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Don’t blame Steam or bundles should the indie bubble burst, says dev

Tuesday, 27th May 2014 20:59 GMT By Stephany Nunneley

Jeff Vogel, founder of Avernum developer Spiderweb Software, feels that while the rise of indie gaming over the last few years “has been fantastic,” the bubble is about to burst.

Writing on his blog The Bottom Feeder, Vogel said while the rise of indie has provided the world with quite a lot of “great products,” one of the main issues is the market isn’t sustainable between the massive list of indies on Steam and the “glut” of games offered through bundles.

“The easy money is off the street. If you want to make it in this business now, you have to earn it. It’s a total bummer. Blaming Steam won’t help,” Vogel wrote.

“Steam released more games in the first 20 weeks of 2014 than in all of 2013. I don’t know why anyone acts surprised. How many times last year did we see the article, “Another 100 Greenlight games OK’ed for publishing”? This wouldn’t be a problem if there were a demand, but there’s not. After all, almost 40% of games bought on Steam don’t get tried.

“These games won’t keep people from buying new ones, though there will be some of this. People mostly don’t play these excess games because they didn’t want them. The problem is that a business based on selling things people don’t want is not a stable one. Because this flood of games is so unmanageable, Steam has been doing everything it can to throw open the gates and get out of the messy, stressful business of curation.”

Vogel said once supply and demand kicks in, with so many games out there, a “huge chunk if not most” of an indie’s business comes from sales and bundles. He argues that by striving to make “quick money by strip-mining their products,” it makes it more difficult for developers who come after to make a sale.

“Indie gaming started out as games written with passion for people who embraced and loved them,” he said. “Now too much of it is about churning out giant mounds of decent but undifferentiated product to be bought for pennies by people who don’t give a crap either way.

“It’s not sustainable. I’ve long been a vocal fan of Humble Bundle. They’re good people who want to make the game industry cooler. We use them ourselves. Their bundles started out as a fantastic way to showcase what our slice of the industry has to offer and help charity to boot.

“Now there are a lot of bundles. Many of them. As I write this, Humble Bundle is running two weeks of DAILY bundles. That’s, like, 3-10 full-length games a DAY. Spend a hundred bucks or so, and you’ll get enough solid titles to keep you occupied for years. You should do it. It’s a bargain. Then you’ll only need to pay full price for the one game a year you really care about, and you won’t need to worry about risking cash experimenting with new developers.

“Then, give it 2-3 years, and you won’t have to worry about new developers, because there won’t be any. It just can’t last.”

Vogel said bundles “used to earn a ton,” but not anymore because making pennies a copy through 12 packs will cause developers to disappear. These bundles and sales “encourage users to expect to pay a price too low to keep us in business,” he said, likening it to a “race to the bottom as in the iTunes store.”

“I’m not blameless in this. My games have been in a million sales and bundles. It’s what you have to do now, and I’m just as fault as everyone else,” he said. “If someone tells you this is the slightest bit sustainable, they are misleading you.”

You can read the entire piece through the link, and it’s a ripping good read at that. The point I personally took away from it, was that should the indie bubble burst, the developers only have themselves to blame: not Steam, and not Humble Bundle and its brethren.

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8 Comments

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  1. salarta

    The only real risk for indies is that people can’t buy everything, so they’ll pick the stuff most interesting to them and that’s of the best quality they can find. Outside that, indies are fine. It’s largely the same model as the big name triple-A games, except in this case the indies don’t have insanely expensive marketing budgets and plans to combine with their releases.

    #1 2 months ago
  2. polygem

    i have bought more games in the last 10 years than i have ever bought before in my life. at the same time i feel like playing less and less games that are really worth my time. for me as a gamer it has become so much harder to find games that i can truly enjoy eventhough i know what i like and enjoy.

    many games that get high ratings from critics feel like a complete waste of time for me (bioshock infinite, far cry3 etc etc) while others turn out to be real gems while receiving only soso scores.(war of the vikings for example).

    the indies definitely helped a lot to compensate the lack of innovation (and fun) in your average triple a game but i think he has a point. it looks like we´ve reached a point now, where it´s getting a bit out of control.

    as a solution i play old games again, these often are rock solid. i think nintendo are still pretty reliable with their games and i enjoy some pc exclusive games as well as some remaining gems like the souls series.

    overall though, you have to be more cautious than ever as a vet gamer. too much hype, more and more hype for everything and everyone. less and less substance. you have to dig deep to find the gold.

    #2 2 months ago
  3. Gheritt White

    @salarta You know, somehow I think that an indie developer (or, y’know, pretty much anybody whose ever worked in the videogames industry) has a much more informed and accurate perspective about this predicament than some random commenter, you IGNORANT CUNT.

    Jeff Vogel – who has been around for donkey’s years and is a great guy, btw – is bang on the money, IMHO.

    #3 2 months ago
  4. salarta

    @Gheritt White Oh hey, being a veteran in the industry means the person automatically has a 100% perfect knowledge of every single thing relating to the field up to this exact second, and my not brazenly assuming they do is just cause for ending off a pissy rant with ZOMG CAPITAL LETTERS INSULT.

