Everything Indie Is About To Burst: Indie Bubbles, Cliques And The Future

Indie Bubble

This week’s row, debate, circle of shouting, whatever you want to call it, has been concerned with the future of indie game developers, or just indie games as a whole. This has also come alongside an effort to look inwards and deconstruct the unspoken rules and pretences that drive and hold together the apparent indie game community, or communities. In other words, people are worried, and the several attempts at trying to find a resolution that will reassure and calm nerves have proven, err, well, they’ve not exactly been majestic.

I think it’s safe to say that the conversations started to spike after Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software posted his article entitled Marketing, Dumb Luck, and The Popping Of The Indie Bubble. There’s a lot to take in with this article, but the idea that really caught on and started to drive debates online between indie game developers, and those interested in their work, was the idea of an “indie bubble” and the rather frightening prospect of its “popping” soon.


“A lot of good titles won’t ever get that press.”

By “Indie Bubble,” Jeff refers to the swelling of interest among games media, businesses, players, developers and the world at large in indie games. It’s not uncommon to hear of an ex-AAA studio developer “going indie.” Those two words have spelled hope and doom at the same juncture for many people. It’s all very exciting to “go indie,” because there have been many success stories of other developers doing it and making all the monies, more than your pay slip offers at a more stable job within a bigger development studio, perhaps. And you also get to make the games that you want to make, on top of that. Hell, why wouldn’t everyone be jumping at this chance?

Chicken Licken

Due to the democratization of development tools and distribution services, as well as the opportunities that the golden age of crowdfunding (that we currently seem to be in) offers, going indie is a viable plan. Before, it was just a hobby for the majority. But now, it’s possible to maintain a profitable business and pay your rent by being an indie game developer, or at least that’s the idea people seem to be clinging onto. You keep costs low, acquire funding from the people interested in your game and retain the creative lead, and the chances of getting on to the bigger digital PC game store fronts and most popular games consoles are much higher than ever before.

“There is a flood of new titles, so many that Humble Bundle sells them in Costco-sized bundles of a dozen for a dollar,” writes Jeff. “A lot of good titles won’t ever get that press. They just can’t. There’s not room.”

And this is just the tip of the problem, according to Jeff, and he’s not wrong. I’ve seen my own inbox swell up over the years, with more and more developers reaching out for “exposure” or “attention.” Heck, just yesterday, I received a tragic email titled “Help????” from a developer concerning their game and the lack of attention it’s received. In this email are the following sentences:

“The game looks amazing, has an hour of fantastic music, and we’re genuinely innovating in the endless runner genre”

“We’re getting an awesome fan response on our facebook page”

“Here’s my problem – not a single media outlet has picked up the story. Zero of them.”

“In fact, we’re actually getting *more* traffic from hackers who have figured out how to hack the game, than we are from legitimate websites.”

“On our launch day I reached out to loads of different review sites…….and so far, *none* of them have even replied.”

This is desperation, and I’m seeing it more and more. Developers with games that really have nothing wrong with them, but due to the ridiculous amount of competition for attention, there’s just no way it’s going to get covered by anyone. There’s another issue here, too. That’s the presumption that getting all of this press would mean the game hits some high period of prosperity. Sure, it’s possible, but getting press doesn’t guarantee anything, not these days. Nor does getting onto a big store front, like Steam or the PS3. You’ll probably get more sales, but it probably won’t be as much as you’re hoping, or have heard of in the past. You’re upping your chances by being spread around; nothing is guaranteed.


“There’s no ‘silver bullet,’ no quick guide to woo over the press and paying customers.”

Jeff continues, saying that it takes luck to hit it big, and that’s not said enough, according to him. He’s made a career of selling quality niche games to a small appreciative audience and has never really hit it big in twenty years of making his RPGs as an indie game developer. But that’s fine, because he’s managed to sustain himself and the business for that long, regardless.

I feel that many of the developers who are rushing in to the “go indie” race these days want a quick fix. They want it big, and they want it right now. It’s start-up culture, and it doesn’t really work in games development (or anywhere else), and if it does, as Jeff said, you’ll probably have luck to thank for much of it. You see older developers trying to bring back their gaming franchise they worked on twenty years ago, and their Kickstarter fails. It seems to me that these developers were convinced it could work because such and such developer brought back their twenty-year-old game series through Kickstarter, so the assumption is that success can be repeated if you follow the same steps.

