Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Indie Bubble Is Popping.

Writing this article really stressed me out. I reworked it over a dozen times. To calm down a little, I will intersperse this with image that came up when I Googled "Free cute animal clip art." Here, we see a teddy bear who is addicted to The Spice.
I've been threatening to write about the popping of the Indie bubble for some time. Everything has finally started to come together. It's a miserable thing to have to talk about, but the conversation is long overdue.

First, a brief history of the Indie bubble. In 2008, big budget developers were doing fine, but they had mostly abandoned a lot of genres many gamers loved (puzzle games, adventure games, 2-D platformers, classic-style RPGs, Roguelikes, etc.)

A few young, hungry developers stepped in and showed that classics can be written on low budgets by young, plucky people with unruly facial hair. (Braid. World of Goo. Castle Crashers. Minecraft. And so on.) They were rewarded with huge accolades and many millions of dollars.

Shortly after, other developers stepped in with their own games. They weren't quite as classic, but they were decent, and these people made fewer millions of dollars. Some old super-niche developers (Hello!) were able to rerelease old games and get caught in the rising tide.

Then even more developers, sincere and hard-working, looked at this frenzy and said, "I'm sick of working for [insert huge corporation name here]. I would prefer to do what I want and also get rich." And they quit their jobs and joined the gold rush. Many of them. Many, many. Too many.

And now we are where we are today.

Indie gaming has seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. A deer rocketing through a forest powered by its own poop. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Is it me, or is this bunny totally murdering this other bunny? IT'S GETTING REAL!
My Thesis. (I Have One.)

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I am in love with games. Video games in particular. Indie video games in super-particular. I am more smitten with them than I should be.

(That’s why I’m not angry at the big mobile game makers. They found a way to get my parents to want to be gamers! That’s awesome. I could never do that, and I lived with them!)

The rise of indie gaming over the last few years has been fantastic. It’s given birth to a lot of good, well-funded companies, that have the chance to make great products. (Like Transistor, that, as I write this, just came out.) As long as these companies keep making top-quality work on a reasonable schedule, they’ll be fine.

But lots and lots of other companies are trying to enter the space, and I’m not sure how many of them are aware that things are changing rapidly. Strategies that were sold to them as the Way To Go are rapidly becoming less effective, while forgotten strategies from back in the day may deserve new consideration.

(Of course, I'm talking about PC indie gaming here. On mobile, big free-to-play stomped out the little guys years ago.)

So what this grumpy old fart is saying is that there are Issues. They should be discussed. There are new obstacles that should be planned for and forces you may blame for your problems that, in fact, you shouldn’t. If you are a green developer, face these facts, or I believe destruction awaits.

The easy money is off the street. If you want to make it in this business now, you have to earn it. It's a total bummer. Blaming Steam won't help.

Enough preamble. Let's get to the evidence, shall we?

This adorable dinosaur is mocking your dreams.
The Big, Big Problem. The Only Problem.

The problem is too many games.

How bad has the problem gotten? How towering, bleak, and painfully unavoidable? It's gotten so bad that even the gaming press has noticed it.

Steam released more games in the first 20 weeks of 2014 than in all of 2013.  I don't know why anyone acts surprised. How many times last year did we see the article, "Another 100 Greenlight games OK'ed for publishing!"?

This wouldn't be a problem if there were a demand, but there's not. After all, almost 40% of games bought on Steam don't get tried. As in, never even launched once! At least the people who download free-to-play games try them.

(To be clear, this isn't a problem because these games will keep people from buying new ones, though there will be some of this. People mostly don't play these excess games because they didn't want them. The problem is that a business based on selling things people don't want is not a stable one.)

Because this flood of games is so unmanageable, Steam has been doing everything it can to throw open the gates and get out of the messy, stressful business of curation.  This is absolutely inevitable. It's also going to winnow out a lot of small developers, who don't have the PR juice to get noticed in the crowd. (Think iTunes app store.)

With so much product, supply and demand kicks in. Indies now do a huge chunk (if not most) of their business through sales and bundles, elbowing each other out of the way for the chance to sell their game for a dollar or less. Making quick money by strip-mining their products, glutting game collections and making it more difficult for the developers who come after to make a sale. (I am NOT making a moral judgment here. It is the simple consequence of a long series of calm, rational business decisions.)

Indie gaming started out as games written with passion for people who embraced and loved them. Now too much of it is about churning out giant mounds of decent but undifferentiated product to be bought for pennies by people who don't give a crap either way.

It's not sustainable.

When I asked this lion, "Will Steam Early Access make things better?", it made this face. And then it mauled me.
It Really Is the Only Problem.

It's simple math.

All gamers together have a huge pool of X dollars a year to spend on their hobby. It gets distributed among Y developers. X stays roughly constant (up a little, down a little), but Y is shooting up. A fixed pool of money, distributed among more and more hungry mouths.

Those mouths are your competitors. All your heroes? Notch, The Behemoth, J. Blow, etc? They’re your foes now. Are you ready to fight them?

You can talk all you want about how mean Steam was to you, or how much "discoverability" is a problem, or about how important it is for developers to go to GDC or the PAX Indie Warren or to cool game jams or whatever. It's all a distraction.

X dollars, Y developers. That's all that matters.

And if X stays constant, the only way to solve the problem is for Y to go down. I'll give you a second to work out the consequences of that for yourself.

Another Dimension To The Problem

I can already sense people are unconvinced with my "proof" of why a shakeout is ahead, so I need to point out something else. It's the problem with being a middle-sized developer (a problem that extends to many fields, not just games).

Suppose you are a super low-budget micro-developer like me. It's not super-hard to survive, because I can get enough sales to get by with a little cheap marketing and word of mouth advertising. I'll be all right.

Suppose, alternately, you are a huge AAA developer with massive budgets. You can afford the massive marketing necessary to generate the big sales you need to pay for your expensive games. You'll be all right, until you're not.

But suppose you're a mid-tier (sometimes called AAA Indie) developer, with $500K-$2 million budgets. You have a problem. You need advertising to get sales, as word-of-mouth won't cover it. But you can't afford a big campaign. The only way you will turn a profit is if you get huge free marketing from Steam/iTunes placement and press articles. (Which is why going to big trade shows and cozying up to the press is so important.)

But when there are so many games competing for free marketing, you have a serious problem. According to their site, the Indie Megabooth at the last PAX had 104 games. 104! At one PAX! Just indies! The games industry doesn't need that many games this year, period. #mildexaggeration

If you are an established developer journalists love, like Supergiant with Transistor, you have a chance to stand out from this horde. If you don't already have a hit, I don't know what to tell you. If I were you, I strongly suggest you write an utterly flawless, ground-breaking title and utterly blow everyone’s minds.

It's a rough spot to be in, and that's where a huge chunk of current indie development has placed itself. Some will shrink down, some will leap to the higher tier. But it's going to be super rough in the middle. Again, to see how this works in real life, look at iTunes.

Oh, and by the way? If you disagree with me on any of this? I HOPE I'm wrong! I want you to convince me I'm wrong!

Anyway.

Um, I said "cute" animals. Come on, Google. YOU HAD ONE JOB!
Stop Blaming Steam!

I am somewhat irked by developers blaming Steam for their problems. "Why don't they publish me? Why don't they feature me? Why won't Steam make me rich!?" All of it said in exactly the tone of voice my 8 year old uses when she's angry her older sister got a bigger piece of cake.

If there has been one true hero in this story, it has been Steam. If, in 2008, I'd written my dream list of what a publisher could provide to help the little developer, Steam would have done it all, and then some.

I have a private theory, that's really only in my own brain. It's this. Valve is full of really cool people, who truly love games. But, at some point, with Steam, these basically nice people suddenly found themselves in the position of deciding who lives and who dies. It's a stressful, miserable place, and they didn't like it. It just made it harder to get out of bed in the morning.

In the last few years, Steam workers were the ones who handed out the golden tickets. They gave one to me. (Everyone on Steam made a lot of money. Even niche-developer dingleberries like me. You could put Pong on the front page at $20 a copy and still make a fortune.) The guy next to me who didn't get the ticket? He was angry. At Steam, at me, at the world. But mostly Steam.

Steam found themselves in a position of being hated for something it could do nothing about. Not to mention the fact that the sort of curation they were doing was impossible in the long term. You shouldn't want the games you can buy to be controlled by some guy at a stand-up desk in Bellevue, WA. They aren't wizards. They can't tell what's going to be a hit any more than anyone else. The free market has to do that job.

So they stood aside and opened the floodgates. Supply shot up and demand stayed even, which means, by a certain law of economics (the first one, in fact), prices have to drop. Which brings us to the bundles.

Christ. How long does this blog post go on for anyway?
The Bundles. Oh, So Many Bundles.

I've long been a vocal fan of Humble Bundle. They're good people who want to make the game industry cooler. Their sales widgets are an amazing tool. We use them ourselves. Their bundles started out as a fantastic way to showcase what our slice of the industry has to offer and help charity to boot.

Now, however, there are a lot of bundles. Many of them. Their main purpose: help established developers squeeze a few more dimes out of fading (or faded products). They are a product of the glut.

As I write this, Humble Bundle is running two weeks of DAILY bundles. That's, like, 3-10 full-length games a DAY. Spend a hundred bucks or so, and you'll get enough solid titles to keep you occupied for years. You should do it. It's a bargain. Then you'll only need to pay full price for the one game a year you really care about, and you won't need to worry about risking cash experimenting with new developers.

Then, give it 2-3 years, and you won't have to worry about new developers, because there won't be any.

Again, there is NO moral judgment here. We're all making calm, rational business decisions. I'm just saying where it's going. Where it has to go.

It just can't last. Bundles used to earn a ton, but they don't anymore. If making pennies a copy selling your games in 12 packs is the main source of a developer's income, that developer is going to disappear. Also, all of the bundles and sales encourage users to expect to pay a price too low to keep us in business. It’s just the same race to the bottom as in the iTunes store, except this time we were warned, and we did it anyway.

And hey, I’m not blameless in this. My games have been in a million sales and bundles. It’s what you have to do now, and I’m just as fault as everyone else.

If someone tells you this is the slightest bit sustainable, they are misleading you. There are lots of different reasons to do this. Maybe they need to fool you. Maybe they need to fool themselves. Just don't believe them. X dollars, Y developers. That's all that matters.

"FTL, what is best in life?" "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to get sweet iTunes store placement."
Just One More Data Point

Actually, what drove me to write this, more than anything, was the first minute of last week's Zero Punctuation. It's kind of a gut punch.

It's the time of year when Yahtzee normally shines his giant flashlight on some under-noticed, deserving indie game and elevates it to the big leagues. Instead, he threw up his hands and reviewed the 2012 title FTL. FTL!

Seriously, what sort of review can you write about FTL in 2014? I can cover it in four words: "Yep. It's still FTL." What? There's an iPad version out? Fine. Ten words: "It's still FTL. Also, the iPad version doesn't crap itself."

(To be clear, FTL is a very good game. But I suspect that, at this point, its authors wouldn't mind sharing a smidge of the spotlight with a less established developer.)

With so many games out, picking the good ones out of the crowd is a huge job. As far as I can tell, nobody, and I mean nobody, is willing to do it. This is why, despite such a flood of product, so few games have broken out from the crowd so far this year.

