Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Indie Bubble Is Popping.

Writing this article really stressed me out. I reworked it over a dozen times. To calm down a little, I will intersperse this with image that came up when I Googled "Free cute animal clip art." Here, we see a teddy bear who is addicted to The Spice.
I've been threatening to write about the popping of the Indie bubble for some time. Everything has finally started to come together. It's a miserable thing to have to talk about, but the conversation is long overdue.

First, a brief history of the Indie bubble. In 2008, big budget developers were doing fine, but they had mostly abandoned a lot of genres many gamers loved (puzzle games, adventure games, 2-D platformers, classic-style RPGs, Roguelikes, etc.)

A few young, hungry developers stepped in and showed that classics can be written on low budgets by young, plucky people with unruly facial hair. (Braid. World of Goo. Castle Crashers. Minecraft. And so on.) They were rewarded with huge accolades and many millions of dollars.

Shortly after, other developers stepped in with their own games. They weren't quite as classic, but they were decent, and these people made fewer millions of dollars. Some old super-niche developers (Hello!) were able to rerelease old games and get caught in the rising tide.

Then even more developers, sincere and hard-working, looked at this frenzy and said, "I'm sick of working for [insert huge corporation name here]. I would prefer to do what I want and also get rich." And they quit their jobs and joined the gold rush. Many of them. Many, many. Too many.

And now we are where we are today.

Indie gaming has seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. A deer rocketing through a forest powered by its own poop. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Is it me, or is this bunny totally murdering this other bunny? IT'S GETTING REAL!
My Thesis. (I Have One.)

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I am in love with games. Video games in particular. Indie video games in super-particular. I am more smitten with them than I should be.

(That’s why I’m not angry at the big mobile game makers. They found a way to get my parents to want to be gamers! That’s awesome. I could never do that, and I lived with them!)

The rise of indie gaming over the last few years has been fantastic. It’s given birth to a lot of good, well-funded companies, that have the chance to make great products. (Like Transistor, that, as I write this, just came out.) As long as these companies keep making top-quality work on a reasonable schedule, they’ll be fine.

But lots and lots of other companies are trying to enter the space, and I’m not sure how many of them are aware that things are changing rapidly. Strategies that were sold to them as the Way To Go are rapidly becoming less effective, while forgotten strategies from back in the day may deserve new consideration.

(Of course, I'm talking about PC indie gaming here. On mobile, big free-to-play stomped out the little guys years ago.)

So what this grumpy old fart is saying is that there are Issues. They should be discussed. There are new obstacles that should be planned for and forces you may blame for your problems that, in fact, you shouldn’t. If you are a green developer, face these facts, or I believe destruction awaits.

The easy money is off the street. If you want to make it in this business now, you have to earn it. It's a total bummer. Blaming Steam won't help.

Enough preamble. Let's get to the evidence, shall we?

This adorable dinosaur is mocking your dreams.
The Big, Big Problem. The Only Problem.

The problem is too many games.

How bad has the problem gotten? How towering, bleak, and painfully unavoidable? It's gotten so bad that even the gaming press has noticed it.

Steam released more games in the first 20 weeks of 2014 than in all of 2013.  I don't know why anyone acts surprised. How many times last year did we see the article, "Another 100 Greenlight games OK'ed for publishing!"?

This wouldn't be a problem if there were a demand, but there's not. After all, almost 40% of games bought on Steam don't get tried. As in, never even launched once! At least the people who download free-to-play games try them.

(To be clear, this isn't a problem because these games will keep people from buying new ones, though there will be some of this. People mostly don't play these excess games because they didn't want them. The problem is that a business based on selling things people don't want is not a stable one.)

Because this flood of games is so unmanageable, Steam has been doing everything it can to throw open the gates and get out of the messy, stressful business of curation.  This is absolutely inevitable. It's also going to winnow out a lot of small developers, who don't have the PR juice to get noticed in the crowd. (Think iTunes app store.)

