Grim times for indie game devs

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In some ways this isn’t unexpected. Video games are primarily entertainment products and once large corporate entities get involved in any entertainment industry a winner-take-all “star system” that leaves 99.9% of aspirants in the dust is exactly what you get.

These games with zero reviews, zero comments, and one distracted curator are the equivalent of the starving actor or singer in NYC or L.A. who’s blown all his money on renting a theatre for a one-night showcase performance attended by a handful of friends. It’s admirable and sad all at the same time.


Ugh. Making small games is now a hobby, not a job, I guess.

Steam, has become almost useless for me the past oh five years or so. It almost never manages to show me something I actually want to buy, and never convinces me to buy anything. I feel like 5 years ago it did both regularly. It used to show metacritic scores, which was helpful (could at least filter out the garbage, and get to a professional review quickly). I suppose now only 1% of the stuff on steam can even get a metacritic score. Of course I also have a lot less time these days.


Why a pie chart? Why not a bar chart?


I dunno, I have found info on several indie game and purchased things like Enter the Gungeon, Guild of Dungeoneering, Never Alone, Teleglitch: Die More Edition, Broforce, NOT A HERO - all good to great games. All by small time makers. I got the info from things like facebook ads and articles from game sites and things like “Games you haven’t played” in the Extra Credits youtube series.

I am sure there are a lot of good games out there that get lost in the chaff, but it seems to me some basic marketing might behoove people. Though as I understand it, finding games even before the glut was difficult. And this is the same issue on places like Google Play or Apples App Store, there are tons of crap games and apps on there. That one video BB posted showed there were dozens of flashlight apps alone.

So what is the solution? Hell half the gamers who buy games sort of just acquire games and rarely get the time to play them all. God help people like my brother who has 10x more JRPGs than he could possibly play in his life time.

Perhaps have a curated section on Steam? It still won’t be perfect, but perhaps it would weed out some of the chaff. Actually, in trying to find the name of this game I want to mention, it stumbled onto the fact there are curators who recommend games, and they recommend you follow a curator based on your preferences.

I plan to get this game out tomorrow. Its on PC and Mac so I can play it on my work machine and my PC machine when I get it back up/get a new one.

What sucks about gaming is all the rip offs. Someone already took this guys rather novel (dunno if it is original) game play concept of playing a hole that swallows things and stripped it down to a base mechanic for a short 2min game called Now I don’t think the games are comparable as far as game play goes - or how much better Donut County’s art is - but the general concept was beat to market with a free to play game and that kinda sucks. But whatta you gonna do?

It’s a Portal reference?


Sadly the only people who suffer from Valve’s craptacular lack of curation and oversight is the devs. Gamers are going to find games to play regardless, Valve still makes money so they don’t care if these devs succeed or not.

I have stopped buying games regularly on Steam, i do occasionally get something but nowhere near the frequency i used to. But the times i do buy a game nowadays its typically from indie studios. Last one was Hollow Knight and i’m mulling over buying Graveyard Keeper, which looks fantastic. Hell these days i don’t even wait for Steam sales, i want these devs to get a better cut from my purchase… i’m sure they make nothing from Steam sales.


They do, its just garbage, Valve gave up on making it useful.

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I feel like forming collectives and aggressive cross-pollination is a way forward for small developers and indeed, the rest of us who want access to actually good indie games . Curation was really the core of this lament. Indie games appeal to people who are eschewing the AAA style, therefore want a game with personality, so marketing happening through authentic and organic networks is really important. Paid marketing, if it’s not through similar venues, isn’t going to find the hyper-specific audience that games need. One weirdo with a platform needs to show their weirdo followers the new weirdo game that has some common emotional elements.

The model, for me, is podcasts. I love podcasts, but I do not like social media, trial-and-error or shopping. Most of the podcasts I discover are through networks whose tone and sensibility I like (maximum fun, etc…), and whose judgement I trust.


