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Why the full-time indie game development dream is dead

Carter Dotson sees a dream become a nightmare
Why the full-time indie game development dream is dead

The full-time indie dream is, for all intents and purposes, dead.

It's rough, but the problem is that the supply of game developers and games is steadily increasing to the point that most additional games added to the app stores don't matter.

We see even developers on Steam now seeing diminished returns.

It's gotten so bad that developers are falling in love with a dying platform, Wii U, somehow viewing it as greener pastures than mobile.

Yes, the market is officially messed up.

Simple supply and demand

It's not going to get better anytime soon, either.

With tools getting cheaper and easier to use, with new countries emerging as game development powerhouses, and the fact that weekend warriors can crowd the same marketplaces as full-time developers, the full-time indie has a rough future.

The dilemma is how many developers can support themselves?

I don't think anyone really wants to see an indie developer crash. There's too many great developers making too many cool games right now.

The dilemma is how many developers can support themselves?

The brutal fact is gaming is growing, but supply is outstripping demand, and the top games are sucking up disproportionate amounts of players' cash and time.

Same old problem

Don't look to new platforms to solve the problem either.

Mobile developers think they're seeing greener grass on desktop, and desktop developers are looking at console. For some, the Wii U has emerged as a healthy marketplace, along with the PlayStation 4, thanks to Sony's support, and to a lesser extent the Xbox One.

But this feels like a temporary panacea: wearables haven't taken off and VR is already competitive despite the lack of consumer hardware. I'm not sure there's a new generation of consoles to come, either.

Are platforms like Oculus Rift a new opportunity or the same-old?
Are platforms like Oculus Rift a new opportunity or the same-old?

And, of course, we're seeing traditional console publishers - such as Bethesda - bringing their massive brands to mobile.

Yet, the dream of the indie dream still lives on. Because the mobile market is so global and so large, every now and then there will be another Flappy Bird, a Crossy Road, a Fallout Shelter...

It's this level of success combined with the joys of the democratized game creation technology and digital distribution is that anyone can create a game... even in their spare time.

Failure conditions

So if you're trying to make a living, you're on the same marketplace as billion dollar companies and weekend warriors who made Flapping Birds in Game Maker.

Make games because you want to make games, not because you want it to be your job.

The market is now structured for the full-time indie to fail. The market is set up for quantity; for millions of developers to provide consumer an endless supply of disposable content.

As for the entities that run the app stores? As long as they have that endless content, they're fine.

Of course, if the full-time indie dies off, there's the risk of a significant drop in game quality because the number of developers who can dedicate their lives to making high-quality games would plummet.

If this happens, the marketplaces might have to do something to make sure that their wealth of content remains. To an extent Apple is currently doing this with its promotion of paid and quirky games.

One obvious defensive move would be to see indies teaming up in larger studios to provide more of a safety net. Perhaps the problem is that we have a million developers making a million games, rather than, say, a million developers making a hundred thousand games.

Steps to take

So what can the indie developer looking to support themselves while staying indie really do to support themselves?

One is that if you're going mobile, you need to be able to make a lot of games in a short period.

  • The cross-promotion will help, as will your odds of getting Apple features.
  • You can work on bigger projects, but if you're not trying to establish a name for yourself and helping your games pull each other up by their bootstraps, you're lost.
  • Make sure you target Android as well as iOS, in case that platform's extra users help you in your quest.

If you're thinking about going to the land of desktop and console games, it might help to make sure your game targets all the platforms you can.

Maybe consoles can give you the featuring you need at launch, but if you use cross-platform tools and design your game wisely, you can make one game for console, desktop, and mobile.

Overall, what you need to do is to ensure that in a hyper-competitive marketplace, you take as many opportunities as possible, and maximize the value of your work.

Alternatively, find yourself a nice day job that you're content with, which pays the bills and keeps you comfortable. Then at night you can make your fun indie games and hopefully get some walking around money.

There's no shame in being a weekend warrior. You're not really restricting your upside, but you are controlling your risk.

I think the full-time indie dream is now an unattainable goal. The odds are getting worse. Fewer people should be chasing it, because there's too much competition out there.

I don't want to end on a pessimistic note, but I worry about the practical future of indies across gaming.

I think the bottomline should be - Make games because you want to make games, not because you want it to be your job.