With so much product, supply and demand kicks in. Indies now do a huge chunk (if not most) of their business through sales and bundles, elbowing each other out of the way for the chance to sell their game for a dollar or less. Making quick money by strip-mining their products, glutting game collections and making it more difficult for the developers who come after to make a sale. (I am NOT making a moral judgment here. It is the simple consequence of a long series of calm, rational business decisions.)

Indie gaming started out as games written with passion for people who embraced and loved them. Now too much of it is about churning out giant mounds of decent but undifferentiated product to be bought for pennies by people who don't give a crap either way.

It's not sustainable.

When I asked this lion, "Will Steam Early Access make things better?", it made this face. And then it mauled me.
It Really Is the Only Problem.

It's simple math.

All gamers together have a huge pool of X dollars a year to spend on their hobby. It gets distributed among Y developers. X stays roughly constant (up a little, down a little), but Y is shooting up. A fixed pool of money, distributed among more and more hungry mouths.

Those mouths are your competitors. All your heroes? Notch, The Behemoth, J. Blow, etc? They’re your foes now. Are you ready to fight them?

You can talk all you want about how mean Steam was to you, or how much "discoverability" is a problem, or about how important it is for developers to go to GDC or the PAX Indie Warren or to cool game jams or whatever. It's all a distraction.

X dollars, Y developers. That's all that matters.

And if X stays constant, the only way to solve the problem is for Y to go down. I'll give you a second to work out the consequences of that for yourself.

Another Dimension To The Problem

I can already sense people are unconvinced with my "proof" of why a shakeout is ahead, so I need to point out something else. It's the problem with being a middle-sized developer (a problem that extends to many fields, not just games).

Suppose you are a super low-budget micro-developer like me. It's not super-hard to survive, because I can get enough sales to get by with a little cheap marketing and word of mouth advertising. I'll be all right.

Suppose, alternately, you are a huge AAA developer with massive budgets. You can afford the massive marketing necessary to generate the big sales you need to pay for your expensive games. You'll be all right, until you're not.

But suppose you're a mid-tier (sometimes called AAA Indie) developer, with $500K-$2 million budgets. You have a problem. You need advertising to get sales, as word-of-mouth won't cover it. But you can't afford a big campaign. The only way you will turn a profit is if you get huge free marketing from Steam/iTunes placement and press articles. (Which is why going to big trade shows and cozying up to the press is so important.)

But when there are so many games competing for free marketing, you have a serious problem. According to their site, the Indie Megabooth at the last PAX had 104 games. 104! At one PAX! Just indies! The games industry doesn't need that many games this year, period. #mildexaggeration

If you are an established developer journalists love, like Supergiant with Transistor, you have a chance to stand out from this horde. If you don't already have a hit, I don't know what to tell you. If I were you, I strongly suggest you write an utterly flawless, ground-breaking title and utterly blow everyone’s minds.

It's a rough spot to be in, and that's where a huge chunk of current indie development has placed itself. Some will shrink down, some will leap to the higher tier. But it's going to be super rough in the middle. Again, to see how this works in real life, look at iTunes.

Oh, and by the way? If you disagree with me on any of this? I HOPE I'm wrong! I want you to convince me I'm wrong!


Um, I said "cute" animals. Come on, Google. YOU HAD ONE JOB!
Stop Blaming Steam!

I am somewhat irked by developers blaming Steam for their problems. "Why don't they publish me? Why don't they feature me? Why won't Steam make me rich!?" All of it said in exactly the tone of voice my 8 year old uses when she's angry her older sister got a bigger piece of cake.

If there has been one true hero in this story, it has been Steam. If, in 2008, I'd written my dream list of what a publisher could provide to help the little developer, Steam would have done it all, and then some.

I have a private theory, that's really only in my own brain. It's this. Valve is full of really cool people, who truly love games. But, at some point, with Steam, these basically nice people suddenly found themselves in the position of deciding who lives and who dies. It's a stressful, miserable place, and they didn't like it. It just made it harder to get out of bed in the morning.

In the last few years, Steam workers were the ones who handed out the golden tickets. They gave one to me. (Everyone on Steam made a lot of money. Even niche-developer dingleberries like me. You could put Pong on the front page at $20 a copy and still make a fortune.) The guy next to me who didn't get the ticket? He was angry. At Steam, at me, at the world. But mostly Steam.

