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The State of the Indie World

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Hi all,

I've been meaning to write this post for a while, but I didn't know exactly how.

I have commentary that has been slowly forming on my opinion of the indie game industry for a while, and it has finally reached a breaking point.

Hopefully some here will find my opinions thought provoking, and I'm sure many will find them inflamatory and some maybe even ignorant.


Before Indie Game Development

From talking with many contemporary indie developers and fans, it seems there may be some warped idea about the history of indie game development.

It usually goes something like this:

"So there was Darwinia and Braid and Minecraft oh and Fez and that Super Meat Boy guy, that is when indie game development started."

But this isn't the case at all...

I might refer to that era as roughly the XBox360 era of indies; and many people think that is when indie game development started, but in reality I think that is when things started to go down hill, dramatically.


As far as I remember however "indie" game development only became a thing around the time that Gish was released.

You remember Gish right, that game with graphics by Edmund McMillen? yeah the guy who did super meat boy...

Gish seems to be the first time I really started to hear about "indie" game developers... before that you were an 'independent' game developer.

I hail from this time before time, starting out around 1996, and getting serious in 2001; and I'm here to explain what it was like back then.


The Independent Game Developer Era

Sounds kinda old doesn't it?

Back then unless you were a AAA game development company nobody took you seriously; the idea of internet distribution of games was very new; and your goal in life was to be even a little bit as popular as AAA games of the day.

"But Raymond!" I hear you say... "That is what we still do today!"

No you don't. Today your competition is other indies, indies have become a market unto themselves, and are filled with blood sucking parasites as much as the AAA games industry is.

People who are out to make games, but mostly make SALES.

"Well, aren't we out here to make sales? Isn't that the point?"

No, that is not the point...

The point is to produce awesome games that you like to write and people like to play.... I'll say that again.

Your goal as an indie developer is to develop GAMES YOU LIKE TO WRITE, and that PEOPLE WANT TO PLAY.

"So we can sell them, right!?"

No..., you sell games, because you deserve to be paid for use of the product you created.

But the goal is not to be paid, it is a side-effect.

"This doesn't sound like sound business advice..."

If I just wanted a cash generating cow, I wouldn't be making games... games are sacred; like writing, you do it because you love it!


Now where was I, oh right...

Indie Games Today

Today the situation we have, is a saturation, an overpopulation of people using freely availiable, easy to use tools, to produce whatever they can, to generate enough money to put them on easy street.

...and keep in mind they have vastly lowered the bar of what 'easy street' is, in order to compete....

99 cent apps, humble bundles, all designed to attract many and flood the market to gain as much cash as possible.

meanwhile we hear stories of indies being happy as ever that they lived on the poverty line, busted their ass and made 20 grand a year. (ala dustforce)

To make matters worse, we have conscripted the player in many instances into beliving they can pay to fund various games and 'stick it to the publishers' using Kickstarter.

But what many backers don't realize is they are paying for risk, and not neccesarily reward.


In Closing

As with any goldrush or cash grab scenario, you need to be vigilient to maintain your own personal code of ethics and conduct between your company and your players.

Too many indies I meet these days are too concerned with how they can make the most money, the fastest with the least amount of effort and accountability.

Fankly, I've never been and will never be a part of that, or of that mindset. I brushed close to it after our third game was released, and found that all the will to create was slowly drainging from me.

When all you care about is how to make a big payday are you really an independent developer anymore?
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Per my article, folks may be confused as to what kind of "indie" i'm talking about.

Here is a prime example:

Barret Meeker of http://www.luckypause.com/ raised 26,000 dollars on Kickstarter.

This is what he had to say in reference to tactics of overuse of 'black friday' and 'pre-sale' of games where no scarcity would be anticipated.

