Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

3 March, 2006

The indie problem… again
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 6:41 PM

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?


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9 Comments »

  1. Jeff Vogel on the View From the Bottom

    [...] Update: Psychochild responds to Vogel’s article with The Indie Problem…again: So, let’s talk about the real problems with indie game development and why you don’t see innovation from them. [...]

    Pingback by Make Mac Games — 4 March, 2006 @ 6:02 PM

  2. I posted a comment on Raph’s discussion, and I posted something that’s kinda tangential, but related here:

    [...]What is the definition of “innovative”? For some people, the sum of all the little improvements of Oblivion over Morrowind might be innovative enough; for others, the games are fairly similar and not terribly innovative. I’d also consider Meridian 59 to still be innovative since it has features you still don’t find in other online RPGs; for others, the game’s age means they wouldn’t find it innovative. Who is right? This reminds me of all those countless “What is an RPG?” or “What is an online game?” discussions I’ve seen (and, sadly, participated in) over the years. In the end of these types of discussion, not much really changes because of these types of discussions.

    Some more fodder for discussion.

    Comment by Psychochild — 4 March, 2006 @ 6:04 PM

  3. A nice meaty summary of several factors affecting this situation. I have two minor comments …

    First, at the end of point #1 you imply that our audience doesn’t want innovation because they have been brainwashed into wanting pretty graphics more than good gameplay. You don’t call this out very strongly (although Darth Pixel above does) so perhaps I am overstating your point, but it’s a comment I’m sure we’ve all seen many times before. And frankly, I have to say that I take exception to it. I’m by no means a graphics whore — I’ll take AC1 over EQ2 for visuals — and I could care less about framerate or poly count (unless the framerate is so bad as to affect the gameplay). But 9 times out of 10, I am specifically not looking for serious innovation in a game — because 9 times out of 10, what the developer thinks is a cool innovative feature just isn’t good gameplay. That’s one of the interesting things that people often fail to mention about innovation: it’s not guarenteed to be good.

    In particular, in my chosen field of MMOs, I am very wary of people who want to enshrine heavy-duty innovation — largely because I haven’t yet seen us do the simple old stuff right, nevermind whatever the flashy new innovative thing may be. (Of course, there has been quite a lot of useful innovation in MMOs, but it’s all been small, iterative, evolutionary innovation, and that’s just not sexy enough for some people.)

    Secondly, I wanted to comment on your last point. You have detailed the big issues that you see with indie development, and then you ask, “What’s the solution?” But it’s really not clear to me which problem you want a solution for. Is it the ‘indie developers can’t be innovative enough’ problem? The well-worn ‘games aren’t innovate enough’ problem? Or the more general ‘being an indie developer sucks’ problem? I tend to be really anal about making sure we’re asking the right questions (well, I am really anal in general), so I’m very interested to know which problem you most want to solve.

    Comment by Sandra "srand" Powers — 5 March, 2006 @ 1:43 AM

  4. Psychochild said:

    However, we need to realize that we are not average gamers.

    In terms of people who are driving the industry today, you are probably correct. In terms of people who may end up being the ones who make indie game development not suck, I think you may be overstating the case. But since you go on to say that the core problem you want to consider right now is fixing the current negative response to indie games, I’ll accept this argument provisionally. *grin*

    Unfortunately, that also means that I don’t have a whole lot more to add. I don’t know why average gamers mistrust indie games. I know why I do, but you’ve called all those reason out already.

    Comment by Sandra "srand" Powers — 5 March, 2006 @ 2:31 PM

  5. Is There a Solution?

    Before I dig into the wild ocean of my educated ignorance, I must say I am an outsider.
    Indeed, I have not attempted to produce any game since the Amstrad CPC 464 bit the dust.
    I thought I would shoot my credibility right away. :) I have no intention…

    Trackback by Darth Pixel — 5 March, 2006 @ 5:24 PM

  6. And that in itself is an assumption. Why should the indy game cost any less if it is delivering the same lenght of gameplay experience?

    Given how short many “mainstream” games are these days, that’s not an unreasonable assumption to make.

    When Space Empires V comes out, I will pay full price and willingly, because it will last me a LOT longer than the vast majority of games.

