CategoryGeneral Game Industry

Thoughts on the indiepocalypse

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One of the current “trending” subjects that has been talked about in the last year/month/days or so is the infamous “indiepocalypse”, or the possible popping of an indie “bubble”. So today, I thought I would share a few interesting reads that I’ve recently stumbled upon.

The first one is a (sad?) tale about a developer having trouble getting sales and all the work he did to develop and market his game. You can find the article here. I also really recommend reading the comments at the bottom of the article. A lot of people seem to critique his musings and conclusions and the whole page makes for a good read.

The second article I’m linking was written by Ryan Clark, maker of the Crypt of the NecroDancer. His opinion is basically that we should not worry about the “Indiepocalypse”. You can find this article on Gamasutra again.

The next set of articles is by Jeff Vogel, an old-school indie (1994!), who originally wrote an interesting article on the indie bubble last year. One of this latest articles is basically a follow-up to that article and actually links the other two articles that I’ve mentioned above. I recommend reading both.

Another really good article is this one here. It looks back at the history of video games and compares past events to the one we are currently witnessing. It also makes an interesting parallel between indie game development and photography.

My opinion on the indiepocalypse

Really, there is no apocalypse. It’s all really just another market that is quickly, and chaotically, transforming as more players enter to fray, trying to get a part of the money in the “market”. Let me give you a similar example.

Back in 2005, Nintendo released Brain Age, a casual brain training game for the DS. It  quickly sold millions of copies, while also moving many of Nintendo’s handheld system along with it. And the people buying these “gaming” products were basically people that didn’t usually buy this type of product. Seeing this opportunity, many of the big names in game publishing also tried their hand at the market. While a few companies made some money in the process, a lot of them didn’t, and one of the reasons why this happened is easy to understand.

Competition, with different levels of product quality.

When Nintendo released Brain Age, no one was doing products like this on this market. They basically (sort of) invented a new market. Being the only ones in that market, along with a strong marketing machine and some inexpensive hardware, they took the industry by storm. But when other companies tried to do the same, they quickly hit a wall as dozens of similar products, varying wildly in quality, entered this new market.

If you feel like you’ve heard this story before, it’s because you have. The same story can more of less be told with the release of the Nintendo Wii console, and with the iOS/App Store (and everything mobile that followed). New markets in which new developers have struggled as the competition became more fierce.

Now, each of the three stories I briefly explained are similar, but existed in different times and social context, so they all evolved differently. And I believe the same can be said about the “indie market”.

The biggest difference with the indie situation is that instead of large companies butting heads in the cutthroat market of making and selling games, you now have “ordinary people”.  And because of the high number of people who have decided to take the indie plunge, we tend to hear a lot stories of people failing. Not only that, but we also tend to identify to those people more easily than a large company.

With this in mind I think that what we are seeing is simply the following: people are realizing that developing games is a business, just like any other. You need to build your company from the ground up, think of everything to make it run. You need to get the word out about what you do and find some clients (players).

The romantic ideal of making a game you like and then thousands of people saying “Look! It’s an indie game” is over. It may have lasted a few years, months even maybe, but now that more players are in the game, just like any other market, playtime is over. It’s time to get down to business.

I don’t want to end on such a dire note. Making games is still fun and it doesn’t have to be a chore, nor does it have to be your life, professional or otherwise. But if you want it to be, you’ll still need to work hard, just like any entrepreneur.

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Performance is not always important

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Articles like this annoy me. I think the comments by Cliff Harris about how indies are not trying to push the envelope from a technical stand point are misguided.

Cliff Harris - Performance

Cliff Harris on indie games and performance

If you read this article and then read the comments below, you’ll notice that most people disagree with Mr. Harris, just like I do. They say that performance doesn’t matter. It’s the quality of the game itself, through narrative and good game play; not graphics or other technical aspects that make a game interesting. I wholly agree with these comments, but I would like to add an extra aspect to the discussion: history.

The good old performance days

When you look at the history of game development, technology has always been an integral part of gaming culture. Engineers (computer or otherwise) were the ones building the first games. And as technology evolved, game developers have always been on its bleeding edge, trying to squeeze out performance out of our gaming machines. I remember the race for the best 3D video card features of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I remember blast processing and other fantastical claims by first party console manufacturers. It truly was a grand age. So when some people miss the days where pursuing performance was a mission, I get it. And, it’s probably this relentless pursuit of hardware and software performance that led us to the production of high-quality graphics we have today.

