Is There Really an Indie Bubble?

Is There Really an Indie Bubble?

Discoverability is waning as more and more developers "go indie," but creators maintain optimism despite challenges.

For all that digital storefronts have done to make it easier to sell a game without a big publisher attached, it's remarkable how poorly they've scaled to deal with the ever-expanding glut of games launching these days.

Discoverability on the iOS App Store is especially painful, making it difficult to stumble upon anything that hasn't been featured or isn't already a hit, and Steam's once-coveted feature slots have multiplied in number and change more quickly, notably lessening their value. As more and more developers launch their games—large and small, free and paid alike—finding an audience has become one of the biggest challenges they face.

And it's only bound to get worse. That's one of the main reasons why developer Jeff Vogel took to his blog last month with a lengthy screed entitled, "The Indie Bubble is Popping." Many of his points have been discussed quietly amongst developers for some time, but the man behind 20-year-old studio Spiderweb Software (Avadon 2: The Corruption) brought a lot of the concerns to the forefront with his post, which spread quickly and elicited responses from game makers large and small.

"The problem is too many games," Vogel stated plainly. "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." His post spans player economics, the competition for free marketing, and the dangers of low-priced bundles diminishing the perception of the value of games.

"Indie gaming started out as games written with passion for people who embraced and loved them," Vogel asserted. "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."

Unexpectedly, E3 proved an ideal place this year to try and take the temperature of indie developers on the subject, thanks to the IndieCade Showcase—a welcome oasis amidst the AAA madness—and the ever-expanding indie focus by the likes of Sony and Microsoft. Between show floor interviews and others conducted via email, I aimed to find some consensus across a selection of Vogel's peers.

Their confident response, by and large: "What bubble?"

Gamers gather at Indiecade during E3 2014. Photo by Andrew Hayward.

Poking Holes

It's not a response borne of ignorance—willful or otherwise—but rather one made by informed and experienced indies that find the "bubble" branding awkward, if not incorrect.

"The indie bubble to me is this very weird concept of the idea that indie survives based purely on economics or because of economics, and the point raised is very valid: there are more games than ever, and it is more accessible to make games than ever, so there will be more creators," says Rami Ismail, business and development at Vlambeer (Luftrausers).

Indeed, games are flooding the various storefronts at an amazing rate, whether it's totally new games, re-releases of past efforts that were once hard to come by, or ports from other platforms. That's due in part to the fact that development tools are easier to use and freely available in many instances, self-publishing is a relative piece of cake on many platforms, and there's no shortage of talent excited about making video games for a living.

"Thousands of game design students are graduating from school every year. Large companies go out of business, and then splinter off and form indie companies," says Dave Gilbert, founder of The Shivah developer Wadjet Eye Games, citing examples on how the market has expanded so rapidly. "The field has become really big, really fast. There are just so many games coming out now that it's much harder to get noticed, especially for a new developer."

"'Bubble' very closely to me matches the idea of startup culture, or specific business models falling apart, whereas I think that indie as a whole is more than a business model." — Rami Ismail

Ismail—who was on-hand at E3 demoing Nuclear Throne at Sony's booth—is one of the most outspoken and outgoing leaders in the indie scene, having given talks around the world and developed marketing tools like presskit() for others to use freely. He concedes that when he and partner Jan Willem Nijman began Vlambeer in 2010, there was much less competition in the non-AAA segment of the industry, and discoverability wasn't as big of an issue.

"It is very, very hard to get your footing if you're starting now as an independent studio. But I don't think that means that there's a bubble, or that it's popping," explains Ismail. "'Bubble' very closely to me matches the idea of startup culture, or specific business models falling apart, whereas I think that indie as a whole is more than a business model."

No doubt, there are game developers driven more by the pursuit of profit than artistic value—but for those making particularly intimate or daring experiences, it's no surprise that having their efforts described as if it were just part of a common, cyclical business trend makes them bristle at such a notion.

"I'm not a huge fan of talking about 'bubbles' in terms of art and entertainment or any creative field really. I don't get it," admits Greg Wohlwend, creator of Hundreds and designer of Threes and Ridiculous Fishing. "Bubbles happen when the involved delude themselves. If you're worried about a bubble bursting and things seem too good to be true (or they were a while ago), I don't really know what to tell you. Look inward. Why were you so safe? Was that completely good? Bursting bubbles upset investors and stock markets, not artists."

"I don't think it has anything to do with a bubble popping," affirms Alex Jaffe, data scientist and designer at Road Not Taken developer, Spry Fox. "It's sort of the opposite, right? It's not that people are losing interest in indie games, or that there's some inflated fad about them. I think that we're really doing something that people care about, right?"

Race to the Bubble

While not a believer in the concept that there's a bubble for indie games on the whole, Threes creator Asher Vollmer (who showed his new game Close Castles at the IndieCade booth) does think there's a smaller, more specific bubble of opportunistic developers capitalizing with clones and cynical free-to-play titles—the latter of which he refers to as "basically slot machine casino development."

"A lot of new developers are rushing in, and they're like, 'Oh, the indie scene's a way to make money.' And they're flooding the market with clones and terrible things, and annoying, awful, stupid games," says Vollmer. "They're like, 'This game made money—let's just do that.' So I think that's a bubble that's going to burst, because everyone's going to realize that this is not lucrative and it's actually hurting us. I think there will be a small, little pop."

But he sees it as the kind of pop that will clear away not only such opportunistic developers, but also some of the players that feed on such cynical, free-to-play junk—perhaps the kind of players who scoff at the notion of a game being anything but free. "It should be normal to pay for games," says Eline Muijres, producer at Dutch studio Game Oven. That ought to be such a clear-cut, obvious statement; yet the "race to the bottom" on mobile storefronts in particular has diminished the perceived value of games.

