Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Writing Indie Games Is Like Being a Musician. In the Bad Way.

"Our game is called Mystik Spiral. It is an indie interactive aggression about the evils of conformist corporate culture. Coming on Steam for Windows and Mac and as an XBox One console exclusive."

Over the last couple years, I've gotten a fair amount of attention for my articles about the Indie Bubble and the Indie Glut.  (And even a GDC talk.)

Quick version of indie gaming history: In 2010 or so, due to a combination of factors (AAA creative stagnation, better development tools, better online stores to sell on), indie games caught on in a big way and made a ton of money. For a short time, getting the Golden Ticket and landing a game on Steam was guaranteed big cash. This was the "Indie Bubble" phase.

People who wanted to write a video game (i.e. everyone) saw this and went, "Hey, I wanna get rich following my dreams too!" There was a big pile-on. MANY indie games became available, more than anyone actually wanted. This was the "Indie Glut" phase.

At last, I can complete the trilogy of articles. Now we can look around and see where we've ended up, a phase which I suspect will be permanent. (At least until the Earth gets hit by a large solar flare and we get to start over.)

You can't deal with this business without grasping its fundamental reality. So it's worth wallowing in this topic one more time. A proper understanding of reality will help us process a lot of otherwise perplexing issues (like Apple or Steam charging devs to have games on their store, or the ever-present "discoverability problem).

To see where we are, let's talk about a long-standing rite of passage for young creative types: Starting a band.

I think this would be really funny if I knew anything at all about music. Can someone translate it into a Guitar Hero chart for me? I think it means I have to learn how to play the orange notes.

The Story of Being a Musician

For decades, many young, enthusiastic, creative people have worked through their dreams, energy, and youthful ambition by forming bands.

Why not? It's takes a fair amount of technical and artistic aptitude to learn an instrument, write songs, get gigs, press a CD, etc., so it's a good sponge to soak up excess ambition and energy. But it's not a prohibitive amount of energy, so just about anyone can start a band.

Usually, this band is a reaction against corporate pop culture. "Screw your plastic, AAA, mass-produced, soulless Katy Perry crap! We're going to create real art." This is an entirely worthwhile goal, even if it fails 99.999% of the time.

Of course, most bands die. After all, most bands are terrible. Even if they aren't, people grow older. They lose their energy. Their dreams die. Life intervenes. They get jobs as insurance adjusters or whatever. Their demo CDs get stuck in the attic, forgotten, and then they have kids. Who start their own bands.

Not everyone gives up, though. A tiny handful of bands, through a combination of skill, connections, and luck, become actual successes and make careers out of it. Other musicians make a living as freelancers or working in a business environment (studio musicians, corporate gigs, etc). Others, the damned souls, trapped between a lack of talent and an inability to quit, live long (looooong) lives as failed musicians.

Most quit (or do art as a hobby). This is ok. The world needs plumbers far more than it needs musicians.

But the hard inexorable math of the thing is this: There are far more people who want to make a living as a musician (actor, writer, dancer) then there are paying jobs they can occupy.

There comes a time when you have to face this. Disney movies and La La Land lied to you. There is a point where refusing to give up makes you stop being an admirable young spitfire and start being a cautionary tale.

Anyway, this is the basic cycle of the thing. For the last few decades, younger people with a certain amount of talent, energy, and time could soak all that into starting a band. A few prospered. The rest went on to other things.

The current location on Steam of the New Releases chart. (Artist's conception.)

You Probably Figured Out Where This Is Going

Getting together with some friends and writing a game is the new Starting a Band. I'm not saying this is going to happen. It already has.

Plenty has been written about the flood of games appearing on Steam. As I write this, 125 in the last week alone. More games than anyone wants, that's for sure. That's why Steam has made it very difficult to see all new releases. Let's be honest. Almost nobody cares to drink from this firehose.

Don't believe me? Check it out yourself!

It is very instructive to look at these new releases, which is why the site What's On Steam, which just shows all new releases, is useful. Take a look. New titles appear FAST. Most of them will bomb, and their creators will vanish from the public view forever.

Here’s a fun trick. Write down the most recent 10 Steam games released. Wait a month. Check their sales on SteamSpy. (Bear in mind you need a few sales to appear on SteamSpy at all.) You will see very few games that get any traction. Each of their creators is just another kid who started a band (and there's nothing wrong with that).

There's no need anymore to predict the endgame for the video game glut. It's happened. We're living it. Bands haven't gone away. There's still a billion of them. People making lots of video games won't go away. There'll always be a billion of them, offering their hot take of the procedurally generated Roguelike 2-D platformer (now in VR!!!!!).