"I'm an indie dev and I'll be trying to 'milk' my game as much as possible, because the more money I can make off of it the more likely I can make a second game, the more likely I can make a second game without doing kickstarter again, the more likely I can keep making my own games as a career. Steam sales are all about milking your game and they offer a lot of guidance on pricing and sales etc. to help you do that."

 

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Here are some thoughts: 

 

I don't know if I agree with your definition of an indie developer. My understanding of what you write is that you see two types of indies: the real ones and then others who are masquerading while being greedy at heart. I think this distinction is a bit too harsh. My view on that matter is that there are many developers and artists who are moving around in the business of making games. Sometimes working for larger studios and sometimes working for smaller ones. Sometimes they are working for free. 
 
Still, it seems that there has been a huge surge of cash pouring into the market of small games. Small games have traditionally been the territory of small game developers, such as indies. As developers and artists have seen that there is money to be made from small projects, lot's of people are claiming a part of the pie. It's a classical gold rush. Also bigger studios and publishers want's a part of it. 
 
I think the profit margins of these small games are shrinking. The large segments of players will be catered by the big studios, who can affort marketing and such. In this sense I think you are right. Big money has grabbed something (a market segment) that once belonged to small developers and hobbyists. One particular aspect of this makes me a bit angry sometimes. The big titles want to keep players and sometimes ship editors with the games, even though there is no possibility for players/content makers to earn money from their efforts. This makes me feel the big studios have grabbed the indie flag and are now using it as a marketing tool. One part of me likes it while another makes me feel cheated, as I'm doing work for the game company for free.
 
As for the future of the "indie stage": I think there are now there are now more players, more easy to use tools, more content and more platforms to develop on then ever. Even though this current gold rush will end and there might be a app-bubble popping, I think the indie stage will be more prosperous then ever before.

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Thanks for your commentary mippy.

 

When the 'indie' flag got big, I was very happy, it felt as if we, collectively had won a spot of power alongside big publishers.

But now that the 'indie' scene has matured, there is a very different sentiment I find.  Many developers have abandoned the spirit of truly being beholden to no one, and instead fight tooth and nail for, XBox indie space, steam greenlight space, app store prominence, and recently Kickstarter funding.

When you talk to thee indies they often have all the same unsavory tactic of any big publisher rep you might hope to meet.

 

And they are flying under the indipendent gamer flag.

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Could you link to the exact LuckyPause.com article? I can't find what you are referring to - you just linked to the entire website. On twitter, I thought you were linking to the posts about the copyright dispute when you said, "The slimy underbelly of of modern indie game developers".

 

Also... uh, why are you calling out an individual by name? That seems rather harsh if you're actually trying to comment on the state of the indie culture.

 

It's almost like you're saying all AAA publishers are evil jerks, and all indies are selfless artists, and that you are surprised that some rather unknown indie I never heard about is trying to run a business and *gasp* chose an artistic industry to start his business in. Is Louise Comfort Tiffany not an artist, just because he was also running a business?

 

If you really look into the famous indie developers - our mascots and 'heroes', alot of them are messed up people. We're all imperfect in some way or another - so I'm not quite getting your point. If you link to the article you are commenting on, perhaps it'd be clearer to me.

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Servant of the Lord

It's not an article, it was a quote said directly by Barret in an indie game development group on Facebook.

I've called it out by name because it was said by name, in a manner where he seemed perfectly 'OK' to do whatever is required to sell as many units as possible.

You misunderstand, I don't think all AAA publishers are evil jerks; but they are certainly beholden to sales and profits above, pretty much all else.

And I am saying that many modern indies are acting this way as well.

I'm also not stating any love for.. famous indie developers; on the contrary, I feel that indie development is best captured by those not beholden to sales and not famous.

My post however is not commentary on one single article; it is commentary on my recent experience with the industry notably from 2008 to date.


For further reading I'd suggest browsing the climate of Indie game development groups on facebook; it's a lot more sickening than what is normally posted on GameDev.net; this community is still pretty wholesome on the whole.

