3 March, 2006
Raph pointed out an article on RPG Vault about the failure of indie games from an indie game developer. I certainly feel for Jeff Vogel being an indie developer myself, but I disagree with his conclusions. Large companies are not necessarily the only place you could see innovation. But, there are a lot of other issues you have to consider as well.
So, let’s talk about the real problems with indie game development and why you don’t see innovation from them.
Warning: this is super-long, but hopefully insightful.
Let’s be honest here, there are some serious issues you have to deal with as an independent game developer. It would be wonderful if that old myth about “if you build it, they will come” were true. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Let’s look at some of the obstacles facing independent developers.
1. Our audience doesn’t really want innovation. Or, people don’t always want exactly what they say they want. Put another way, actions (and purchases) speak louder than words. Yeah, I know, starting with the really controversial statement first.
Let’s talk business 101: Income must be greater that costs in the long term to stay in business. A game developer makes money by selling games, and that developer has to have spent resources (time and money) to make the game. If I make a game and no one buys it, then I make no money and can’t keep running the business. So, I have to make a game that people know about, and I have to make a game that will sell.
It’s a bit depressing when you start looking at which games actually sell. You do get a few really interesting titles in a sea of clones and sequels, so it’s not all gloom. But, for every person posting “I want innovative games!” on an internet forum, there are 1,000 people going out and buying the latest hyped sequel. And, of course, ignoring the indie games out there.
Or, you might change this point to say, “our audience doesn’t just want innovation.” They want cutting-edge graphics, amazing graphical effects, astounding AI, licensed music, and innovation as the cherry on top. So, an indie game with gameplay you can’t find anywhere else yet unimpressive (let’s say one step up from DOOM-type) graphics is going to get largely ignored. An indie game on an indie budget can’t really meet all those expectations. It seems people would rather buy a pretty yet derivative game instead of trying out a less pretty but potentially innovative game.
2. Being creative is hard. No, really, REALLY hard. Creative people take it for granted that we can be creative. We have cool ideas, and think everyone else has those same good ideas. Only, it doesn’t work that way.
The biggest problem is that good ideas are not worth much. I can imagine a game that would blow your socks off with it’s awesome gameplay. Until I actually make that game, however, it’s just so much fantasy floating around in my head. When an idea meets reality, sometimes reality isn’t too kind to the idea. Perhaps my great idea turns into a repetitive chore once you actually have to go through the steps of playing it.
Indies have a lot more constraints. Sure, in theory constraints can increase creativity, but it can also make things much harder to get done. An indie game must look good, play well, be easy to understand, have an engaging demo, have longevity past the demo, be easy to acquire (that is, download), be easy to purchase. If you fail at any of these, the biases against indie games will instantly cause your game to be ignored. Compare this to a traditional game, where the $50-60 initial investment (and damn near impossible return policy) makes people stick with a game even if it has elements they don’t like. How many times have you heard people talk about a hit game and say, “It takes a while to get into.” Now, think about how many times you’ve heard that for an indie game. There’s a reason why causal games have taken off so well: it’s because they can do most of the points I mention very, very easily.
The other problem is that new ideas are harder to implement. If you take a well-known type of gameplay and clone it, you don’t have to work nearly as hard. A recent Escapist article, “Attack of the Parasites” talks about this in the causal game space. A company that cloned existing games and used stock graphics was wildly successful. They were able to create the games in less time because they didn’t have to spend time playtesting and tuning the gameplay. They were able to spend less money on development and start making money faster. Not surprisingly, this is the same mindset at the larger companies that give us the constant stream of clones and sequels in the retail space as well.
Of course, this also relates to the first point above in that the audience doesn’t necessarily want innovation. After all, people were willingly buying these derivative games instead of seeking out new and innovative games, even in an open field like casual games.
3. The business side of it sucks, no matter how you look at it. It’s damn near impossible to make an indie game business work. Yes, there are exceptions and some people have made good money from it. But, for every successful shareware author you get dozens who languish in obscurity.
So, time for Business 201: You have to make enough money on your first game to pay back your initial investment and to fund the creation of your subsequent game. Each game funds the game that comes after. If you don’t make enough money on one game to fund the creation of the next game, you are dead in the water. At best, you are treading water and making a small amount of money from your games in order to keep off starvation. At worst, you aren’t making enough money to keep yourself fed, so you will eventually have to abandon the business (or, optimistically, work on it while you take a day job that doesn’t interfere with the company).
It’s important to realize that people have strong biases against indie games. Here’s the mindset of the typical gamer: Indie games should be just as good as regular games, only cheaper. Yeah, doesn’t really work out in reality. The default assumption is that an indie game isn’t as good for whatever reason: it’s not in a retail store, it wasn’t advertised in a glossy magazine, it doesn’t have a big publisher associated with it, whatever. A developer has to spend money in order to make the game, and you have to spend more money to make a game look better. Yet, most people think it’s absurd to have to pay even $40 for a traditional indie game. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that if people want niche (or “boutique”) content suited to a select group’s tastes, they are going to have to accept the fact that it will cost more. One shouldn’t expect a steak dinner for the price of a fast food hamburger.
It starts to get worse for indie online games. You must have a free demo, even if the game design doesn’t support it (like you focus on fast advancement and PvP, so any free trial would be an open invitation for mule abuse). People feel $10 is too much to pay per month for an indie game, even if the developers don’t charge for account setup or expansions. And, even if the developer offers a type of gameplay people claim they would sell their mothers for, they still won’t play your game for whatever reason because what people say they want isn’t what they really want.
