Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

22 April, 2006

The indie revolution is coming! Probably…
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:19 AM

Raph posted on his blog about the next next gen. The summary: indie developers are the mammals running between the traditional industry’s soon-to-be-extinct dinosaur legs. Welcome to the other side, Raph. ;)

Of course, most of this is what I’ve been saying for a while now. Scott Jennings points out that Raph’s “future” is actually now. We’re starting to see the very beginnings of all this happening.

Now, for the bad news: there will likely be a few snags along the way to gaming Nirvana, as Raph describes it. What are they?

Well, here’s a list of reasons why Raph’s predictions might not come true. I’m not trying to naysay Raph, in fact I mostly hope his predictions come true. Rather, I think it’s important to keep a realistic view on things.

  • It’s actually not guaranteed that all the old publishers will die. Nintendo is talking about some really interesting things with the Revolution and their “blue ocean” strategy. Given what they have done with the Nintendo DS, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Sure, they’re talking about embracing the smaller developers, but Nintendo isn’t known for being the most touchy-feely of the big developers. Maybe things won’t remain the same, but there’s nothing to say that everything has to change like Raph has (and I have) predicted.
  • The talent pool could decrease, contrary to what Raph says. Most of us developers are capable of working in other creative media. I know I’ve been tempted more than once to say “fuck it all” and start writing fiction for a living. There’s a lot of other types of jobs for people that really know what they’re doing in games. Now, some will be attracted to games because that’s the medium they know best and love, but I think that we could lose a lot of high profile developers when the revolution comes. Even if it does not decrease, you have increased problems of a potentially oversaturated market from the development end.
  • Developing games is still hard, even at the “downloadable game” level. The days of a single person banging out a whole game in a few days is still dead. Now, it is easier to find two or three people with a decent level of synergy in order to make a game, but it’s not exactly like falling off a log yet. Indie developers fail all the time, and it’s not just because they didn’t make a great game. Sometimes fighting from the inside can kill the company worse than a flop of a game can.
  • We still have to grow the market. This means that we’ll need to continue seeing exceptional growth in the “downloadable” games space in order to see Raph’s prediction about a portal being larger than any traditional game company. If the traditional companies shrink but the downloadable market doesn’t grow, we’re going to be in a heap of trouble. It’s still going to be a challenge to convince grandma that it’s worth $20 to download the latest indie masterpiece.
  • There’s a huge vested interest in keeping the old system alive on multiple fronts. It’s not just the publishers, but all the other industries as well. Guide book publishers (although most of them have been dying off), game publication writers (aka “journalists” *snicker*), game rental places. etc. There’s a lot of people interested in maintaining the status quo, and they probably will not go gentle into that good night.
  • The new boss? Same as the old boss. After you get done developing a new game, you go to a portal to post it up and get the sales rolling in! One problem: the portals are pretty much offering the same deals publishers used to offer from what I’ve heard, and it’ll likely only get worse. Only this time you don’t get expensive or useful things like market research, experienced advice, physical distribution, marketing, etc. No, you just get your title up on an overcrowded webpage and hope you get noticed quick. If not, your game will languish in obscurity on that site. I like to reference an article by Brian Hook discussing the problems his company had a few years ago. Imagine how much harder it’s going to be when all the game developers out of work start developing indie games and the people making truly small-scale games now start competing in the same market as well.
  • Developer egos still exist. Look, I’ve run a profitable business for 4 years now. I’ve pretty much did the impossible: launched a commercial graphical online game with a team of only 3-4 people. I’m under contract to co-write and co-edit a book on business and legal issues in running a game business. Suffice to say: I know a thing or two about surviving on the indie side of things. Yet, I get very little respect because I languish in relative obscurity. Even with developers “going indie”, I have heard from very few people interested in talking to me. I suspect this is mostly an issue of ego: obviously that developer isn’t going to fall into the same mistakes that others have! Same thing MMO developers have had to listen to for many, many years. Sure, some will probably make it, but isn’t it better to talk to someone with experience to avoid the pitfalls?
  • History could just repeat itself again and again. How long until a team of three developers decides that a team of 10 developers could create an even more appealing game to stand out from the crowd of indie titles? How long before another group decides 20 people will create more content and provide better tech? Then 30, 50, 80, 100 developers? How long until we face the same problems we’re facing now at an accelerated rate? How long until the next group of people hope that indies will “save” the stagnant industry by doing something different than the publishers with their outdated digital distribution primarily through a handful of portals?

