Our Indie challenges at the end of an Era

Disclaimer: This is an ill-researched (written mostly on a train) opinion piece. Probably full of mistakes and iterative statements, very likely not detailed enough, and definitely full of subjective comments hindered by my personal POV. The good  news is that you can help making it better by adding constructive comments below. Thanks in advance!

The last couple of years were unquestionably an amazing time for Indies. And it was a truly win-win(-win-win) situation too:

  • Gamers could play truly innovative games – ones which big companies could have never made.
  • Individual developers and small studios could reach huge audiences and achieve financial success in a way we have never seen before.
  • Journos could talk to the creators of beloved games directly and publish highly popular articles as the “rags to riches” and “artistic auteur” stories continued to drive traffic to their sites.
  • And platform-holders attracted new audiences by embracing these games and riding on the PR wave of Indie popularity.

But the question at every era of plenty is the same: Will this unprecedented success and growth continue, or are we at the end of the Indie honeymoon period?

Here are a few reasons why I think we might be approaching the end of this Indie era.

1) Market saturation – Gamers are exposed to an increasing number of quality Indie titles. And with Steam (the undisputed king of the indie market in recent years) opening its gates more and more, allowing hundreds of new titles to flood their popular shop, Indies will face an increasingly challenging time to stand out and be discovered by their players.

2) Raising quality bar – Many of the successful Indies of the last few years have now upped their game. They reinvest their income and can often secure external investment with ease. This allows them to spend more time on their new games and hire a team to expand their reach. These folks then go head-to-head with the new generation of Indie developers who will certainly find it much harder to break into the market in the presence of an experienced and well funded competition.

3) Identity crisis – This trend of Indie growth will also dilute and shift the meaning of “Indie”. The term is already confusing, to say the least. But as these individual creators change into small to medium sized companies, they’ll face a fundamental identity crisis. They’ll have to alter their developer persona if they wish to remain honest to their audience or risk sacrificing their integrity. (Interestingly enough, big-name YouTubers will too, face the same challenge soon).

4) Powerful cliques – The game development scene remains one of the friendliest industries, yet we can already see the effect of small cliques forming – friendships turning into professional allegiances. And it doesn’t require tin-foil-hat conspiracy theories to see how exclusive clubs of high profile and influential people will inevitably lead to a small group gaining financial advantages at the expense of everyone else. If left un-addressed, these groups can erode that very moral high-ground their careers were built on.

5) Media impartiality – The opportunity to talk to creators directly (and not just a PR machine) reinvigorated the gaming media in my humble opinion, and it naturally lead to a shift in the relationship between developers and the media. And whilst these friendships were beneficial to both sides for a while, arguably now they can challenge the integrity of journos. They’ll soon be forced to avoid covering games made by their friends or cut personal ties with developers to retain (or in some cases regain) their impartiality.

6) Ever changing platforms – Almost all major software and hardware platform-holders have their strategy around Indies now. Some embraced the new wave of game-making early on, whilst some might be accused of jumping on the bandwagon for clearly identifiable, and arguably dishonest PR purposes. These relationships however, are not reliable enough to form the basis of long-term business plans for Indies, as their income sources can change or disappear overnight as platform-holders alter their rules to progress their own agenda. Some Indies might fall victim as fierce competition heats up between big rivals.

I want to make something clear. I do believe Indies are here to stay. We’ll see amazingly innovative titles created by publisher-independent individuals and small companies. But I also think it’s important to be ready for change – as change is coming, and some of our greatest game-making talent will be lost to the upcoming turbulent times if they fail to prepare properly.

I also realise I haven’t really offered any solutions here. I hope to follow up with a second post to cover that later on.

What do you think? Will we continue to enjoy an ongoing Indie growth, or are lean years upon us? Please add your constructive thought in the comments.


21 Responses to “Our Indie challenges at the end of an Era”

  1. November 10, 2013 at 17:47

    I agree with all of this.

    • November 10, 2013 at 20:10

      Thanks. Good to know I’m not completely lost.

    • November 10, 2013 at 20:13

      Very true, although I don’t agree with number 4. There are cliques but I don’t think that will lead to a financial advantage for them “at the expense of everyone else”. Quite the opposite is true in many cliques actually because they have the collective power to make distributors and publishers change their systems and contracts for the benefit of everyone. I’ve seen this happen with Amazon’s indie contract for example.

      I’m calling you out on the us vs them mentality displayed in that point and I go more into depth on that issue here: http://greyaliengames.com/blog/we-were-all-noobs-once/

      I look forward to your solutions post very much!

      • November 10, 2013 at 20:24

        Thanks for your thoughts and linking that article.
        I’m not promoting the “us v them” approach. Quite the opposite. Shame if I didn’t phrase that right.
        Arguably, I’m part of a clique, formed from my friends, and we do a lot to help others. And others go through the same. At the same time, I cannot say that everyone does that.

  2. November 10, 2013 at 18:03

    100% agree with this. The future is going to be tough and we need to help each other through this.

  3. November 10, 2013 at 18:39

    These are all very valid points and I agree with them all. They’ve started to become more and more evident in the industry. Like people say, things happen in cycles.

  4. November 10, 2013 at 19:56

    I agree – for a combination of reasons indies are entering a challenging era.

    There are also wider economic and industry trends here which could make this particularly painful. New consoles usually bring with them shifts in the market, and many gaming dollars are going to be soaked up in shiny new PS4s and XBox Ones. The economy might be seemingly recovering, but it’s fragile – so we may see a combination of lower sales, and studio redundancies leading to more indies in the market place.