Nope. That’s not how it works. Sorry.

The point is, there are a lot of “indie game developers” fighting for attention, and fighting for funding from interested players, and they’re all trying to make it big – all or nothing. Due to many “How to market your indie game” articles and guides, developers tend to focus a lot of attention focusing on those places where a lot of players gather, i.e. YouTubers, gaming websites and forums. There’s no “silver bullet,” no quick guide to woo over the press and paying customers.

Everyone’s trying to copy what’s worked for others beforehand, with the belief seeming to be that “history repeats itself.” It can do, but only for a few. One of the reasons why these older paths aren’t possible for most who tread them is because there are just too many other studios walking them, all fighting for the same attention. Hence, Jeff points towards this idea of an Indie Bubble and its popping soon.

Further prosperity?

Movie Brats

Someone who adds to Jeff’s conceit of an “Indie Bubble” and agrees that it might, indeed, burst one day, is Rob Fahey, who wrote an article called “The difference between a crash and an explosion”. As you can tell from the title, Rob is of the opinion that while the proverbial bubble might be pop, it won’t lead to a crash like the one of 1983, but will lead to a new era of prosperity, which he compares to the availability of cheap and more mobile cameras in the 1970s that led to New Hollywood and “The Movie Brats” – Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, Peckinpah, Kubrick et al.

So, while Rob agrees with many of the points that Jeff makes, he comes away with a very different conclusion:

“The seeds we’re sowing right now aren’t the seeds of another video game crash. They’re the seeds that will grow into the most extraordinary, visionary and innovative generation of game creators we’ve ever seen. Don’t fear it; feel privileged that we get to see it happen.”

Another person who decided to take a look at Jeff and Rob’s articles and compare the two is Phil Scuderi of Red Door Blue Key. Phil makes a sober assessment of the arguments that both Rob and Jeff make and comes away with a very resolute conclusion.

“Even if a lot of extant companies crumble, the low barrier of entry will ensure that others can rebuild, perhaps with more of the modest ambition and long-term outlook that Jeff Vogel’s demonstrated throughout his career. And as Fahey observes, a lot of today’s indie developers aren’t really in it to make money, or even to make a living. They’re in it, bless ‘em, just because they want to be.

“Vogel and Fahey’s viewpoints aren’t mutually exclusive. Vogel is arguing against naive optimism, Fahey against panicked pessimism. That means between the two of them they’re taking on the whole Internet. The coming years will prove fascinating to watch and see if either man wins.”

There’s also another article that tries to assess what the challenges may be for developers going forward. Imre Jele, clearly being aware of the talks around the so-called bubble bursting, makes an easy-to-absorb list in his article, “our indie challenges at the end of an era.”


“there isn’t enough room for everyone”

Not being as long as the previous articles, I’d encourage you to read the entirety of Imre’s writing, but here are his six points without the explanation he offers in his article.

1. Market saturation
2. Raising quality bar
3. Identity crisis
4. Powerful cliques
5. Media impartiality
6. Ever-changing platforms

Imre clarifies that he believes indie game developers are here to stay, but that these challenges will, and already are, starting to separate those that will be here in the future and those that won’t. No one really wants anyone to be left out, but what’s being accepted now is that there isn’t enough room for everyone, and Imre’s list points to what could be acting as the various gatekeepers, in a sense.

Cliques

Clique

Steve Courtney’s “INDIES, ASSEMBLE”

It was touched on a little nearer the end of that round-up of what people have been saying regarding an “indie bubble,” but the other topic that branched off from these discussions is concerned with “cliques” among the press and indie game developers. One of the first articles specifically on the subject of cliques that came out of these discussions is Cliff Harris of Positech Games’s “The indie illuminati.”

From experience, I know that many people who move from being just fans or players and go into trying to become an indie game developer, or part of the press covering them, believe that cliques exist. Cliff attempts to deconstruct that notion.

“I was chatting to a world-famous indie superstar recently, and he pointed out how he used to think that ‘cool indies’ were cliquey, until he got to know them, and then just realised they were just a group of friends chatting.”

The argument is that cliques don’t exist, and it’s just a matter of perception. There’s an idea that floats around due to those aforementioned “How to” guides regarding how to market your indie game (among other factors) that lesser-known developers should buddy up to those developers who have wider recognition and fans following them. I might be wrong, but I think there are some developers who feel the so-called “indie illuminati” owe them something. True, the indie game community is one of sharing and collaboration, which is great, but the idea that a developer owes you attention and help just because they’ve “made it” isn’t quite how it works.