Again, I hope Raph is right because he’s saying largely the same thing I’ve been saying for the past few years. But, there is still a long, hard road ahead of us to get from here to there. No time to get too smug and assume the future will happen automatically.


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2 Comments »

  1. Raph did post a bit of a reply to this post in a comment on his own blog. Here’s an excerpt that referred to my entry specifically:

    To start with, he (and others) mention that it’s not guaranteed that all the old publishers will die. Of course not. We see all three of the console makers moving towards these models already, so they are all likely to survive. As I said in the post, some of the Big Development folks will adapt to the new models. One form of adaptation is to secure your niche. Being the only AAA gamemaker on a given platform is one way to do that.

    Brian also states that the talent pool could decrease; I doubt this will happen given the way that game development is dangled before the young as a career path. My 8-year-old wants to make games when he grows up. There’s college programs, there’s summer camps for high schoolers. There’s a pipeline forming. Yeah, a lot of us older folks may fall out, but there’s a lot of young people coming up.

    A toss-off sentence in there: “It’s still going to be a challenge to convince grandma that it’s worth $20 to download the latest indie masterpiece.” — I don’t think that we should count on prices remaining stable. Glutted markets mean smaller revenues.

    I then posted a comment in reply to Raph’s comment:

    Brian also states that the talent pool could decrease; I doubt this will happen

    Sure, there’s going to be a lot of supply (people wanting to make games, training to make games, etc.), but you’re looking at it the wrong way. Let me pick out another quote you made:

    I don’t think that we should count on prices remaining stable. Glutted markets mean smaller revenues.

    You are correct, so let’s assume prices will fall. Perhaps $10 per game, or maybe even $5. Let’s assume $10/game. Let’s do some back-of-the-napkin calculations for a business.

    The portals want 80% of the cost of a game if you’re “unproven” (meaning, you’re the most desperate to get your stuff up on their site). So, for a $10, you’re making $2. Let’s assume you want to make about $30k/year (a modest but still middle-class salary in most locales), and you have 3 people working at your studio. Add in 30% more for taxes, benefits, etc, and you’re looking at $117,000 per year in salaries. Let’s assume that your games are a modest success, and sell about 10,000 copies each on average. (In reality, you’re probably going to have a few that sell almost none with others that sell amazingly well, but let’s assume an average.)

    So, this means we’ll make $20k on average on a game. In order to cover just our salaries that means we’ll have to crank out a game every 2 months. If we assume a $5 price point (meaning we get $1 per sale), we have to crank out a game every single month to stay afloat.

    Now, this is just a bit of handwaving. We’re not considering other costs, such as development hardware or software licenses, that are necessary for starting up a business. I’m also ignoring the now infamous Long Tail; your games could sell a trickle, and that will contribute to the bottom line once you have a nice catalog of games, assuming you retained some rights to the game. Note that these factors make it harder for the newbie, but easier for the established company. But, the fact remains: this is a bit depressing to consider. I think many people are going to be weeded out when they simply can’t hack the reality of being an indie developer.

    (Lines in italics are quotes from Raph.)

    I guess this is another thing why Raph’s predictions may not come true: the economics might turn ugly for the small-scale developer. Assuming that some other business model doesn’t come to dominate.

    Some more things to think about.

    Comment by Psychochild — 24 April, 2006 @ 12:48 PM

  2. This maybe a late response, but I guess that some of your predictions aren’t accurate at all. Now, many small time gaming businesses and/small scale business have been making a great break.

    Comment by Luke Alexander — 3 August, 2009 @ 8:41 AM

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