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Hi everyone, this is Barrett Meeker, the guy Raymond mentions in the above comment.  I just want to make it clear that he took my statement completely out of context.  Raymond said in a discussion thread that putting a game on sale at particular times was "trying to milk an existing concept just trying to generate attention thus more sales, is slimy."  I responded using his word "milk" sarcastically, but I guess he didn't understand that.  

I was trying to make the point that a developer trying to make as much sales money from the sale of their game as possible isn't "milking" anything.  At least for me, I am hoping to make enough from the sale of my first game that I can continue to make games in the future.  I love making games and would be thrilled to be able to continue to do so in the future.  Doing what you love is not mutually exclusive from making a living.  I too would be happy to live in a utopian society where nobody needed to earn money to live on, but since we don't, I am working to make a living doing what I love.  Indeed, I wish that everyone is able to do that.

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This of course after being asked to remove said content and finding that futile; instead he joins the community just now, downvotes each post and tries to spin an ideal tale.  Guess he doesn't wan't the kickstarter backers seeing this in google searches.

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I think there is something to be said for Indies and their innovation - those games that truly are good are what shine and be successful. Look at Minecraft - millions of units sold, because it's one of the widest known (almost pure) sandbox game. The way the player is immersed in the world feels great, and how the game can be manipulated to create huge adventure maps, mini-games, huge mods, etc, just makes the game that much better.

 

This is what I feel Indie development really is. What people call Indie now is.. really just big business, on a small level. Business as usual. Get out as much as we can and sell it as fast as we can so we can fill our wallets. Those games are the ones that are force fed and make the market what it is today. It's just too hard to sift through everything for the actual gems. You occasionally see games pop up on Kickstarter that really do look awesome, and you know that just by listening to what the Devs say, and just how much they've already created, that the game will be awesome and will make an impact. Castle Story generated almost 9 times what they were asking for, and the game really looks like I could sink days of gameplay into it.

 

I feel gameplay innovation is spurred by the real Indie developers out there - those that do this because it's a dream, a passion, an obsession. And what are games without gameplay? Where would we be today without the indie developers who are fueling that innovation?

 

Essentially what I'm saying is that the world of Indie development as it's seen today is filled with garbage. I don't really call those games. I call those products. Something that's marketed because it won't sell otherwise. True Games are those things that market themselves - a friend of a friend of a friend played it and wasn't seen for a week because he got all of his friends and their friends into it.

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"Something that's marketed because it won't sell otherwise."

 

dat' unbridled truth!

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Without transparency - if we can only say nice things about them - how can the bad players be driven out? It is perfectly possible for bad guys to dominate an industry -- think finance, military, government, publishing, social media, 'apps', and now indie games. With equity crowdfunding coming next year, it's going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

 

In retrospect, Raymond could have told us specifically what makes Lucky Pause an example of the above, without naming names... on the other hand, doing so has exposed Mr Meeker's vindictive side. He's running spin all over the place, working back channels, getting negative comments removed. Now I notice stuff like "Joy Autumn... recently has been falsely claiming that we don't have the right to use her music anymore." Why the disparaging tone? Why not tell her sorry, it was a misunderstanding, if you really don't want us to use your music then we won't...? Mr Meeker, I believe you have a double standard!

 

Without tools like Unity, indie developers never had TIME to engage in this kind of nonsense. Now you can grab some 3D content libraries, do a little modeling, make a pretty picture, a trailer video... snarf some music from Soundcloud... put it on Kickstarter, work some hype, and get money. If you ever deliver, it'll be a cookie-cutter product, just another 3D sim. This is very discouraging to folks like me. I've spent my whole life on programming (and art and music) only to discover that superficial bullshit is what sells, and my hard-earned skills are seemingly worthless in this industry. Welcome to the new Gilded Age.

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No..., you sell games, because you deserve to be paid for use of the product you created

 

It is always the case in the free market.

