The Indie Game Market (2014)

This post was primarily motivated by tweets swirling around my feed and, if I’m honest, because of Jeff Vogel’s blog post about the Indie Bubble which I neither completely agree nor disagree with in this instance.

Aside: Jeff, if you’re reading this – I love you. The Exile series is a significant reason I do what I do now. I promise to buy the original Exile some day and stop talking to the Shareware Demon.

 

There is no Indie Bubble

I mean this literally and precisely. There is no evidence to suggest that there will be a sudden crash in the valuation of indie games (if you believe I am straw manning the definition of “bubble” please skip to section Put it Together.)

Indie games are already both plentiful and inexpensive. There are two main forces at play here:

  1. Maturation of the market.
  2. Crowding of the market.

They are happening in tandem, but that’s a bit disingenuous as maturation is typically always happening. The main thrust is that the market is getting crowded with more products.

 

Maturation

Development and distribution of (indie) games right now is easier than it has ever been in the past. It is cheaper, more efficient, and the quality of games is rising. I know many don’t believe that because of the sea of junk that has appeared on Greenlight and Steam, but I don’t mean the average quality has risen – I mean the cream at the top has. If you’re reading this post you don’t need me to point out high quality examples of indie games.

 

Crowding

Because the markets and distribution chains have become more efficient more products are making it to market. At an abstract level every game is competing with every other game. At a lower, more concrete level this is not as strongly the case. If you’re looking for a turn based strategy game you’re probably not going to accidentally end up buying a third person cover shooter as a good substitute. You might, however, if cost or lack of good substitutes compels you.

 

The Combination

There has been steady pressure on the price of indie games for years now, primarily driven by bundles. The average cost of games has gone down. Apparently 37% of purchased Steam games have never been loaded. This is generally not what you see prior to a bubble. Prices need to actually be relatively high otherwise they can’t drop relatively low.

If you’re already getting most of your income from selling your game for less than two dollars a pop, there’s not much more down to go.

 

So What?

So competition will be stiffer. There will be less chances for exposure. As the industry matures more successful indies will have more resources and push the bar of quality even higher.

Do not fear the graphical arms race of AAA studios. You’ll have to contend with “AAA Indies” first. Indie games are still a hit based industry similar to the AAA games industry. Statistically speaking if there are more competitors there will be more hits.

 

Put it Together

Indie game developers are already poor. The vast majority at any rate:

“Indies still struggling. Despite the fact that indie devs are receiving more attention than ever before, the average indie still isn’t very well-compensated; individual indie developers averaged $23,130 (down $420 from 2011), and members of indie teams averaged $19,487.” – Gamasutra, 2013

So if you think I’m straw manning the definition of “bubble”, please note that lack of sustainability for small indies has already been upon us. If you thought it was a (financial) golden age you were probably already near the top.

The issues with Greenlight and the increasingly large Steam library parallel a lot of the issues in the indie game scene. Lots of products, but no good ways of sorting and finding relevant products. The problem is primarily one of query, not over abundance of product. Google isn’t bad because it has indexed thousands upon thousands of crappy, irrelevant sites. It’s good because you can type in a terse phrase and generally find relevant results.

In other words, focus on query and not curation. Curation is a very small part of the problem.

Steam’s game categorization is really bad; Indie is considered a genre. I think even the most definition liberal individual would agree that is not helpful. Contrast that with Shiny Loot’s genre and trait system. It has issues as well, such as the Casual genre, but look at Empire Building and Hack-n-Slash – why aren’t these on all distribution sites?

Steam has a user-led tagging system which is still immature. For example Transistor has tags for Art, Action, and Indie. You can find more examples – I’m not cherry picking.

 

What Do?

The first Do is to make your game available. Make it findable, make it searchable, make every encounter a potential customer has with it a pleasant one. This isn’t any different from now or ten years ago, it’s just more necessary than ever.

Aside: If you thought getting onto Steam was a one-way ticket to fame and fortune you were wrong. You’re more wrong now and will be even more wrong in the future.

Your long term goal should be to make a living without Steam.

Tag your images especially on social media sites. Learn about SEO. Learn about marketing. Learn about direct marketing. Pick an underserved market. Make your product stand out in some way.

Make your site mobile enabled. Make sure it loads quickly. Have a gameplay trailer. Have concise descriptions. Have embedded widgets people can use to purchase your game. Use Presskit. Go read everything at Pixel Prospector. Hit up TigSource. Hit up Reddit.

Make friends with journalists, Twitchers, YouTubers, and other people in the industry. Network. I know a lot of you aren’t people persons but make an effort. If you can’t convince a YouTuber with 100 followers to make a video of your game, good luck convincing someone to pay money for your game.

If you pick a generic product, put minimal time and effort, and don’t push hard at every opportunity you don’t get to complain that other people are breaking the curve. You would have failed anyway.

 

What Else?

Journalists need to cover more games. In the short term it doesn’t help them. It just doesn’t – reviewing popular games gets the views which generates their income. And they have limited time and resources like we do.

But in the longer term this helps everyone. This is an ecosystem and everyone involved has a vested interest in keeping everyone else healthy. The flip side is devs need to make games people want and are worth covering. This community has a two-way street.

Some devs participate in the community through jams, organizing events, et cetera. Some devs take the route of reviewing games, even games that perhaps compete with their own. Craig Stern does this in spades with IndieRPGs.com.

So after I spent the last section telling you how to overcome your competition, the second Do is to help your competition. Understand that the competition is primarily in exposure. If you’ve clawed your way to the top and have visibility look kindly on those who started after you, perhaps didn’t have quite enough time or energy to compete, or were just plain unlucky. Or maybe they just need it more than you do.

I have a website I recently created that showcases games by other indie devs. Honestly I don’t have the web traffic to have a significant effect for any of those devs, but the point is that many of them are turn based strategy games – same as the one I’m currently selling.

You could argue that they are the competition, and you’d be correct, but I seriously doubt anyone is going to look at two games on that page and think, ‘I love both of these, but I’ll only ever buy one.” They are not $60 AAA games.

That’s not intended to convince any holdouts. I just want to say I’ve put my money where my mouth is; that site is linked directly on my game’s website.

 

Thanks for reading, Mister Bums

You can contact me at [email protected]Twitter, or leave a comment below!

  • [ t l r ]

    Great article!

  • Great read and thanks for the link to Jeff Vogel’s post!

  • JeromeD

    There is no indie bubble specifically, but there *is* a bubble surrounding software acquisitions in general.

  • Citeremis

    Very interesting. Somewhere deep down, I wish you could be wrong about the way the market grows, but, hey, like you said,its the ecosystem 🙂