Ready to pop: How to survive once the 'indie bubble' has burst

Ready to pop: How to survive once the 'indie bubble' has burst

Recently there have been mutterings within the various indie circles that I frequent about an "indie bubble."

I first heard the term used by veteran indie Cliff Harris during our Develop talk in Brighton this summer when he warned that the current glut of developers banging out indie games is unsustainable.

Then an even-more-veteran indie - and my hero - Jeff Vogel published this blog post about the indie bubble popping. His post led to some good discussions and blog posts, including this one by Jay Barnson of Rampant Games, and this one by Andy Moore.

There's even been a healthy debate on the pages of PocketGamer.biz, courtesy of editor-at-large Jon Jordan. But is there any truth in it?

Market saturation

Putting all the links to one side, it's really obvious that the indie game market on all platforms, especially mobile, is becoming super-saturated with developers and games.

Apple recently announced that there are over 1 million apps in the App Store. Steam keeps 'greenlighting' huge batches of indie games - as many as 100 at a time.

The Flash game portals are full to the brim, the casual download portals are cluttered with Hidden Object Games, and Xbox Live Indie Games is a wasteland of avatar games and controller vibrators.

That's not to say there aren't good games on those platforms - of course there are - but there's an awful lot of crap out there too.

Also, prices have been racing to the bottom via Steam sales, various bundles, and now the scourge that is free-to-play games. One of the key basics of marketing advice is to never compete on price, yet that is exactly what most indies are doing and they are devaluing the perceived value of games, especially to the newest generation of gamers.

By all accounts, total revenue is increasing within the indie game market, which is great, but the number of games and indie developers seems to be growing at an even faster rate. That's very dangerous, namely because revenue is spread more thinly - so thin, in fact, that it's impossible for most indies to make a sustainable living.

However, there will still be a small percentage of indies who manage to make hits, and – believe it or not – the impact they can have on the rest of the industry is rather damaging.

You see, the press will devote articles aplenty to these lucky few indies, who will then go on to secure speaker spots at prominent conferences, conveying the supposed keys to their success to a willing audience. Many fresh indies within the crowd will then take their advice on board and then throw themselves into the threshing machine.

The great flood

This exact thing happened in the casual download space back in 2008 or so.

It became harder to compete due to the sheer quantity of developers making great quality casual games. To make matters worse, the casual portals had a price war and dropped the price of casual games from $20 to $7 across the board.

Some developers dropped out of the rat race as a result, while others got involved in the Facebook games 'gold rush' (and later social mobile games). Many of them fled the casual game space altogether and subsequently got burned.

Meanwhile, the casual game market size has stabilised and the remaining casual game developers are mostly able to make a stable living - although very few of them get rich.

It's been like that for a while, but now free-to-play games on PC and mobile are eating into that market and I'm uncertain about its future. As I'm not willing to make a free-to-play game, I may have to set up camp elsewhere, and that makes me nervous because the other campgrounds are full.

Soak a little longer

So how can we survive the inevitable popping of the indie bubble? Well, my tactic will simply be to not give in and to keep getting better.

Many new indies seem to expect their first game to be successful, probably because they've heard success stories from indies who've been "lucky". I was the same back in 2004, too.

Unfortunately, most indies fail badly with their first game and – dare I say it – often their next few games, as well. This is not to say that you shouldn't gun for success with your first game, but you need a decent backup plan in case it doesn't work out.

Because, chances are, it won't.

The trick is to stick at it and not give in. This increases your chance of success with each game you ship as both your skills and contacts grow. Luck is definitely a factor, but it can be optimised over time by making multiple, better attempts.

A lot of people won't be prepared to do that, but those who do will stand a greater chance of making a financially successful game that will enable them to keep making games for a bit longer. There are never any guarantees of course, and that's what makes this business so insane.

The future

As for the future, I expect to see many well-established indies continuing to create successful games, although a few will fall by the wayside for various reasons. We'll no doubt hear about a few brand new indies making hit games - but those will be in the minority.

Unfortunately we'll also see a huge number of indies bail out after their first few games flop and they discover that we are, in fact, right in the middle of an unsustainable indie bubble.

If you think that might be you, remember the bulk of successes will come from those indies who stick at it and keep on improving over many years until everything finally lines up for them. Don't give in!

Jake Birkett is the owner of Grey Alien Games, an indie studio based in Dorset that specialises in casual games for mobile and desktop. He also runs the Full Indie UK meetup group.

You can get in touch with Jake
via Twitter or find out more about Grey Alien Games on the company's website.


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Robert Cummings
Sorry for two posts, but regarding the race to the bottom, this is also a race to the bottom in quality. There's serious far reaching implications for going freemium only (the game IS harmed by the freemium model) and racing to the bottom with a 1 dollar product will mean that product development most certainly can't afford AAA production quality. And indie is capable of AAA quality.

At some point it'll sort itself out. Gamers will continue to demand more and find that the 1 dollar and freemium titles just aren't of sufficient quality.
Robert Cummings
Loved the article.

The problem with all this bubble lark is that most people claiming there is a bubble haven't remotely been around long enough (in fact some haven't lived long enough!) to judge. There is no bubble.

So what is the mysterious bubble old hands who have been around long enough propose? it's in fact really they're making a product that is out of date. Times and tastes change, but developers rarely do. And for those developers, the 'bubble' will burst.