Steam found themselves in a position of being hated for something it could do nothing about. Not to mention the fact that the sort of curation they were doing was impossible in the long term. You shouldn't want the games you can buy to be controlled by some guy at a stand-up desk in Bellevue, WA. They aren't wizards. They can't tell what's going to be a hit any more than anyone else. The free market has to do that job.

So they stood aside and opened the floodgates. Supply shot up and demand stayed even, which means, by a certain law of economics (the first one, in fact), prices have to drop. Which brings us to the bundles.

Christ. How long does this blog post go on for anyway?
The Bundles. Oh, So Many Bundles.

I've long been a vocal fan of Humble Bundle. They're good people who want to make the game industry cooler. Their sales widgets are an amazing tool. We use them ourselves. Their bundles started out as a fantastic way to showcase what our slice of the industry has to offer and help charity to boot.

Now, however, there are a lot of bundles. Many of them. Their main purpose: help established developers squeeze a few more dimes out of fading (or faded products). They are a product of the glut.

As I write this, Humble Bundle is running two weeks of DAILY bundles. That's, like, 3-10 full-length games a DAY. Spend a hundred bucks or so, and you'll get enough solid titles to keep you occupied for years. You should do it. It's a bargain. Then you'll only need to pay full price for the one game a year you really care about, and you won't need to worry about risking cash experimenting with new developers.

Then, give it 2-3 years, and you won't have to worry about new developers, because there won't be any.

Again, there is NO moral judgment here. We're all making calm, rational business decisions. I'm just saying where it's going. Where it has to go.

It just can't last. Bundles used to earn a ton, but they don't anymore. If making pennies a copy selling your games in 12 packs is the main source of a developer's income, that developer is going to disappear. Also, all of the bundles and sales encourage users to expect to pay a price too low to keep us in business. It’s just the same race to the bottom as in the iTunes store, except this time we were warned, and we did it anyway.

And hey, I’m not blameless in this. My games have been in a million sales and bundles. It’s what you have to do now, and I’m just as fault as everyone else.

If someone tells you this is the slightest bit sustainable, they are misleading you. There are lots of different reasons to do this. Maybe they need to fool you. Maybe they need to fool themselves. Just don't believe them. X dollars, Y developers. That's all that matters.

"FTL, what is best in life?" "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to get sweet iTunes store placement."
Just One More Data Point

Actually, what drove me to write this, more than anything, was the first minute of last week's Zero Punctuation. It's kind of a gut punch.

It's the time of year when Yahtzee normally shines his giant flashlight on some under-noticed, deserving indie game and elevates it to the big leagues. Instead, he threw up his hands and reviewed the 2012 title FTL. FTL!

Seriously, what sort of review can you write about FTL in 2014? I can cover it in four words: "Yep. It's still FTL." What? There's an iPad version out? Fine. Ten words: "It's still FTL. Also, the iPad version doesn't crap itself."

(To be clear, FTL is a very good game. But I suspect that, at this point, its authors wouldn't mind sharing a smidge of the spotlight with a less established developer.)

With so many games out, picking the good ones out of the crowd is a huge job. As far as I can tell, nobody, and I mean nobody, is willing to do it. This is why, despite such a flood of product, so few games have broken out from the crowd so far this year.

If most of the indie developers went out of business, are we so sure that, outside of the game dev community, people would even notice? Are we so sure a hearty herd thinning isn't what they secretly want?

I Shouldn't Have Written This.

Because it's redundant. I mean, we knew all of this, right? Gamers certainly know. It's been a few years since looking at the new indie games went from, "Ooh! Let's see what treats await me today!" to "Aaaahhh! So much stuff! I am stressed out now!"

Also, it bums me out. I feel like some jerk who sees a guy's pants fall down and points and laughs and shouts, "HA HA! Your pants just fell down!" The pants-down guy has my sympathy. My sales are way down too, so if you hate me, I hope that fact gives you a little smile.

