Indieapocalypse: It’s Not Personal, It’s Business

by Justin Carroll

Digital distribution platforms aren't responsible for selling your games... You are.

In short, indieapocalypse is the death of indie games. And the entire video games industry is commenting. But there’s one thing no one dares say.

If you throw a rock in the video games industry you’ll hit about a dozen articles, a few conference talks and hundreds of status updates about #indieapocalypse.

What is indieapocalypse?

Indieapocalypse is a line of thinking in the video games industry that indie (i.e. independent) game developers, because of oversaturated marketplaces, are no longer able to earn a living making games, and therefore it’s the death of indie games.

The video games industry, being the convergence of art and technology that it is, has historically experienced rapid change. And the 21st century, an era known for its digital downloads, mobile gaming and the resurgence of VR hasn’t deviated from that tradition.

Indieapocalypse not only raises questions about the ability of independent game developers to obtain success in a volatile market, it strikes at the very heart of the ability for hundreds of thousands of people to follow their dreams.

These are no doubt pressing and important issues everyone has an opinion about. And although I agree with much that has been written about indieapocalypse, I feel its debate has politely dodged the hard truths.

This Idea That Indie Games Are Dead Is Nothing New

There’s 3 roles to the traditional business model of making and selling games – developer (they make games), publisher (they manage and market games) and distributor (they make games available for purchase).

And it’s important to note the publisher typically has all the money, and so they run the show as far as what games get made and who distributes them.

Also important to note, this model has its roots in physical games distributed by big-box stores.

Take the game Call of Duty: Black Ops III for example.

Treyarch is developing the game, Activision is publishing the game and retailers such as GameStop, BestBuy and Walmart are all distributing the game.

An independent game developer operates alone, taking on the role of publisher in addition to actually making a game.

The early 1970’s brought the rise of the traditional model and the birth of the independent game developer. But in just a decade the games market had become so competitive it threatened this new idea of being independent…

“I will point out the sad truth. We have pretty much passed the period where hobbyists could put together a game that would have commercial prospect. It’s much more difficult to break in, much less stay in. Right now … I would discourage anyone. If you want to do a game, do it for fun, but don’t try to do game designs to make any money. The odds are so much against the individual that I would hate to wish that heartbreak on anyone.” –Chris Crawford, 1984

Chris Crawford

Chris Crawford hunkered over his terminal, at battle with his latest game.

Crawford spoke those words over 30 years ago. Yet, a similar quote could’ve been pulled from any number of recent articles or talks on indieapocalypse.

Even though times have changed and the conditions are different, this idea that indie games are dying is nothing new.

The Origins Of An Indieapocalypse

The word independent isn’t a business term.

Using the moniker as a rebellious badge of honor has been a way for typically small game developers to distance themselves from the traditional (or corporate model) of making and selling games adhered to by typically large game publishers.

And I get it.

Capitalism is a 500-pound gorilla and artists tend to be entrepreneurial, at least in spirit.

Being independent is about doing it yourself.

And although the negative connotation is that independent game developers don’t have any money, that doesn’t mean they don’t like to make it. After all, that’s what indieapocalypse is really about, the ability to earn a living as an independent game developer.

Here’s what I see that happened this time…

The inception of digital distribution platforms (or digital marketplaces) such as Steam, the App Store and Google Play were a shining light to independent game developers circa 2008. For the first time in history, their seemingly small games would be made available to the world with far more ease than even the shareware era of the 1990’s.

In other words, they’d be visible on a scale large enough to actually make a living doing what they love.

Steam

The logo for Steam, the most popular digital distribution platform for PC games.

But as video game technology became increasingly digital and mobile, traditional publishers naturally gravitated toward that space as well, attracted to the same free visibility and just as welcomed to it.

And today, marketplaces are oversaturated.

Independent game developers are now back where they started, facing the same problem of visibility, the same threat of never being able to follow their dreams.

This is what’s known as indieapocalypse.

However, as much as those affected might hate to hear it, that’s business. And I don’t say that flippantly, I say it meaningfully. This idea that you go out on your own and might not make it is, well, business as usual, something entrepreneurs in all industries everywhere face every single day. Even me.

There’s a harsh, cold reality that independent game developers must face, that while they’re incredibly talented at making games, most are not so talented at selling them.

After talking to and hearing from many independent game developers, there’s typically one, common thread concerning indieapocalypse. While they run the show, choosing what games to make, they’ve grossly confused the roles of distribution and publishing.

Distribution platforms are responsible only for making games available. They’re not responsible for selling them…

You are.

And that’s why indieapocalypse exists.

Independent game developers typically take one of two equally extreme approaches to marketing their games. They either work game conference floors in hopes their games will go viral from deep within the game development community. Or they simply do nothing, believing wholeheartedly they need only make great games in order to see success.

But both strategies fail time and again.

Indieapocalypse Isn’t The End, It’s The Beginning

Indieapocalypse is a wake up call to independent game developers everywhere, that what they’ve been doing, what they call independent, simply isn’t working. If you’re going to be a publisher, then act like one.

Start selling your games.

Put to death this prideful notion that avoiding the costs of marketing your games somehow makes you an indie darling. It makes you a crypt keeper. Look no further down than the graveyard of failed games beneath your feet.

Tales From The Crypt

Tales From The Crypt comic book masthead from who knows when.

You don’t have to call yourself a publisher, but instead of an independent game developer, you’re now just a game developer. But far more realistically, you’re a retail business that sells a consumer entertainment product.

Welcome to the business world.

But the struggle of indieapocalypse is real. And the future is as bleak for you as you think it is if you keep running your businesses the way you are.

If you’re a failing game developer, start by identifying your biggest business problems.

Here’s the top 3 reasons most games fail…

  1. Quality – You think everything you touch is gold. Consider that your art direction is poor and your game isn’t anything new despite its alleged twist.
  2. Positioning – You try being every game to every player. Be the only developer, the only games players can rely on for the best of a certain genre.
  3. Visibility – You think marketing is relying on the game development community and a marketplace feature. Focus on building up an audience.

Chances are the culprit is one of these. And if you’re honest with yourself, you know which one(s).

But if you still can’t figure it out, it’s probably visibility. Because let’s be real here, if you can release a game to thousands of loyal fans, you’re not experiencing an indieapocalypse.

Conclusion

The traditional model exists because it works. And it works because it plays by the rules of business. It doesn’t try to avoid or dodge those rules. It sees a problem and finds a way to solve it.

Most independent game developers don’t do that.

The truth is, just because you’re independent doesn’t mean you’re special.

And that’s what no one dares say about indieapocalypse, that the blood, sweat and tears of following your dreams alone doesn’t earn you a living.

Overcoming odds, that’s what earns a living.

It’s not personal, it’s business, the one thing you’ve likely been trying to avoid all along.