The other side of that medal is that it’s this significant increase that has led us to the (relative) creative stalemate that is the AAA gaming industry. The reason for this is simple. With the improvement of technology came the obligation of creating lots of high-quality content to showcase this technology. And in order to create this content, companies needed to hire more people. And people cost lots of money.

So, as technology evolved, the number of people required to make a high quality AAA game increased tenfold, while the market for AAA games has not expanded as much throughout the years. Because of this reality, AAA companies slowly shifted towards making blockbuster titles that sell high numbers, which meant doing fewer projects but with lots more features (and people). And in order to compensate for the high risks that these mega-projects represent, large companies would take less creative risks. From a financial point of view, it makes total sense. If you invest a lot of money in a crowded market, you need to make sure that you are going to have the sales to compensate for your high costs. So, to do that, you need to reduce the risk on the creative side, which usually means reusing known intellectual property or doing the Nth sequel of a known game franchise.

The aforementioned situation we find ourselves in today is a direct consequence of this technological arms race for performance!

And let’s not forget the pressure that the first parties put on developers to deliver games that highlight their console’s performance. The oft acclaimed Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was almost refused by Sony on the first Playstation because it was a 2D game and Sony was pushing for 3D games at the time!

Now, I’ll agree there are good things that come with this increase in cost. The first obvious good point is more jobs. This is usually a good thing, though some may argue that those jobs become too highly specialized. The second is that the existence of the indie scene is partly due to the risk-reducing decisions of the AAA game industry. By making games that appeal to a larger number of people, the large companies have cast aside certain genres and styles, which left some holes in the market. Some of today’s indies survive thanks to these holes.

While both these points are generally positive, I still think that indie game developers should not care about performance. Sure, a few of them might get noticed in the market through performance prowess. However, I don’t believe this is a path we indies should take lest we end up taking the same path the AAA industry took a few years back.

It is through originality and non-technological innovation that we should make our mark.

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A Problem with Crowdfunding for Indie Games

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Before I start this post about crowdfunding, I want to make certain points clear.

First of all, I think Kickstarter and all other othercrowdfunding platforms are one of the best things to happen to the creative industry in general. It lets anybody with a project in mind show their idea to the world and maybe get the chance to realize it.

A Crowdfunding PLatform

Kickstarter – One of the popular indie crowfunding platforms

Of course, crowdfunding is not easy, especially for games. You need to work hard to come up with a great game idea and make a decent prototype. You work hard to setup the crowd funding project. You work really hard to get your project noticed for the duration of your funding. And then, maybe, just maybe, you might succeed and get a better shot at making your project real. Backed by people who want to see you succeed and play your game.

It’s true that I never put a lot of money in crowdfunding projects (max 15-20$), but I will never be angry if a project doesn’t work out as planned, gets pushed back or even cancelled. With over 10 years of experience working in game development, I know that a lot of things can go wrong, even when you are paid full-time to work for a big company.

Finally, I do not encourage anyone to bring Kickstarter projects to court because of failure to deliver. I think it’s ridiculous. You’re giving someone, usually a nobody, the chance to do something they think is cool and that you think is cool too. Class actions to get your 10$-50$ back? If we want to see different and interesting things, and we don’t want millionaires to decide what products should or shouldn’t exist, then we need to keep encouraging these people, not hang a judicial sword of Damocles over their heads.

Now, that being said, here is what I have to say about the potential problems of crowdfunding.

My crowdfunding list

Out of the 8 projects that I’ve backed on crowdfunding sites, five have passed their due dates, including one that is almost 2 years late! I’ve yet to receive a completed game out of all the these projects. (The three remaining are still ongoing and I’m wishing them the best!) Is this a problem? Not necessarily. Like I said before, game development and software project management is hard, so it’s not surprising to see some projects having trouble finishing one time, especially if some of these people are part time. But what got me interested in this subject was that one of these projects recently announced that they were suspending the development of their game indefinitely. (A few days later, they decided to resume development, which is strange, but I still get to make my point!). This got me to looking into how this project in particular was setup.