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Tom Novelli, I've spent my whole life making 3D art, these too have been hard-earned skills.  I don't see how the possibility of my success harms you in any way, or why I wouldn't deserve success just as much as you or any other video game developer that has worked hard on their craft and on their game.  

 
I am not spinning anything, I never had any negative comments removed.  I have been 100% open and honest this entire time.  I don't even know what back channels there are to "work."  And regarding the copyright dispute, she has no case, our videos were rightfully restored and we then chose to change the music to no longer promote her.  We aren't even using her music anymore.  
 
Tom, you honestly just sound really bitter, I think all of the great tools out there like Unity are fantastic.  I'm sorry you feel like your own skills are worthless.  I don't think attacking other people will make you feel any better.
 
 

 

Without transparency - if we can only say nice things about them - how can the bad players be driven out? It is perfectly possible for bad guys to dominate an industry -- think finance, military, government, publishing, social media, 'apps', and now indie games. With equity crowdfunding coming next year, it's going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

 

In retrospect, Raymond could have told us specifically what makes Lucky Pause an example of the above, without naming names... on the other hand, doing so has exposed Mr Meeker's vindictive side. He's running spin all over the place, working back channels, getting negative comments removed. Now I notice stuff like "Joy Autumn... recently has been falsely claiming that we don't have the right to use her music anymore." Why the disparaging tone? Why not tell her sorry, it was a misunderstanding, if you really don't want us to use your music then we won't...? Mr Meeker, I believe you have a double standard!

 

Without tools like Unity, indie developers never had TIME to engage in this kind of nonsense. Now you can grab some 3D content libraries, do a little modeling, make a pretty picture, a trailer video... snarf some music from Soundcloud... put it on Kickstarter, work some hype, and get money. If you ever deliver, it'll be a cookie-cutter product, just another 3D sim. This is very discouraging to folks like me. I've spent my whole life on programming (and art and music) only to discover that superficial bullshit is what sells, and my hard-earned skills are seemingly worthless in this industry. Welcome to the new Gilded Age.

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Barrett, you alone are not the problem, it's the tools and climate that favor the superficial. It's the mania that gives you 26 grand up front based on your AAA cred without any solo gamedev track record at all. Sorry to make an example of you in particular, though. I don't know you. I can only guess that you're in over your head on the programming side (like some other artist-led projects I know) and maybe you don't even realize that your "control the message" PR strategy is not cool... you are just antagonizing the wrong kind of people :D

 

Want to see a blatant example of 'indie slime'? I just noticed that one of the headliners in the latest bundle-which-shall-not-be-named is a sleazy pay-to-win game... talk about milking it. Milking kids. Deplorable.

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Anyway, let's not dwell on Barrett and his possible motivations... those details will probably come out over the next year or so. Meanwhile, what do we know? 1) People are using canned game engines, and 2) Certain people like Schafer and Schilling have used their fame to obtain funding and exposure. These shortcuts to 'success' are feeding the gold-rush mentality, causing an unusual proportion of developers to act like douchebags.

 

The big question is, can we foresee how all the repercussions will play out? And, how can you get through this chaos if you're a programmer? artist? new blood? old guard?

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C is not a game engine. Neither is OpenGL or .NET or Qt. But you cross a line into canned gameplay when you use Unity, Unreal, Box2D, etc. Then it requires a determined act of will to rise above the ocean of crap (including all the uninspired AAA titles which still have you completely outclassed in terms of visual content). If you're a good programmer it's actually less work to throw away the canned engines and roll your own. No you probably won't make a 3D game for Ludum Dare that way but that's irrelevant.

 

And BTW, I think a good programmer does need enough Assembly experience to have an intuitive feel for the performance limitations of fundamental algorithms, and the sense not to use Assembly in their games!

