Week 1 — The indie games industry

2021-09-24

This is week 1 of the module “Indie Game Startup”, and needless to say, I’m super excited about what I’ll learn and accomplish during the next 12 weeks.

By the end of this week, we should be able to:

  • Reflect on the history of indie games.
  • Analyse market opportunities for games.
  • Choose a game genre and platform to work with.
  • Form a team around creating a game proof of concept.

A reflection on the history of indie games

Bennet Foddy gives an excellent state of the union at Indiecade East 2014, and notes that indies have always been there - it’s not a new phenomenon (IndieCade 2014). In fact, all the greats today had to start somewhere, as a small team or solo developer. The indie scene will also not go away, because people will always want to create.

I realise more and more that there is such a large pool of game creators out there, some with aspirations to have success in the industry, and that the competition ought to be quite fierce. But, what I’ve also noticed during my time on Twitter is that indies look out for one another, and cross-promote one another’s work. It’s like a shopping centre (or “mall”, for my American readers): or the shops are close together, and all the cafes are in the food hall, which is good for business. Someone comes for the burritos and sees your fried chicken stand, and gets that next time. In the same way, indies are promoting each others’ work: if a player came for horror game A, they would likely also like and buy horror game B. Virtuous cycles, paying it forward, synergies.

Analysing market opportunities for games

Game length

I see a lot of gamedevs on Twitter complain about their games getting refunded due to short play times, and some studios downright shut down because of the financial strain refunds put on business (Taylor 2021).

Iain Lobb (2021) notes that platform subscription services (e.g. Apple Arcade, Xbox game-pass) might be good for indies: players normally complain about shorter indie game length, but as part of a subscription, they might not mind, and just enjoy the short game as part of a subscription.

For those whose games aren’t on subscription services, Jason Rohrer (2019) notes that your game ought to be an “infinite unique situation generator” instead of “consumable”.

  Don’t   Do  
short-term long-term      
one-time experience hobby/lifestyle/community      
“Have you played X?” “Do you play X?”      
Make the kinds of games you want to play. Make the kinds of games you actually play.      

Key take-away: Make games with infinite replay value. As much as I like short well-crafted experiences, the market wants longer play-times.

Making games for other types of player

Rebekah Saltsman, as part of a GDC 2016 panel, noted that Overland was built for streamers, and they asked streamers what they wanted. Also, if your game can be speed-runned, put achievements in (GDC 2016: 15:24). I’ve never considered that players might just want to play for fun - the might also want to play for an audience, or play for a special type of achievement.

Key take-away: find the players who play the meta-game, and make something for them. Make your game streamable (i.e. entertaining, unique experiences).

Horror does this well: streamers want to play a horror game and get those first scares and mine the game before anyone else does, so it’s novel. And the players want to experience that too (GDC 2016: 50:30). I don’t necessarily want to make a horror game, but there’s a lesson to be learnt here: make players want to experience those unique moments first, and skip the wishlist completely so they can do it before their friends do.

Marketing your game from the start

Jordan Thomas, also on the GDC 2016 panel, notes that bad game sales was their own fault, as they just focused on “making a great game” and didn’t pay attention to marketing (GDC 2016: 33:45).

As a solo dev, doing all the marketing can be very time-consuming (all the more reason to create a team, I guess!) and it might feel unfair to have creative dev time stolen like that.

I’ve toyed with another idea in the past: forget about marketing, but just focus on making a great game. The players who do discover it will then talk about it for years afterwards as ‘misunderstood’, upon which the rebel/alt crowd will go out and buy it to get enlightened, or to be the first to try and understand it, or give their own interpretation of it.

Perhaps all your games can be related, and every future game relies on knowledge of every prior game to be able to progress. Even if the knowledge ends up on wikis/walkthroughs on the web, perhaps some players will be interested to go and play the games that came before themselves, rather than rely on wikis.

