The indie gaming bubble has officially burst.
We all saw it coming, right?
Well, some of us saw the writing on the wall years ago. I’ve spent the last two years staring at graphs and infographics that foretold doom and gloom for indie gaming as the bubble set to burst. The market was not sustainable. Players couldn’t grock the absurd number of games being offered on Steam, Android and Apple.
There have been a few breakaway hits, to be sure. But while independent gaming used to be a charming novelty, they have become more and more of a nuisance for gamers who just want to find something good to play on Steam. 2016 was a pivotal year for gamers and developers. Thousands of games were being offered every month across every gaming platform. There was no way for consumers to keep up.
The North American Video Game Crash of 1983
We’ve seen this before. In 1982, the American video games market was flooded with countless half-baked Atari cartridges, as well as dozens of since-forgotten home consoles.
I’m no economist, and have only a limited understanding of market bubbles, but here’s my understanding of the Crash of 83:
- A new innovation allows speculators a way to make quick money; they jump on board.
- Early adopters get rich, prices rise and more and more people rush to cash in.
- This process continues until prices are artificially high, even for low-quality products
- Consumers, frustrated by overpriced, shoddy products – and no longer charmed by the novelty of the innovation that started this whole thing – take their business elsewhere.
- Investors bail, liquidating their companies and products.
- Prices plummet.
- A million E.T. cartridges get buried in the desert.
This is roughly what happened in 1983. But we can see it echoed in today’s market.
The truth is, innovations in game creation – Unity Engine, RPG Maker and other super-accessible platforms – have made it easy for just about anybody to create a game. And innovations in distribution – Steam, the App Store and Google Play – have made it just as simple to get a distribution platform.
The end result is a massive indie games bubble to rival the market problems of 1983.
Frustrated Consumers Look Elsewhere
The Crash of ’83 affected the whole North American games market. But truth be told, it was really more of a console crash. Arcades were still a lively and attractive alternative to taking their chances wading through piles of questionable – probably crappy – game cartridges.
As a kid, my first gaming memories are not of Atari or NES, but of seemingly huge, cavernous arcades blinking, beeping and gleaming with endless possibility. Legend has it that arcade operators had to mod the quarter boxes on Asteroids cabinets in order to hold the small fortunes gamers were pumping into them.
Arcades offered a safe alternative to purchasing new games. Arcade-goers could browse until they found a game they liked, pop in a coin and if they liked it, they could spend more. Today, arcades are once again enjoying a resurgence and new popularity.
Even at home, gamers are turning away from indie gaming and there are just a handful of AAA titles most gamers like. However, as of this writing, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds – an indie creation – is at the top of the pile. Which I’m sure will inspire thousands of amateur developers to try to clone it, further muddying the market. However, the vast, vast, vaaaaast majority of indie titles will go unplayed, unloved and unnoticed.
Retro gaming is also enjoying a resurgence (I wrote about that last week). Following the Crash of ’83, Nintendo revitalized the market with their Nintendo Entertainment System. But to ensure the system’s success, they were very careful about what games were released for it. They imposed strict licensing guidelines for third-party developers. As a result, the NES and SNES have carefully-cultivated game libraries that are still enjoyable to this day.
Wherever gamers are choosing to look for their fix, indie gaming is becoming a smaller and smaller part of that. And as developers get used to the idea that hobby-game development almost never pays off, the market will settle down.
I’ll keep buying Steam bundles for next to nothing, and these games will keep on existing. But as the supply of new games decreases, demand will start to rise again, too. Will the whole cycle repeat?
Almost certainly, yes.
This cycle of boom-and-bust has been part of video games since the first glut of Pong clones hit the market. But what triggers the next boom will be some new piece of innovation we may not even be able to imagine today. Or it could be VR suddenly becoming affordable. I personally have my doubts about that. But who knows?
When the next innovation in gaming comes out, I’ll do two things:
As an indie gaming consumer, I will embrace the novelty, play it, enjoy it, blog about it. I’ll try to explain to my wife what’s awesome about it (probably won’t work, but worth a shot.)
But as an indie gaming professional; I’ll approach with great caution knowing that novelty is always a temporary rush. There will be clones, there will be shoddy imitations. There will be good games, bad games and probably thousands of forgettable ones. But whatever else comes, there will almost always be a crash.
If this all sounds gloomy to you, then you’re reading it correctly. I stand by what I’ve been saying from the beginning: that indie developers will almost always fail. Now more than ever, the only way to get your game noticed is to plan, plan, plan and execute. Even then, the deck is stacked against you and the biggest reason for that is the massive and constant onslaught of ill-conceived games clogging the markets.
I know this is too little, too late, but please stop making half-games and further polluting the games market. Nobody will buy them and it hurts the industry as a whole. Okay?
Anyway. See you at the arcade.