Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Marketing, Dumb Luck, and the Popping of the Indie Bubble.

This article is kind of depressing, so here is a puppy hugging a kitten.
Sigh. I hate writing articles like this. Even if I’m right (and I really think I am), nobody thanks the bringer of bad news. If what I predict does come to pass, people will resent me more, not less. But I really think what I have to say should be considered by the jillions of ambitious game devs who are quitting their day jobs to go indie. So here goes.

Interesting game article in the news recently. This guy named Alexander Bruce wrote a puzzle game called Antichamber. It did very well. He just did an interview (written by Brendan Sinclair) about how it’s very important to do marketing and develop a good relationship with the press and your players.

The article contains a lot of questionable statements (by the writer, not Bruce) like …
"Just a few years ago, developers didn't need to worry so much about their relationship with the end users."
Does this match the experience of anyone trying to keep a small software company alive in the last few decades? The ability to keep a good relationship with end users was our best tool for staying alive. But I digress.

(Edit: Just to be clear, a lot of stuff Bruce says is very sharp and worth heeding, especially about how dealing with limited resources forces you to be clever.)

Despite the weird stuff, Bruce gets a bit of good advice in too. To a point.

Now, first, it's evidence how amazingly sweet things have been for indie devs for the last few years that anyone would even think "You should do marketing." is news. When I started out writing shareware in 1994, the first piece of advice anyone ever gave anyone about anything was, "Yeah. Marketing. Do that."

Not the right way to market your game.
But, Um, Duh, Right?

Isn't it kind of an obvious bit of advice? When you finish your game, you'll tell people, won't you? Is anyone trying to succeed at business by finishing their game, putting it in a lead box, and burying it in the backyard?

But here is where the article sort of falls apart. There are many paths to success in the indie biz, and each needs its own marketing plan. Each developer has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, both mental and in cash and time resources.

Just because one path (Hint: Steam) has been popular of late doesn't mean it's the right one for that particular game (since the genre you are working in will require its own strategy, depending on how niche you are), or that it will be a plausible path forever. If you are trying to make it writing high-cost, boutique games in a serious niche field like, say, turn-based wargaming, following the strategy Alexander Bruce used for his puzzle game will lead to ruin.

You see, the conventional wisdom now is that, to make it in indie games, you need to blow it all on one big, flashy title. Spend all your time at GDC giving the gaming press hot oil massages. Then release it on Steam, get fifty articles written about you, and make meelions of dollars. Buy a Tesla, give interviews, have your next game be a 2-D platformer, and die happy.

But buried in the article is the real news. The little tidbit that really says where things are going ...

"Even being featured in a coveted place like the Steam Daily Deals doesn't mean as much as it used to."

Yes. This is true. A Steam Daily Deal used to mean doing a happy dance and putting on your Super Money Pants. What? That's fading? Uh oh. And this is the beginning of the real story.

By The Way …

I’m not happy about any of this. A few years ago, there was a huge demand for indie content, and I had a bunch of quality games ready to go. I profited from this temporary state of affairs far more than I deserved. I am not gloating about sweet times coming to an end. My modest games will be the first on the chopping block.

I can't get rich selling THIS anymore? NO FAIR!
When Can We Start Using the Term "Indie Bubble"?

On October 29, Steam accepted 100 titles for publishing from their Greenlight system. A HUNDRED. IN ONE DAY. JUST ON STEAM.

This is the problem with so many indie devs cozying up to the Escapist and Kotaku and the PA Report. There is a flood of new titles, so many that Humble Bundle sells them in Costco-sized bundles of a dozen for a dollar. A lot of good titles won't ever get that press. They just can't. There's not room.

And that's just for the flashy titles (the "AAA Indies"). My turn-based, low-budget, word-heavy RPGs are a lot of fun and have a real audience, but nobody at Kotaku gives a crap about them, nor should they. Why would a Let's Play channel on YouTube want to do one of my games? It'd be like putting up a movie of someone reading a book. Alexander Bruce's marketing path is useless to me, but my business is still valid. Has been for 20 years.

