lost Edge

On a related note I worry about indie games themselves. These days to be indie tends to have the character of being part of a cultural movement, a movement which often seems hellbent on pushing itself as far to the outer edge as it can. This is good, important even, because the edges tend to be where most of the energy lives. Not to sound too cynical, but it’s often easier to motivate a tribe of fans if you’re speaking to their edgy passions.

Yet every cultural movement tends to have its phase when it’s fresh and new, but then it’s other phase when it’s aesthetic becomes a form of kitsch. 80s music in the 80s was considered hot, for example, whereas 80s music today is just kitsch. The aesthetic becomes a style but loses the energy that it brought there.

Perhaps it’s a result of the here-comes-everybody effect, but I’m starting to get the same feeling about indie games. Lately I’ve seen a lot of indie games that are easily pegged as being of a certain visual style because “that’s what indie is” and it’s starting to feel a little tired. To be offbeat and edgy in a predictable ways isn’t really that edgy at all. It’s be to lost in relic arguments that the majority no longer connect to. I worry that “indie” is becoming shorthand for “retro quirky games that evoke a style of yesteryear that are increasingly only for those who know” and that that increasingly describes a generic volume of content .

The Powers That Be

I worry that platform attitudes are shifting in a couple of different directions.

One is Steam’s push away from curation by allowing developers to control pricing and promotions rather than run managed sales. Some have speculated that the result will be a race to zero, as was the case on iOS, and they are probably right. The effect of sales and Humble Bundles on the PC space is undeniable, and for that to become the de rigueur method of operation tends to make me think that Steam could well become a promotion-driven market.

Another shift is the one where the platform decides to take a strong directional hand. In the earlier days of Facebook, for example, the attitude was extremely hands off. Then Facebook curtailed its viral channels while also looking for ways to get its 30% revenue share. Now Facebook is running a prototype program to publish specific games in exchange for more revenue. If that proves successful the natural conclusion on the platform’s part would be to do more of that and essentially reinventing the Flash portal business.

What I’m talking about from both sides is the strategic shift in platform priorities. In Valve’s case it seems to be essentially to put their store into autopilot while the company focuses on building its operating system and machines. In others, however, it’s about an alteration in the value of growth versus return. Facebook, for example, needed games back in the day to help drive to a billion users. But now that it’s there does it still need growth? Or is it time to reap the rewards, and if so how? By claiming slices of all pies.

When adoption reaches a natural inflection point priorities often change. What would happen if Apple, for example, decided that it wanted to move from 30/70 revenue splits to 50/50? Or how about 70/30 until an app reached a certain threshold? Does that sound insane? Maybe it is if your only reference point is the last few years, but this kind of shift has happened in multiple platforms over the years. There’s a lot of speculation, for example, that iPad sales may have peaked. Might that change the priorities at Cupertino?

Old/New Saviors

Ok, you think, maybe that means indie game development moves back to platforms like consoles and PC. Yet I worry about those too. I have a history in this column of tending to take the dim view of the fate of the PC. I worry about the impact that the smaller PC audience will have all across the spectrum, especially if we have a younger gaming audience coming through that’s mobile- and tablet-first.

Meanwhile I also worry that the current love affair between next generation consoles and indie games will prove short lived. Several of my indie friends have seen great success from deals signed with one or more console platforms because right now the mood of all three major manufacturers seems pro-indie. Tools are cheap, access is there and many of the old roadblocks (like concept submissions) are either entirely gone or reduced to a minimum. In context of how all three used to behave this is great news.

Yet I’m old enough to remember previous times when it was good for indies in console, such as 7/8 years ago with Xbox 360, and how it all went south. The story there goes that it was a golden era until it wasn’t, that it went from being a great way for indie games to gain access to millions of users to a backwater in the back end of the interface. That it went from open-arms to a constrained queue of releases that effectively pushed a lot of talent away.

I worry that the underlying dynamics of console gaming have not changed. The business model of consoles is the opposite of phones (sell devices cheap and make money on software rather than selling software as a way to sell expensive devices), and so it tends to lens the positioning of premium software over indie software. A Call of Duty is going to sell 20m copies whereas a Retro City Rampage isn’t. So which do you feature?

In that context, “having indie games” was always more of a prestige point than a business plan. A console would drive enough indie content to ensure that it checked that box and the journalists at Kotaku had something to write about, but that didn’t translate to a wider movement. I worry that the current console love affair with indie will come to an end once management has concluded that their platform has enough of those kinds of games to look cool.

Prospecting

If I’m right (and I hope I’m not) then indies face an uncertain future where the perceived value of their distinctive voices is diminished. They face clogged platforms, amoral competition and typology-driven publishing. They face hostile economics and a decline in benighted platforms in favor of more consumerist outlets that don’t care. They face platforms deciding that having indies doesn’t matter to the bottom line as much as indies think it should, and consequently a weak negotiating position.

Perhaps the one factor that they have remaining that stands against all this is the perception of being cool. It seems more important than ever to me that indies have to focus on communicating to their audience, not just to the people who already like them but beyond. The tools are there to get their faces and stories out there and connect to players, and that more than anything else is their value.

Perhaps my earlier supposition on the value of patreonomics will be the deciding factor. If indies can indeed get to that 1:1 relationship with their players and thrive independent of what any platform is doing then the travails of the technology arms race will cease to matter to their futures. My worry is whether we’ll actually see a phase where many struggle or are ejected from the industry entirely before that happens however.

Yeah, I’m worried.