A problem with crowdfunding: the people

Don’t get me wrong, I think it takes a certain amount of courage and determination to start and run a crowdfunding campaign. I respect both those who try and those who succeed. I also believe that anybody can try their hand at game development. However, sometimes the people behind these projects may not be the experts we make them to be.

Some of the people working on these indie game projects have no experience at all in game design, game programming and project management. I don’t want to say that this guarantees failure, but it definitely reduces the chances of success. When I decided the look deeper into the demise of the aforementioned project, I found that the project creator was a young individual who never worked in the game industry and had never completed a project before. I don’t know if the developers had been upfront about this, but I think they should have.

The problem this creates is that people who do support crowdfunding project might stop doing so because of the repeated failures of those who had little chance of succeeding in the first place. And in the end, this is bad for everyone.

Even if you are a game development veteran, sometimes you may not be an excellent business man. A few projects have failed after succeeding their crowdfunding project because they had not calculated the cost of their physical rewards. In one specific case, some people I know of ended with only 6000$ of a 30 000$ successfully funded project because of the cost of these physical goods.

Again, this is proof of lack of experience and foresight, which contributes to the potential mistrust that users could develop towards crowdfunding.

A problem with crowdfunding: the competition

Another problem with crowdfunding is competition. As I mentioned in another post, the possibility of self-publishing has created lots of competition on the market of indie and (especially) mobile games. In general, this competition made the pricing point of games go down and the quality of quality games go up. (I say quality of quality games, because there are plenty of games that are not meant to be quality titles!). These elements are good for consumers, but make game development less sustainable for the developers. And I believe the appearance of crowdfunding has created another pressure point for competition of quality.

When I look at the features that crowdfunding indie projects have listed for their projects, I freak out. There are some programming features and quantity/quality of content in those games that imply a lot more work then what people think. As great as the Unity game engine claims to be, just because it’s advertised that you can deploy to PC, Mac, Linux, WiiU, PS3, PS4 and XboxOne AND can have networked games over the internet doesn’t mean it’s going to work by simply pressing a button. When a project offers 4 player internet competition or coop a feature in their crowdfunding tier if the next tier is attained, and that tier is only an extra 20k$, it is not reasonable nor sound from a project management point of view. (Granted, if you have a network expert, maybe you can pull it off, but that’s usually not the case.)

The reason why these people are adding these features is simple. They want to show their project is going to be impressive, and they want to reach the widest possible audience. In other words, they are in competition with all the other crowdfunding projects out there. And when they fail to deliver, again, this reduces the overall credibility of the indie game projects on crowdfunding platforms.

What can we do

The solution is not easy. Indie (or would-be indie) game developers need to understand that finishing a game is hard. If your team and budget is limited, then the scope of your project should be limited, with less features and reasonable rewards in your crowdfunding packages. And evaluating the work needed to complete a project requires a good analysis and experience. If you need help doing this, then ask around.

It’s also not easy because the people developing these games want to be the best thing out there during their crowdfunding campaign. Aspiring indie developers need to understand that their games will never be perfect and they cannot have all the cool features that all the AAA games have. There is a reason why there is a slump in the creativity of AAA games, and that is cost. It costs so much to add all those bells and whistles that it’s simpler to reduce the risk by making the same game over and over again.

It’s this state of high competition in the market that makes (indie) game development unsustainable, given the business decisions that we (non-business) indie developers take. In the end, we need to understand that lowering our prices and increasing the promised features in our games increase the likelihood of failure and lower our credibility when we do fail.

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Unity, Unreal and the Democratization of Indie Game Developement

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As most of you probably already know, this week was fruitful in engine announcements. Epic changed their licensing fees for Unreal Engine 4 so that users now only pay when they make money. Unity technologies announced that Unity 5 (Personal) was going to be free also, depending on your revenue.
(Oh, and Autodesk announced their Stingray game engine, but still no info on price, as far as I know). In their launch trailer, Unity Technologies CEO John Reticello talked about the democratization of game development and how Unity 5 reflects that company value.

Unreal Engine Logo - Epic

Unreal Engine Logo – Epic MegaGames

Unity engine logo - Democratization!

Unity engine – Democratization!

Is Democratization a good thing?

In theory, democratization of game development is a great thing. A lot more people can start trying to make games without having to invest in buying (or building) an engine. In an industry that is often frowned upon for not being very inclusive at the employee level, having potentially more diverse people being able to make games is wonderful. But is having more developers a good thing?