If most of the indie developers went out of business, are we so sure that, outside of the game dev community, people would even notice? Are we so sure a hearty herd thinning isn't what they secretly want?

I Shouldn't Have Written This.

Because it's redundant. I mean, we knew all of this, right? Gamers certainly know. It's been a few years since looking at the new indie games went from, "Ooh! Let's see what treats await me today!" to "Aaaahhh! So much stuff! I am stressed out now!"

Also, it bums me out. I feel like some jerk who sees a guy's pants fall down and points and laughs and shouts, "HA HA! Your pants just fell down!" The pants-down guy has my sympathy. My sales are way down too, so if you hate me, I hope that fact gives you a little smile.

But all this stuff seems pretty obvious. Someday, as things shake out more, I want to try to get into a much more interesting, chewy topic: What happens next? And, if you still want to write indie games, perhaps a grizzled old survivor of multiple booms and busts can provide some helpful ideas.

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Edit: I fixed a date and corrected the number of games in the Humble Daily Bundles. I swear I fixed that once, but the correction was lost in the flurry of rewrites. Also, anyone who wants to hear more of my natterings can follow me on teh Twitter.

133 comments:

  1. Something that this text made me realize is that the game industry has become like the music industry. Games used to be something only a small number of developers were able to create, much like music was before 20th century. Eventually, Rock'n'Roll comes along and every kid in town wants to be a rock star. The one difference is that indie publishing is so much easier in this age of tubes.

    In my town alone there are multiple publishing bands. How could I pick which ones to listen?

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    1. I think the comparison is worthwhile. It has been observed that people should treat developing games like working in any creative industry (low pay, unpredictable career, etc) and plan accordingly.

      - Jeff Vogel

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    2. You know, that was my exact thought (about the music industry, not the Rock'n'Roll part). I have a few bands I really like, and I try to help support / promote them when I can. I attend their small shows when I don't have a conflict, and the last time I bought a CD and a t-shirt. But, I can only do so much as a single fan. Finding new musical artists is almost as bad as trying to find new game "artists."

      But, your comment about "easier" is also true of music. There are such great mixing tools available -- it's "prosumer"-grade, but even the indie self-published CDs sound nearly professional!

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    3. This article is spot on correct (except for one thing, I'll get to that). There's too too much supply. The average mobile game earns $0.00, and they same thing will happen with indies.

      When we were crafting NES games in the 1980's, Nintendo PURPOSELY RESTRICTED THE MARKET to avoid a repeat of the Atari Crash of '83. There were only 795 SKU's released in North America and Europe. And this worked. You could make $$$ on a well executed game.

      I know of mobile games where the quality and style just ooze from every pore of the game. And they fail because they just didn't catch fire, or in the case of F2P, they didn't have the marketing $$$ and/or channel (previously successful games that could market the new one) to succeed.

      So what's wrong? Steam NEEDS CURATION. Yeah it's tough, and even unfair, but if you want a vibrant market where the developers live to fight another day, you need to restrict the supply.

      Nintendo knew that (in the 1980's). Steam needs to understand it now.

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    4. As an oldbie, I thought of the Atari crash as well.

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  2. I completely agree with you. I don't want to agree, but I do.

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  3. And? This isn't a bad thing. Sure, some developers won't make it, but that means they weren't good enough in some way. And it's definitely good for the players - it won't be "There are 10 indie games and I'll buy them, because they're indie and I need to support the industry.". It'll be "there are many indie games and I'll buy the good ones.".

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    1. I'm confident that I can make a game that's better than 90% of the stuff on Steam. I'm not confident I can *market* it better than 90% of the stuff on Steam. It doesn't matter how good your game is if nobody sees it.

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    2. Well, you have the opportunity of facebook, google+, twitter, tumblr, and blogging which should at least give you a little bit of outreach.

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    3. Opportunity =/= Success

      It is a sad reality that many industries are now in a state like a family with too many kids.

      It doesn't matter how loud you scream or how bad you need the attention, you only have two parents and they'll hear to the ones that market it better, regardless of truly needing it or not. Meaning that, over time, the ones that know how to market will keep on receiving attention, while those who don't (and are late to the party of making a name for themselves) will continue to be ignored.

      Perhaps it is how it has always been, with the curation job merely changing hands, I can't imagine there being so many less indies back in the pre-Minecraft era. I mean, sure, there WERE less indies, but there weren't less DEVELOPERS, so the failure indies of today are quite akin to the failure cogs in the AAA scene from yesterday.

      Maybe it is a cycle, which eventually will sort itself out by morphing into something else, which will satiate the issue for the current failures and promise dreams of greatness in the future failures. I'm not sure, and certainly don't think anyone will.

      The case remains, that the bubble seems to indeed be fated to burst.

      And before anyone mentions, I count myself among those failures, though in the sense of being too late to the party, to the point where I ask myself if it's even worthy to ask the DJ to play my tune, which must already have been played a couple dozen times today...

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  4. Are you in my head? I've been pretty much saying this and thinking this for a while. It's largely the reason why I've never done game dev full time and instead do it on the side with my "hobby money".

    I do have a commercial title I'm working on, but this post pretty much echoes all of my fears about when we eventually do release the game.

    I kinda feel like in my silly thought of "don't release the game until it's great" I've hurt myself by waiting too long. It would be a crushing blow to put in years of work into game and see it fade into obscurity.

    I don't even want to think about what relying on that to make a living would do to me, so kudos to you.

    Perhaps developers can help each other by shining spotlights on games they deem worthy of attention? I think that's one way we can keep good titles relevant at least.

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    1. Oh and I meant my tone to be a little more sarcastic about not releasing my game until it's good enough. Part of the reason I do this in my spare time is so that I can be happy with what I release and not be beholden to the almighty dollar and need to make compromises.

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  5. Perhaps if success was more equally distributed then more gamedevs could enjoys a stable income at the cost of fewer enormous successes. I don't know how to accomplish this though but it's still interesting to think about.

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    1. I think that the future will, indeed, look a lot like this. Or, at least, I hope.

      - Jeff Vogel

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    2. It seems to me that indie scene relies on word of mouth, and that naturally creates snowball-effects of success.

      Some thoroughly different model will have to show up to change that.

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  6. I think you are spot on but you say X and Y when it should be X, Y and Z. There is X people, Y Dollars and Z developers. The formula would look like X * Y = Z. The reason the indie scene has not collapsed already is bandaids like bundles(as you have said), The constant increase of PC gamers, The consolidation of sales channels(Steam, GOG,Desura), Early Access and the newer channels of marketing.

    I will skip the parts you have already covered quite well but will write into the others a bit.

    The reason why indies have been surviving and flourishing is that constant increase here of gamers. For years it has been said that people are flocking back to PC gaming and it's true. The numbers of gamers has increased and with every single one of them brings money and more people. This number is going to increase with the upcoming steamboxes as more newer users will join in and more start playing more. This will obviously hinge on the steamboxes actually being a success but even without them there is still some growth to be had.

    The consolidation of sales channels has made it easy to find games and now they are easier to manage than ever. This has also come with saturation but the saturation has not peaked yet so it is still manageable. Whenever the steam greenlight flood gate breaks and valve just completely dumps whatever is left onto steam is the day saturation will start to decline all of gaming and change a lot of the landscape. There is a hope in there still though as Gabe Newell has said himself that he wants to let users create their own curated stores. When that happens it changes the hands of a bit of who is marketing, why and the control they have on price. It is obviously unknown if it will help stabilize some of the game sales and deal with saturation.

    I would say Early Access is what would be considered the shinning hope for indies as it helps secure funding earlier in so they can put more effort into it and worry less about other issues and just make a game they want to make. This sounds great and all but many have been abusing Early Access and crowdfunding which culminates with the fact that devs are expected to responsible when many are not. There is many games seeing great success from early access but at the same time many are not doing well with timelines, updates and communication. As such we are seeing many gamers get discouraged and vow to never fund an early access game. It served to help and now it's only serving to hurt the near future.

    The newer channels of marketing have helped immensely with games finding popularity and success. There is stuff like Twitch streaming, youtube letsplays, mixed journalist/reviewers like Angry Joe; Total Biscuit; Northernlion; Pewdiepie and others. They help with getting games noticed but you can tell that even they are starting to notice fatigue. It's their job to look at games and they are starting to struggle to do it and there is other external issues like youtube copyright claims and Content ID. It's not the hardest to get permission to do most of what they do but it's becoming a bigger hassle, take more time and cause more stress.


    I went through a lot of the reasons why gaming has kept afloat and how those methods are failing but I too will write on what I think could help.

    I think the biggest things that are needed ASAP to try and help the whole community as a better tagging system for games, Better analytics into what users are playing and what they might like, Standardized guidelines of what a game should have to make it fall in line with others(not gameplay) and helpful guidelines on what to do in your quest to make a game.

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  7. A lot of issues with games these days is it has become the issue of trying to stick square pegs into a round hole. It's become hard to try and describe many games and even harder to search them when something as generic as Action get put onto a thousand plus games on steam. I know valve themselves have tried to work on the problem but it's something the community needs to work together on too.

    The game developers need a site that tries to take their game in then mix it with some of the opinions of all the people who have played it and give out some sort of data that can help match against other games. This has some to do with tagging but it also has to do gathering that important information off people.

    So many games have run into issues where they lack in obvious settings in a game, have the method to fix stuff obfuscated, save gamedata in so many damn places among many other issues.

    The last thing is many developers need a hand with their work whither they want to admit it or not. I am not talking game design but more how they work on the project, how they mentally try and push forward, how they communicate with the people they want to support them and how to avoid overestimating what they can do and making promises they are not going to keep or cannot keep even if they want to. A few good examples of these developers in just the recent weeks would be the ones behind Towns, Paranatical Activity along with Phil fish(guy behind fez).

    I am no expert but I have a lot of spare time and I do really like games.

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  8. 2014 did not have as massive of a spike in game releases as it seems. A lot of those "new" games have been out in other stores for some time, sometimes over a decade. It's just that Valve changed their policies. Want proof? Just look at this list for example: http://store.steampowered.com/tag/en/Old%20School/ Descent 2, "released" in February of 2014. Another example which someone on Totalbiscuit's Reddit compiled: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1flXBnkkhUwWI5cOouAcrMx8tSS7xEufuKE7GfzCUdrk

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    1. You are correct on the facts, of course, but I disagree about the implications.

      They're not new, but they're de facto new. As in, new to the people seeing them. Which means they contribute to the glut.

      That so much of this wave of product is back catalog makes things even worse, though, because it means many of the TON of Steam indie games greenlit last year are still on the way.

      - Jeff Vogel

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  9. If there are more and more varied games coming out, then X should be increasing, not static. If all those new games are just more of the same then, well, the industry deserves what it gets.

    You are right though. Game development is cool enough that there's a pool of people who will do it for virtually nothing. So the market will adjust until that's exactly what game developers are paid. Much like, as you've said elsewhere in the thread, other creative industries.

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    1. Your statement about "a pool of people who will do it for virtually nothing" is like an arrow through my knee! I am one of them and I am ready to dump my job just so I could work freelance and somehow work my way to be part of a indie video game developers.

      Do you know of this fact because of what you see and hear? Any advice for people like us?

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  10. Aren't you a little old to be referencing "My little pony" in your blog?
    Keep trying to make your games stand out and it will get recognition sooner or later if it's actually decent. Gameplay isn't everything though, can you imagine if Avadon looked as good as Transistor? It'd probably have a lot more sales.