This is why "Indiepocalypse" is such a useless term. Other fields have exactly the same situation, but nobody talks about the Musicianpocalypse or the Actorpocalypse or the Writerpocalypse. It's just part of life.

This is the new normal. So, if you are one of the doomed souls who is determined to make a living in this business, you must figure out how to deal with it.

Fun business tip! When you start seeing articles like this, you've already missed the boat.

Curation Won't Make a Difference

Here's what gets me about the situation. Often, when people talk about the flood of games on Steam, they act like it's mostly trash and Steam should just curate most of it away.

I wrote a whole article’s worth of stuff in this section, but this post is already stupid long, so I chopped it out to post on its own. I’ll bullet point it for you:

1. Steam doesn’t want to curate. They hate it.
2. Even if they did curate, at least half of the stuff would remain, because it’s good enough. It’d still be a flood.
3. A fee to get on Steam won’t change anything any more than the fee to get on iTunes did. In other words, not at all.
4. Steam and iTunes don’t have a discoverability problem. They and their customers are doing great. Developers are the ones who have the problem. Nyeah.

College Degrees In Game Development

Colleges are, for all practical purposes, businesses. They charge a fee and provide a product (your degree). Like good, practical businessmen, when they saw video games get hot, they jumped forward and generously offered to give you, in return for over $100K USD of post-tax money, a piece of paper that claims you know how to make them.

I've written about college video game degrees before. I don't have much more to add to that, except to say you shouldn't get one without being realistic about your chances.

You might have a lifelong career in video games. Hey, anything's possible. But video games are an artistic field. Writing a successful video game is HARD (like becoming a full-time musician), and a huge portion of the field burns out of it before they hit middle age.

Want a degree in video games? Fine. But you may want to approach it like getting a college degree in, say, playing the trombone. You might be one of the ones who makes it, but you'd damned well better have a solid Plan B.

Steam tried to get me to pay full price for an indie game. My face when.

Global Competition!

The competition in the vidya gaems biz is going to get even more gruesome. Development is starting to become far more of a global activity. This will mean not only more titles to fight, but more downward price pressure.

The Law of Supply and Demand already tells us that when there is a glut of supply (games) and roughly constant demand, prices will be pushed inexorably downward. (Which explains deep discount Steam sales and Humble Bundle.) I've sadly watched indie devs plaintively asking their fellows to join them in trying to keep prices high, only to see those efforts get ground to dust by the inexorable gears of Economics 101.

(Though I would note that if your business model requires Price Fixing to survive, it may be a bit flawed.)

But prices will get even lower, because you will increasingly compete against developers in the third world. Having a hard time competing now? Wait until you’re fighting someone in a country with 1/10 the cost of living of yours. Someone who can charge $1 USD a copy and still make out great.

Yeah. However pessimistic you were feeling about your game's chances before, it's even worse than that.

So What Does It Take To Succeed?

A really good game that feels fresh and new and is solid and also manages to, through going viral or really good PR work, get attention. Sometimes bands still get rich. So can you.

You just need to watch for those rare opportunities to make a game that says, "It's Like [Popular Thing], but [Some Small Change]." in a new way. "It's like Harvest Moon, but 16-bit." "It's like Minecraft, but 2-D." "It's like a JRPG, but with bullet hell shooter combat." “It’s like Huniepop, but more Huniepop.”

There will always be ways to get rich. All you have to do is be brilliant, spot the right opportunity at the right time, have at least a little luck, and then make an amazing product.

This is all getting depressing, so, to cheer you up, I added a picture of an adorable doggo.

My Grim Future

When the Indie Bubble happened, I made a bunch of money. More than I deserved. And then I saved it. I'd been around long enough to see both booms and busts, and I knew you had to save during the former to prepare for the latter.

But the games business for small developers (and if you are an indie developer who didn't write Minecraft, you are a small developer) is in a bust phase that won't end. So now I'm asking myself, "How am I, between new games and remastering old ones, going to stretch Spiderweb Software for 20 years and reach retirement."

It's scary. I don't know if I can do it. Our newest game, Avadon 3, didn't do that well. I think it's a really good game, and the people who bought it seem to like it. But there are new RPGs coming out on Steam every single workday, some of them are good, and you can only hold off so much competition before being overwhelmed.

Next year, I am going to write an all new game engine and series. I think it's going to be really neat and different from what I've done before, and I'm excited about it. But I'll tell you this: Its development is going to be LEAN AND MEAN.

I'm using as little custom art and music as I can. (Working title is "Unity Asset Store: The Game.") Any way I can cut costs and still maintain a constant art style and game quality, I will take it, and I won't apologize. This market doesn't allow for blowing money unnecessarily anymore, at least not for me.

