Indie Developers as Consumers, not Providers

With Steam Direct releasing today, why not have a look at what happened in the past and what the future might bring to smaller indie developers?

As far as I'm concerned, there are two developments observable over the recent years: games turn from products to services and game development turns from a time-, money- and knowledge-intensive task to a highly accessible endeavor. I was very confused when I once read a negative review...

The game is dead!

...on a fully released game, but it shows that customers expect some sort of progress after release and I'm sure this trend will continue.

Both developments are good in my opinion, because we see games getting fixed and extended after release and a higher accessibility means both more games in general and also more interesting ones.

Games as a Service

Like said, the trend that games get considered as a service will likely continue. It will especially continue because Steam as the primary market for games seems to deflate the importance of a release and instead aims at selling games in the long run. Discovery tools and cross promotion (tags, similar games, discovery queue, curators, discounts, sales, and much more) are in place and will be extended, up to issuing the community with rewards to find hidden gems as so-called Steam Explorers. Games will collect user-defined tags and reviews over time and will increase in likelihood to get recommended to customers who may fit into the game's audience. Steam's update notifications were changed from reaching common store visitors to reaching people who already own the game or have wishlisted it; another sign in making the developer care not only about a potential audience, but also about his existing one. This includes being active in the community, releasing new updates and fixing bugs.

With so many games released per day, chances are high that the platform is missing out on a hit because it didn't guide enough traffic to the game in its short release period. Instead (and with some wishful thinking for the future), good games will get their traffic at some point, given their quality as well as their support of an established audience—and of course with Steam's discovery tools doing their job.

Right now, indies are trying to get into a selling spiral with a release marketing campaign, where more sales will lead to a higher visibility (top sellers, popular new releases, more exposure through Let's Players, streamers, press, what-is-my-friend-playing) which will lead to more sales leading to an even higher visibility and so on. This is done by strong marketing, including a good game with a target audience in mind, strong presentation (trailer, screenshots), an established audience (prior games, publisher's reach, wishlists via a Coming Soon page etc.), connections (press, Let's Players etc.), and to some extend even paid advertisement. So basically everything I'm not doing yet. In the future, I assume this marketing strategy will still exist, but is either extended or overshadowed by a long-term marketing strategy focusing on community management and a flow of updates with each update being teased (hyping, hinting), announced (Steam announcements) and discussed (Let's Plays, streams). Something which is already happening with bigger Early Access titles like Don't Starve did it in the past or ARK: Survival Evolved is doing right now. This isn't a devblog, this is (taking Early Access as a release) very basic post-release marketing, something we didn't saw some years ago.

The phrase "check out my game" will turn into "be part of my community" soon.

Of course there are many types of games which don't suit this model of continuous updates, but as far as I'm concerned, the platform dictates the kind of games appearing. After all, there weren't any 80 hour long JRPGs played on arcade cabinets back then. Perhaps the community itself can keep a game relevant to Steam's discovery tools with reviews, tagging and community hub activity alone? Let's hope.

Easier Game Development

The second development I mentioned was the higher accessibility of tools to create games. All the

Making games is easier then ever; the tools to...

-mantra feels like being used on nearly every article about game development or Steam (together with that indie apocalypse thing), so breathe deeply, I'll skip that.

But What Does This Mean?

In total, we have a lot of game developers making a lot of games which get marketed and supported in the long run. As a result, I see more and more platforms and services catering tools and solutions to a new and growing market full of game developers who are now turned into customers themselves, thinking that their expenses will be covered when the game is getting sold, which will very likely not happen because the game doesn't get finished or isn't any good because it's often the first project. No offense, but that's why selling game assets actually works and I'm pretty sure (gut feeling), that the revenue created by selling assets is far higher than the revenue created with those assets. And that's totally fine, because a lot of people rather enjoy playing around with editors and besides commercial games, there is an infinite amount of reasons to make games.

There are so many variants of the "In a gold rush, sell shovels!"-quote, it's hard to find its origin, but this is what's actually happening. There are platforms which allow to...

  • ...fight obscurity for you by putting your game in a directory full of other games and giving everyone exposure, because that's how exposure works (no it's not). You either have to pay directly or you are creating value for the platform holder, because they have built up a directory which can be used in various ways, and if it's just ad space.
  • ...connecting you with publishers or investors while turning in profit (commission, selling tickets to hook-up events).
  • ...connecting you to reviewers, press, Let's Players, streamers and other trend-setters, often with some sort of paid plan for developers.

There will be developer-focused services which...

  • ...make game development easier (bug tracking, organizing teams, project planning, legal handling of contract work, porting to other platforms).
  • ...sell you assets to skip the content creation or gameplay programming.
  • ...manage the flood of information (upcoming events and awards, current trends in the market, revenue statistics of other games).
  • to setup a game's presentation or its promotion (presskit, website, trailer, feature art).

I hope I didn't sound all too cynical, because overall these are useful tools providing the chance to make better games, faster.

But What Does This Really Mean?

The result of the above are beaten tracks everyone is walking on. The phrase asset flip already entered the common language of players. How insane is that?

Exposure and quality will fall back to some sort of equilibrium if it's conquered by too many. If everyone is in the spotlight, there is nobody standing out. If everyone makes very good games, there are no games standing out. There are many articles focusing on how to solve obscurity, but it's often not clear whose problem exactly is (or should be) solved. How to solve a problem everyone is having when solving it for everyone leads to the original problem? Interesting topic for another blog article.

Overall, I think we'll see barriers getting re-introduced:

  • Money: artificial costs like entry fees (imagine a 5000$ Steam Direct fee), high costs of the mentioned platforms, services, and tools ("Want to deliver your game to big YouTubers? Luckily they are available in our 99$/year plan.").
  • Elitism: closed communities sharing resources like knowledge not with the public (how to do proper marketing, what are the current trends etc.). Or groups pushing an agenda which serves their interest first (I don't find the source, but I read that some game developers proposed a 20k+ Steam Direct fee).
  • Exclusion: preventing certain ways of game development. Today, using bought assets or making a game with RPG Maker are called out and I think there will be more of these no-go criteria in the future.
  • Lottery: letting game developers buy a ticket and see who has the most luck (award shows could turn into something like that, if they get a higher relevance in respect to exposure).

These barriers only define who can, not who should.

Publishers could mitigate these barriers, so going back to some sort of traditional developer-publisher-model seems likely. Nonetheless, I still hope there is a place for small independent teams or even solo developers turning in enough profit on their own to live from it.

To sum up: availability of services and tools catering to indie developers as a customer will streamline development and fake-solve the obscurity problem up to a point where artificial barriers are introduced to allow a developer to keep ones' head above water or at least to make monetary use of those who try.

In a future blog post, I will share my thoughts on possible solutions to make a stand against these anticipated difficulties, for 4.99$ per tip. Just kidding.

Thanks for reading!

Best regards,