Monday, July 22, 2019

What the Indiepocalypse Means for Gamers

As an indie dev, the "indiepocalypse" is a topic that always interests and frightens me. There have been tons of articles about the indiepocalypse since around 2015 when Steam started to open the gates of greenlight and a ton of new games were let through onto the store, but very few have touched on how the indiepocalypse is shaped by and affects gamers. My goal with this article is to bring the indiepocalypse into a broader perspective.

What is the Indiepocalypse?

Obviously, it's been 4+ years and indies (myself included) are still around, so the indiepocalypse is not the mass extinction that some people feared. However, things have changed - it's much harder to gain attention for all indies, and some genres have begun to die out. As many earlier articles pointed out, this is a natural market process - supply and demand. As supply of games go up, and demand remains the same, competition increases, prices drop, and some studios fail. As indies struggle to survive, they figure out which genres/styles of games do well, and which don't, and stop making the games that are doing poorly (except for the studios that don't care about money or whether they operate at a loss or not).

This GDC talk: was pretty eye opening for me. As an "older" game developer and gamer (I'm 32), my favorite kinds of games are really powerful, impactful and short, as I don't have a lot of time in my life to play games. I want as much bang for my buck in as few hours as possible. But this is exactly one of the kinds of games that is dying out. The "infinite" games that can keep you coming back for hundreds of hours and always have thousands of concurrent players are the ones that are thriving (and it makes sense - streamers will play your game longer and have a higher chance of being seen, and people tend to recommend games they are currently playing, not games they played in the past). It should be no surprise that never-ending updates and games as a service are major trends in the game development industry.

So, the indiepocalypse is really more of an industry wide change than death, and change isn't always a bad thing. However, I'm a little concerned about HOW games are changing.

Longer = Better?

Because it is short, it's only worth $5 to this reviewer, no more.
With prices constantly dropping, and game duration constantly increasing (as "infinite" games are the ones that are thriving), the idea of dollars per hour of gameplay has continued to strengthen. I've seen many beautiful games that I enjoyed get negative reviews simply because they were "too short", or "too short for the money". So, games that want to survive need to get longer without costing more to make. There are many ways to do this:
  • Adding multiplayer so players can entertain themselves.
  • Endless tasks/goals that the player can grind until they are satisfied.
  • Sandbox style gameplay where the players can continually come up with their own goals.
Games that focus on stories or hand-crafted content tend to fail - as they are either too short, or cost too much per hour of gameplay, and I feel this is a shame.

My latest game, Aground, is kind of a mix of hand-crafted content and story alongside optional sandbox and endless gameplay - so players who want an infinite game can easily play hundreds of hours and enjoy things slowly unlocking, and players who want a faster paced game like me can rush through and enjoy all the new content and story. While Aground has been doing well (partially because of the potential sandbox gameplay, and partially because of the regular updates while we are still in Early Access), it takes a considerable amount of work to add a small segment of gameplay. While it varies by play-style, it takes approximately one month with 3 developers working full time to create one hour of play time. With the perceived value per hour of games dropping all the time, it becomes harder and harder to justify that amount of effort for such a small amount of play time.

Vote with your Wallet

Obviously, I am biased and like story-based hand-crafted games. That doesn't mean that they shouldn't die out (or that they won't re-emerge eventually like what happened with point & click adventures) - but the decision lies with you. It's like an election, except the only way to vote is with your wallet. When you decide to buy a game, that affects the market. When you decide to purchase micro-transactions or DLC, that affects the market. When you scoff at a $100 game as too expensive (even though game prices should be increasing with inflation), that affects the market. When you pirate a game, that affects the market too.

I hear a lot of gamers complaining about Free to Play games (and I don't like them either), but when it comes down to it, people put a lot of money into those games, and don't buy up-front cost games (because they are too expensive), or worse, pirate them. Even the scummiest F2P developer is just trying to survive in a tough market, and is creating what people will pay for.

What games are available, and what studios die, are indirectly determined by where you decide to throw your support.


In short, there is no indiepocalypse if you define it as the death of all indies. There are just developers struggling to survive, some evolving, more dying out (as the market cannot support as many developers as there are). And more often then not, the developers who die out are the weird and quirky indies who make what they believe in regardless of whether there's a market or publisher for it. These changes are driven mostly by gamers - what they are willing and unwilling to spend money on. If you want developers or genres to survive, support them. If you're unhappy with how the market is evolving, change where you spend your money.

Just remember, what a digital game is worth may be what gamers are willing to spend on it, but what it costs to develop is separate and constantly increasing. If the cost outweighs the value (as perceived by gamers), people will stop making that style of game.