If you criticize me for that, feel free. It's your right. I'll just think of the developers who, during the Indie Bubble, flush with easy Steam money, made fun of my development style TO MY FACE. Developers who are sadly no longer in business. While I keep plugging along in my humble little bottom feeder way.

My goal is to prove you can live an entire fulfilling career writing indie games. From college to old age, all the way through. I'm over halfway there. But man, the next two decades are looking like a long road.

I'm Done Writing About This

This blog has been focused on the indie business for the last few years, and I'm mostly done with that topic. I believe we are in a stable phase now, so there isn't much else to say. I think that most gamers don't actually care. They don't care about business stuff. They just want to talk about games and how awesome they are.

I write this blog to get attention for myself, because it's really hard for a small developer to get attention. From here on, I want to write outrageous funny things about games in the hope that I get a little attention and something goes viral and I pick up a handful of customers along the way.

Good luck to everyone in this business. Unless you're directly competing with me, in which case I wish you luck in some other business.

And if you want to make a living in games and need some advice, here it is: Write a VR game. It's TOTALLY going to be the NEXT BIG THING and not a faddish washout AT ALL.

---

All of our delightful retro RPGS are out on Steam. I occasionally mutter on Twitter.

58 comments:

  1. There's huge parallels with the black-and-white comics boom that hit in the 80s after the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Mostly books published by amateurs (largely using money earmarked for college!) that failed completely. At least for Valve, the product's digital so they're not stuck with unsellable physical merchandise.

    See if this article sounds familiar to you: http://www.misterkitty.org/extras/stupidcovers/stupidcomics121.html

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  3. I agree, Matt. You have to build a business that sells games, that is in it for the long haul. You can't just make games. Long term relationships with customers is important, as is having a point of view that is valuable and that you can articulate to your customers.

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  4. You say there is not discoverability problem for the players, but it's not true. Yes, there are a lot RPGs released on Steam almost every day. The problem is, RPG is a very segmented genre. Most of those releases are of no interest to the large portion of "RPG gamers", but of a very high interest to the rest.

    I DON'T want my Steam releases list littered with JRPGs which I never play, and I only ever want to see an Action RPG there if it satisfies some criteria I can't even formulate properly. Yet because it is impossible to configure Steam properly, I always fear that I might miss an interesting game, and so I am forced to switch to "all new releases" and wade through the hell.

    Am I alone in this? No. Read r/Steam on reddit - there are a lot of complaints about filtering. But filtering by simple things like tags is dangerous. What if a game with a perfect story that I would fall in love with is marred by real-time combat I hate, but it can mostly be avoided or switched to "Easy" mode? What if... Aargh! And let's not forget that while Steam is the king, not every game is on Steam. Do I miss a good game every month or so because it's not there? It's another thing for a player to worry about!

    And that's just talking about PC releases. The situation in mobile stores is MUCH worse.

    Sites like RPGWatch help, but they are not omniscient, and they can only notify you about upcoming games, but can't make recommendations.

    Actually, music has the same problem. I don't listen to modern mainstream music (what can be compared to AAA and "AAA-indies"). But I know there are bands out there who play music I like. I just have no idea how to find them! Randomly stumbling about YouTube helps, but only a little, and Last.fm recommendations suck big time. Sure, sometimes a friend can make a good recommendation, but it's a rare case. For example, one of my new favourite bands is a little Austrian outfit called "Marina & The Katz". If not for a lucky tip from a friend, I would have missed them, and all the pleasure their songs bring to me. What a disaster!

    So, yes, discoverability is a problem for both the creators and the consumers, and it's a big one. Is there any way to solve it? I don't know, as a programmer, I bet on automatic personalized recommendation systems, but so far they don't seem to work too well (though I GoodReads recommendations for books with some good success).

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  5. I've been playing your games and loving them since 1997. Agree with everything you said!

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  6. Can't tell if the last paragraph is sarcastic

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    Replies
    1. Totally NOT sarcastic, AT ALL.

      (I'm not sure either, but I think it is :)

      Delete
  7. Thanks for the article, it was a good read. And more importantly, thanks for Exile. All of them. Especially Blades. <3

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  8. Ancient complimentary article that negates nothing of what is said here. With the decade late addendum: "Touring bands are also hard work with low survival rates. And lots of roadies."

    http://www.lostgarden.com/2005/10/game-business-model-learning-from.html

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  9. I'm sorry to hear Avadon 3 didn't do so well. I'm not surprised. The opening was boring. I didn't buy it. I bought Nethergate: Resurrection instead. Cue massive tangent:

    As someone who has thought a lot about what makes a story successful, what I've concluded is that, generally, relatability = success.