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    1. 1. I have two daughters. I've earned the right to talk about My Little Pony. God knows they do. Constantly.

      2. Of course, nicer graphics would increase the sales of Avadon. The question: Would it be enough to justify the CONSIDERABLE cost of those graphics. Answering such questions incorrectly kills businesses.

      - Jeff Vogel

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    2. Well said Jeff. I've been developing commercial titles for just two years now and have worked really hard on my brand. Balancing shoestring budgets is incredibly tough; one wrong move and I'm back to square one!

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    4. Personally I love Avadon graphics, and all Spiderweb games. Have done since way back when they first appeared. Great storytelling and turn-based gameplay, artistic and straightforward graphics - never gets old.

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  11. Also gamers have to battle with time. I can only play so many games. Along comes a deal and I pick up a game real cheap, but now I have less time to devote to any other game that comes along.

    Too many choices and they all blend together.

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    1. Time is a very important part of the economy equation. Without time constraint, say X games, Y money, then Y/X money by game.
      For a lot of people, the problem is now time : I do not have enough time to play the game I am ready to pay for. Thus I am not ready to play medium quality game, I only want to play the best one, *and I am ready to pay a premium price for it*.
      100 games at pax ? If I try one game a week, I have enough for two years !

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    2. And the irony is, the players with the least time probably have the most money! There's got to be a way to deliver a curation system that will work for authors and time-poor gamers. We just haven't found it yet.

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  12. I have so many games unplayed and games go on sale, or enter bundles, so quickly, that I feel a bit foolish paying full price for any new games.

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  13. Jeff, I'm not really in the industry, except as a consumer, but I wanted to say you've written a very thoughtful and reasonable article. I'm glad I read it.

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  14. I totally agree, too many games! As a light gamer I really looked forward to the Humble Bundle, now there's multiple running simultaneously. And this goes beyond indie as well. I have a PS3 with playstation plus and haven't had to buy a game in years. I do find myself buying every major nintendo title on release week though...

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  15. It's a deep dilemma that I wish I knew the answer to. Curation is bad, because publishers tend to be risk-averse and prevent the truly innovative works from getting to market. But curation is good, because it highlights quality content and prevents the consumer from drowning in a sea of mediocrity. What to do?

    The game industry isn't the only one with this general problem. I love to read, and I'm sure there are a lot of gems out there among self-published books. But what do I actually buy? Big hits like The Hunger Games and classics like I, Robot. Perhaps I feel a little guilt for putting money in already-wealthy pockets instead of helping out some deserving indie who hasn't been discovered yet, but sorting through the dross is just too overwhelming. I don't even have time for all the books I know will be good, let alone time to take risks.

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    1. I think publishers get a bad rap. Are they risk averse relative to the overall market, really? In principle, publishers should actually have a higher risk appetite than otherwise. That's because if one publisher controls a number of smaller devs, the risk can be shared out. It doesn't matter if games X and Y tanks, if game Z earns millions. If you don't have to worry about about losing your house, you can take much bigger risks.

      So what explains the apparent risk adverseness of the major publishers? I suppose part of it is conservative attitudes from execs. Another part is the risk averse nature of the entire market - CoD-likes SELL, and it'd be insane to ignore the sector. I think the big part though is large *developers*, not large publishers. Developers sink a ton of money (and people) into single projects, and so they are heavily exposed to risk if those projects fail. EA-etc own/work with these giant developers, and so are associated with them by proxy.

      What I think will happen with indie games is that developers will figure out the advantage of being bigger and therefore being able to share risk, and marketting, and build relationships with the gaming press as single, significant units. A lot of indie devs are friends already, so I think an easy step is to form loose mutual-assistance conglomerations, to soften the blow of failure and ease marketting. Such conglomerations would provide a curation role through endorsement and incorporation of new developers. Journalists will stop caring about the vast majority of games, but if Notch vouches for a certain dev, then they might give it a go, at least.

      Delete
    2. I think that the industry is already starting to go in the direction of more publishers. Square Enix is getting into it with Collective, Double Fine is getting into it, and there are also independent publishers.

      I think what we need though is editors, like in the book publishing business. A publishing house needs to have one person, a gamer, who has a certain taste, and decides what gets to be published based on that taste. Make that post public, make that person hopefully stay for years in that spot.

      It's possible that Valve's plan of letting people open stores will move towards that path, but I think it will work better with publishers.

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  17. Making video games is incredibly fun.
    A lot of people want to do it.
    Many will do it for free (or work inhumane hours and unpaid overtime at a big studio)
    There are enough gifted programmers that would work for free to produce a full range of great and interesting games.
    So game dev industry with regular jobs may be going away.
    A lot of amateurs will have fun, some of them will be millionaires.

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    1. Agreed. The best games come from passionate individuals who don't make games to make a living.

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    2. That makes no sense. If you are developing games, you are doing it because you love games. If you can program and you want to make money, games are, by far, the worst possible way to do it.

      Anyone in the game industry for more than, say, 6 months is a passionate individual. Some of them just have families to feed as well. That doesn't make their creations inferior.

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    3. Generally, solo developers are either creative and looking for a programmer to build the functionality of the project, or a programmer with no creative ideas of their own.

      Delete
  18. My god you write well. Please never stop. Great article.

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  19. I agree with Jeff in abstract, but what really matters is the niche consumers quotient. Does it go up or down? with niche i mean consumers who search for a game by theme or features instead of (indirectly) by reviews and sales figures.

    best wishes! vic

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    1. Good point, and in the mass markets there are game genres that are still underrepresented. Turn based wargames being one of them, if you count the number of them on Steam it is still small, even after Slitherine finally decided to jump on the wagon. I think in genres like this, there is still room for new indie devs with fresh ideas. The problems is that Indies started with genres that were abandonded, and now they seem to stick to them. It is not that rogulikes are more indie in their nature, simply a few years ago there were no roguelikes. So instead of making another one, new indies should look for something that is not being made in enough quantities.

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    2. I agree, there are still many under represented genres out there, but indies are becoming fixated with just a few.

      Maybe it's not the indie bubble that is popping, it's the pixel art platform bubble, or the roguelike bubble, or the craft game bubble

      I'd love to play more sidescrolling beat'em ups, but indies seem to give them no love, and when they do results are not always up to par.

      Maybe some genres are inherently more difficult to develop (i know a good sidescrolling BEU is, but also a good shmup, just saying), so indies stick to what's easy and cheap to develop.

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    3. This is the one point that gives me solace. We can't forget that all of these new gamers who start out with mainstream and widely accessible titles will hone their interests and seek out focused experiences. As an indie, if you can align what YOU personally love with what some small population of the world also loves, you will be okay. Just cultivate that niche audience and give them exactly what they want and you'll have a mini-market all to yourself. The trick is to avoid the temptation to please everyone. Just please the hell out of a few.

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  21. I gave a talk about this very subject at a conference a few months ago. One thing I learned: getting up on a podium and telling a bunch of young recently-greenlit developers that this is actually a PROBLEM was not a way to earn friends. :) These guys were SO excited about being on Steam, and they all figured they had finally "made it" and success and riches would soon follow. And I came along and rained on their parade. Oops. Jeff explained it much better then I did.

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    1. Congrats for the Blackwell saga, Pioners of indie games on steam! I played every game, and Wonderfull professional voice overs. Being a AGS forums addicted myself doing some games, but nothing commercial.

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  22. To be fair: I've always kind of wondered how many of those 40% of Steam games that have never been played are the result of people picking up bundles to get a handful of games at a discount. I mean, I know I've occasionally paid $15 for a Humble Bundle to get two out of the five games...

    - HC

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    1. I've got my share of unplayed bundle games lying around ... but I think back to the time when I saw Primordia available in a bundle, wasn't really interested in any of the other games, and ended up going to Wormwood Studios' web site and buying it directly from then for $10. Jeff's article has convinced me I should do that more often, not just out of the goodness of my heart, but because it makes the most sense for me as a consumer. I feed the developers who produce games I *really* like, and I'm not left with unplayed games taking up hard drive space. The bundles seem like a great deal, until they aren't.

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  23. There was a demo scene back in the dawn of time when people showcased the capabilities of hardware for no other reason that love of the scene and props from the community. This may be the fevered dreaming of my addled brain, but I'm almost positive there was a way to write homebrew code on the Atari 2600, long before the real 2600 homebrew scene took off.

    You used to type programs into your home computer's built-in BASIC (or God help you, FORTH) interpreter out of magazines - somebody wrote those programs and was paid a fiver to have them published.

    Ever since there have been computers there have been people writing games for computers.

    I agree there's an indie game bubble, and the problem is about the expectation of making a living from writing games.

    It can take a year or more to write a novel and prepare it for publication. These days there are probably millions of self-published novels on Kindle, but even before self-publishing became prevalent there were about 100k novels being published every year in the US alone. One hundred thousand. Again, before Kindle, a novel accepted for publication would probably make under $10k in sales.

    Now that it's even easier to publish, more people are doing it and the average return has to be sinking towards nothing. But they're still doing it.

    The barrier to entry for novel writing is pretty low, but with the tools available it's getting to the point where the same can be said for writing games.

    Even if the commercial market for indie games collapses, there are still going to be plenty out there to play.

    From Jeff's commercial point of view, I don't think he has anything to worry about. He was making a living before the bubble, he'll probably make a better living after the bubble bursts.

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    1. There still is a demoscene.

      Sincerely,
      someone who still makes demos.

      Delete
  24. "All gamers together have a huge pool of X dollars a year to spend on their hobby. It gets distributed among Y developers. X stays roughly constant (up a little, down a little), but Y is shooting up. A fixed pool of money, distributed among more and more hungry mouths."

    In my opinion, this is a massive (and somewhat incorrect) generalisation of quite an intricate market.

    Does X really stay constant? Where are the figures to back up this claim? If this were true, would it not necessitate an unchanging user base, which does not appear to be the case (search "steam growth")? Like any new business there's always a ceiling, but the challenge is to innovate to access new demographics.

    ... and isn't innovation synonomous with indie dev?

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    1. http://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=indie%20games

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  25. I really think what the indie gaming scene - and perhaps videogames in general - should move towards is a BBC style subscription model. Instead of buying individual games, pay $X per month to some game service. This service funds the development of games, and you'll get access to all the games from it.

    Why do this? Well, this means that developers' earnings won't be absolutely proportional to sales any more. No one gets ferraris, but everyone gets to eat. Further, I think there is more room for diversity in this model. While individual oddball games would disappear in the deluge of more mainstream titles, I think people *would* pay for a 'weird stuff' game channel. Audiences might not want to *play* every weirdo game, but they might like the warm fuzzy feeling of ensuring those games come into existence. And creators can be more daring if they know that individual failures don't mean they lose their house.

    Patreon is an early sign of this, and I think Patreon should get bigger.

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    1. Patreon is a good idea for some developers, but the problem is that there's an expectation of constant content. You would have to start making games that take less than a month to make to keep your patrons happy.

      I've seen some web template designers open a subscription website where you get access to all of their designs for $5 a month. Another alternative would be like Audible where the $5 would get you 2 games a month from their back catalogue or something.