    #4 2 months ago
  5. Gheritt White

    @salarta OKAY, SO YOU MAY HAVE A POINT THERE.

    #5 2 months ago
  6. TheWulf

    Oh gods, Vogel. Creator of overpriced and not remotely popular RPGs once again voices his opinions that indie should die due to his lack of success. Thing is, I have nothing against his earlier games, Avernum was quite good. Though he’s been trying so hard to become more and more mainstream and hip with each game he releases, dropping anything from them that the mainstream might deem uncool.

    At the same time, he’s alienating long-time customers (like myself), and losing us to competitors. He’s greedy and a bit of a money-grubber, if he actually dropped the prices of his games and/or did a few more sales, he’d have more money. He also desperately needs to realise that no matter how hard he tries, the mainstream is never, ever going to be into Ultima VI-era computer RPGs. He’s better sticking with his audience of fans and creating smaller games.

    He had the right idea with Blades of Exile/Avernum, but he’s lately just been doing endless remakes, each time trying so, so hard to make them just a bit more acceptable to the mainstream, and more boring in the process.

    Exile to Avernum I could understand, it was a graphical upgrade, but ever since Avernum III and Blades, his efforts have gone downhill in his quixotic quest for the pot of gold at the end of the Internet. It’s a shame.

    If he were to create some NEW games aimed at his niche, and not priced ridiculously, he may actually get to enjoy some popularity.

    See, when I first looked at this article, I found myself thinking ‘hm, I can’t understand that mindset at all.’ Because, honestly, people would have to stop creating, all efforts to make new, wonderful things would have to cease. That can’t happen. Game jams happen all the time, development happens all the time, people get pet projects that they’re super passionate about. I just backed Icarus Proudbottom: Starship Captain the other day, because that’s exactly the sort of thing I love. And it reminds me of a mix between the old Trek Academy game, and The Original Series point & click adventure games. With better humour. I’m down for that.

    You can’t stop people making things. So long as there are people making things, the ‘model’ will be ‘sustainable.’ I put those in quotes because, really, unlike Vogel these people are often making things because they’re passionate about making them, rather than because they’re thinking of money first, and the good of their project last. Vogel, right now, seems like he’d be a good middle-manager at somewhere like EA, but he’s definitely not a good indie developer, he doesn’t understand the spirit.

    There are a few that just… don’t. If you’re passionate about making stuff, you worry about how much it’s going to make you (or not make you) later. You take scale into account, of course, to be realistic so that you don’t go bankrupt, but you’re developing this thing because you want it to exist. Those are the sorts of games that tend to end up selling loads through the Humble store.

    Vogel just wants a piece of that action, but he doesn’t understand how.

    Like I said, what he needs to do is scale back, and make smaller games aimed at his niche, specifically. And he needs to price things more realistically, and maybe even include them in a few bundles.

    In general, though, I’d take everything Vogel says with a pinch of salt.

    #6 2 months ago
  7. TheWulf

    @2

    I can’t deny that there’s been a market shift. I mean, I’ve gone back to play older games recently, too. The Ratchet & Clank series, Sly Cooper, Katamari, et cetera. I think the problem is is that the mainstream just isn’t interested in those titles, they just want more action adventures or modern military shooters. The mainstream aren’t actually people who play games, they consume them, in the same way that they approach a summer blockbuster.

    It’s just mindless entertainment.

    Before the mainstream, gaming was more aimed at nerdy introverts who spent their time indoors with their technological gadgets. And I’m one such nerdy introvert, I actually think that they’re the most interesting people that you can talk to, because they don’t just make small talk, they actually have genuinely interesting opinions, which they’re passionate about. And when you get them to talk to you, they’re great storytellers too, with plenty of imagination.

    I love actors, but writers even more so. Actors play their roles to the best of their abilities, but it was the writers who created these worlds, characters, and stories for the actors to take part in. William Shakespeare was more important than the people playing the parts he wrote on the stage, and I still think that that’s particularly true.

    It’s that mindset that games used to appeal to, and as such they were… more novel. Often goofier, too, and less restrained. The suspension of disbelief of a nerdy introvert is almost unbreakable — for the sake of a story, they can convince themselves of anything. So you could have ridiculous retro sci-fi settings and whatnot, or fantasy ones where a dragonrider finds a spork and becomes completely fascinated with it.

    The ES** type of extrovert is the most common — they’re obsessed with the world around them, what they see on telly, what they personally experience, and so on. They don’t have a whole lot of actual imagination, they have nothing to appeal to in that regard. So their desires are more base, they just want to be some kind of hero and kill shit. If you present them with a zany setting, it’s going to tear asunder their already paper-thin suspension of disbelief, if you present them with a complex storyline, these are the people who’ll be complaining about the lack of a skip button.

