The Overrated Apocalypse: How to Stop Worrying and Start Working

This past week I stressed a lot about AOTW. From recruiting artists to stumbling through business license regulations, there were a lot of overwhelming things to do on the business side. Then, somewhere around the point when my confidence was rocketing towards an all-time low, I had the pleasure of reading about the impending doom of everything that our team is trying to do.  The motivational tome to which I refer is indie game veteran Jeff Vogel’s piece “The Indie Bubble is Popping.” Before I cherry pick certain parts to comment on, I should note that his piece is very entertaining and thought provoking and definitely deserves to be read in full. It’s making the rounds in the video game press right now, and deservedly so. That said, while there is a lot to learn from his post, I think the emotional emphasis is perhaps slightly misplaced and risks promoting industry apathy instead of healthy competition.

Vogel notes the low barriers of entry to indie developing today. He goes on to discuss how this has resulted in a huge influx of indie developers seeking money and internet glory. According to Vogel, this influx has effectively jacked up the supply of games on the market, thereby driving down prices thanks to good ol’ supply and demand laws. In other words –“The problem is too many games.” Vogel runs through several examples of how the game supply curve has been dramatically shifted to the right, from the spread of fantastically cheap Humble Bundles to the increasingly hands-off approach taken by Steam’s curators.

All of these observations are factually true. Yet, Vogel’s argument leaves readers, especially readers that are developing indie games, with the impression that the industry has declined to the point that failure is almost inevitable and potential for success is feeble at best.

I’m not so sure I agree.

Don’t get me wrong, I think having a sense of realism is important. But there’s a difference between realism and despair. If you approach an endeavor believing that the inevitable outcome for everyone involved is that of complete failure, then you’re probably going to fail yourself. Besides, I do have some strong, concrete reasons to believe in the future of the indie gaming industry.

First off, this expansion of indie game production is not a bubble; it’s more like an industrial revolution. The advent of cheaply available game engines, cheap cloud storage, and easier online advertising and promotion has allowed developers to create at a lower cost while still distributing on a large scale. This phenomenon is in a way similar to how other technological advances have reshaped past industries.

Bubbles happen when demand is artificially high for a limited time before being harshly corrected to more accurately represent underlying value. Paying a ridiculous multiple for stock in an internet company that you don’t understand is a bubble activity. Taking out an obscene mortgage on a house with poor property fundamentals is a bubble activity. Paying $15 for a game on Steam is not a bubble activity. As Vogel himself says, consumer demand for games (X dollars) actually remains pretty steady over time. People are not paying wildly more for games than they have in the past and they are not spending unsustainable amounts of money on computer games. And yes, people are not playing 40% of the games they purchase on Steam. But, they are still purchasing them, and that means that if your game looks good enough, there are people that have the ability to give it a try. The fact that that economic buying power is there should be a source of hope to aspiring indie developers.

Second, in a sense, things are not so different now than they ever were. The implication in Vogel’s bubble piece is that today, there are far more failing indie games than there were in the heyday of Minecraft and the early generation indie games. This increasingly pervasive failure is ostensibly due to an increasingly open Steam marketplace that is letting in all sorts of indie games that never would have made the cut in years past.

However, I would argue that there are not necessarily more losers and fewer winners in the indie marketplace than there have been in the past. The “losers” are simply more visible now since they have the means and access to at least try their hand at making a game. In the past, you never heard about the “losers” because they never had a shot at getting public recognition in the first place. How many potentially great games “failed” because they never had a chance to make a name for themselves due to technological limitations or marketplace restrictions? Whether through hard work, luck, or fate any competitive industry is always going to have numerous failures and a few winners. The indie game industry is no different, and we should be okay with that reality as developers. It doesn’t make our efforts any less valuable or admirable.

Megan Fox makes a similar, if more practical, point writing in a recent piece for Gamasutra. She does an especially good job of highlighting the fact that the industry has been, and always will be competitive. As she says, indie developers have to pay attention to the business side of things (advertising, website, social media etc.) and start thinking beyond Steam if they want to have a chance to stand out. I actually found her post really inspiring, and in the end, it has helped me find a more positive takeaway from Jeff Vogel’s post as well.

Despite the foreboding nature of Vogel’s post, I think he actually makes a very simple and straightforward suggestion as to the way forward, saying that “The easy money is off the street. If you want to make it in this business now, you have to earn it.” I couldn’t agree more. The only thing is, there never was any easy money in the first place–and that’s what gives me hope.

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