It’s also hard to get any real traction with your game. Portals have essentially just become the new publishers for downloadable games; the Escapist article above claims that portals now take 80% of the sales for a game. 80%! This is the same crappy rate traditional retail games get from traditional publishers, and the publisher theoretically adds more to the equation than just placement on a site. Of course, this situation has been getting worse for developers for a while. The portals wield such power because it’s hard to rise above the noise. (See my discussion of marketing below.) So, being online isn’t the savior people had once said it would be for indie content like games.
And, frankly, digital downloads blow. Most people get impatient during a download, so you have to make your game download small in order to draw attention. Putting up a 400 MB game download won’t get as takers as a 4 MB game. (Of course, the larger game will look better, so you start to see another catch-22 here, hmm?) You also have to do things in order to make sure that your digitally downloadable game doesn’t just get put up on peer-to-peer networks and shared for free. Greg Costikyan has a great discussion of some of the issues with DRM software and applying it to indie games on his blog. In the end, it’s just a huge hassle for legitimate customers. But, if you don’t do anything you’re just asking for people to rip you off and ensure that you don’t make enough money to be able to work on other games.
Of course, I have to shamefully admit that I’m just as guilty as other people about avoiding indie single-player games. I’ve avoided buying some potentially quality indie games over the years because I just didn’t feel it was worth paying the $20-$30 for the game. Or, I just didn’t want to deal with the DRM software that enforced restrictions on if I could reload the game after a hard drive crash or component upgrade. As a developer and business owner I understand the reasons behind price points and software restrictions, but as a consumer I have a different gut feeling.
4. Marketing is vital, yet hard and expensive. Marketing is incredibly important for a game. If you build it and nobody knows about it, then nobody is going to play it. Give a mediocre game a good marketing budget, and there will likely be enough people out there willing to buy it. Yeah, I wish it weren’t true as well, but that’s the way the world works.
Traditional marketing is expensive. Placing a print ad in a games magazine is expensive. Even in more niche magazines you have to pony up some real cash. Banner ads are usually ignored, and they’re getting more expensive to purchase as more companies are getting into internet advertising; banner ads are still cheaper than other types of ads, so they don’t make up a large part of the marketing budget for a large company. Let’s not even talk about TV ads.
Non-traditional advertising is hard, and often still expensive. One important truth is that guerrilla advertising does not mean free advertising. It still costs significant money to organize a good marketing campaign, even a non-traditional one. For example, trying to get mentions on popular discussion sites means you might be accused of shilling. Larger companies will pay for “online street teams” to better infiltrate forums. If you can’t pay for professionals and just use actual, eager players, it will unfortunately look more like astroturfing than actual astroturfing!
What about PR? Giving interviews is cheap. However, the establishment works against indies in this area, too. Print magazines generally won’t talk to a developer unless that developer buys advertising. I’ve told the story before about how part of our team drove 2 states away to give a demo of our new graphics engine for a special MMO issue of a print magazine. We even bought a high-end laptop to make sure we had something quality to show off the game with. Yet, when the issue came out we got the same tiny blurb everyone else did, no screenshots of our new engine, and the magazine called Meridian 59 a “throwback”. EQ2 got plenty of pre-launch coverage in that magazine, and I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence that there were about 5 full-page ads for EQ2 in that magazine. On the other hand, on large websites your interview is posted and gone within a day, so it’s hard to get much good attention through them.
But, what about word of mouth, that great savior for people with no marketing budget? Unfortunately, not every audience is eager to go out and tell people about the game. Perhaps people don’t want their friends reading the trash talk they broadcast in the game. Or, the game gives a negative first impression (likely due to graphics), so they are hesitant to suggest the game to their friends even though they’ve supported the game for years. Even if they do go enthusiastically talk about your game in forums, they might be accused of astroturfing as explained above.
Finally, it’s hard to rise above the general noise level out there, especially if you have bad timing. For Meridian 59, we completed our rendering engine upgrade a few months before WoW launched. We spent a fair amount of money (in terms of our tiny company) on advertising on various sites. Unfortunately, this was when the WoW marketing was at its peak, so we got completely lost in the noise. So, our biggest update ever went unnoticed, and we blew our marketing budget for a while. (It didn’t help that 2 people that were supposed to help us do a press tour didn’t follow through and essentially stole several thousand dollars from us.)
So, there are the big issues I see with indie development. I think an indie developer could come up with something really cool and innovative. I think that A Tale in the Desert is easily one of the most innovative games out there. Yet, it has experienced nearly every one of these points above, particularly the last two. Therefore, I will respectfully disagree with Jeff Vogel’s article. I think that an indie could make an innovative and interesting game, but it would only be truly given the success it deserves if released by a large company.
Anyway, here’s the tough question: what’s the solution here? Bonus points: how do you make sure the solution doesn’t just become part of the problem in the future? For example, portals that were once the way to rise above the noise but are now just rapacious business taking a king’s share of the pie? Besides a radical change of attitude from the players for our games, how do we get indie games into the hands of the people who theoretically want them? Or, is it truly a lost cause?
Let me get the discussion going. I think part of the trick will be to expand games past the current market. Yeah, not an original idea. The problem is, it takes a lot of money to reach beyond the audience already paying attention to the field, something beyond the reach of most indies. This is one reason why I’m looking at Nintendo’s “Blue Ocean” strategy with some interest. Not that I’ll be able to develop an online RPG on the Revolution, but it could grow the market and lead to more interested people in the future.
What’s your thoughts?