    So games have become increasingly more dumb, familiar, and less storied in order to accommodate the ES** personality. That’s what’s going on, there. The after-effect of this is that the creative people trapped in those companies get sick of drudging out the same old shit all the time, so they leave and join Kickstarter in the hopes of creating their dreams for others to play. Often, the people who do this are just the kind of introverted nerd I speak of. They’ve plenty of imagination, passion, and clever ideas, but not a whole lot of realism.

    So what happens then is that they don’t have the funding to create the kinds of games that they want to make. So indie games either fall through or end up being on a much, much smaller scale — a mere ghost of what they were. And people like myself, the nerdy introvert, find it hard to be satisfied. We have air-headed, dull games for ES** types, or we have much smaller scale indie games. It’s not always the best choice.

    And it keeps happening.

    Big companies keep haemorrhaging workers, and those workers go on to take part in projects of a scale that’s smaller than what they wanted. It’s a silly cycle. So what you have is developers, like Insomniac, creating things like Sunset Overdrive. Which isn’t really interesting enough to appeal to introverted nerds like me, but is too strange to appeal to the mainstream in general (they’ll try it, put it down, then return it). They genuinely believe they can cast the net wide enough to catch everyone.

    You can’t. That’s impossible.

    What we need is a new approach. Games with assets and lengths similar to those on the PS2. Basically, games which are cheaper to produce, but are on a much bigger scale than the indies we have right now. And instead of focusing on fidelity, they can focus on making really great games on the scale that they want to. Opting for more stylised approaches to create lots of assets quickly. You’d need less people for something like that, and you could split a big studio up into many smaller ones.

    You could split one, bored big studio up into five small studios each developing a PS2-ish era game designed to target a specific niche. It’d have to see the return of the tropes that appeal to introverted nerds, and they’d have to stick to it, but it could work. They could then keep their big studios around for boring ES** people projects. They could rotate staff between the boring and interesting projects to keep everything fresh, and they could make money from all markets.

    It’s… just going to take them a long time to realise that this is something that they could do. Instead, they’ve been trying bad ideas, like episodic gaming. Something with the fidelity of a triple-A game that lasts thirty minutes. What they don’t realise though is that the introverted nerd doesn’t give a damn about fidelity, they’re not ES**, and nor do their creative people. They just want to create good looking games, and you don’t actually need fidelity for that.

    There are games from ’03 even that look aesthetically beautiful compared to games of today, and put today’s games to shame in that regard. And that’s what I’m getting at. Create a game that looks like it was from ’03-’06, but designed to fit modern sensibilities. (For example, don’t make it punishingly hard, or at least provide difficulty settings because we’re all getting older.)

    You can catch all the audiences that way.

    Until this is realised, I’ll just grab the odd indie game (because I still love them, despite their lack of scale), and I’ll ignore the mainstream completely. I’ll play older games, too, as I love those. I think we need to stress this point to them by talking with our wallets. Just buy indies, stop spending money on mainstream games designed for ES** people. Even if you think you might find it tolerable, don’t.

    They should be courting you as a customer, not the other way around.

    I’m just waiting for one of the big publishers to catch onto this. They could at least try a survey to see if I’m right. And, really, I think that I am. It just makes so much sense. People like you and I are just going back and playing older games and indies instead of paying attention to the mainstream.

    They could make money from us…

    IF they were smart about it.

    Expecting a business to be smart, though? That’s the tricky thing.

    #7 2 months ago
  8. TheWulf

    I guess what I’m saying is that I’ll continue to buy indies because I love them, but indies don’t exactly last that long. They’re either over as soon as they begin or they wear out their welcome with padding and repetition (something I criticise a lot). I like shorter games, but I’d like to be able to play something that has more than 30 minutes of unique content. 3-4 hours is good enough for me, honestly. Portal did it.

    I often feel bored because I’ve either completed games too quickly, or instead I’m just doing the same thing over and over. Both of which leave me bored. It’s a hard situation to describe. I hate grinding and padding, but without funding, indie games are woefully short without them. I want things more along the lines of, say, Ratchet & Clank 3. That game had loads of very original content (the series in general, but 3 especially), and it lasted for quite a little while.

    I don’t want something that lasts for quite as long as R&C, but… yeah, I’d love to see indies get some funding so that they can make stuff that’s around the scale of a PS2 game. In the interim, indies will keep making things, funding or not. And since it’s the best available, I’ll keep buying it.

    I do go through indie games quick, though, and I’m finding myself without games a lot more than I used to. If things were more like Portal and R&C, the situation would be better overall.

    I think almost a good example of what I’m talking about would be Quantum Conundrum. Thaaat game did good. Except it got into repetition and reused assets too much, and it got boring about 60 per cent the way through. Had they removed the padding and left it stand as is, I would say that Quantum Conundrum was every bit as good as Portal. The thing is is that there’s a delicate balance to be struck.

    I think a game could be about 3-4 hours, but it doesn’t need to be 15-60 hours.

    PS2-ish games… that’d work. That’s the right scale.

    I can dream, can’t I?

    #8 2 months ago