    Of course, Malfeodor is one the success stories of indy game design, and it draws heavily from Starfire, on which I used to work, but that’s another story.

    Comment by Andrew Crystall — 7 March, 2006 @ 4:48 AM

  7. A question may be: How do Films solve this problem?

    In a way, they don’t. Independents film makers languish in obscurity just like independent game makers. In another way, they do. There is a strong “Indie Films are better than mainstream crap” meme that pools together a large pool of critics and audiences. This is a small subset of the mainstream, but it does provide an ecosystem for Indie Films to develop in, and the best ones to be passed on to the mainstream for consumption.

    I think the “Indie games don’t suck” marketting is the right idea. We need to instill in people the idea that to a “real” gamer, independent games are superior. Fake gamers that care only about flashy effects can watch the hollywood blockbusters, but those that know the art will go to the Independent Games Festival to play and discuss those truly leading game design.

    Perception is everything. You say that experience of crappy indie and crappy homebrew games has soured you? Then you must not be a real gamer! Enjoy that mass market pablum! With that message, you’ll likely find some indie games that you like :>

    This strategy won’t make indie gamers rich. It will, however, help combat the “Indie games are inferior to Mainstream ones by definition” meme that is way too common right now.

    I’ve mentioned the roguelike community in the past. That group is an example of such a self-sustaining independent genre. What is particularly nice is that, unlike the emulation groups which are usually only looking for remakes, there is interest in *new* games in the genre. Indeed, it is entertaining to see the health discussion about trying to decide *what* that genre is, and the inevitable process of canon formation that goes with any new field of study.

    The goal would be to build that same sort of community around the idea of “Indie Games”. And then spend some marketting dollars in suggesting to the world that the members of that community are l33t for forsaking glitz for gameplay. Indeed, such a community may already exist (we see bits of it show up in sites like this, no?) It may just be a matter of driving the meme to the mainstream.

    The trick, for it to be useful rather than yet another portal, is to work hard to keep it a meritocracy rather than a plutocracy. I don’t know how you get enough money to keep you honest running it. Government Art grants would seem the usual answer, but sadly games aren’t yet art.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 7 March, 2006 @ 9:26 PM

  8. Brask Mumei wrote:
    How do Films solve this problem?

    In a way, they don’t.

    On the other hand, getting recognition as an “indie” movie maker is easier than getting recognition as an “indie” game developer. My better half is a manager at a movie theater that runs mostly indie and foreign films. It’s even more amazing when you consider that the parent company is a big theater chain. So, there’s at least a bit of enlightened self-interest by these companies.

    Second, the most prestigious awards in the industry include a lot of “indie” movies. Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Transamerica all got nominations, and Capote even won an award! It’s true that the awards usually degenerate into a bunch of self-congratulation between Hollywood elite, but at least the indie movies get mentions. When is the last time you saw a “top 10 list of the year” on even a game website that mentioned a game without retail distribution?

    Third, there’s some effort behind getting indie movies recognized. The Sundance Film Festival used to be a shining example here, but it’s been co-opted by money and it has a hard time getting much attention for a true indie these days. But, I suspect we’ll see something to replace it; in fact, it’s probably happening already, just below the radar.

    Finally, an indie film maker is still respected as a film maker. As I’ve said before, some people don’t respect the work I’ve done on Meridian 59. It’s too small, too old, or some other excuse given for why it’s not a “real game”. The industry has no incentive to reward the independents; in fact, they often view the indies as the enemy: trying to get people interested in something besides the newest and shiniest.

    Sad to say, but Hollywood is a bit more enlightened in this regard.

    Comment by Psychochild — 8 March, 2006 @ 12:59 AM

  9. Lifespan is a part of the issue for you in particular, Brian.

    Films are stateless – they get made, people watch them, that’s it. Games are not. Games are usually played in installments and online games can only be played that way. This brings the game-designer closer to the TV writer/director than to the film maker.

    Indie TV is not exactly huge news. Probably the closest equivalent is something like South Park, and even that requires major-league distribution.

    I wish i knew how to solve this problem. Sadly, i don’t.

    Comment by Cael — 8 March, 2006 @ 3:58 PM

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