 

Re: sales, freebies, bundles, app stores... The problem isn't making money, it's that all these moneygrubbers have made it impossible to make more than $2 an hour except by slapping together cookie-cutter games using engines and gimmicks. Cheap crap from China indies! These moneygrubbing assholes have ruined it for the rest of us.

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"After all, it's not like we can have the government regulate the industry so that people can only produce and purchase "good" games using difficult-to-use tools and processes to preserve some kind of mythical purity. "

"I think we can all, every one of us, agree that people shouldn't act like assholes for any reason."

>First states not trying to adhere to mythical standard of purity.
>Then suggests adhering to mythical standard of purity.

Wait, wat?

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"After all, it's not like we can have the government regulate the industry so that people can only produce and purchase "good" games using difficult-to-use tools and processes to preserve some kind of mythical purity. "

"I think we can all, every one of us, agree that people shouldn't act like assholes for any reason."

>First states not trying to adhere to mythical standard of purity.


Eliminating Unity and other tools that supposedly make games too easy to make is the "mythical standard of purity". Your OP, and the posts of others, want to make out process-simplification tools like Unity as some kind of villains that are destroying the industry, and that is just ridiculous.

>Then suggests adhering to mythical standard of purity.

Wait, wat?


Expecting people to not act like assholes isn't suggesting some kind of mythical standard. It's a pretty reasonable expectation to make, unless you want to be a jaded and cynical person all the time. Not sure what's so confusing about that...

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Suppose I can weigh in on this one, since I have feelings on both sides of the fence.

 

1) I too feel that the industry ( not just indies ) has taken a turn for the worse. I do not think the people of old ( game developers ) were anymore reasonable or noble than the ones we have now. Honestly, they just didnt know how to make the money like they do now. So, has the expansion and ease to obtain powerful game making tools made the market worse? Meh, I think it only amplified the problem. The real issue is the people who continue to buy it. Shitty game developers wouldnt be making millions if we, the people, didnt let them. Sadly, todays target market is 13 year olds who have no real voice and only care for NEW NEW NEW! Mommy and daddy do not want to deal with the crying kid so they give them whatever they want so long as it doesnt cost them an arm and a leg. Can you fault the developers for preying on this? not really. Is it wrong to some degree? sure, if that is what you believe, but as many have already stated in business there is a very small line that defines what is wrong and what makes money.

 

2) I think EDI's original point was that he was disgusted with how shit developers are able to make a decent pay off of slapping something together. He used meeker as an example and quoted some of the things he said. Whether those had any validity or were taken out of context is really here nor there. I can no more prove what he meant than I can make the sun rise and fall at my will. ( hm.. i can do that in my game so maybe i can!! AHAHA j/k ) I have to agree on the point that it makes me sick to see simple games making so much money. I have put hours and hours into make RuinValor something unique and fresh, only to see another cookie cuter game come out and make millions. It makes me question "Why even bother making something fresh and new when all I have to do is making x and y and sell it 13 year olds to win!". JTip make a great point... at some point you have to say, "is this business or just and art form". Often, what makes money is not what pleases you mentally/spiritually. Often we must find that line and make some sacrifices so that what we do make provides us with both. Very rarely do we get to make what we want and have people love us for it! That includes throwing money at you for it! In most cases some of the finest art we know of today was only ever really appreciated until the artist was dead.

 

3) So what is the point? Do new tools that make game making easier create a shittier market? Should we hate those people who attempt to exploit a flawed and exploitable system? For me, I can say that I hate those who do exploit the system but I do not judge them for what they do. I, personally, will not lower myself to that standard despite know that I could fairly easily do so. Does this mean that I might miss out on making an easy million? Perhaps, but at least I know that when and if I ever do make it big I will have done it the right way. ( consider the use of the word "right" is subjective in this sense and I am only speaking from my perspective. I fully realize that somebody with a different viewpoint could consider making the $$$$ as being right and that having a sense of morality as being the poor choice ) Lastly, the market certainly has taken a turn for the worse, but it is up to use to maintain our composure and continue to make quality games. It might be the less appealing road but it is certainly the more rewarding.