Let’s look back at the launch of the iPhone back in 2008-2009. Back then, the iPhone was still a new device and it was selling like hotcakes to the greater public. Apple then decided to open up the platform to developers and charged only 100$ per year for developer membership. From a game development point of view, this was a huge departure from the relationship a developer had with a first party. When you wanted to develop a game for a console, you first needed to contact (or already be in contact) with a first party (Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft). You then needed to submit a form to them telling them the type of game you want to do, and if it was approved, you needed to buy expensive development kits (usually over 10k$) and start development. With Apple’s system, you only needed an Apple device and pay 100$ a year! Things were great for developers!

And, in the beginning, some people made a lot of money making games and application. To be quite frank, however, a lot of them were pretty crappy. Sure, the phone’s hardware was not what it is now, but some of the games out there were pretty terrible. Lured by stories of overnight success and riches, more and more developers then entered the fray. As the numbers of developers (and released games) increased, developers had to find a way to distinguish themselves from the competition. Two things happened. The quality of some games increased (that’s good!), but the price of the games decreased (that’s bad…). There was so much competition in fact, that this eventually led developers to lower the price of games to zero (0). This is when free-to-play games started becoming the norm.

Unfortunately, I think that the number of games that are low quality and simple far outweigh the number of games that have increased in quality. And most of the high quality games you see on mobile that are high quality are free-to-play titles supported by companies with money.

So, if we analyze the market from a negative point of view, having more developers was globally a bad thing. It gave access to a market for many developers, but they now have to make high quality games for a very low price, most of them being free. As I mentioned in an another post, another side effect is the cheapening the value of a game. People need to think before they buy a 1$. Not only because the offer of games is so large, but also because of the perceived quality of these games.

(Note that I have nothing against people developing small, simple games. In fact, I encourage people to do this! As an indie, you’re better off starting small and working towards larger projects than the other way around.)

What about the other markets?

I’ve been largely talking about the mobile space, but a different variant of the same effect is happening on the PC market (Steam, etc.). The quality of games is still relatively high, but the problem of being discovered is more than ever present. Even on Steam (and other sites, such GOG.com), where there used to be a limited number of games, we can now find a lot more indie-type titles that are all struggling to get noticed.

I don’t think that the democratization of game development will be as problematic on PC only because the quality expectations for PC games is so high. People may easily have access to tools and Steam, but a lot more development (time and money) is needed to be at the right level.

As for the console space, democratization is happening a little bit because the First Parties (Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft) have opened up to indies a bit more (again especially through Unity), but developers seem to be more reluctant to enter this space right now. So, the problem won’t be happening for a while.

In Conclusion

So, is democratization a good thing?

If we look at the market/economics point of view, having more competition at the individual level is a bad thing. Despite the negative overtone of this post, I still believe that the democratization of game development is a good thing. We have seen many high-quality, interesting things come out of the indie (and less-independent) development scene in the last few years. And this has only been possible because of the democratization of tools, hardware platforms and the market.

But as a competitive industry, it’s still something to keep in mind.

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Gameplay Space for indies

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As I may have mentioned before, I’ve had the chance to work on a game in the Montreal incubator, Execution Labs. It was a great environment to work in, and it just got better! They’ve recently changed locations, and with the help of some other partners, have opened a space in which people in the games industry can work. If you’re an indie based in the Montreal area, you should consider renting out some space there! There are great people working there and you can get some feedback and insight on your projects!

Here’s the press release info on Gameplay Space

Gameplay Space Logo

Gameplay Space Logo

GamePlay Space, A Customized Co-working Space For Game Developers, Opens Its Doors

Montreal – February 16, 2015 – GamePlay Space (GPS), a non-profit co-working space built to suit the needs of video game developers, has opened its doors to the Montreal games community. GPS offers co-working space, meeting rooms, and a special event venue for studios, freelancers, and video game enthusiasts. By bringing together like-minded individuals GPS aims to promote collaboration and innovation within the Montreal games industry.

