It’s (Not?) About the Money

Bias

I’m biased. I like to eat. I like being kept around the normal range of human livable temperatures in all seasons. I like to save money so that one day I’ll be able to retire. Sometimes I like to buy games so I can play them.

This blog post is mostly a response to this article and the conversations that ensued around my Twitter. There is also a TL;DR at the end of the post, but I hope you resist the urge.

 

Anger

Irritation is the most accurate description for how I felt after reading that article. But that irritation fully blossomed into anger when I started seeing financially successful indie game developers siding with the author of that article.

 

Money, the making of

I would like to start with the article’s premise: that indie gaming has an obsession with making money. Source, please. Anyone? I didn’t think so*. (Note: see bottom of blog post.)

Between the massive amounts of game jams, experimental games, clones, quasi-clones, et cetera made for fun by students, hobbyists, and even professional game developers, it’s not a stretch to say that there are a lot of games made without even an attempt at financial remuneration. I personally participated in 7drl 2014.

But I’ll give you the premise. I will give you the premise just so we can move on.

 

Bankrupt: Creatively, but not monetarily!

Holy shit.

App Promo - Wake Up Call
App Promo – Wake Up Call

You’re telling me that indie developers are so focused on making money, too focused on making money, that 59% of app developers don’t break even on development costs? I know a little bit about development costs. More importantly, I know many developers don’t even know how to calculate development costs. I know this because I get into arguments with them about valuing their own time and efforts and about opportunity cost. If anything the real figure is higher because they are chronically under-reporting their development costs.

Another survey paints a very bleak financial picture of indie game developers:

“Half of indie developers made less than $500 from the sale of their games (which includes in-app purchases and DLC); 13% made between $500 and $3,000, 15% made between $5,000 and $30,000, and 5% made over $200,000. Alternate sources of income (advertising, awards/grants, sponsorship opportunities) remain hard to obtain; 79% of indie devs didn’t make any money from these methods at all. Of the devs that did, 25% made less than $100, 28% made between $100 and $2,000, 22% made between $2,000 and $10,000, 5% made between $10,000 and $20,000, and 20% made over $20,000.”
– Game Developer Salary Survey of 2013 

I know what you’re thinking. Well, they’re not making money because they were making their games with the goal of making money, not making great games! Bullshit for three reasons:

1) Neither you, nor anyone else, is an authority on great™ games. There are simply games that have varying numbers of players and customers. I think 868-HACK is amazing. Other people do not. Most other people have never heard of it. This is unique to zero games.

2) Minecraft vs. Infiniminer. Spelunky pre and post XBLA.

3) There is literally no hard evidence that making a game for money, even primarily for money, results in a terrible™ game. At best you can offer examples of games that were made for money that turned out terrible. You can also find examples of games clearly made for money that turned out well in both Indie and AAA spheres.

Aside: #3 is also a crazy claim because you are currently using about five bajillion (rough estimate) pieces of interactive software, most of them created with commercial profit as a primary motivation, in your daily life that you generally do not consider terrible. They are creative, functional, have cultural impact, and are generally good™ products.

But games are special. Special little snowflakes.

 

Status Quo

I mentioned earlier that the article only irritated me, that the anger came after financially successful indie game developers hopped on board the “money is evil and corrupts all!” choo-choo train. I iterate this because I really want to hammer this home:

Any time someone who has profited from a system tells you that you are focusing too much on the profit, tell them to piss off. Or at least quietly view their opinions with internal skepticism. How convenient that they’ve gotten theirs and:

  • They’ve got the money and tell you not to chase the money!
  • Overcrowded (Steam/Greenlight/cough)! Too much competition for established developers!
  • Starving? Doesn’t matter – focus on the intangibles!
  • Lazy comparison to creative conservatism between Indies versus AAA. How convenient that they leave out every other relevant bit of information and just equate money and creative stagnation. You notice how these same people don’t go crowing about how chasing money is bad when they, or people they know, need to run crowdfunding campaigns? The story changes so fast it’ll make your head spin.

Aside: The Money = No Creativity argument is particularly galling because it promotes the idea that you have to be a starving artist to be a real artist. Or a real indie.

It also promotes the idea that indie developers should be allowed to get away with paying their employees and freelancers less than non-indie developers.

 

One kernel

There is one kernel of truth in that article. It comes in late, near the end:

“… the games that are most widely written about, from Flappy Bird to Grand Theft Auto to Minecraft, are the financial juggernauts. But these are not the only success stories.”

Well shit. That’s sort of the domain of the writers writing about games, isn’t it? It seems like many of those writers have an obsession with using financial success as the only metric to write about games.

Aside 1: You want your game to be culturally relevant? Get people to play and tell other people about it. That’s the only way. You may think FarmVille and Angry Birds are crap, but you didn’t have to Google either of those two games, did you?

Aside 2: This doesn’t just apply to (indie) game developers. Are you a writer? Musician? Sculptor? Get people to read, listen, and look at your stuff. That’s the only way.

 

TL;DR

  • Indie game devs are poorly paid. Shut up about too much focus on money.
  • If you’re okay with maintaining a status quo that supports you at the expense of others in your industry, I don’t wanna be friends with you.
  • If anyone is overly focused on indie games and money, it’s apparently people writing about games (me?)
  • To indie game developers who are new and/or struggling: chin up, make games others can’t even dream of, and never be afraid to ask for payment.

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  • SirTapTap

    I can only assume the author of the original article saw the swarm of clones in Mobile and the goldrush behavior of AAA and assumed money rather than being a lazy copycat is the problem. Mobile is a complete shitshow but wanting to earn a living wage is probably the last “problem” filling that septic tank.