 

As for meeker, I think this could be a great lesson in PR. Sadly, people will take what we say out of context for almost any and all reasons. This is why most companies do not allow their big wigs to speak unless they go through some form of a PR person. Ensuring liabilities and lawsuits are limited! That said, i appreciate your honesty and expressing how you feel. I am very outspoken myself and can see myself in a similar situation at some point down the road.

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Why was this article accepted?

 

There are indeed smaller game developers that try to make a living creating eg. apps. If people like their games, they will buy them. Conversely, if they didn't - they wouldn't. That's Economics 101.

 

Are game developers not allowed to try to work 9 to 5, even if that game isn't a masterpiece?

What is this, kindergarten?

 

And what about using an easier/simpler toolbox is bad, in ANY situation?

What happened here?

 

Just in case someone are still conflicted - there is "bad" everywhere, such as in metal (the musical genre).

That doesn't mean bands can't put out the music they created. And guess what, they probably liked the music.

They put it out there, because opinions are like the behind - split.

I get it, this is an opinion piece, but GameDev is above this attack on other peoples tastes.

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Hold up a minute Kaptein... imagine you worked 9-5 for a year, coding and polishing YOUR game -- and maybe you tried some 'tools' but ultimately found them irritating and made a fresh start at a lower level -- and then nobody buys your game until you drop the price to $1, or FREE, if anyone even notices it, because of all the COOKIE CUTTER GAMES.

 

Players aren't happy about it, devs aren't happy, even the new devs lovin' Unity aren't gonna be happy when they realize that every wannabe gamedev is doing the same thing as them.

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Hold up a minute Kaptein... imagine you worked 9-5 for a year, coding and polishing YOUR game -- and maybe you tried some 'tools' but ultimately found them irritating and made a fresh start at a lower level -- and then nobody buys your game until you drop the price to $1, or FREE, if anyone even notices it, because of all the COOKIE CUTTER GAMES.

 

Players aren't happy about it, devs aren't happy, even the new devs lovin' Unity aren't gonna be happy when they realize that every wannabe gamedev is doing the same thing as them.

For the record, I thought this was an article, so I'm sorry about that...

 

Anyways, I see your point. But is this provably a problem?

If it is, then maybe that could be a debate itself, otherwise, I have to say I just didn't like the overall tone of the original er.. article smile.png

 

I think even if gaming is currently overall hurting because of the lowered barrier to game development, I trust that there will always be games that are worth more than $1. Of course, in the case of games that are incredibly popular, they could leverage prices as they see fit. You can't argue that Angry Birds is anything short of a really good and polished game, yet it costs almost nothing.

They also created the Pigs machine (can't remember the exact name) game, which also was very fun to play.

 

Again, there is that elephant in the room though, the red line between any other industry and this. Such as other types of content creation (music/video), and so it may just boil down to availability (platforms) and visibility (coverage).

Content is so accessible now that we are swimming in it. I won't pretend I know all the factors at play, but, take YouTube. Video content as a service. I subscribe to the channels I like, and that's pretty much my entire YouTube experience, with the occasional link from friends, just to see the new 'thing'. But if I wanted to I could watch just about anything, right now.

 

While producing a video game could take years, other content creation takes weeks or months, rarely years. A youtube video is typically watched only once, while music is something you can enjoy for weeks. Last, games are something you typically experience once, and then never again. It could take hours or just a few days to complete. So, I can agree to that games are undervalued severely in many cases. What or why, I couldn't tell you. Perhaps it is as you say, simply to get sales.

But I think the hardest part is just to get coverage - ANY coverage.

And that could very well be the root of the problem, and the difference between music & video content vs games.

 

For music you have services such as Spotify & Wimp. For videos you have youtube, and many others.

For video games, what do you have? The closest seems to be Steam Greenlight.

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