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?
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.
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.