But all this stuff seems pretty obvious. Someday, as things shake out more, I want to try to get into a much more interesting, chewy topic: What happens next? And, if you still want to write indie games, perhaps a grizzled old survivor of multiple booms and busts can provide some helpful ideas.


Edit: I fixed a date and corrected the number of games in the Humble Daily Bundles. I swear I fixed that once, but the correction was lost in the flurry of rewrites. Also, anyone who wants to hear more of my natterings can follow me on teh Twitter.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Please Stop Complaining About Free Mobile Games Now. PLEASE.

God. When did Indie game developers start acting so darn superior all the time?
Like many self-declared oh-so-serious gamers, I've long been irritated by casual mobile free to play games. I finally managed to get over that. I don't know what was wrong with me. Things now are just fine.

Ok, yeah, we know, we've all heard the arguments. Mobile games are too dumb. Too brightly colored. Too greedy. It's irritating to see ads, to be asked for money. They make too much of their money from compulsive "whales." We're nerds, and grannies are sneaking into our seekrit kewl gamer basement. Mobile game developers are too obsessed about money metrics and not enough about creativity. (As if the Indies are blameless on that score. "But my new tower defense game is really groundbreaking!" Please stop talking to me now.)

Mobile games are not what gamers and Indie developers want gaming to be. And this is the Internet, so, if anyone likes something different, THEY MUST BE DESTROYED.

Yes, you've had your say. You don't like mobile games. We got it.

So please give it a rest already?

So Jeff, What Got Up Your Butt?

Lots of things, but this tweet was kind of the final straw. In my butt. #mixedmetaphorpromode

Sure. I'll get right on saving mobile gaming, as soon I finish this Hearthstone match. Then I'll ... WHAT? RELEASE THE HOUNDS AGAIN? I HATE HUNTERS SO MUCH!!!
I feel a little bad picking on Notch here, because he's a decent guy and critiquing tweets is already a waste of time, but his tweet bugged me for two reasons.

First, "save mobile gaming?" From what? Being crushed under a giant avalanche of cash?

Second, this is a smug dismissal of a huge chunk of the game industry that keeps a lot of developers employed making games that a lot of people really like. It's also the most emotionally manipulative argument possible: OH, won't someone think of the CHILDREN!?!? ("Honey, are you letting little Billy playing Clash of Clans?" "Yes." "You MONSTER!")

By the way, in my observation, the younger generation isn't playing mobile F2P. The kids are spending all their time in Minecraft. Somehow, I think they'll be fine.

(Actually, if you want a better example of the Indie Developer sense of superiority, this recent article in Polygon is the gold standard. His attempts to use mathlogic to prove that these immensely popular games are actually hated are genuinely amusing.)

While we're all relieved that Indie gaming is ready to swoop in and save us from what we want, those of us who hate mobile games should take a moment to consider why we do. Speaking to gamers here: When you viscerally hate something that has never hurt you personally (or even affected you, really), it is possible that the true problem is really somewhere inside your own head.

So let's examine some of the reasons why we fear and hate our new Mobile F2P masters.

"Hearthstone doesn't count. I don't consider one of the bad free games." Yeah. Everyone says that about the one they like. 

One. "The People Who Make Them Are Soulless Business Drones. Not Cool Arteests Like Us."

Yeah, pretty much. I've been to casual/mobile game trade shows, and, man, that is so not a nerdy place. It's a bunch of NormalPeople and MBAs, with nice clothes and haircuts, tossing around weird business terms like ARPU and ARPDAU and AMPU and DILDONG. And sure, they all like Game of Thrones, but they don't like it in the correct way we do.

Sometimes I think that the gamer hate for mobile is not because it's unsuccessful (because it's massively profitable) or because they provide people with mind-boggling amounts of leisure fun (because they do), but because they remind us of the grade school bullies who laughed at us and took our lunch money. But this time they're doing it inside OUR industry.

People who write free games, from Candy Punch Saga to Hearthstone are doing what we do, but better. (And yes, Hearthstone has "Casual" appeal too, whatever that means. Ten million registered accounts says so.)