    On the other hand, the fundamentals behind the current indie boom are not going away. Digital delivery, easy to use marketplaces, great tools and a public which gets games should continue to support independent content. The total market size is far larger than even the largest indie titles have reached so far, so I think there’s still room to grow even if the overall games software market shrinks temporarily.

    Given that last point, cooperation seems a good strategy for indies.

  5. November 11, 2013 at 11:27

    The identity crisis aspect is a pretty big one. Especially when you pair the indie theme with the recent kickstarter/crowdfunding craze (Which, imo, was fairly responsible for maintaining and extending the indie-game hype lately)… For instance, Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen thing. They’re essentially a full company – they have a dedicated PR team, two studios, a lot of outsourced relations contentwise… does that seem indie-ish (Or even, “we’re not like the big evil publishers”)? Because their monetization model by now looks exactly what EA/Ubisoft would try to employ. And we essentially have a situation where a single reputation/name is driving a whole dev/pub company, and yet that company/name is so, so, so often used to exemplify how the indie revolution is a raging success.

    And I find this extremely weird. Are we looking at a new batch of Molyneuxii?

    • November 11, 2013 at 13:57

      Very interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing.
      I’ve deliberately avoided the topic of crowdfunding and its various controversies. I still think, that even despite the problems, it’s a great tool for companies to test game ideas.

  6. November 11, 2013 at 13:27

    Point 6). is an opportunity for those indies who reach out and take it. You’re dead right that it won’t last, but it’s about getting in there now and building relationships with those platform holders. Running a business (as opposed to hobby gamedev) has always been about that, as much as it is about making a product.

    Same applies to the media. When have they ever been “impartial” anyway? Of course they will write more favourably about people they know, just that before the rise of the indies, those people would have been the reps from big publishers or studios. The issue is more that not everyone can be a journo’s best mate.

    Also, a lot of these problems have existed for a while. Market saturation, especially on mobile, was reached years ago. Mobile itself represented the “new platforms” not that long ago either. And identity wise, the confusion is purely semantic. There has always been this split between one-man band, artist type “indies” and veteran ex-AAA devs gone “Independent”. The term “indie” has just been a flag of convenience for those groups (and others) to sail under

    • November 11, 2013 at 14:00

      You used the key words here “running a business”. What’s interesting and potentially dangerous is how many people would consider an Indie a “sellout” if they ever admitted to do that, run a business. Twisted logic, if you ask me, but I guess it’s coming as a reflex reaction against how big corporations have abused their players.
      Thanks for dding your thoughts!

  7. November 11, 2013 at 17:18

    Hasn’t the “indie” label confusion persisted for as long as indies exist in the game world? I recall a heated debate at the indie game summit of GDC Europe 2 years back, where “indie” was torn between the priorities of entrepreneurial considerations (“I own independent money, hence I’m indie”), versus aesthetic standards (“I make anti-mainstream games, hence I’m indie”). Of course, these dot have to be mutually exclusive categories, but the debate indicates that “identity crisis” has long been going on, and has, if anything, stimulated the discussion of indie developer struggles (and transparency thereof). I wouldn’t read the vagueness of the indie signifier as indicator for an imminent indie culture apocalypse. If indies are really here to stay, instabilities might as well be a chance to grow (which is something that, for instance from a feminist, multicultural POV sounds highly promising).

  8. November 11, 2013 at 18:07

    Hi Imre…..

    RE: Market saturation… : If we take a look at the richly diverse and category filled world of film starting its creative and challenging endeavor in the 1880s – I think the whole of the game development industry (not just indie) has yet a long long long way to go. I think the indies will set the new genres, the direction and need to open up this market for more diversely rich and engaging content I still look for hopelessly…with occasional glimpse of hope,and then reach for a film! With that will come new opportunities for gaming trends (to come and go for sure), specified areas for writers and audio teams and emotive/physical experiences game designers and creatives are just at the brink of inventing 🙂

    I have worked in the interactive media world since the early 90’s doing HCI design, digital art, created website, created animations and videos to mobile games but I only experienced the game industry to be so worried about having an indie movement and making such a big deal of it! Now here is a question, why is that and what are people afraid of? Much of what you observe here is happening…

    RE: Ever changing platforms ….: I have always been told don’t worry about the tech, ie the platform – if your idea rocks everything else will fall into place. As a designer its imperative to focus on purpose/intent first and if the idea is as lush as honey, and you been able to find that one thing everyone has been searching for, the platform will reveal itself. And if you keen to develop for one particular platform…. then you know where to go 🙂

    Anyway my 10cents and food for thought, Cheers Imre

    • November 12, 2013 at 14:48

      Thanks for the comments Maria,

      The danger of saturation is not necessarily financial. Though I’ve heard multiple Indies horribly underestimating that. But the time players have, and the emotional difference between buying something unique or “just another indie game”. Still, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just a risk to be considered.

      Platform: I’m not talking about tech. But the fact that relying on a single source for the majority of your income is not reliable as that source might change or go away completely. Again, a risk not a death-threat. 🙂

      To be fair, I think we pretty much agree.

  9. November 11, 2013 at 18:55

    Yep. This explains why I’m getting schooled right now with my “King Voxel” Kickstarter.

    • November 12, 2013 at 14:53

      Some argue that kickstarter is perfect to measure a game, and that you shouldn’t even bother with an idea if that cannot success crowdfunding. There’s some truth to that, but these campaign definitely don’t just test the game, but the entire package, including marketing, business model, community outreach etc.

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Imre Jele?

Game developer thinking out loud about games and game creation. Co-founder of Bossa Studios, BAFTA games committee member.
@imrejele on twitter


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