Storm warning: How to survive the indiepocalypse

The first warning signs of trouble on the horizon for indie games and their developers came around 2014 when people in the industry started to speak of an indiepocalypse. With an oversaturation of titles flooding onto Steam and App Stores already pushed to capacity by the huge influx of smaller games concerns were beginning to grow. So, is the indiepocalypse still something indie game developers and fans alike should be worried about? Let’s look at some of the key predictions that perpetuate this belief.

The fierce competition

So, according to the Doomsday prophecies, releasing indie games would get more competitive every year and the likelihood of your game succeeding would become less and less. If you take a straightforward look at the statistics it’s easy to see how this conclusion could be reached. The number of games released on Steam, for instance, has increased significantly year on year.

(Stats obtained via the sadly soon-to-be-defunct SteamSpy)

Taking this chart at face value you’d be forgiven for thinking the indie scene is in danger of collapsing in on itself as online retailers become swollen with daily releases. What hasn’t really been taken into account is the fact that Steam as a platform and video games as a medium have experienced a natural amount of growth that can easily account for this rise. For instance, so far, this year roughly 2,600 games have released on Steam. Those figures, taken tentatively of course, would suggest the peak of the storm is plateauing and the collapse may not be happening after all. But, what does that mean for indie games?

The value of visibility

Well, it means the same as it always has: your game still has to be good to get noticed. The number of competitors you face – and let’s be honest, a vast number of the releases on Steam Greenlight, now Steam Direct, were shovelware – doesn’t impact any particular game’s chance of success as much as people fear. Competitors were always there, albeit peddling their games in different ways and in different marketplaces, but they were still a part of the ecosystem that indie games existed in. The issue then, more than anything, is visibility.

The concerns surrounding visibility can clearly be seen in the current goldrush to platforms like the Switch, where developers hope for greener pastures among a far less crowded flock. But the same problems persist, as is evident with talk already circulating in the indie community of a Nindiepocalypse, as games flood onto the system. The truth is visibility is often a byproduct of success. What you really need in the development phase of an indie game is direction, planning, and honest feedback, helping you to make smart market-related decisions.

But when so much depends on people seeing your game when it launches, what can you do in advance to give yourself the best chance of success? It’s important to think early about how to promote  your game to the right people. For example, investing early in community can increase a game’s chance of success in tangible and measurable ways. Studios that have invested early in building a large community following on social media, and who regularly have meaningful engagement through those channels during development, can release their game knowing they already have a significant number of eager players waiting to hit that ‘purchase’ button – driving their games onto Steam’s ‘trending’ list.

Planning for success

Still, having a load of social followers isn’t helpful in and of itself. What’s vital is putting the right product in front of the right people – and making sure that the people you want to impress actually are impressed with your work. Giving your game to members of your target audience during development, and asking them for feedback, might sound like more of a development activity than a marketing one – but the two are inextricably linked.  You’re going to find out what is and isn’t working, the things that might lead to bad reviews, the turn-offs that lie where the turn-ons should be. And you’re going to learn this information early enough to act on it, mitigating a huge risk when it comes to launch.

Perhaps more than anything, running a tight ship business-wise is perhaps more imporant for indies now than ever before. While overall game sales are on the rise, your market share is going to be much lower than it used to be, and the average revenue per indie game has fallen. This doesn’t mean you can’t make a viable living as an indie developer – plenty do – but getting good at budgeting, cost-saving and, ultimately, planning how to make your marketing spend go further, are all important skills to learn if you want to make your project a success. Besides, having a budget in place from the start of your project, even during the concept phase, will save you complications later down the line. You don’t want to spend five years making your dream game, only to find you have no money left to market it with.

There will always be certain factors out of your control in the games industry – it’s a creative pursuit after all – and who knows what will be the next Braid or Limbo? The key to progress then is increasing the chance you have of succeeding, rather than searching in vain for a way to guarantee it.

So, in that sense the indiepocalypse could be considered a myth, an afterthought of the video game crash of the 1980s that saw the industry flooded with companies eager to make money off a once booming market. With developers recently opening up about how their games have failed and why, such as Where the Water Tastes Like Wine’s Johnnemann Nordhagen touched on in his postmortem of the game, it’s more important than ever to budget accordingly for things like PR, marketing, business management and playtesting – as that consultation, guidance or knowledge could help put your game in front of the right people and give it the best chance of success.

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