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  26. I wouldn't call it exactly an indie bubble but this does a fair job of outlining how the market is changing. In my experience, markets -- especially consumer directed markets -- go in waves.
    The metaphor that fits most in my mind is land. Whenever a new place is accessible, whether by new technology or changing circumstances or what have you, it's the wild west. Fill up your wagon, go out west, grab some land, do what you want. It might be hard to get there, or might require a specialized skill set, or the area might not be hospitable for everyone. Heck, maybe there were already some people there who had been living there basically forever but had less of a profit motive.*
    Then somebody finds some gold, and maybe some folks back east take notice. Folks who have been camping once or twice and want to get rich quick saddle up. A lot of these greenhorn settlers die on the way out, but those who teach themselves how to survive have plenty of room to settle. Bigger enterprises who already own well mined ... well, mines ... see completely untapped resources. They train and hire their own people to go out and claim the abundant territory. If they have to push other people who have been there longer of the territory well, that's unfortunate but they were sitting on giant gold mines and just sifting a few flakes out of the river so, really, isn't it their own fault for not capitalizing on it? Also, how do you get blood off of suede shoes?
    And now the big mining concerns buy up everything that was sustaining an entire culture, and what they can't buy up they force others out of. At least, if the profit motive is there.
    All of this means that, as time goes on, the skills needed to succeed shift from the ability to successfully work the land to the ability to bring resources to bear -- economics and politics.
    The good part of all this is that the intellectual property world isn't a static, finite world like our own. A new business model is enough to open a new wave and, after that happens, it takes a while for the larger concerns and the greenhorns to even start caring. Kingdom of Loathing was out there doing it's thing long before Zynga and King camped out in Freemium. FTL kickstarted itself long before larger companies started seeing it as a way to offset project risk. Rolling Alpha is STILL a wild west marketplace with Minecraft, Day Z, and the great grandaddy of them all Dwarf Fortress continuing to work a crazy stretch of wild canyon river that none of the big fish have quite tackled how to work yet. As barriers to entry rise in one place, new frontiers are opening in another.
    I guess what I'm really saying is that I need to finish watching Deadwood someday.
    *Does this make board games indigenous peoples?

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  27. The console makers however, are still willing to pick winners and losers

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  28. You have a good post here.

    So many games, so little time.

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  29. As someone who started to write about the industry while it was developing, I found this out the hard way when my work inbox would fill up with hundreds of review requests a day. Don't get me wrong, exploring new games without much cost to me other than time is absolutely amazing, however I just couldn't handle the load. Even delegating out games to a few friends, I found the more our site got known the more requests we would get. Some of these games wouldn't even be close to done, the quality varied so hard it was ludicrous. I lost my taste for it and I haven't really done reviews in a long time. There was a time during the 360 generation where games coming out for console were just garbage or sequels, nothing was exciting and I almost stopped playing games altogether. As someone who's gamed for 30 years, that's kind of nuts. Indies are what brought me back, the fresh ideas were inspiring. Now though, I don't know. The quality for the bulk of these games just isn't really there anymore. Anyway, good post.

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  30. An insightful article. It's something I've been thinking about for a while. These bundles foster unreal expectations and are a self-destructive endeavor. Then again, the digital entertainment world itself is a murky, unregulated mess. There still are and will be for a long while - if not ever - people who're gonna deem the developers lucky to be even paid a buck for their 20-hour long's worth of 'digital entertainment', which apparently 'isn't real', sadly.

    Now here's something I'm thorn about. We shouldn't forget that most gamers are very selective - I know I won't touch a horror/shooter/sci-fi game with a ten-foot pole unless I hear wonders about it, because they're simply not my kind of thing. On the other hand, I will play below average RPG games and visual novels. It's the price of variety. So at the end of the day, while there may have been 100 games at this year's PAX, I know I won't try all of them. Sure, scarcity would probably propel me to give some games I don't particularly care for a try, but ultimately it would just drive me to spend my money elsewhere.

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  31. As a prolific bundle buyer I have two things to say:

    1. You're absolutely right on most cases - I recall Ultionus dev complaining that he only got $0.05 per copy of his game sold as par of a $1 min bundle, and the math checks out. It's one thing to write that off as a loss in the name of getting greenlight votes, but with Steam meaning less guaranteed profit, what does that leave? Not to mention I see games *already* on steam participating in the same kinds of "dozen for $1" bundles.

    2. The humble daily deals, for the most part, have been pretty bad for us bundle-holics. Most of them have been bundle repeats, or "deals" far more expensive than we're used to. My only purchase so far has been $1 for Race the Sun.

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  32. As a gamer, I don't see a crowd developers competing for my attention. I have money and time, but only a few games I'm interested in.

    So, I think the niche market is still there. For those hoping to make millions on simple games, times are going to get harder and harder, but I believe that making decent living money from niches is still a valid business strategy.

    But what we REALLY need is a good recommendation system to match gamers and games. I was very surprised how bad is Steam at this. Its recommendations are mostly useless, even though it has not only my buying history, but also all other kinds of statistic about me and my playing habits!

    At the very least, let's try applying Netflix's algorithm to games, maybe? I did a search on "games recommendation systems" recently and it came up nearly empty. The only site I found was something called GameFly and it offered to rent me DVDs. In 2014.

    Actually, matching art producer with art consumer is an important problem for every industry out there, and with the flood of content which is coming now, we (and I mean Humanity) need to solve it somehow.

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  33. "Making quick money by strip-mining their products, glutting game collections and making it more difficult for the developers who come after to make a sale."

    This is where I would have to disagree. It all comes down to X dollars for Y games. And the sales and bundles have done a ridiculously good job of increasing the number of people buying games and how much each spends on average. X have been sky-rocketing, which is both a result of and a cause of this indie bubble. And this new place that we are at now, where more people are buying games than ever I think is moderately sustainable, but the easy money with sky-rocketing growth is done.

    But unfortunately upheaval, even though the general direction has been up, has created winners and losers. While a no-name Steam key might be worth something like 80 cents, a no-name Desura key is only worth 40 cents, and a random download considerably less than either.

    You say that a game going for a dollar is a bad thing, but how much does making one copy of one of your games cost you? How much do you have to spend on manufacture, everything someone buys The Black Fortress through Steam? And how hard is it to ramp up production? So tell me why you would rather sell 10,000 copies at $20 a copy instead of 1,000,000 at 50 cents a copy?

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    1. Note: The same number of people are probably going to play your game either way and adding one more title to the stack of 400 that they have never even played is not going to sour them to future purchases in any huge way.

      Delete
    2. "So tell me why you would rather sell 10,000 copies at $20 a copy instead of 1,000,000 at 50 cents a copy?"

      Great question!

      Because the people who pay $20 are my clientele, loyal customers who will keep me in business through thick and thin.

      The people who pay 50 cents don't know I exist. They can't be relied upon.

      - Jeff Vogel

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    3. You also have to consider whether he would actually get 1,000,000 sales if he sold his games for 50 cents. Back when indie bundles were a new and uncommon event, people flocked to them -- but what happens when a new bundle comes out every month, week, or even day? I'm sure not going to buy them all! The addition of new players to the market does help, but it can't go on forever.

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  34. Wonderful article. I agree, but I think it's just the natural state of things when you have a gold rush. In the 80s, everyone quit their jobs to be a screenwriter. Result: tons of B movies until natural selection cast them back out. In the 90s, it was day-trading. In the 2000's, web startup. Now it's indie games. I expect by next year many indie devs will have new day jobs and the survivors will do OK. The 'solution' (as always) is to innovate, and do it cheaply.

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  35. Now if there was only a way we could "flip" games, we'd have a bubble we could all take stock in.

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  36. These statements have surfaced with every new communicative/expressive medium, whether it's books, pictures, music, or film, there's always a fear that "There's too many X!".

    It's not surprising to see it appear for games too, but that doesn't mean that it's the end of the indie gaming industry (sure, people might be more cautious before buying every game on sale, but that would be expected before buying even "AAA" games like Duke Nukem Forever).

    There's a few writings on this subject for other media types, but I think it still applies to this situation too:

    http://web.mit.edu/21fms/People/henry3/starwars.html

    http://www.free-culture.cc/freeculture.pdf

    (page 35/chapter one)

    Terrible games have existed ever since the Atari days (eg: The ET burial grounds), and while the tools to develop games have become more accessible, freeware indie games have been around a long time and the communities that form around them help sort the best and worst games into their respective areas.

    I feel that the real concern in this article is that now the people who normally made freeware games have the option to sell their games in mainstream markets like Steam, but that doesn't mean that Steam Greenlight users won't be able to help sort and filter these games over time through recommendations and reviews.

    History often repeats, so the explosion of content in all forms will probably continue and change, but I don't think that's a bad thing in the end.

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  37. I'm a student currently starting work on an independent game project, a vertical slice of a project intended to be bigger. We're just starting out, and when the vertical slice is completed we intend to use it for festival submissions and perhaps a Kickstarter. What advice do you have to give to us, Jeff?

    (Also, thank you for writing such an honest and well-researched post. Part of making games is trying to stay three steps ahead of what's currently happening.)

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  38. Your logic is sound. Your conclusions are undeniable. And there's at least one thing that you didn't mention that will make things worse.

    Schools.

    Throughout the world, schools that teach video game design and skills have popped up all over the place. With them have come students, many of whom who have spent too much money learning that skill because it's what they're passionate about. Once they get out of school, what are they going to do? Make games to recoup their school investment, doing their best to convince their parents that it wasn't a waste of time.

    The number of people who have game industry skills is only going to the grow for the next... decade? Longer? I don't know. But it doesn't help anything.

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  39. I think indie developers are just waking up to the way that the real world works.

    Before, getting on Steam was a free pass. Now it's not.

    This isn't a bad thing. It just means we're right back where we started.

    I have never liked "indie" as a label for games, because it means absolutely nothing. It has no bearing on anything that matters in the game. It doesn't tell me about the genre or the gameplay. About the only thing it has bearing on is production value, in which case calling your game "indie" is newspeak for "we have shit production values".

    The term "AAA indie" is horseshit. If your game is valued by the market, you'll make money, whether you're an indie or an AAA dev. Indies can and should be measured by the standard we hold AAA games to, because the entire history of the game industry has shown time and time again it is not graphical prowess or amount of money spent in development that matters to consumers.

    I agree that the market is oversaturated, but customers and consumers always know best. Discoverability is a problem but it's not an excuse. Get your game out there in the hands of as many people as possible. We live in an age where information is free and it's easier than ever to get noticed if you're good enough.

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    1. I think that if Valve (or someone else) manages to implement a working user curation system that allows small developers to effectively reach a receptive audience, then the market's growth will level off more smoothly than it otherwise would. While Steam wouldn't be as lucrative as it seems to have been until now, it would allow developers to cultivate stable audiences.

      Of course, this is a pretty big "if."

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  40. I think that we're now just on the brink of the next step in digital distribution of games. Gabe Newell himself has already outlined the idea of Steam ceasing to be the curator and simply being the platform.

    In the near future, anybody will be able to open their "store" where they can curate Steam games themselves. This way, exposure can be more broad and also more detailed. For example you'd have a site dedicated to adventure games and you'll be able to get adventure games from that site, with more in-depth coverage and discoverability. These games would then only have to compete with fellow adventure games.

    Of course, these stores wouldn't be beholden to curate by genre. The games will still just be Steam games, but there would be 'democratized curation'.