Also, the gaming community doesn't care about indies as much as we like to think they do. (Minecraft is an ultra-mega-uber hit, right? Well, Grand Theft Auto V made more than it in like 18 seconds.) The gaming press knows that gamers only want to hear about so many indies. Soon, they'll start picking who lives and who dies.

The point? Any article about marketing indies that doesn't mention the word "luck" is lying to you.

Even if she was alive, she still wouldn't want to play your 2-D platformer.
By the Way, Luck Exists

I know all you young developers are brash libertarians who believe in a just, deterministic universe. So feel free to get angry at me for this part: Unless times are really good, you need luck for your business to succeed. You need the rare sort of good times where there's a ton of demand and very little product. A time like the period that is now ending.

Yes, Luck: Getting a good break. Meeting the right editor who will champion you or making the right publisher connection. My company, Spiderweb Software, has been lucky. Many times. I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Worthy titles sometimes fall by the wayside now. There is no inherent universal justice that decides that the "best" games succeed, whatever you mean by "best". Some gamers will love you, and some won’t. You have to hang on until one of those gamers becomes an editor somewhere. The more niche your product is, the longer you will have to wait.

Disagree? Think that everyone who fails only fails because they were lazy or stupid or just suck? Fine with me. It's your call if you need to believe in a universe based on justice and fairness. I hope someday to join you there.

This article is kind of depressing, so here is a puppy.
Can There Only Ever Be One Path?

Here's how it works now. Everyone makes a team, puts something together with flash, pushes the heck out of it at GDC/PAX/whatever, and waits for Steam to wave its magic fairy dust wand and make them rich.

Which is great. If it works. But there's a problem. There's still a lot of fairy dust in that wand, but it's getting spread awful thin.

Is there another route to success in this business?

You could try what I did to make a long career. You could pick a neglected genre, write the best games you can for it on a limited budget in your spare time, release one game after another, and push your work where you can to build a loyal audience with word-of-mouth and good customer support. Then, maybe, years later, thanks to your persistence and hard work, you might go full time. A loyal audience can keep you in business through good times and lean.

All you need to make a game is a $299 computer, a chair, time, and some software which we'll pretend for the moment you didn't get on BitTorrent. It will probably look cruddy, but a lot of people don't care (and many people get off on the rough DIY thing). You won't be on Steam, but there are plenty of ways to sell it like on your own site. It'll be tough, but starting a new business is never easy.

When I did it (shut up, grandpa), there wasn't even the web. Now there are forums and communities galore. There are a million places to start assembling that customer base, and you don't even need to say the word Steam.

Is this possible? It should be. It happens. I'm not the only small dev who has made a living this way. But, sadly, there aren't many. I don't know how feasible the slow and steady building of a clientele is in indie gaming. I am, however, confident that we're going to need to start finding out.

Dear God, please let Polygon notice meeeeeee!
But What About the Future?

I think we're in for an interesting few years in the computer game industry. I have my own opinion about the future of small game development, and it's this:
If your game can't succeed based on word-of-mouth marketing, unless you get real lucky, you need to adjust your budget, your quality, or both.
I know, I know. "Jeff Vogel is just being a crazy old coot again." Sure. Nobody wants to hear a whole business model being called into question.

But I've lived through rich times and lean times, several of each. Small-scale software development is a rough business, and you need to operate lean and mean to live in the long term.

Some indie devs will use their bubble money to get big and survive. Anyone who can't grow huge and doesn't have the patience and persistence to go the small company path will have to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to see anyone lose their jobs. I've actively enjoyed seeing people who do what I do getting rich.

However, Microeconomics 101 is still true. When people start making a ton of money, they will attract competitors until nobody makes easy money anymore. It’s an iron law of capitalism.

Alexander Bruce deserves his success, but it is important to remember that the path he described in his interview is only sometimes the best way, even if the press often treats it as the One True Route. Not everyone can market their way to success.

(Edit - The final sentence was perhaps a bit too hostile, so I changed it.)