“it might be that a person goes off with the assumption that their disinterest came from not being in their clique.”

I think it’s due to this idea and the follow-up rejection the help they seek, as well as lesser-known developers noticing that some bigger indie game developers converge and discuss things with each other, that the idea of cliques was born in the first place. People hearing of development groups such as The Poppenkast and Braingale probably hasn’t helped either, nor that many public indie game events and shows are often attended by the same people. So when a new or lesser-known developer tries to worm their way into the middle of a conversation, and they’re faced with anything less than a welcoming smile and a hug, it might be then that they start to pounce on the idea of being an outsider, and what they’re outside of is a clique that serves only itself.

“Basically, I’m saying that the ‘cool’ indies probably don’t think they are cool,” writes Cliff. “They probably stick together in their clique because they are as terrified of meeting new people as the people who are terrified of introducing themselves. I’m rubbish at it myself. Now, I’m aware of the fact that I might be one of these indie Illuminati that seems cliquey to outsiders. I’m not. I’m just shy. It’s easy to get that confused.”

An interesting article was written by Rami Ismail of Vlambeer not so long ago, entitled “Pulling up the ladder: how indie developers are losing the ability to help each other”. In this article, Rami writes that “successful indie studios have unintentionally been pulling up the ladder behind them, leaving little way for others to follow them.” If this is true, and Rami perceives it to be so, then this also contributes to the clique mentality.

Do note that Rami gives reasoning in that article as to why the ladder has been pulled up in the first place, and he also points out that it’s not inherently the role of developers to help co-curate platforms, but that’s not to say that more of an effort cannot be made to point out unknown and “risky” games to those with power by those with the connections.

Clique

Following up on the topic of cliques existing among the indie game community, Mike Bithell of Thomas Was Alone wrote up a blog entitled “On cliques” that is quite similar to Cliff’s. He writes about his personal experience of what I suppose is a perspective from both sides of the fence. At first, Mike says he tried to butt into a conversation that a bunch of well-known indie game developers were having at an event, but was not met with enthusiasm or interest from them.


“it’s become impossible to give everyone their five minutes of fame”

From there, receiving that reaction, it might be that a person goes off with the assumption that their disinterest came from not being in their clique. But now, having been on the other side of that scenario and now knowing those people who once showed no interest in him, Mike says that when people butt into conversations to try to become friendly with more well-known developers, it can just be that they’re interrupting friends who are catching up, or similar.

“What I’d seen as cliqueyness, as being exclusive, was a group of old friends catching up. They weren’t interested in the slightly timid nerd on the other side of the room, because OH MY GOD THERE’S THAT AWESOME GUY I HAVEN’T SEEN SINCE THAT THING LAST YEAR.

I was angry at people for being friends. I’d made myself the star of a story I wasn’t even in. I’d probably even glared at them at some point. Perspective is useful.”

The reactions to Mike’s post have been mixed. Some people agree with his sentiment, while others saw it as further acknowledgement of his participation in clique mentality.

I’d like to point out one reaction to Mike’s post, though. That is Leigh Alexander, who writes about games for Gamasutra and many other publications. I think that, in a single, tweet, she summarizes what Mike’s point is:

The problem that people have with what they perceive to be cliques among the indie game communities is that they feel they are actively against lesser-known developers and serve only the members of the clique. That’s the whole point of a clique, of course. Apparently, the members of these cliques ensure that the others get the same privileges and benefits that they do: talking to press and getting onto big distribution platforms. That ladder Rami referred to is made available only to them.

I’ve touched on this topic myself before, albeit from a different perspective, that being from the point of view of a press who tries to ensure that we don’t give priority to one developer, or group of developers, or game, than others. Most of the bigger press outlets mainly cover the “AAA indies” (as they’re often called) because their readers are most interested in them and want to know about their games.

I’d say that, recently, more outlets are making more an effort to find slightly more obscure games and bring them some attention, though for that to work, they also need to cover the bigger indies and AAA games to draw the readership in the first place. And as was said previously in the section about the “Indie Bubble,” it’s become impossible to give everyone their five minutes of fame; there are just too many indie game developers and games to cover right now. That’s a fact.