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  41. Very interesting article, Jeff, and spot on!

    One thing you were polite enough to not mention, is that the average quality of Steam games has decreased enormously in the past half year. There are not just more games on Steam, there are above all more crappy games. I think that people who make really good games still stand a good chance of making good money, although probably a smaller chance than before.

    Also, I wonder to what extend this quote from your article is actually true: "People mostly don't play these excess games because they didn't want them. The problem is that a business based on selling things people don't want is not a stable one." I personally also have tons of unplayed Steam games. I look forward to playing almost every one of them. So I do want those games, I just don't have time to play them. I am not being tricked by low prices into buying crappy games, only into buying more games than I have time to play. I wonder how many people actually buy things they are not really interested in?

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  42. I agree with this entire article, with the exception of Steam being the hero.

    Sure, I can understand from the perspective of the few developers that have seen success on Steam that Valve is the best thing since sliced bread, but there are countless developers who have not seen such success and have most likely been under a gag order through their NDA with Valve regarding their sales failure.

    Valve and Steam have essentially created this bubble on their own. They've created the illusion of easy money, the false belief that you can create a game, no matter how crap, and as long as it gets onto Steam, it will be a sales success nonetheless. They established themselves as the de facto PC gaming digital storefront, and then opened the floodgates so that nobody had a chance.

    And with the indie bubble bursting, we have other problems, namely that the Steam sale and indie bundle culture has scared away a lot of AAA developers, so that most releases now are either delayed, digital-only, end-of-the-long-tail last-ditch money grabs, or simply just don't appear. GTA 5 and RDR anyone?

    If anyone thinks that mainstream interest was bad ten years ago, it's worse now, and it's debatable as to whether it will recover.

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    1. This is an interesting account, but I'm curious as to its plausibility.

      If people weren't making lots of money with Steam, no amount of salesmanship or shenanigans by Valve would keep that hidden, at least not for this long.

      My impression is that having your game on Steam, at least up to this point, is good for your bottom line. Even stinkers - Day One: Garry's Incident and Guise of the Wolf come to mind - seem like games no one would ever had heard of (let alone bought) had they not been on Steam.

      I could very well be wrong, but if people weren't making money through Steam, they wouldn't be selling their games on Steam.

      As such, I don't know if Valve can really be credited with authoring this bubble. After all, they didn't create the Humble Bundle. True, they were instrumental in training the market to wait for massive sales, encouraging a sort of race to the bottom. But as Jeff said, this is all the result of rational economic decision making.

      I'm not entirely sure I entirely follow your assertion that Steam operated in such a way so that "nobody had a chance" to compete on the PC digital marketplace. Yes, they are 800 pound gorilla in the room, but there is nothing preventing others from founding a digital storefront. Valve doesn't prevent companies from selling on other digital distribution channels, nor do they prevent other companies from packing other storefronts with the games (see Games for Windows Live and Uplay).

      Finally, as for the AAA market staying away from PC, you only cited Rockstar, the biggest exception to the behavior of the AAA industry's behavior. Rockstar seems to be particularly uncomfortable with the PC and its nature of being an open platform. Otherwise, your other observation of AAA's behavior towards the PC space not only pre-date Steam's explosive rise, but also has been reduced and even somewhat reversed by it.

      *Sigh* I feel like I'm starting to crusade for Steam like a feudal lord, and that's really not what I want to do. I think that other digital platforms like GoG, Desura, and the Humble Store need much more love than they get. I think competition in the digital space is brilliant and that we need more of it. Hell, Origin, for all of its missteps, has helped push for the whole "refund" thing in the digital space, one of the handful of areas where Steam is weaker than its competition.

      It just seems... disingenuous to lay this at Valve's feet, at least barring evidence to the contrary (on that, if you have said evidence to the contrary, I'd be happy to hear it). They seem to be doing nearly everything right. Heck, they don't want the power to decide who lives and dies in the marketplace. They just want to sell their wares.

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  43. I don't totally agree. Yes there are more games and more people trying to get money from them. But what you are implying is that Braid and similar games that made a lot of money wouldn't make as much money today because there are more games available on Steam.

    Those game created a Gold Rush, but they made money because they were really good and new. Anybody able to achieve the same kind of quality and novelty will still make big money.

    So all those pity quality games are not gonna "crash" the scene, they are only crashing themselves, and once people realize that, this amatory crowd will move on and only dedicated developers will stay and last.

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  44. Too many games? Hate to say it but probably true. I know I personally have been looking at what's new on Steam less and less these days. Ok, more like very rarely (maybe once every 2 weeks, if that, anymore).

    I got into indie gaming a few years ago, partly because, it was cheap enough that I could take a chance on quite a few games for what I would of spent on a single AAA title. Plus I got a lot of really good stuff.

    Here's the thing about sales and bundles though. I know you have said about prices being driven down, but as a consumer, I've noticed an upward trend in "regular" prices from indie games. Games that not so long ago I could pick up and try out for $5 are now at $15.

    Are the products any better? eh, most are alright. But before, I get too far down this road, if you don't think "regular" game prices have increased, just take a look on Steam at the games from Adult Swim (who is publishing indie games) and sort them by release date. In less than 1 year the games have increased in price with each release (with one exception) from $6.99 to $14.99.

    I don't think sales and bundles are to blame for a bit of the bubble when (and unfortunately I can't find the article now) we do have some making games basically admitting that yes, they are pricing their game with sales in mind.

    So some are essentially being the JC Penny's or Kohl's of the video game world, where they raise the regular price, just so you pay what they wanted all along when it goes on "sale". This also leads to a view that you are a sucker if you buy something at "full price"

    It goes to perceived value by the consumers of the product. There a lot of games I'd like to try, but I often find myself saying "I like it, but I don't 20 dollars like it". I'm sure I'm not the only one to say that when looking at new games, or even old ones.

    So naturally, if games are being "overpriced" in the consumers eye they're not going to buy until it hits the price point of their "perceived value".

    But since we do have people inflating original prices with sales in mind. A sale or a bundle now becomes the only way to get some games at their original intended price.

    While there are certainly more games than before the truly good ones will come to the top. A crowded space is only going to make it more muddy for the mediocre to not so good games in terms of survival.

    Maybe in the end it isn't so much that there are indeed too many games, but rather too many with poor business models, that will sink things.

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    1. "we do have some making games basically admitting that yes, they are pricing their game with sales in mind. "

      But that is not the norm.

      Yes, particularly some medium indie games are getting significant increases in price, but others are going down. There are games getting prices at 1-2 dollars, and others indies who would of prices their game at 20-25+ a few year ago now simply putting effort into getting on Steam and pricing at 15, or less. And probably opening with a launch sale of 30% off.

      Delete
  45. Bubble is an incorrect name. A bubble is an increase of market price beyond what the good should be valued. That ends up in the value crashing and owners ending up with devalued goods, with a resulting loose of capital.

    This, on the other hand, is just the market trying to meet a demand for certain types of games that AAA industries can't. We may be seeing too many new games, but that is not a bubble as it will not result in an overvaluation of any goods (as you noted, it is producing quite the opposite). On the long run what should happen is that the best will thrive while the worst will go out of business. Every person who starts a new "indie gaming company" is counting on hitting a home run.

    We are also seeing lots of ways in which the market is providing tools to reduce risk and costs. New businnes models, developing tools becoming cheaper, new and exiting games happening from time to time, etc. So I don't see what's the problem you try to point out.

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  46. "All gamers together have a huge pool of X dollars a year to spend on their hobby."
    This is the weakest point of your argument. The gold rush in the mobile space was partially because it expanded the market. Your parents playing games expands the market, and makes X bigger.

    There's nothing in the rules that says that developers have to target the current market. There are still millions of potential customers who have never heard of Steam but might be interested in buying something game-like.

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    1. While there may be nothing in the rules to say that developers have to target the current market, they do have to target a market with actual people and real money.

      That X has gotten bigger is what makes this whole thing a bubble. This is Jeff's point (as I understand it): in order for the current paradigm to be sustainable, X will have to keep increasing fast enough to support the existence of the ever increasing Y developers. Even if innovative devs keep finding new ways to expand the market, even if they find a great deal of untapped potential, I find it very hard to believe that this is sustainable. This is the point Jeff seems to be arguing for.

      Jeff's premises are sound. Now, without comprehensive data, we don't have nearly enough to predict *when* the bubble will burst. However, even if we are optimistic about how much more X can increase, at some point we are going to run into a market that will not be able to support the current paradigm.

      Delete
  47. How do you feel about the console indies? Is that bubble about to burst as well?

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    1. I doubt it. The consoles are super carefully curated.

      What I am super curious about is how the XBOne and PS4 exclusives do. My hunch is that shrinking your customer base that much to sell a niche product is a really tricky move. I hope it works out for them. Big exclusivity bonuses help, but those won't last forever.

      - Jeff Vogel

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    2. Consoles had pretty strong curation in the PS3/360 era but it does seem that is quickly shifting with PS4 and Xbox One (Nintendo still seems to be fairly reserved with game selections).

      What I've noticed from a lot of current indies is that they're racing to meet new console buyers but are actually pretty glitchy or not particularly great games.

      My biggest reason for thinking Sony and MS are lessening curation procedures is thanks to games like Soda Drinker Pro somehow negotiating an Xbox One release. http://sodadrinkerpro.com/soda-drinker-pro-coming-to-xbox-one/ (The game is hilarious but wow, what?!) By the way, this was a game Valve initially barred from being a part of Greenlight (http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=119643870) though it has since reapplied under the name "Soda Drinker Pro Full Version".

      Delete
  48. After reading your article, all I can say is, "boo hoo". So you can't shit in a bag and sell it as a gourmet meal. I'm missing the huge catastrophe here.

    An indie team will need to actually put some thought and polish into a game for it to get some attention. How is this a bad thing? It sounds to me like you just want the easy, lazy way to riches.

    The gold rush is over, yet gold is still valuable. The same goes for Games in my opinion. If the mechanics are fun, the graphics are good, and the game has some replay value, people will play it.

    If the market is saturated with crap, that is good news, because the good games will stand out that much easier. If I have X amount of dollars to spend in Y games for the year. Those games had better be worth my money, or else they don't get even a little x.

    Y doesn't need to go down(as you claim), it needs to buckle down and put more effort into earning the almighty X. Sorry, I'm not going to hand you my X just because you really, really want it.

    TL;DR Sorry the game industry has more competition than it did yesterday, get over it.

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    1. Jesus, who got to your ass without lube? Chill out. Also, don't claim to "reading [the] article" and then write TL;DR. That's... well... stupid.

      You know the big difference between gold and a game? There is no work of making gold. There's an amount of it out there, and someone has it. There's also not really any need to introduce people to gold. People pretty much know it exists. My neighbor has no idea Spiderweb Software exists. It wouldn't cost me a cent to market gold to her. So, useless comparison.
      On the note of awareness - no, good games DO NOT inherently stand out from the flood of crap, especially as the crap increases. Even considering all the published accolades and passionate word of mouth that abides by certain titles, just the field of games that people swear by is hard to sift through. Go find all the best books in any library. It took me years just to get around to Minecraft. Minecraft had a spot on "Conan", for emphasis on its success. I will NEVER get around to finding the games I probably want to play.
      You can say, with all the self-righteousness and entitlement like any reliably narrow-minded internet asswipe, that companies just need to "buckle down and put more effort into earning the almighty X", but they are likely bound by factors in real-life (you might run over some of that, someday) that DO limit what one can do with a product and still survive. When you don't make regular, hourly wages, the more time you put in to work diminishes what would amount your hourly rate. Do we need to have THAT discussion, at this point in American politics?