The rest of us will simply adapt. There is more opportunity than EVER before with open console development, steam, mobile. Far more opportunity for indies than any time in game development history. Bubble burst? don't make me roll my eyes, you deserve better than that, developers.
Pixel Cows

I think we have a bubble AND a bottleneck situation. In fact, I'm guessing the bubble itself has already popped, in the sense that indie games were very fashionable and cool, and the first few representatives of the class defended certain ideals so opposite to the mainstream way of thinking games that it was easy to follow them - first as consumers, then for a lot of us as fellow devs. We've been talking about indie as being the new cool thing for too long, and the understanding that there are indie games around is already getting mainstream at this point. Indie game awareness is still increasing, but yeah, the amount of developers has increased way faster! So yeah, the opportunity bubble has popped already. Now we face a more regular market, where we struggle to shine amonst thousands of other devs, and the game that was pure innovation a couple years ago is now commodity.

Commoditization = price war.

There oughta be a way to leverage from the new situation, to the benefit of both indies and players. A way to enable games on the long tail to be profitable enough to allow its devs to make a living out of them.
Dave Jones
I guess the sad truth is that innovation, exposure and quality arenÂ’t even the issue in many cases. ThereÂ’s a great many innovative, exposed and quality games already out there. If you are indie the reality is youÂ’re passionate about making videogames. This means youÂ’ll create videogames regardless of a paycheque.

I believe the indie game industry may soon become similar to the creative writing industry. Millions of people all passionate enough to spend their evenings working on passion projects. There will be stories of single mums beating all odds and getting published. There will be stories of jet setting successes cutting deals with Hollywood. But there will also be the million other creators, struggling to get anyone to take interest in their creation. The reality is this: making games is easy, making games is fun, making great games is talent and luck (born or bred).
promoteindiegames hello@promoteindiegames.com

I think what you are saying is very noble and I understand your point, but unfortunately I can't see it happening in the current situation. Don't forget we are not just talking about indie devs in the US or UK or western europe but game developers from all over the world, with wildly varying costs of living, what might sustain them for a month might not sustain you and me for a week. So because there are many developers who have far lower development costs making apps/games in the same global marketplace you have a situation where games can be put out on the app store very quickly and often, and be F2P, and these games can then be used to promote other games and so on.

Equally when you have so many games available for players, and such a small window to show them in, getting players to your game is priority number 1, and there's no better way to do that then to make your game free. If the platform holders had made .99c/p the lowest price point then that would of become the mostly used price point as well probably.

That's not to say pay up front cannot work for some indie dev's, it can but usually that's when the dev already has an established audience and/or the media highlight their game for being particularly newsworthy for some reason.

There is also something to be said for the nature of mobile games and how players devour the content in chunks because of the time constraints on them and their available playing time. With so many games to choose from and not enough obvious curation of the content, players will take a buffet approach and download many different games, play them for a short time and see which one particularly hooks them. Pay up front actually acts as a barrier in that situation.

I totally get where you're coming from, it's all about being paid properly for the talent and hard work which goes into the games that indies are producing, which is why I created promoteindiegames.com as a means (limited now though as it is) to try and give a bit of help to indie devs. Some of the early suggestions for promoteindiegames was a store front to allow indies to sell their games, but I'm only one guy trying to build promoteindiegames into something and it's going to take a while before something like that can happen.

Jake Birkett
@promoteindiegames Thanks for your comment. The race to the bottom is definitely partly the fault of the indies. Just because platform holders allow a $0 of low-priced game, it doesn't mean we have to do that. I still sell some of my iOS games at $4.99 with no problems. Dropping the price doesn't result in more revenue. Sure some people moan that my games aren't free and don't have "infinite levels" (genuine complaint), but screw them!

Also devs can fight back on price. Recently Cliff Harris released Democracy 3 at $25 with no discount on Steam and it has done incredibly well. Also Red Shirt just released at $20. Of course there are haters, but it's our job to ignore them and try to bring the price and perceived value of indie games UP in my opinion by starting with higher prices and not giving massive discounts until much later in the life of the game.
promoteindiegames hello@promoteindiegames.com
Good article and I agree with most of it, apart from the "bubble" part. Also this..

"One of the key basics of marketing advice is to never compete on price, yet that is exactly what most indies"

That's not indies fault though, indie devs can only play by the rules they are given and if the platform holders allow free as an option, then it's going to be used and will inevitably lead to the race to the bottom.

The problem is that the channels are too limited/narrow. It can't be a bad thing that lots of creative people are trying to bring out fun cool games for us all to play can it? the problem isn't that there's too many indies or too many games but that the platforms and channels for those games to appear on is very small and currently being dominated by a handful of companies software and their products.

It's said that the games at the top of the charts are making $1m + per day, so it's not a question of there not being enough paying players, there obviously are, the problem is that the bulk of that money is being funneled into a few games. Think about that, $1m per day, how many indies and their games could that fund if it was spread more evenly?

Of course some of the games at the top of the charts are there because they are very well made and very well marketed and that's completely fine but I think discoverability and exposure for indie game devs still has a long way to go.

So I don't think "bubble" is the correct term for what's happening, I think "bottleneck" would be more accurate.
Keith Andrew
Very clever. :)
Andrew Pointon
Too many match three games if you ask me :P
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