---

My incoherent mumblings are now available in condensed form on Twitter.

37 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Great article! As a recently roughing-it-on-my-own indie game dev, this hits on exactly what I'm worried about. However, your comments about finding a niche and some customers liking the "rough DIY thing" gives me hope. Love your games and your blog posts; hope to see more of both!

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  3. On luck: reminds me of an interview with Terry Pratchett, where he was asked if he was jealous of the success of J.K. Rowling. His view was, they were both decent authors who got lucky:

    http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/11/07/1099781246915.html

    'Fame and fortune, he says, are ultimately "a kind of crap shoot" and certainly should not be the cause of jealousy.

    "So if you think that you've been lucky enough to win at the roulette wheel you certainly aren't jealous of someone who's been lucky to win on the baccarat tables next door. There are better writers than me and J.K. Rowling who aren't particularly financially successful."'

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  4. Excellent, excellent piece. Everyone making a game that's wishing for that magic Greenlight NEEDS to read this.

    I tend to support smaller (and crazier) indie devs who work on and sell stuff on their own or make free games they SHOULD be paid for (I have no idea how someone works for YEARS on a game and refuses to charge for it nor has a "donate" button on their page!), but I also have a way too large digital library from too many bundle sites thanks to them being too irresistible to pass up.

    (yeah, a dozen games for two bucks or four for a dollar or 30 for $10 is nuts)...

    I'd feel "guilty" about this, but I'd also be nuts with my lack of money to bypass some deals, "bad" games in a big lot or not.

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  6. I knew that already, and I agree completely. I got some totally funny reaction when my game got Greenlit.
    Luckily I'm an old seasoned indie and I've always done it without Steam, and I don't have big expectations about it (but maybe I'll get lucky!)

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  7. This summer I did a talk with Cliff Harris at Develop about the long tail of indie games and Cliff mentioned the indie bubble. We're definitely in it, and that's why direct sales are still the holy grail.

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  8. As you mention you've lived through rich times and lean times - I apologize for being nosy, but would you mind expounding in a bit more detail on the various rich times and lean times that have gone by? Not even necessarily for you personally, but in a more general sense.

    I ask partly for the value of a historical perspective, but also because I get the feeling that although fluctuations always existed, the *scale* has gotten bigger - and your most recent 'rich time', for example, has been more so than any previous one.

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  9. Why the need to remove yourself from the other "hip" indies? You've done the bundles, there are many let's plays of your games on Youtube. At least check before you go all "oh my, why would anyone care about these creaky old RPGs of mine?"...

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  10. Luck no doubt plays a role, but I think when things are not going well or haven't gone well for some time to think luck plays a bigger role than it does.

    As an indie when thinking about what game project to spend your hours/days/months/years on you have to take into account your own circumstances, you have to take into account the current market, the competition, your target audience etc etc, if you miscalculate on any of those factors it can lead to a year of wasted time. Could that then be called bad luck? I don't think so, I think it can be more accurately called good or bad judgement.

    Luck also doesn't play much of a role in the quality of the end product, which increasingly has to be of a higher level. It's possible to create average games until the end of time, and if that's all the dev can create then fine, but it won't make any money.

    Success as an indie can depend upon many factors, right place right time, knowing the right people, hard work, a great idea and luck.

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  11. Nice article, but there is no need for the self depreciative statements. Your way has been working for you for quite some time, and that is more than a lot of devs can say.

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  12. And hopefully some will use their bubble money to help create a better ecosystem for all. The danger is "I made it, so there's no problem.".

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  13. I tip my hat to you for telling it like it is. This is the side of indie development that rarely gets acknowledged by the press - not that they don't know of it, but it's pretty depressing to focus on it.

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  14. well, some opportunities close and other open. Linux gaming is growing by the minute and Steam Machines will give it a huge push. And look how many games even spiderweb software can push there. Also I do not think that press coverage is that bad - look at rock paper shotgun for example. And I really hope that turn based strategy makers will not believe you and will try to sell on steam :)

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  15. "All you need to make a game is…some software which we'll pretend for the moment you didn't get on BitTorrent."

