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Indie Gaming is Dead


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The indie gaming bubble has officially burst.

We all saw it coming, right?

No?

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:

  1. A new innovation allows speculators a way to make quick money; they jump on board.
  2. Early adopters get rich, prices rise and more and more people rush to cash in.
  3. This process continues until prices are artificially high, even for low-quality products
  4. 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.
  5. Investors bail, liquidating their companies and products.
  6. Prices plummet.
  7. A million E.T. cartridges get buried in the desert.

Unchecked indie gaming developers led to mass burials of Atari games.
What do you do with a million cartridges nobody wants? Not this. This picture is just Photoshopped. But you get it, right?

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.

What’s next?

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.

Atari's rise and fall
Image Credit: insertcoin.news

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.

 

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Steven Long

Steve is an IndieWatch O.G. He has long supplied marketing information for the aspiring developer. More recently he has been creating content for retrogaming enthusiasts on his YouTube channel.Find him on Twitter @Longie_long and at Patreon.

8 Comments

  1. you’re wrong on 1 point : todays, all developers doesn’t makes games for money, but just because they can do it. some of us makes games because they believe it’s a way to express feelings, have fun and dozens of other things. i agree that final products are not great all the time , but it’s a way to explore new concepts without production/marketing pressure. My message will be : stop making games and believe you will get money , but make it to bring something new/different because it’s a living art .

    1. I can agree with that. But if you love something, isn’t it worth trying to make a career out of it? And if it’s just for funsies, why upload it to Steam at all? It’s jamming up my games feed!

      1. because : Gorogoa, 140, cavestory, cloudbuilk, epistory, lamulana, stardew valley, undertale … ?
        i’am a gamedesigner, my games are on itch. io only because i know it have no chance on steam. But you cannot tell to indies to not trying create something and put it on the market.
        The real question is How do you choose this game is ok for steam and this other game is not ?

  2. As a gamer…too many games, too little time. As an indie developer, too many games too little players. Combined end result…too many games. For gamers this is great because prices are extremely low and there are millions of choices. For an indie developer it’s like getting stranded in the middle of the vast pacific ocean on a small boat hoping someone will come by and rescue you. In the meantime you have very little provisions and flares left. You maybe drinking sea water before long hoping a fish jumps in your boat so you can eat. Sounds scary because it is.

  3. Well, as a indie dev i might say this scares me. But it doesn’t, AAA games are coming everytime with much better graphics but less content, customizations, freedom for the player. And i think that gamers as myself which look for complete, deep and content rich games, whatever graphics they have, have a greater chance to find a game like this on the indie market. Those games (most) are made with passion and carefull work, and they are like a craftsman work. So, as long as an indie developer you walk the craftsman path you will be ok.

  4. First of all, thanks very much for reading.

    Secondly, let me come clean: The title is clickbaity. Sure. But a title like, “The Indie Game Development Bubble Has Burst and the Market Has Begun to Recede” doesn’t sound like something that will get read.

    My point is simply that the indie market has crushed itself under its own weight. The sheer volume of games on the market pretty much guarantees that indie devs will not make much money.

  5. Point of indie is steering away from AAA’s non-creative, business executive-ish decisions. As long as “Big Game” makes trash games and trash decisions, which there’s ample supply of every month, indie biz will always be there and be brave enough to try something new, therefore will always exist strongly. Unnecessarily hyperbolic article, i give you 9/11, weak steel beams

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