The people making those games may not being doing it our way, by our metrics, but they are passionate about giving lots of people something they like. Hell, they care about how many people play their games way more than I do. They'll lose a week's sleep over increasing their player base by 0.01%, because that might be the edge they need to stay employed.

The sheer scale of the entertainment they provide is mind-boggling, and they're doing it mostly for free, with, by the way, game systems that mere mortals can actually understand.

Why did free games take over the world? Well, you can pick up the entirely of Hearthstone in five minutes. Think you understand the rules to Magic: The Gathering? Nobody does. Look what it takes to understand that game.  It's madness.

Maybe accessibility is our problem. "Hey, man, I was wasting my life stressing about impenetrable rules systems before it was cool."

Two. "They Write Simple Cartoony Games For the Most Casual."

And they're rich. Aren't you just angry you didn't think of it first?

What people seem to ignore is that these games provide the most challenging hardcore experience available in games today. Want a rough time? It's simple: Don't spend money.

(A common logical error made when analyzing mobile games is seeing that only a small percentage of people spend cash and concluding this means people don’t like the games. This is a huge mistake. I’ve never paid a penny on free games, including several I love. This just means that I’m awesome.)

Free games, even the more casual ones, solve the great problem in game design. They thread the needle between Casual and Hardcore. Want a light, easy experience? Spend a little money. Want a punishing experience that takes lots of time and care? Play for free.

Yes, if you pay for free, they'll put a lot of time blocks in your way, both arbitrary waits and levels you'll lose a lot of time. But that's what serious gamers want, right? To do something hard and finally succeed? And this time it's even more fun, because you did it for FREE. It feels like you got away with something!

Hay Day, and enormously popular F2P game. I only put up this image because I think it'll annoy gamers.
An Aside. You Think You Know Hardcore? You Don't Know Hardcore!

People who ask for and play tough games are really full of themselves. We all know that. You won Dark Souls? That's nothing. I have a friend who beat Candy Crush Saga without spending a penny. Took months. You want strategy and grueling persistence? There it is.

And she's not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination. She's as casual and casual gets, and she's a more dedicated, obstacle-toppling gamer than you are. Even if her game involves hitting a spastic teddy bear with clumps of purple gumdrops, or whatever.

Three. "If You Don't Pay, You Have To Spend a Lot of Time Getting Power."

Sure. And this makes it different from non-free games how, exactly?

People have a problem with this now? Well, I don't remember gamers having a problem when we all burned up our youths in the twin furnaces of Everquest or World of Warcraft. Used to be, in Everquest, every fifth level was a "hell level," where they doubled the number of experience you needed to pass it for no reason. It was arbitrary, obnoxious, and ridiculous. I still have nightmares about level 45.

If you complained about it everyone jumped down your throat and called you dirty names. Players just spent the hours grinding. With great concentration, you could convince yourself that you were having fun.

Now, the worst thing that happens is the game, to advance, forces you to pay or get this to stop playing for an hour. You don't even need to spend that hour killing the same goblin over and over again. You can go do something else!

Seriously. Whatever ridiculous hoops free games make you jump through to advance? Hardcore gamers have gone through ten times worse. And we did it to ourselves. And we convinced ourselves it made us cool.

An Aside. Of Course, It Can Be Done Badly. Of Course.

It's not hard to make a F2P game that sucks. A recent instructive example of the Internet Anger/Entitlement Complex was EA's free Dungeon Keeper game.

Now, I never played it. And neither did 19 out of 20 of the people who complained about it. From what I heard, it committed the cardinal sin of making people wait too long to do anything and forcing them to spend money to see any of the game's cool stuff.

And they were punished for it. Even in the ancient shareware days, we knew that the free version had to be enough to addict your customers. Dungeon Keeper didn't do this, and it messed up in the harshest, most unforgiving of markets. Result? Don't bother to look for it in the top sales charts. It's not there.

But that has nothing to do with the bizarre level of screeching that accompanied its release. To hear gamers talk, it's like EA defiled some sacred institution of modern society.

