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Indie Game Development and Discouragement

If you follow game development news (and if you’re reading this, I suspect you do), you’ve probably seen many articles reflecting on the increasing difficulty of finding success in a crowded market when it comes to indie games. Despite how many experts have weighed in on the subject, one thing seems very clear – nobody knows anything.

A particularly interesting piece was published recently by Daniel West, the developer of a game called Airspace: The Fall of Gravity.  It is described as a tough platformer starring a lost octopus and featuring gravity-shifting mechanics. We’ve heard tales of successful retro platformers, but this wasn’t one of them and what’s striking about this example is that the studio appears to have done everything right. They sent out tons of messages to the press and popular YouTube personalities (some of whom even played the game, which is better than most of us can manage). They signed up for big-name contests (and did well in a few of them). They secured good reviews. And yet none of that translated to success. In West’s words, “The game is good, the marketing campaign was good, the sales were terrible.”

It’s hard to think of what team behind that game should have done differently. Some people will talk a big game about how you just need the right marketing and blather on about analytics or growth hacking or something like that, but none of that stuff will guarantee success. People don’t like to hear this, but honestly it’s completely random.

A nasty Catch 22.

Needless to say, this can get quite discouraging. Here’s a lament from West at the end of the article.

“I’ve lost pretty much all confidence in the possibility of reliably making a living with indie games. I had never put a whole lot of stock in it, however at the moment I see it as a risk that’s simply not worth taking. I can’t help but make games, so I’ll keep working on them in my spare time, but without any real hope for commercial success.

I truly wish that I’m wrong, and that Airscape’s failure is not an indication of a larger trend. The indie development scene is incredibly vibrant and I’m absolutely honored to be a part of it. Indie games will certainly survive. I only hope that the toll on their creators is not too heavy.”

That’s tough to read, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit to struggling with those feelings myself. For all the creative fulfillment you can get from making your own game, trying to get it out into the world (and to make money on it) is incredibly discouraging.

So why is it so hard? Well, people have talked plenty about the issue of market saturation, which is a real thing but no potential solution comes to mind. Who’s going to volunteer to give up so that someone else has a little less competition? Yeah, that’s what I thought. I’ve written about the race to the bottom on this blog before and it remains deeply frustrating that people are willing to spend $10 for a movie they can only watch once but think $10 for a game they can replay as many times as they want is too much. And yet, I’m part of the problem. I wait for sales like anyone else. Honestly, indie game developers should probably spend their money carefully when it comes to buying games since most of us aren’t making much. Oh, cruel irony.

As much of a downer as this is, I don’t believe any of us should give up. The healthiest thing we can do is probably to shift our expectations and focus on whatever it was that got us here to start with. Was it the possibility of easy money? Probably not. It was probably because we love games and making them is a uniquely rewarding experience. As long as we keep that in mind, it’s not wasted time. However, we probably shouldn’t quit our day jobs either.

What do you guys think? Is it practical to try and sell a small game when success is so elusive? Is there anything we could do to make a difference? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

3 comments… add one

  • JosephSeraph September 24, 2015, 5:13 am

    I think as much as the Airspace art is technically quality and does it’s job, it really doesn’t light a spark on me when I look at the screens. This probably was the killer. No matter how incredible the game is, if it doesn’t spark a visual connection to the potential player — if it just looks solid but not particularily engaging or vibrant or full of personality — then people will end up passing it up. You want people to look at your game and think OH MY GOD THIS IS SO AMAZING IT’S ALL I EVER WANTED and not “oh this looks like a solid little game. Welp.”
    And the way a game looks has no hard tie in with a way the game is! I could make a flappy bird rpg mashup clone shitty thingy with graphics thrice as beautiful as ff6 and get dunken rich or make a game that surpasses the classics in ever respect especially depth and end up with dismal sales because the game doesn’t visually convey character.

    Well, that’s what I think anyway. I’m quite unnoticed too so it’s not like I have any credentials to say that nor like my words come from experience.

  • Nicholas September 24, 2015, 2:23 pm

    Look, what sell a movie, a game, a comic, an anime, etc… is emotional value, that’s why people are pay 10$ for a movie they will only watch once and complain about 10$ of a game.

    I’m from Brazil, here we pay for an original game 100$ while in most countries they pay only 60$, we have more taxes and lower salaries than most countries, but why we find worthy to pay 100$ on a game, emotional value, in your home you probable has a game, movie, comic, music, etc… that brought a new feeling in your life, you will never let go this product.

    The only way to sell a indie game is to pass the emotional value of the game towards the consumer target, facebook, twitter, youtube ain’t enough anymore, the developer needs to be open with the themes and what the game mean’t to deliver the game to the target.

    However several things happened in the last few years that made difficult to deliver the emotional value of the game.
    1. the presence of big name corporation in the digital market, no matter how skilled you are in developing you ain’t famous, everyone even non-gamer knows Resident Evil, Metal Gear, Street Fighter and their companies Capcom and Konami, their presence on the internet created a massive shadow in the indie market, everyone always waits for sales specially of the big names.
    How many sites nowadays mention indies games in sales?
    None, no one remember indies, and this, is a major problem.
    2.clones, there’s a lot of clone games, people that can’t have one idea of their own and wishes to profit at all costs create copies of popular games so they can profit in the middle, this gave a lot of people that were starting in the gaming community that indies are all like that, this is the main cause of the market saturation, unless the government change copyright laws and allows users to flag these clones and demand services like google play, steam, and many others to remove the clones, it will never change since the only ones that are allowed to flag are the copyright holders.

  • Geoff Moore October 7, 2015, 3:55 pm

    I was downhearted when I first read the linked article, but having seen more opinions from people who have played it the main reason for failure is obvious. The game looks really cutesy, but it’s incredibly hard. ‘Hardcore’ gamers skipped it because of the cutesy graphics, ‘casual’ gamers found it too punishing so didn’t recommend it to their friends.

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