    Avernum was relatable. Your character is victimised by an evil empire simply for being different. That's a premise everyone, especially nerds who play video games, can immediately relate to. Because of that, winning the game becomes very personal: it becomes a way to live out your ultimate fantasy of standing up to those who victimise you for being different. Of course Avernum was successful. It put you in the role of Luke from Star Wars or Harry Potter. That premise is the reason your company exists today, and why people such as myself love Avernum so much, whether we realise it or not.

    Avadon didn't have any of that. Everyone is sceptical about any form of entertainment that doesn't hold you captive like a movie. You need a good premise and a good teaser or people will just find something else to do. Avadon 2 had that – not as good as Avernum, granted, but it was still good. You were a newbie at something (relatable) and you lost a friend (relatable) and the scenario where that stuff was showcased was exciting. Avadon 1 didn't have that. Avadon 3 *really* didn't have that. Those two games had no relatable premise. They had no way in for (what is essentially in the case of your games) the reader. There was never a personal connection to the player, and thus no emotional attachment.

    Avadon 2 was a great game, but I don't love it to death like I do Avernum, and I think that opinion holds true for everyone. That's my opinion on why.

    I have no idea if any of this is relevant. It probably isn't. But eh.

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    2. The market place being so large, there's a demographic for everything. I found Avadon incredibly easy to relate to with it's disgruntled employees, the boss who wants too much, and having just enough power and leverage to make people miserable for not playing by the rules. Having characters whisked away to some far off corner of the world to solve an incredibly large problem beyond their training and skill with little to no guidance often had me thinking, "Yeah. This is my life." Granted, that's not why I continued to purchase the Avadon series. I purchased it out of a combination of brand loyalty and a general like for story-rich role-playing games.

      As a role-playing game, the basics of Avadon aren't unique. Like many role-playing game, the players greedily acquire power and riches and when they have enough, they violently destroy the opposing force that goes against their better judgement. Avadon was refreshing in that it scrubbed away the veneer of the goody two shoes taking a stand and told a story of power and the terrible, and cruel, choices that were needed to acquire it. That's not a story that's told too often in most games yet, and I appreciated the change.

      Delete
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  11. >"I'll just think of the developers who, during the Indie Bubble, flush with easy Steam money, made fun of my development style TO MY FACE. Developers who are sadly no longer in business."

    I'm just starting out (Don't worry, I'm not your direct competitor / catering to a different genre), but this really surprised me. So there were actually successful Steam developers who no longer exist? All along I thought "Man, those people who got on in 2010-2013 are so lucky". That they would have taken the opportunity to build a massive warchest and grab mindshare so that they would still be the only relevant games in town when the floodgates opened.

    Wow, this means its even more brutal.

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  12. Your analogy with forming a band is brilliant; it really helps to illuminate just how ubiquitous making games has become among creative people, for better and for worse. Thanks for consistently shedding light on the gaming world!

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  17. Being unique is really important. I was put off avadon because it didn't sound unique. I will play them eventually, but it is last on my list of spiderweb games. It's funny, every other day I read threads about how concepts are neglected. Why are there no aztec RPGs, or Hindu rpgs. Etc. To be unique doesn't seem that difficult, but to be unique in a way that draws attention is. I think the easiest way at the moment is simply to take something that is exclusive to consoles and make a version for PC. That's what stardew valley did, that's what dauntless is doing. Or recreate a cult hit ala undertale. I look forward to your new IP and inevitable geneforge remakes. Geneforge was your most unique work and did it really well.

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  25. I think it’s justifiable to steer people away from almost any industry. I wouldn’t recommend a game development career any less than I would recommend a career in air traffic control, due to the high washout rate. Nor would I recommend Airline Pilot to anyone, because of the low pay and high chances of layoff. It’s tough in any industry because we are competing with everybody else.

    I think one can have a successful business the game development industry as long as they are realistic about it. New indie devs aren’t making 100k+ per year on Steam like they used to, just like a new Italian restaurant doesn’t get booked solid during its first year of existence. To make it in games, you need a good game idea, a niche market, and a website. Start small, put in your time, and build a following. Don’t hire anybody. Have a real job on the side.

    I think people have this idea that something magical is supposed to happen during launch week (where you either make it, or you don’t).

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  43. "Someone who can charge $1 USD a copy and still make out great."

    People in america have sold games for $1 USD and made out great.

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  44. Would it help to have demos again? Playing a third of the way through Exile 3 umpteen times, I had to buy it eventually because I had to complete it. But there weren't many videogames back then.
    Also it could be helpful to have exclusitivity? Release a game on your website a few weeks before Steam/GOG and send a newsletter announcement to your e-mail subscribers?
    I don't know if these ideas would help.

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