Bounden is the latest title from Game Oven, and the inventive iOS game finds two players simultaneously holding a single iPhone, and the motions they're prompted to execute in concert effectively make them perform dance moves. Muijres and game designer Adriaan de Jongh danced with all manner of E3 attendees (including the mayor of a nearby city) at the IndieCade Showcase booth during the three-day event, and even some enthusiastic reactions were muted by the game's staggering App Store price: $3.99.

"A lot of new developers are rushing in, and they're like, 'Oh, the indie scene's a way to make money.' And they're flooding the market with clones and terrible things, and annoying, awful, stupid games." — Asher Vollmer

"It's definitely worth a lot—it should be like, probably two dollars," de Jongh recalls one interested player saying. His reaction: "Two dollars? What the hell, right?" Sadly, that's the perception created by the mobile free-to-play rush, and Vogel's concern about developers participating in bundles and selling their games for a pittance to raise awareness seems to follow a similar trajectory.

"Bundles can be great. If you have an older game that isn't bringing in much money anymore, putting it in a bundle is a wonderful way to generate some extra cash from it. Key word being 'older,'" asserts Gilbert. "I am a firm believer in that newer games should have more value. Have sales and discounts, certainly, but don't start selling it for pennies. The more developers that do that, the more it just devalues all games as a whole."

If anything, the rush towards low-priced bundles seems to be one potential solution towards fixing discoverability issues amidst the ever-growing pile of new game releases, but as high-profile bundles multiply in number and increase in visibility, it feels like a short-term fix—a bandage that has the potential to sting once it's torn away, the buzz fades, and the reality of how little you've earned from each copy sold really sinks in.

Make Your Case

Vollmer says that getting your game noticed is "easily the hardest part of game development nowadays," and a similar sentiment was echoed by everyone I spoke with. "If anything, what you're seeing is too many good games. That's really what it looks like to me," says Jaffe, pointing out his surroundings at the IndieCade booth. "I guess I look at it like a good problem. Yeah, you have to distinguish yourself more, but it sort of raises the stakes for everybody. Everybody needs to up their game, and I think a little bit of competition is healthy. So I'm excited about it."

Game Oven already makes wholly unique titles, whether it's Bounden or sensual two-player touchscreen puzzler Fingle, so if anyone knows about dreaming up and executing really distinctive game ideas, it's them. But getting that across to prospective players is about much more than simply making an original game, dropping it out into the world, and expecting everyone to flock to and fawn over it. Developers need to be able to explain what makes their game fresh and fantastic.

"Know what is unique about your game. Like, write 100 things down that are interesting about your game," says Muijres. Adds de Jongh, "If you can't come up with 100 things, then maybe it's going to be difficult to sell your game. On one hand, your game definitely has to be good. But on the other hand, you need to be talking about it a lot. And those two things need to be upped for the entire industry right now."

Part of the appeal of being an indie developer and working with a small team is the ability to experiment with new ways of reaching and interacting with audiences, as well as adapting to changes in the market—after all, they don't have the lumbering baggage of a massive corporation moving along with every maneuver. The limited scale of most indie operations allows them to recognize new opportunities and try to capitalize on them quickly; and if it doesn't work out, so be it.

For Vlambeer, Ismail says that embracing the live streaming and Let's Play community for Nuclear Throne has lent the game—which is available via Steam Early Access—a big momentum boost. As viewer numbers surge, it allows certain segments of the audience to better connect with a game and potentially also the creators, and it's something that they recognized early on in development and have benefitted from as the game approaches its official, full release.

"As indies, we really feel being adaptable is the most important thing we can do," affirms Ismail. "And I think indie as a whole is adaptable. Indie as a whole is a big thing, but we're all small, nimble, lean studios that can make a decision and just implement it."

Do it Anyway

There's no denying the fact that it's becoming very tough for indie developers to cut through the noise, get their great games into the hands of many players, and build a successful business off of it. Amazing, original games will at times continue to be overlooked, while rote, lazy clones will rake in the cash. It's not a perfect world. But if you make something you love and share your passion with the public, there's potential benefit. And if not, at least you created something meaningful—which might not be much consolation to anyone making a go at game development as a career.

"It's sad, because I would love there to be a world in which everybody could make a game and succeed with it, but that's not how this works, I guess," concedes Ismail. "I think what is important is that you can still make games because you're passionate about it. That's what indie stands for, for me. You can make a game because you love to make that game, and if it's good, then maybe you'll earn money. And if it's not, then maybe you won't."

"The variables in our artistic medium eclipse literature, music, and all forms of visual art and animation put together. There aren't many creative limits, which makes it the problem of whoever is relying on the market, not those who are evolving it." - Greg Wohlwend

In the face of that daunting challenge, some may equate idealism in this arena with ignorance of the issues ahead and the difficult road for newcomers. However, compared to Vogel's largely pessimistic post, Wohlwend's response is utterly optimistic and comes off as a heartfelt synthesis of the indie ethos.

"There are many billions of potential videogames that have yet to be made in a way that is easier than ever," he begins. "The variables in our artistic medium eclipse literature, music, and all forms of visual art and animation put together. There aren't many creative limits, which makes it the problem of whoever is relying on the market, not those who are evolving it."

"Yes, more people than ever are making videogames. Yes, it's harder to get people to pay attention to your game because of this. But more people making games is a way better thing for video games than a relative handful staying still in some happy middling of financial security," Wohlwend asserts. "Does that even exist? Is there some safe place I should know about? Where is this bubble? Regardless, a wider net means more people, hopefully more women and people of color, and it also means you can't get fed sticking to the status quo. Get weird. Get personal. Go exploring! Things will get even more indie!"

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