Fatal Fallacies of Indie Game Development

Let’s cut the bullshit. It’s time to abandon ship, and it’s because of misleading, uninformed wordvomit like this that no one is even wearing their life jacket. According to the aforementioned article, indie developers shouldn’t stop trying, because all we have to do is “make a good product and do what you can to get your voice heard.” The author believes that “we are not heading into a crash and anyone who says to [sic] is fearmongering.” I beg to differ, and I think it’s about time we start being afraid.

It’s all well and good to make nice things, but adults can’t afford to do that if they fail to monetize their products. (Last time I checked, Twitter favorites are not an accepted form of currency.) There are several reasons why it is so difficult (if possible at all) to make money with indie games, and everyone seems to gloss over them. Perhaps it is out of naivete, or maybe everyone is just fooling themselves, but these fallacies need to be rectified lest we all continue to waste our lives toiling away at passion projects with no profit potential.

Fallacy #1: The cream rises to the top

Quality and success can be, and often are, mutually exclusive. It’s a common belief in the indie gaming community (whatever that is) that “the best tend to rise through the ranks thanks to curation and a social community that ranks the best,” but this is just wishful thinking. The pervasion of the 7-10 scale has made game reviews unreliable and essentially useless to the consumer, while the tight-knit nature of the indie community produces reviewers that are afraid to tell the honest truth. Developers themselves are partially to blame, as they inevitably are networking or “reaching out” with their own interests in mind. It’s common courtesy for developers to upvote and reply to comments in /r/gamedev’s Screenshot Saturday about games that they like, but I frequently find threads with dozens of comments and only a small handful of upvotes, with developers hoping that soliciting votes with empty praise will increase the visibility of their own posts. This does not strike me as particularly supportive or productive.

Everyday I come across a dozen new projects that I haven’t heard of, all of at least an acceptable quality, all clearly destined for monetary failure. As an outsider, one cannot know if good products are being overlooked because they aren’t getting attention, and in as saturated of a market as we currently are in, it’s nearly impossible for players to find what they want simply by chance. One would imagine that it would be the responsibility of the marketplace to keep clones at bay and help to bring original, quality products to their consumers, but this just isn’t the case. Clones sell as well or better than their source material, and as long as gold continues to line Apple’s pockets, they can’t be bothered to care on whose back their money is made. Since being exploited by big-budget pseudo-indies and poisoned by knackered old ideas that wouldn’t have cut it with a publisher and just aren’t very promising, Kickstarter is on its way out too. With the standard of presentation for a successful Kickstarter campaign at an all time high, the cost of a viable campaign is so astronomical that it’s hardly worth the risk of failure. In any marketplace, Kickstarter or otherwise, if you don’t get featured, you're fucked.

Fallacy #2: Media mentions matter

Even if you do happen to get endorsed on a marketplace or a media outlet, it is absolutely no guarantee of success, especially in the long term. Runaway successes like Angry Birds are the outlier here, while most developers who get featured find themselves with a brief spike followed by a sharp drop into the dreaded long tail. Even as a one or two-person team, the monetary and opportunity costs to develop a game are steep, and these 15 minutes of fame often aren’t enough to recoup that, let alone bring a profit that pays the bills. The traffic from these situational anomalies doesn’t seem to funnel much into other ventures, either, so don’t rely on that as your monetization scheme. Many developers report little or no rise in downloads at all from media mentions, particularly from smaller venues, while a significant time investment is usually necessary to even have a chance at one.

Even for developers with previous successes, the notoriety does not always translate into success in other game development spheres. Kenny and Teddy Lee of Cellar Door Games, makers of Rogue Legacy, failed miserably in their attempts to monetize in the mobile marketplace. Even after a successful run in the flash game community, they “didn’t make up the cost of the $100 license that was required to release on the app store.” For the vast majority of indie developers, experienced or otherwise, this is the unfortunate reality of the current market.

Fallacy #3: The more accessibility, the better

The Internet is great and all, but it’s a simple matter of supply and demand—the number of games on the market far outweighs the demand for them, so consumers have begun to expect the product for free (or so cheap it might as well be free). While it’s true that “we can pull up a review in seconds, view clips on YouTube, and download a demo of the game” instead of having to drive to a store and put down a wad of cash for something we may or may not like, in the absence of alternative monetization methods, contemporary pricing structures just aren’t sustainable. Furthermore, F2P, executed in any unexploitative way, doesn’t end with money in the developer’s pocket. Something’s gotta give.

As someone who works with indie developers and entrepreneurs on a daily basis, who has also been in their shoes, it breaks my heart to take their money knowing that their games will, more than likely, be nothing more than a loss all-around. At least if everyone keeps saying that “we're in a great era for indie gaming”, I won’t have anything to worry about. I wish I could say the same for them.

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