      The broader point to take from this slipped by your twitching hard-on attitude. But, good luck standing out as the gem in a sea of sub-standard raging internet types.

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    2. I have a feeling the "TL;DR;" is about his own comment for people that skip reading everything he had to say / his point "in a nutshell", rather than saying the article was too long.

      From the sounds of it, what we need is not less games but a better method of finding and sorting said games, like a search algorithm that helps you find something matching your tastes.

      Google and Netflix are doing this for other areas of media, so we just need something working towards it in the gaming section, and I think Valve will probably have been working towards this (since they've already allowed custom tagging on games to have fans help sort the content).

      Delete
    3. Very true to a point. They'll be very useful implements when the dust settles on the overload of apps and games being cranked out.
      I worry if there are people clinging to hope that searchability will keep them afloat. There are still an inordinate number of clone properties out there. Sorting them will shed light on that.

      Delete
  49. What happens next is as obvious as what's going on now.

    Premium mobile.

    Anyone can write a game for Steam. iTunes is not far behind. But conquering the fragmentation of Android? That takes resources, skills and discipline.

    But there's a serious lack of serious content on mobile, something that's not just a port of some dpad concept. Yet the devices we carry around in out pockets are, in terms of hardware, as good as the machines we played some pretty foundational games on at just a decade ago. And all we're really using them for is to flick cartoon birds across a screen and play match 3 with candy.

    But it will take developers who can figure out the key challenges:

    -Touchscreen gaming, scaled to a screen size of dozens and dozens of device models.

    -mobile gaming, something that can be put on hold indefinitely until your lunch break, or your light rail commute home. The problem with premium content ported to mobile is that PC games are designed to be engrossing for hours at a time. Mobile needs something that can be bookmarked and come back to like a paperback, or an e book. Make something with content in the same quality range as an ebook, and people will pay ebook prices. It won't be AAA console prices, but it won't be peanuts either.

    -Sound optional; because no one wants to be the jack@$$ wearing ear buds and staring at thier phone on the bus, or the jack@$$ with the sound on speaker.

    Figure that out and indy has a great new market.

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  50. "Supply shot up and demand stayed even, which means, by a certain law of economics (the first one, in fact), prices have to drop."

    This makes me sad as a developer yet to release a finished product. When it’s done, what price shall be deemed fair? These days it’s common to hear “It’s good, but not $10 good. Get it on sale.” How spoiled gamers are today, when each hour of fun is valued at mere pennies. Not so long ago, decent games costed plenty more and we either paid in full or just didn’t buy.

    As a gamer, it’s scary that I catch myself thinking similarly now and then. That a purchase would feel totally justified if only it were a few dollars cheaper. After all, that other game was only $2.49 on sale and it kicked ass... Oh no, I’m spoiled too! I remind myself that as long as I enjoy it, it’s worth full price, because the developers worked hard. If I simply can’t afford those extra few dollars, then I must have bigger problems in life than gaming.

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    1. Well you will excuse me sir, but the problem is that the quality of content or the hype is not enough. I buy games at full price when I am really craving to play something.

      I bought Minecraft back when it was alpha because I found it amazing the day I tested the demo. I had faith in it. I paid the price they were asking, no questions asked. I pre-purchased Resident Evil 6 because the coop factor was very appealing to me and my brother. I purchased Torchlight 2 at full price too. And several others. Another indie I had faith and still have faith in is Project Zomboid. Bought in early alpha, full price.

      Sorry to disappoint you. I have had my "It's good but not $X good." It's just so happens that the game in fact, doesn't feel worth it. And I have had does moments both in indie and AAA. The AAA example would be Thief. Developers can't tell me how much a game is worth to me. I decide that. And if those games don't go on a low enough sale I don't buy them. It's that simple.

      Even when I could buy an iPhone 5 I don't, because a phone isn't worth that ridiculous amount of money to me. I use a cheaper phone. Does that make me spoiled too?

      Delete
  51. You can tell things go downhill as soon as someone offers something for free. In normal business, if You are selling fruit, You let someone get a taste. If You sell cars, You let people test drive. Nobody gives away a car for free unless its a lottery. But in games...well...if staying "competitive" ( and games wanna be art, right) means working for free it might be time to either rethink the business model or get out as soon as possible. Games dont reward martyrs, You dont get hailed because You went broke developing Your game, You just go under.

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    1. Precise and concise, there. Developers need to figure out fair pricing for themselves more than for customers. It's insane to try to keep up with the trend of big free-to-play games.

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  52. As someone who actually purchased your games through the website (and had to get CD versions because of slow internet) I feel the pain in what has become indie. Its not that there are fewer indie games out there now, its rather that its suddenly become "hip" to be "indie" instead of uncool that you were unable to get your game published. Until Minecraft I never even really heard the term "Indie", there were just games.

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  53. If a bubble needs popping, there are those among us who are qualified to do so. Specifically, using a battle-tested lead pipe.

    Coded message received; operatives are on the move.

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  54. I have an observation and a question:

    Observation: I'm not at all convinced that there is a constant number of "gamers". Is the audience for Candy Crush really composed of nothing but people who had a few bucks left over after buying Dark Souls II?

    That strikes me as unlikely.

    I mean, I certainly buy way more games then I play, but the vast majority are games I've already heard of and think I'll enjoy. If those games disappear I don't just default to buying whatever the most popular AAA game of the moment is; I buy other games in the same genre, or simply stop buying games.

    Question: What do you mean by, "People mostly don't play these excess games because they didn't want them. "?

    I can actually think of a few different things. Steam has gotten me addicted to shopping just for the sake of shopping in a way that I've never been before, but the majority of my games are still things I'd heard of, read reviews for and that seemed interesting to me.

    A fairly substantial minority of games I have are things that I'd never heard of but were on sale cheaply and had trailers or premises interesting enough to buy them (26 out of 127, by my count).

    Actually counting, I have more games than I thought that I just plain would never pay money for but which came in bundles (7-10, depending on how you count), but those are all actually big time AAA games.

    It's actually kind of hard to tell what counts, because a lot of bundles are themed. I've got Sid Meier's Ace Patrol. I probably wouldn't have bought it on its own, but at the same time I enjoy board games with similar premises, so it's not like it's something I particularly don't want.

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  55. Your article is really interresting, but i think all analysis are false beacause there is a big lack of global datas about all differents markets.

    For example, I think a game like LOL make a lot more impact on the game market than the number of new games on steam. Same for Minecraft or WoW.

    But I agree the most of the article.

    By the way, I think what the gaming industry need is how to share the success, not bigger PR/Marketing plan. There is enough customer for so many game, what can kill us is the 3party operator, like paiements, PR, advertisement, etc. All these ppl who want to live without producing nothing for games.

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  56. I feel like Steam opening the floodgates to any indie game that can get a few thousand votes was a bad thing. Before Greenlight, you could be reasonably sure that a game on Steam was quality, or at least playable. Now the market's flooded with crap and a large number of games that I wouldn't play even if they were freeware.

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    1. Are there any alternatives to Steam ? I always admired Jeff for his selfpublishing business, as well as the Torchlight guys.

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  57. I think that the ''problem'' is deeper than what you are implying. You are looking at the problem from an economic standpoint. I would like the gold rush to stop. In my humble opinion, it is not always a good thing to earn your income from an art form. You are right, the ecosystem of indie games right now is unsustainable. Is it really a bad thing? In my opinion, a lot of those new developers are after money more than anything else, that inevitably translate into thei games. If they are doing it out of passion only, why would they NEED to be paid? I know it is time consuming. As a music artist, I understand that you sometimes feels like your work should be recognized by other people. At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself why YOU continue doing it. I think that if the answer is money, you will never be satisfied. If the answer is something else, you will probably be able to reach that goal, no matter what. Even if there is a definite amount of Y developpers and X gamers.

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    1. I think Jean-Michel has hit on an important point.

      As much as I think this indie boom has been good for gamers and developers alike, it has its downsides as well. Indie always has been about those games that are make by average joes and released for free. Weird little games that have no possibility of ever being commercialised and bigger games made by professional-amateurs which possibly could be profited from but are still released for free. I don't mean to put down those who have gone commercial, but they (who are sometimes called Mindies) are not the core of what makes indie indie. Art can never be fully abstracted away from the average working person and still hold any meaning.

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    2. That is the reason why after several years of publishing small free games, I'm starting to publish free mobile games (ad "supported") before going to try the Computer commercial market; See if there is people that like the kind of game I'm doing (an original kind of adventure/simulator), and look if there is place to me in the X, Y, Z place. The indie bubble is popping in part, in my opinion, 'cause 50% of the games are unoriginal. A customer can have problems to decide between 50 AAA+indie games of the same type... But niche games, like the blog's author here.. Is another thing.

      PS: Kerbal Space Program. One of my TOP 50 games ever played (at least with mods)...

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  58. I buy bundles like crazy and usually only play maybe one game per bundle if I even have time. I don't think we're going to have a big 1983 style crash, but I do see that the center cannot hold.

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  59. i want to make a point regarding this part:

    "You can talk all you want about how mean Steam was to you, or how much "discoverability" is a problem, or about how important it is for developers to go to GDC or the PAX Indie Warren or to cool game jams or whatever. It's all a distraction.

    X dollars, Y developers. That's all that matters.

    And if X stays constant, the only way to solve the problem is for Y to go down. I'll give you a second to work out the consequences of that for yourself."

    this is true, but remember that there is no such thing as the 'indie game market'. there's the market of videogames. if indies continue to take away a larger and larger share of AAA game profits, then, at least for a time, we can add more and more indie game developers and have the same rough percentage of them succeeding and making a living.

    AAA games are in decline, and have been since around 2005. by decline i don't mean they are selling less, i mean they are selling less as a proportion of all videogame sales. that share is being taken up by indie/mobile/casual/f2p games. the indie-mobile-casual-f2p segment of videogames has been growing. that's why there are more indie game developers now than there were 10 or 20 years ago: because there is more *demand* for indie game developers. supply and demand work both ways here.

    however, i do agree with you about bundles being a problem. i don't see any problem with your analysis there. the only problem i see is the x developers y money issue -- you are assuming there that 'indie games' are the market, when 'games in general' are the market. and if you reduce the share of that market that AAA games have, which is still an enormous share, you can increase the share that indies have.

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  60. I think the Indie developers that come out on top, are the ones that enjoy creating the games first, and enjoy the money second. That way they usually win. They're passionate enough about their game that it becomes something great, yet if it wasn't a success, they still enjoyed the journey. Maybe it doesn't put food on the table, but at least they did what they loved.

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  61. Here are my two solutions.
    1) Subscribing to developers (like YouTube)
    2) Kill icons

    Tell what you think
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    ReplyDelete
  62. I started agreeing with the article, then suddenly I didn't.

    It just doesn't seem to me that X money, Y developers is valid. Youa re basically suggesting that the whole crowd of gamers have a certain amount of money that they will spend just for the sake of spending it in whatever they find.