    Disappointing to read this, not because of the piracy, but because it ignores and invalidates the free and open source alternatives.

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    1. I thought of it too, open source alternatives can help devs beginning to in the video game industry.

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  16. Having only done this for 18 years, Jeff's message is spot on. The fat times (and they have been historically quite fat) are closing down. Not on all platforms. And not immediately. And the lucky few will still prosper.

    Neither luck nor basing your success on the whims of middlemen has ever been a great long term business strategy for game developers.

    Jeff's strategy is solid. I take a different tact and try to make games that people play for a very long time and hopefully have a bunch of games that transfer easily to new and old platforms. That spreads out the risk a bit...multiple pulls of the slot machine lever over many years with the same high quality game.

    The community aspect is key as well since then you have a base of people coming to you and seeing what's new. It may seem like a merest trickle compared to the wave of folks coming from a big distributor like Steam. Yet when all your luck runs out and all the distributors decide you aren't A enough for their AAAA curation initiative...that trickle will keep you fed.

    Smart indie dev doesn't ask 'what is the best case scenario' and then shoots for that. It is far better to ask 'what is the worst case scenario and how do I thrive even when that happens?'

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  17. What do you think about games that neither compete with a hot genre nor serve a niche genre? I certainly agree with pushing the envelope, but I've seen several games come out recently that were so... strange... that I had even less desire to try them out. (The most common game type I see is some radical new kind of puzzle game.)

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  18. You got nothing to apologize for, this was an enjoyable read for me.

    In my general outlook on life, whenever things go smoothly, especially when too smoothly, that rings alarm bells in my head. So a realist point of view makes me relaxed.

    There have always been indie type of people, even way before the rise of this indie market craze so I'd not worry about them. The stubborn ones will keep doing what they like, even if this turns out to be a bubble that bursts.

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  19. "Also, the gaming community doesn't care about indies as much as we like to think they do. (Minecraft is an ultra-mega-uber hit, right? Well, Grand Theft Auto V made more than it in like 18 seconds.)"

    While I also think the "indie" label is only for the developers and the players just don't care (or even despise indie games because of the "crappy" graphics), I don't think a comparison between Minecraft and GTA V is that fair. For example, I don't know if anyone who worked directly on GTA V is a millionaire now - notch most certainly became one thanks to Minecraft. In this sense, Minecraft might be seen as more successful ...

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    1. It's not about how much you made, it's about the Return Of Investment :P

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  20. Very interesting read, I never thought of the explosion of indie games as a bad thing for new indie devs coming into the business but more of a way to attract them more visibility.
    The indie market is getting crowded, and in the end, only the consumers will identify which game to get. That is why small blogs reviewing unknows indie titles should be considered y these developers to make a showcase of their games

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  21. I like to believe that if you produce a high quality title you will get noticed eventually. Yeah, the market is flooded with titles and customers have a lot to choose from and many just wait until titles end up in some bundle for $5. But there are still plenty success stories like Rimworld where the developer managed to raise $380k for a product which is still in early alpha.

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  22. I think the "Indies AAA" blogs needs a article like this.
    I started study some marketing tips and many of them treats marketing plan like cake recipe, do this, this and that and you will succeed, and you don't need to think so much to find that marketing plan a strange path to follow.

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  23. Thanks. I always enjoy reading your posts - they are always humorous and intelligent.I am a china tour lover,You can learn more: China travel service | China tour packages | China tour agents

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  24. I don't think of this as bad news, just a maturing industry. Yes, it's super competitive and a bit daunting to try and piece together a living but I'm still encouraged by the number of games that are being made today. I think there are a lot of similarities to the music biz. It's difficult to become a rock star but there are a range of career paths available today that didn't exist 20 years ago, mostly due to technology. It may not be any easier to strike it rich, but if that's our goal then we're destined to be miserable regardless of the state of the industry. The indie game bubble may be bursting, but it still feels like an exciting world of possibility.