Dudes, I was there when Dungeon Keeper came out. I bought it with real money. And ... It was fine. Halfway decent. And that's it. Look at it this way. If it was such a hot property, why was the license allowed to lie fallow for fifteen years?

(Bonus Young Developer Advice: Looking for a game idea? The apparent desire for a new version of Dungeon Keeper might be something you can profitably take advantage of.)

"I have two jobs, three kids, and four minutes to rest." Why don't you spend that time pretending to have a miserable, meaningless life? "Because I don't hate myself."
Four. "These Games Are Shallow and Don't Provide a Rich Artistic Experience."

Yes. Thank God.

I've lost count of the number of indie developers who cursed these games as being mere time-wasters and dopamine-generation buttons. Why wouldn't you instead play an iphone game that provides a varied, rich artistic experience, like ... like ... Yeah, I don't know either.

Look, don't listen to indie developers. We all may be, oh, I don't know, a tiny bit in love with ourselves? I missed it when the world elected us the High Princes And Arbiters Of Leisure Time.

Candy Crush Saga fans aren't sheep or Muggles. They are making highly rational choices about spending limited time and/or money for maximal rest. Papers, Please! is a great game, but it's also stressful and depressing. If you look down on someone who prefers Pet Rescue Saga, you may have lost the plot on this whole "game" thing.

Some may have forgotten that, most of the time, all people want is a painless way to escape stressful reality for five minutes while waiting for the bus.

Five. "Casual Games Monetization Isn't Ethical."

The best evidence is that a tiny fraction of mobile games players make up a huge chunk of the income. These super-players are called "whales." It's really interesting.

I used to be concerned about it. Not so much, now.

I was uncomfortable with a business model of coldly extracting most of your earnings from a tiny percentage of "whales" in your user base, but it could be WAY worse. There's a hundred casinos within an hour's drive of my house, and those icehearted bastards will take your house, smile, and sleep like a baby afterwards. Who is protesting them? At least nobody ever lost their kids' college money playing Candy Crush.

I hate to get all Robert Heinlein on you, but unless Zygna agents are sneaking into your house in the middle of the night to load Epic Bakery Candy Saga Pony Plus on your phone, the reason people play these games is because they like them. They picked them out of a market that provides a million places to hop to if their current game irritates them. I'm sorry if it angers you if someone chooses to play Flappy Bird or 2048 instead of your soul-enriching art piece, but that's the breaks.

(Of course, when these games have actual gambling, it'll be a moral apocalypse. Argument for another day.)

Fun Still Matters. Games, Remember?

My wife has a serious love/hate relationship with these games. When Candy Blast Mania hits her up for cash, her eyes glow incandescent with rage. And yet, she's burned through hundreds of levels, exterminating bosses with robotic efficiency. Not paying for it only makes it more fun.

I won't embarrass us by revealing how thoroughly Hearthstone has occupied our brains. Again, not costing a penny.

I'm always in awe of people's ability to take a cornucopia of wonder and upend it, pawing through the treasures within in the hope of finding a dried rat turd or something. We're getting an awesome deal here, people. Perhaps too awesome. There's probably a big business shakeout approaching this market in the next few years, but it's nothing compared to the apocalypse small Indie developers are about to face.

(Don't believe me? Go here and watch the first minute. This is the way the world ends.)

Daily earnings for the top ten mobile games. I think my favorite thing is that some people think the war isn't over.
The Peace of Letting Go

So you might as well be cool with it. Because, well, look at this sales chart. Those revenue figures are per DAY.

This isn’t competition. This is implacable domination. This is the Huns stampeding over the border, driving the survivors into the caves, and salting the earth. Except that the Huns, in this case, were us.

The people have spoken, the bastards. For Indie developers to say to gamers, “No, you poor, lost little lambs, this isn’t really what you want. Let us saaaave you,” is getting more than a little embarrassing.

Indie was, is, and always will be, niche. Add up all the earnings of every Indie game last year, Minecraft included, and it’s probably still less than Supercell’s monthly Snapple budget. All we can do, going forward, is find a way to deal with it.

In our house, dealing with it will include a lot of Hearthstone. And, of course, gathering colored candy into easily extracted clumps.