    I don't know about you but I only spend money when I want something. If there is nothing I want, then I don't spend. You can put me in an ocean of crap games and I'm not gonna buy a single one. I don't have to spend my X money for the sake of spending it.

    More games for me just means more options to choose from and the real good ones will get more money, and the lesser ones won't.

    You know what this means? It means that now developers have to make good games to make a living. They can no longer make whatever and be cool with it. This whole thing balances itself. The good ones will survive while all the "excess" developers you are talking about will disappear.

    If your game is really good it doesn't need sales or bundles or whatever. Have you ever seen Minecraft on any of those?

    The "colapse" of the indie market it's just that excess being discarded. The good ones will prevail while the "horde" of average joe's wither and dies while new average joe's appear to bolster their ranks.

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    1. If only it was that easy, then all good games would sell, and all the crap wouldn't. There is a ton of good games, games with heart and soul, that go unnoticed, buried under the flood of mediocrity.

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    2. Emme73, It's not just about the game being good, it has to be what the majority feel like playing and talking about too.

      Sometimes people get sick of a genre, or time period, or graphics style, or story format, and switch onto some other type of game for a while.

      The beauty of digital games markets is that your game can generally be sold for years, maybe even decades, and so your good games do eventually surface, or resurface, as people look for something that fits what they feel like playing.

      Game success depends on both the efforts of the developer, and the acceptance of the audience. Blaming other games isn't the solution for when the audience feels like playing something else.

      Delete
  63. Hey, good read. I don't really agree with your outlook though; the 'indie bubble is bursting'.

    Your first point, with Steam releasing so many games – that is true, but how many of those games are indie titles? How many of them new? Steam has certainly had an issue of re-releasing old titles the past year and a half, and bad mobile ports, but new indie titles themselves? They aren't the ones swamping Steam; decade old hidden object games and obscure titles like 'Lil Devil' from 1994 are. No one is mistaking these for new, nor indie; just pap. And no one buys them because there was never an audience for them on Steam to begin with.

    Greenlight itself is a bit of an issue, with so much utter rubbish to sift through; this is one of the reasons why Steam is no doubt axing it. It's not a functioning publication system. Titles without a legitimate audience simply don't get through the process, which is why there are hundreds and hundreds of titles just sitting there, whilst the games that do gain an audience – and in turn are usually promoted by those 'best of Greenlight' lists at the bottom of the page, maintained by the likes of PC Gamer, Indie DB, etc – gain traction and get through. The real issue of Greenlight is the scam games, where people rig the system via voting bots in hopes they will get titles like 'Air Control' up on Steam and dupe a few customers to make a profit. This doesn't really work though considering Steam users aren't stupid, rally together and root out such things with the aid of allies like Total Biscuit and Jim Sterling, they're often only on the store long enough to maybe make $20. Considering listing yourself on Greenlight in the first place costs $100, it's not a tactic that even really works, which is why not many attempt it. Besides, games may be 'Greenlit' a lot, but that means nothing; out of the near thousand of games that have gone through, how many exactly ended up on Steam? How many titles got to the stage where the dev posted it on Steam? Probably far less than half, and most of them aren't releasing at the same time either, or we would indeed see a great many indies flooding Steam. And we're not.

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    1. Which is kinda what I'm getting at with those two paragraphs; indies really *aren't* flooding Steam, nor any digital distribution service really – the closest that would come to that is Desura or Indie Go Go, but they pretty much specialise in indie games, so what could you expect? There is a lot more competition these days on the market, but that should be expected with the ease of creating games these days. I don't think it's too the point that games get drowned out, lost, even on Steam with its issue of being flooded by games.

      I feel your maths are kind of wrong, too; you're ignoring the fact that those dollars are variable. People pick and choose games to buy based on taste; money is not equally distributed throughout the realm of gaming. Some of those studios never had the chance to get that money because that studio's product simply didn't appeal to them, whilst another did something that caught that person's interest. It's like that throughout the games industry, indie or not – you might hate Battlefield 4, but buy Far Cry 3 because, whilst both shooters, one of those titles offered you something that the other didn't. Battlefield didn't miss out because there were too many devs. It missed out because one of those titles appealed to me more. All that aside, you're also ignoring the fact that people are still entering the market as gamers – either kids getting old enough to play games, or people trying them for the first time/first time in a long time. The industry is not so large and old that it's at some constant; we're approaching what could be a stable loop of gamers (some dying, some coming in), but even then, those people entering the market are all new customers anyway; they don't own all the games. That X Constant is basically refreshing itself due to this fact, perhaps with diminishing returns as a game ages, but refreshing nontheless – for example, I wasn't old enough to get Dungeon Keeper back in the day, but own it now. You can't 'solve' the games industry with that sort of static math.

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    2. That same principle, taste, is an important thing to consider for the games industry, and is also why those games flooding Steam and rigging Greenlight are ignored at best. The chaff gets seperated from the wheat; the bad titles get mocked, ignored, or quietly released then basically shunned by consumers. The good titles gain consumers, if not a small following. That's how it is in any industry, gaming or no; people don't go for inferior products if a competitor provides a better one at the same price. Some people do perhaps use these poorer titles to judge 'indie' games by, and perhaps attempt to give 'indies' a bad name, but really, indie isn't a genre, it's a description of the publisher's size; indie games can be absolutely anything genre wise. Judging all indie titles based on one developer's efforts is like hating all gaming companies efforts because of Kalypso. No sane person does that, which is why people who talk about indies being rubbish are generally ignored because you can't assume a large portion of an industry like that.

      I can see your point with visibility, but again, the sort of people who generally buy indie titles aren't static statistics, nor perhaps even as typical consumers. PC Gamers research. They look up things on the web. Word of mouth is incredibly important, and good titles do become known from nothing, and then journalists discover these titles and boost their renown if they find them interesting enough, but even when this doesn't happen it doesn't mean a game will nessecarily remain obscure if it's good enough. Word of mouth is definatly important to getting your game out there, I feel. For example, I'm a fan of Superheros: The Greatest Cape from Greydog Software; they make some amazing simulation games with anything from Superheroes to Wrestling. Very indepth, a lot of options. Me just mentioning them here, in a long comment on a blog like this, has probably gotten them some interest from those who just read that. A few google searches, perhaps a purchase - Perhaps a year or two later, another person reading this may get interested, look them up, and end up buying on of their titles then too. Or several. Consider the fact I discovered this blog due to an article on PC Gamer; I already own most of your titles, but those that don't, well, I bet you got a few sales out of that simple association. And sometimes it can be as simple as that.

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    3. For larger marketing efforts, you do of course rely on larger efforts, as you said with entering bundles and that. Word of mouth is important, and you need it, but you need other ways of marketing too. That's common sense. But people who do things like that do tend to get interest in their titles; the only reason I could see that failing is if, to be blunt, their games aren't of good quality, or just don't appeal to that particular consumers taste. Or they already own that title and are more than aware of the developer. People dicover new things all the time, as that fire of word of mouth burns throughout the net, and marketing strategies definatly add wood to that.

      For companies that have $500k - $2m budgets, there's places like Kickstarter to turn to, fundraising campaigns to run; use that word of mouth and marketing! Consumers aren't, especially these days, averse to giving developers money to help fund their ambitions so long as that developer provides constant updates and shows the public what is going on. Perhaps provide a demo after a while. This is why things like Early Access on Steam can potentially work really well, or be reviled; it's really on the developer to give back to those that give to them in order to keep up a sense of good will. Consumers are too jaded by those who have intentionally wrought the system before; it may be unfair, but you do need to work for their trust, but can gain it with those examples of good well fairly easily. If those aren't options for some reason then yes, that company should cut back a bit on expenses. It's obviously become larger beyond its means. Cutting back doesn't nessecarily mean a worse game, but if you can't afford to make that title, you do need to revise the budget until it does become viable, or make a side project to help fund it. Or, worst comes to worst, work in conjuntion with a larger games company and lose that 'indie' badge if the game is important enough. That may not be what you wanted to hear, but you're entirely right – the middle is a rough place to be.

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    4. I also agree with your interpretation of the Steam situation, but they're axing Greenlight and starting to throttle game releases because they realise they've made it too easy to get on Steam. Thier brand suffered for it; it may sound harsh, but there's probably a reason you got that golden ticket, but your friend didn't. There was probably an issue with quality, or they didn't think it marketable; the latter is fixable, but the first can only be improved on with time. In that situation it was probably for the best they didn't get on Steam, because now you see what it's like when anyone pretty much can, well...The Free Market is a good idea, but more for the internet in general than a particular store front. The people behind Steam are great, but they can't please everyone, so them deciding that once again the customer comes first with the re-indtroduction of curation is probably a good thing. Some games, as harsh as it sounds, aren't worth being on their store. There's no interest in them and nothing is gained from it; when they accepted games back in the day, they usually stuck to games that had hype, a following, or they could see the quality in.

      Perhaps Humble Bundle is doing the same; opening the floodgates and allowing anything in, perhaps in an effort to genuinely help game devs get their games out.

      This all kind of brings me to my point, really, and it's kind of a harsh one; I wouldn't say the 'Indie Bubble' is popping, it's more that there's a lot of shitty games out there due to how easy it is to make them these days, and well meaning good samaritans like Steam and the Humble folks are helping out people they wouldn't of in the past, and pretty much for good reason. A lot of those games are just rubbish. Made in two weeks on whatever cheap games engine they could find, and slapped up overpriced. Titles with a $5 quality charging at $10-$15 prices because profit. This goes back to my wheat and chaff comparison; the good games don't die, and they do make it because consumers discover and recognise their quality, but the bad ones, or the overtly derivitive ones? Made not to entertain, not to provide new experiences, but to make a quick buck. They die like they should, along with the companies that made them.

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    5. It also doesn't help that it takes a lot less time to make a rubbish game than a good one; they come out quicker because the dev simply doesn't care, and thus in the time a Transistor comes out, you have a dozen Air Controls. Most get clogged up in Greenlight on Steam; the desperate ones rig it to get through and make that $20 before Steam removes it from the store. If anything has changed, it's the mindset of the majority who make indie titles; more devs just want to get rich than make something worth your time, and that number is growing with the ease of game creation and the ease of access to store fronts they probably shouldn't have.

      I consider you saying that your own sales have slowed down, and I for one love your games, so am sad to hear that. They are of great quality. But at the same time, it doesn't surprise me - a lot of your efforts are years old; your latest attempts are remaking the first of the Avernum series with slightly better graphics and a mobile port of one of your older titles. These are games many have experienced, and they have been out for years – you can't possibly be surprised that older games aren't selling like they used to, even if they are great/fun or in bundles on sale. The fact you're continuing to make sales at all is because of that refreshing X variable from before, and the continuing spread of word of mouth/recognition. Don't get me wrong, I love your games, especially the Avernum and Geneforge series – but the reason your sales are slowing is because you haven't made new experiences for a fair while, not because of industry saturation. RPGs have always been oversaturated, indie devs or not, but you're not exactly competing with Laxius Force for sales, are you? You have to be on a level playing field for someone to be a competitor, and your rich world blows that rubbish out of the water.