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  25. I think you put too much emphasis on the luck factor. Sure, there are many many amazing games that no one hears about, but that is primarily because of bad/lack of marketing.

    If you really have an amazing game, and a a marketing prodigy, and you have perseverance and a little free time, I think you could still get yourself known in this market (though it is probably over twice as hard to get noticed now than it was two years ago).

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  26. There's a market out there that pretty much gets ignored my indie developers. Why? Because that segment isn't usually interested in Slenderman knockoffs, blasting things, mayhem, and zombies.
    That market is made mostly of... (wait for it)... women over 35.

    I'm a woman. I'm over 35. I'm not a developer, not a hairy bearded white guy, not what you would call a hardcore gamer. Nope. I'm 51, black and have been playing video games since Pong came out. I have no interest in killing things, even virtual ones. Time management games involving kitchens, diners and fashion bore me - I'm not 12. I don't have hours to spend shouting into a microphone so that teenage boys can call me names for being a girl, and I have no desire to pretend to be a drug dealer or a super soldier. I played Dungeons and Dragons the first time around, and I don't want to play with clerics and elves anymore. Instead, I play HOGs by companies like Blue Tea, elephant, and Artifex Mundi, not because they are wonderful, but because I like having some sort of story (no matter how ludicrous), some adventure without tons of bloodshed, and some fun that won't take up all of my time. The past year I fell in love with playing The Walking Dead from Telltale, even though I hate zombies. Why? The main characters were a black man who wasn't a thug, and a little girl who was Asian, and there were lots of female characters, none of whom dressed like crazy whores. I bought the entire series. I also bought The Room, because I had to use my mind a lot; Devil's Attorney, because it's funny as hell and I get the 80's references; The Dorian Grey Syndrome, because it's one of the few adventure HOGs that was genuinely creepy and disturbing; and so on. In fact, I keep thinking that I should ask YourGibs to ply it- did you know that there are a bunch of us women who swoon over a guy we've never seen, because he genuinely loves the Nancy Drew game series?

    I will probably get Papa Sangre eventually, and a few others like that, but I'm really not into horror as such, even though I devour Big Fish Games' heroines with a spoon. Not enough games have women as protagonists, or involve steamy romance (make a game out of the Sookie Stackhouse novels and tons of women will buy it) or have genuine thoughtfulness and mystery. If you want me to buy a game, you have to give me something I'll want to play over and over without feeling patronized, especially since women like me have been playing games longer than most developers have been alive.

    There are differ types of hardcore. Stop thinking that hardcore only means war, violence and monsters and remember that the early hardcore gamers (I was one of them, before developers defined me otherwise) played Galaxian, Star Wars, Donkey Kong, King's Quest and Centipede. By ignoring people like me, you're ignoring people with a disposable income, plenty of gaming experience, and a hunger for something that will take them out of the everyday, if only for a little while. Considering how much time women like me spend gaming, it's silly to call our interest 'casual' just because it doesn't involve Doritos and Mountain Dew.

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    2. Absolutely brilliant comment, Sapientia. For decades, marketers have targeted teenagers and 20-somethings with their products, and for decades they've been missing the mark.

      There are a lot more of us "mature" gamers, and at least half of us are female. My wife games, my son's girlfriend games, women are more active than men in many fan communities, and so on.

      "Sparklies" will only get a game developer so far, but they seem to be the main output of the AAA studios. Gamers who have seen it all want great stories and meaningful roles that involve more thought than when to pull the trigger.

      One of the reasons so many indie games fail is that they don't offer any more in the way of story, setting, or fun game play than the more expensive games they are cloning. They can't compete with the AAA studios on special effects, and they aren't focusing on story. I saw some nice games at Casual Connect, but most of them were all about the visuals, and nothing about story or characters.

      Am I just a curmudgeon repeating my own past (adventure games and RPG's)? Maybe, but I think there is still a large under-served market of players who want to experience stories and not just a series of adrenaline surges.

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  27. That second puppy ain't a puppy, I want my refund.

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