Anyhoo, as Randy Smith from Tigerstyle also noted at the above panel: treat your business like a business (GDC 2016: 40:05).

Unique and entertaining experiences

We’ve already alluded to streamable games in a previous section, and briefly touched on horror games, which does the highly-entertaining experiences quite well (jump-scares, and reactions to it).

AAA studios can make safe hum-drum games and get away with it, but indies need to do something else to survive. Armin Ibrisagic, also from the GDC 2016 panel, notes that you can either make something crazy, or you can make something for the niche you’re filling (like Jeff Vogel’s games, who said it helps to have a fanbase) (GDC 2016: 51:00).

Jonas Tyroller (2019) recommends this too: aim for appeal and marketability. He goes on to give more good advices, which I briefly summarise below:

Aim for appeal and marketability. Be open to experimentation. E.g. you might set out to make a TD game, but be open to end up with an RPG, etc.

Do research. Find similar games, and play them. Looks at those games’ reviews, community, see what people are saying. They will say what they like/dislike, and whether there’s an audience for your game.

After seeing those games, know what your game unique. Lean heavily into that uniqueness during development, all the while focusing on appeal/marketability. Design around your USPs. E.g. Portal is all about portals, and it would be less unique if portals was alongside many other game mechanics.

Always have your game in a finished state. Always be shippable. The game will feel nicer to work on: it will always feel like a completed game that you’re iterating on. When you play it, you’re not seeing a mess, but you’re seeing a finished game, and you can really think next about what it needs. Have multiple exit points: build a minigame first, not a giant game.

Let people play your game early on. Set up your Steam page early.

Choosing a game genre and platform to work with.

I think for this module, it might make sense to build a quick arcade game, with plenty of procedurally generated content. That will tie into the “make a game with long play times” advice from before, but also be quick to make, as I want to focus on the assignments (which involve coming up with a lot of businessy stuff).

The platform will be PC, as that’s what I know, but as a stretch goal, I’ll try and implement local co-op, which will make the game a nice contender for Switch (“Nintendo Switch™ Family - Nintendo - Official Site” n.d.).

Form a team around creating a game proof of concept

Maciej and I have chatted about working together. Again! :-) He’s an exceptional artist, and as we know with games: first impressions are what it’s all about.

Bibliography

  1. “Nintendo Switch™ Family - Nintendo - Official Site.” n.d. Nintendo. Available at: https://www.nintendo.com/switch/ [accessed 24 Sep 2021].
  2. LOBB, Iain. 2021. “Week 1: Lecture – The Indie Games Industry: Indie Game Start-Up IGD740 21/22 Part-Time Study Block S1.” Available at: https://flex.falmouth.ac.uk/courses/924/pages/week-1-lecture-the-indie-games-industry?module_item_id=57427 [accessed 24 Sep 2021].
  3. TAYLOR, Mollie. 2021. “Indie Dev Leaves Industry ’Indefinitely’ Thanks to Exploitation of Steam’s Refund Policy.” PC Gamer. Available at: https://www.pcgamer.com/uk/indie-dev-leaves-industry-indefinitely-thanks-to-exploitation-of-steams-refund-policy/ [accessed 24 Sep 2021].
  4. GDC. 2019. “2014 Vs. 2018: The Shape of Financial Success Before and After the Indiepocalypse.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIqz5xmQKnc [accessed 24 Sep 2021].
  5. GDC. 2016. “What Do We Mean When We Say Indiepocalypse?” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r30CIneO534 [accessed 24 Sep 2021].
  6. INDIECADE. 2014. “Indiecade East 2014: State of the Union - Bennett Foddy (Keynote).” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XfCT3jhEC0 [accessed 24 Sep 2021].
  7. JONAS TYROLLER. 2019. “Watch This Before Making Your Next Indie Game!” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Kzu5FdplV0 [accessed 24 Sep 2021].

This post is part of my critical reflective journal and was written during week 1 of the module indie game startup.

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