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    6. The 'indie bubble' itself isn't bursting (and tbh, isn't a bubble in my mind – that's like saying the entire games industry is a bubble because indies are just companies like any other if perhaps on a smaller budget), but a lot of soap scum around the side that has collected around it the past few years - lazy, cash hungry devs who make utter pap - are starting to realise they aren't making money because, lo and behold, people don't just throw money at things they don't think is worth their time. Again, taste. There's a reason companies like yours are still making money, whilst others aren't; and the reason you yourself aren't making more is because you haven't made anything new in a while. That's it.

      As you yourself said, 'as long as companies keep making top quality work to reasonable schedual, they'll be fine'. That is so very true. The innovators, the studios that provide games that have something to new to impart on the player that hasn't been done a million times before, or are plain just good quality and fun to play? Those games, those companies, will survive and make it. The ones that don't put effort in, copy, and offer not even an enjoyable experience? Why *should* they survive?

      I'm not an indie dev or anything, just a consumer. One who is hopeful that this indie scene, providing genres and gameplay that have been ignored by the mainstream publishers, survives. But that's what I think.

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    7. *Get Games Go, not Indie Go Go. Sorry about the long and numerous blog posts, but there is a 4k character limit per post, apparently, and I guess felt I needed all of it to express my point. Sorry. Good luck with your company though; the Avernum and Geneforge series are some of the most enjoyable RPGs I've ever played. :)

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  64. You're right. You shouldn't have posted this, because it's completely obvious and irrelevant. "supply and demand kicks in" is wrong. It didn't kick in. It's always been at work. The demand was high, so the supply increased. Now the market is saturated, so the supply will drop back down again. It will eventually reach an equilibrium with enough developers earning enough to stay in business and supplying enough games to satisfy the demand. It will probably be another oligopoly of AAA developers, so the indie scene is likely to make a resurgence eventually. A lot of people will go hungry in this process but...welcome to capitalism. Trying to impose restrictions and barriers to entry is a short-term solution, but in the end it only harms the customer. This cycle will probably continue ad infinitum or until we find an alternative to capitalism that actually works.

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  65. "... the supply will drop back down again."

    I'm not too sure about that. I believe that as long as people think that they can "make it big" in indie development the number of developers will increase. It's not about the facts but the possibilities of winning, pretty much like the lottery. Few winners (hit titles), lots of participants (developers). It's especially true when we consider that releasing is becoming easier and faster each year. The flood of bad titles will probably continue to flush the good titles for a while.

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  66. Jeff,

    As a lifelong gamer, I've been sensing everything you've written in this article over the past 2 years approximately. I remember thinking that Steam allowing it's community such freedom is both great and perhaps damning. I also really appreciated the way that The Humble Indie Bundles gave gamers, developers, and even charity a chance to benefit across the board, but I also remember that moment when I started thinking that the plethora of bundles that spawned because of Humbe's success flooded and diluted the effectiveness of both buying from and being a developer who sells within these bundles. Developers, and even gamers, became spoiled - for lack of a better word - and within a short period of time. I have to agree that while things may appear alright on the surface right now, the current system and the overabundance of games available is just too much, even for avid and enthusiastic gamers.

    As a final note, and perhaps the only positive I can think of, if you're looking for a really great niche game I highly recommend that anyone who reads this check out an unassuming but extremely worthwhile little title called "The Occult Chronicles" developed by Cryptic Comet. It's a unique, atmospheric, and complex Roguelike / Strategy / Boardgame (for a single player) and it is one of those games that probably didn't sell very well, but definitely deserves to be played by gamers who love games. Jeff, I encourage you to check it out if you haven't already. And no, I am not affiliated with Cryptic Comet or the devs in any way. I just appreciate great games and I also believe in helping the little guy, but most importantly, I think it's a game that thoughful gamers will appreciate. This is the type of game that deserves to get noticed, but never does. I'm just trying to end my comment in a positive way by doing my best to at least help out one struggling indie developer. Hopefully others will get the opportunity to enjoy this game as much as I have over the past few months.

    After reading all of my comment it sounds like I'm trying to plug a game, but that wasn't my intention, I read the entire article and all of the comments, and I agree with Jeff completely. The current system cannot sustain itself indefinitely, and it will certainly collapse at a faster rate than the music industry did. Developers have a very rocky road ahead, particularly those "mid-level" developers or small studios that Jeff was talking about.

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  67. The article is correct as long as it considers game development as something that is supposed to put food on the table for all eternity for the participants.

    However, if you also consider it to be a learning experience, then it suddenly stops being a problem:
    - Those who succeed, those who make it into the big league and make millions, they are OK.
    - And those who fail despite having a good product? They can then apply for a position in any other project-oriented industry, use the game to demonstrate what they could do and what they learned the hard way ("without marketing, I couldn't get the game to sell"), and they will get a better, stable job which pays well.

    Furthermore, developing a game, especially programming it, is not that different from programming anything else - you still need to break the task into smaller ones, then find algorithms that solve the individual challenges. Combine it with the time pressure generated by "I don't know if I have enough money for next month's rent!" and you realize you have great programmers who can work well under pressure and are creative enough to tackle big challenges --> IT career, here I come!

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    1. If when you say "any other project oriented industry" you mean things like the game industry, such as applying for contractual work, then it isn't a stable job. Not in North America at least. It might pay well, for a while, but that type of job certainly isn't stable. Currently there is more stability to be found working at a fastfood joint, or a major retailer. Sad, but also true. The jobs that pay the least right now, are also the most stable and secure - and I'm not saying that as a point of gloating or shared wisdom, I'm just saying it based on the facts and given the current state of affairs.

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  68. I think sometimes indie gaming sites are lazy though, which propels the attention to older, more established companies (FTL is a good game but its old news, folks).

    After I did a submission run with my last 2 games at 27 different indie gaming sites, I got exactly 1 response. One. Glancing at their front page at the articles, for the most part they were platform stuff or re-reviewing older titles that have come and gone, or the latest whining from some avant-garde indie developer who decided to quit because of the "pressure" (Phil Fish, Flappy Bird guy, whatever).

    I mean, gosh, I think my products at least look decent enough to warrant a download and a glance, but for the most part, not a nibble. If the name isn't familiar or it isn't on the front page of a bundle or featured on the front page of Steam, don't even bother. Fairness personified.

    I think the lack of effort and a fair shake given developers hurts the industry and keeps the cream from even having a chance to rise to the top.

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  69. Jeff,

    I'm not a developer of indie games or anything of that matter. I'm more or less a consumer. I also had no idea that it was difficult to make it in the Indie world.

    What I do know as consumer is this! Only games that have uniqueness catch my attention even at my age of 24 now. While I use Steam, the last purchase I made on it was for Might and Magic X, and wow was that a fun game.

    And you're right, I don't go searching for games ( Indie included) if a game is not posted as an article on the steam main page.

    I'm just a sample from the pool of consumers though.
    I would like to sum up with these final comments which are sort of related.

    I remember buying a 500+ game CD way back in 98 or 99 and I saw some of the Exile series there (I was 10 or 11 at the time). I guess you could call the 500+ game CD the pre-cursor to the humble-bundles or concept of free marketing.

    Of all the games on that CD that caught my eye was your Exile series. I remember saving up my allowance to purchase them and I'll never forget traveling to the Tower of Magi and spending hours of time on your games. I loved them so much. I even shared them with my group of friends and I know a few of them purchased the games too.

    Your games shaped my tastes, styles, and had a large influence on my vocabulary along with my imagination. Your games spoiled me at a young age and thats what I look for in games.

    While its unrelated, Thank you for creating the Exile series. I remember talking to my friends about it many times during recess.

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  70. I don't even think the issue is X dollars. A single full price console game can buy several indie games, and plenty of full-price console games are sold.

    The problem is that there is only T-time to play games in a day. Time maxes out for kids or young teens, but school, exams, meatspace socializing, career, family all steadily whittle down that time.

    When you start hitting gamers with jobs, children, and additional education to the side, time starts becoming almost unimaginably precious.

    It's an itch that AAA shooters and rogue-likes scratch with exacting precision because at some point, games just don't have time to spend on any gaming experience that drags in the slightest

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  71. funny post.
    Can I contact you through email address?

    Please email me back.

    Thanks!
    Kevin
    kevincollins1011 gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  72. Fantastic article. My game dev business is very much like yours. Niche, small team, fairly successful. I, too, have noticed a huge hit to sales over the past year or so. In 2009, I could do no wrong. My games were hits. Now I do all that I can to make a buck. It's starting to feel like real work!

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  73. The true element is: You can't keep a good game from selling, and you can even ask for a decent price..

    A level of quality and content (anything from Don't Starve to DoomRL) basically ensure that your game will not fail.

    Games like 'Gravity Badgers' and a thousand other "games" drive me insane :|

    You can't tell me that, as a small child, you hoped you'd grow up to make a 2-hour-long coin-collecting game starring a chicken that wears sunglasses and rocket boots.

    I've always wanted to make my own game, and the main reason was to be able to bring together the best elements from several games into a single experience (the overall "goal" being infinite and endless play)..

    So it boggles my mind that so many games are being made that are absolute trash.. They took effort and care to make, I suppose, but more often than not I end up playing long enough to identify what game they're borrowing the play from and determine if it offers more than the original.. If it doesn't, its just another game with 15 minutes or less time played on it to sit and reek in my Steam library :)

    And in this last GameInformer there was finally an article about the multiplayer boom along with the fact that almost all ISPs are capping internet. I don't touch multiplayer games at all because the only service here has a 10gb cap, and has special caps in place that limit Steam and streaming data :| I think the worst thing a dev can do is make a multiplayer-only game without at least using the multiplayer content to provide /any/ single-player mode.. I also auto-reject games with even slightly evasive paid content :>

    Another thing I'd generally avoid if I made my own game would be a core storyline.. I've seen too many games mocked and ignored due to terrible voice acting or awful/predictable storytelling. Unless you know (KNOW!!) you can craft a touching or otherwise meaningful story, I'd skip it :> Content and gameplay are king, and a failed story leaves a glaring spot for people to pick at while taking away from time that could have been spent adding more entertaining activities..

    I could probably list 50 games that are more than 20 years old that either have no "remake" version yet or had a remake that was awful, but either way would still sell like mad today :| Uni-Racers :) Maniac Mansion (NES!), Guardian Legend (NES!), Soul Blazer (SNES!), Super Black Bass (SNES!), EVO The Search for Eden (SNES!), River City Ransom (NES, and it is currently getting a remake that looks like it may be decent..), SimAnt (SNES!), StarTropics (NES), Adventure Island series (NES), Spy vs Spy (NES), Blaster Master (NES), Little Nemo: Dream Master (NES), Arcana (SNES), Castlevania Symphony of the Night (PS1, may not meet the age requirement, but still!), Caveman Games (NES), Tail of the Sun (PS1), Shadowgate (NES) is getting its remake finally..

    I'M DONE! That list is amazing, and with proper faith to the original game each and every one of them would sell if remade :) And if you haven't played most of the games in that list, you should check them out as quickly as possible to get in touch with the ancient roots of good gaming..

    email is thanatopsis_6 @t yahoo, if I can pick your message out of the piles of "GOOD DEALS ON GOLD ROLX WATC8ES!" ;)

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  74. Issues surrounding Steaming service rigs can never be over analysed. The constantly changing fashionable take on Steaming service rigs demonstrates the depth of the subject. While it has been acknowledged that it has an important part to play in the development of man, Steaming service rigs is not given the credit if deserves for inspiring many of the worlds famous painters.

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