GamePlay Space is a joint initiative between Execution Labs, Concordia University and other active participants in the Montreal indie game scene. “The game development industry in Montreal needs an open and collaborative space where startups, small studios, and freelancers can meet, share knowledge, and work together. This critical mass of creative professionals will serve as a platform to drive the commercial success and sustainability of the community as a whole” explained Jason Della Rocca, co-founder of games accelerator Execution Labs and president of the GPS Board. Added Bart Simon, Director of TAG, Technoculture, Art and Games, of Concordia University “GamePlay Space is an integrated part of the community, which will facilitate the flow of knowledge, skills and experience across domains of the university, the game industry and media arts.”

Previously operating in a “soft launch” phase, several studios have already joined the GamePlay Space community. Among its first members are Henry Smith, creator of the game Spaceteam, as well as studios Norsfell Games and Clever Endeavour Games. GPS is also hosting a series of events with Pixelles, a local women-in-games initiative.

GamePlay Space welcomes the financial backing of $94,000 from the Ville de Montréal through the Gouvernement du Québec program Entente Montreal 2025, administered by the Secrétariat à la région métropolitaine. “The Ville de Montréal is proud to support the implementation of the GamePlay Space. This project is directly answering the needs of the young and dynamic scene of game developers in need of a collaborative and stimulating space while developing Montreal’s expertise in creativity and innovation” [Translated from French], said M. Harout Chitilian, vice-president of the City’s executive committee in charge of administrative reform, youth, smart city initiatives and information technology. Further financial and advisory support is provided by SDÉVM, la Société de Développement Économique Ville-Marie, and private partners BDO and Fibrenoire.

For more information about GamePlay Space, visit the website at www.gameplayspace.com or contact GPS Director Annie Forté at annie@gameplayspace.com or 514-690-1349.

About GamePlay Space

GamePlay Space is the only co-working environment dedicated to the games industry in Montreal. We are building a collaborative community of developers to share, inspire, and support each other. Founding board members are Jason Della Rocca, Bart Simon, Alain Tascan, Nick Rudzicz, and Alexandre Pelletier-Normand.

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Fireproof Games – Comments on marketing

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According to an article on GamesIndustry.biz, Fireproof Games’ Barry Meade mentioned that “focus on business and marketing can be detrimental to a game developer”.

I’ve mentioned before that marketing is as important as finishing your game in a previous post. Could Fireproof Games’ multi-million dollar success counter my arguments?

I don’t think so.
I think Fireproof did something smart with their marketing.
But I don’t think you should be doing the same thing.

The Room by Fireproof Games

The Room by Fireproof Games

Fireproof’s marketing strategy (maybe)

Fireproof was able to leverage one of the most powerful tools in mobile game marketing, Apple itself. By having the opportunity to meet with Apple, they effectively were on the fast track to getting a feature on the iOS app store. The featuring, combined with a very high quality product and the general lack of quality premium games on mobile, contributed to the word-of-mouth popularity which made The Room such a huge success.

And now that they have this success, they can continue their marketing campaign with a whole new twist: playing the rebel role. Most high revenue titles on mobile are free-to-play. In another article of the same source, Fireproof clearly has taken a stance against this form of revenue/game design. They are essentially going against the market trend and flow. I think they are essentially catering to the group of players that have have high spending habits, the core gamers. This demographic responds very well to anti-F2P and the high-quality game company value.

You might say there is also a boasting strategy in play. The same kind of boasting that Rovio did when they said they wanted to be bigger than Disney. But that’s OK, because it’s a very smart business move to make. By making strong allegations like this, they are stepping up in the industry and becoming a beacon of value, which is good for business and credibility.

Why you shouldn’t do like Fireproof

Fireproof broke through the mobile game market as a premium title. Most of you are probably working on traditional core indie games that are on PC (and are aiming for Steam). While The Room is now on Steam, it is clear to me that it would not have had the same success had it been an original PC-only title. The danger of following in Fireproof’s footstep is to think that just making a quality game is the main success factor. On the PC market, there is a lot of competition in the traditional high-quality premium game market. It’s much more difficult to stand out in that crowd. We indie game developers need to keep marketing in mind during the development of our projects.
We do need to see it as a business because we may not have contacts with Apple (or with Steam), and we may not be attacking a market abnormally. Even if you are working on a mobile title, would you be able to assemble the same conditions as Fireproof did?

In closing, I really believe Fireproof when they say that their focus in on making high-quality games. It seems to be part of their core values. Of course, it will be interesting to see what game they are working on next. Will it be another high quality premium title, or will they be tempted by the siren calling of the F2P market?

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