I’ve given up on Steam to find new games. It’s been mostly GOG these days or word of mouth because Valve’s Steam devs/moderators just don’t give a single hoot what happens on the platform. They don’t even try to stop asset flippers from flooding the store let alone take big publishers to task for re-releasing old games with no updates to work on current systems (ex. Fallout 1/2 on Steam just sucks, best to get it from GOG). So, I say just stop giving the libertopians at Valve the money they don’t deserve when possible.


We’ve arrived at the worst it can get because you can’t sell less than zero.

Next-level capitalism!


Same here. It goes for any product, really. It also creates a virtuous cycle. For example, following a recommendation from a trusted site I now follow the 99% Invisible podcast about design, which is advertiser-supported. One of the sponsors is, a design-focused furniture retailer, and since I also trust 99pi and its host when it comes to design and the host recommended the retailer in a sincere way it prompted me to do something I rarely do: follow through on an Internet ad.

Trust, expertise, context, and independent media are the keys to this game, especially when you’re talking about building a base of trufans on the long tail rather than trying to build a mass-media hit for a lowest-common-denominator star system driven by greed and algorithms (hi, Steam!).


I think getting awareness and building a fan base at the very initial stages of forming a studio would be the biggest hurdles. I can easily imagine that grinding and putting in a lot of work to an audience of no one, despite putting your work out there is demoralizing. That being said there are avenues to help like game jams, indie booths at conventions, maker spaces, forums, game sites, etc… you just gotta hustle like everyone else.


Crowdfunding, too, although this has to be handled carefully. If the initial product has enough people excited enough about it to give money to it then the dev is starting out with an audience of more than none. So hustle and follow-through.

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I think Kickstarters, specifically for games, is kind of where projects go to die. Only a lucky few will see success here and often sets up high expectations that rarely pay off. I’ve seen too many high profile failures here and small studios struggle to get attention to their KS


I dunno if thst read actually works.

For one thing Valve is considerably less corporate than we typically think of. They’re privately or closely owned. So its not like they’re answering to or prioritising stock holders and stock price. And whole they’ve long been what we’d describe now as a AAA developer. They’ve self published for most of their history. And Steam was launched as part of that, allowing self distribution by jumping on digital distribution when it wasnt a huge thing. Before they got huge. Valve was very much what we’d consider an “indy” company.

Which get to thr second end of it. Steam didnt so much “get involved” with the indy games market. As create it. When steam launched digital distribution was barely a thing. The early share ware and direct sale through enthusiast magazine ads model was just gone by thr end of the 90’s. And mostly existed when there was far less money in pc games to begin with. And what little pathway existed for indy devs to make money was mostly to do what Valve, Interplay, Bethesda and some others had done. Make budget and licensed titles for extant corporate publishers. And if and when you had a hit. Self publish original IP, or spin off your own Publisher.

Otherwise you were distributing things free, and asking for donations to fund it. Largely as a hobby, and largely producing mods. Hoping some one would either hire you based on the strength of that work, or buy your project/team outright and produce a full game (often enough it was Valve doing that). Even when you could self publish there was a distribution problem. Because you weren’t getting shelf space down at the EB or Walmart. So you had people pushing really limited direct sales through their own websites.

Thats the other side of that pie chart. Steam launched in 2003 with only valve games available. 2004 only 7 indy games released, because there wasnt anything like a healthy market for indy games. That middle period with releases in the 100’s represents the creation and success of that market. Where it became a bit of a driver for the pc platform, through and because of Steam.

Thats a big part of the frustration with Valves mismanagement. And a fair bit of what we’re seeing is a result of the success of the indy market. Previously there wasnt enough money for scams and crapware it target indy games or Steam.

But I think part of the problem lies with Devs and press as well. Steams discovery tools have never been good or useful, and relying on Steam not just to distribute your product but to market as well is a bad idea. There are simple, cheap ways to market things without relying on the Steam store front. And I’ve seen coverage of the indy scene shift to coverage of Steam. But very few of the Indy games I’ve bought. Or the indy games that people I know are aware of seem to have discovered through random chance in the Steam store. It was word of mouth, positive press, marketing efforts in outside places like conventions.

The scammy shit makes it through bevause of steams size and poor management. But a big chunk of the impact thats having on legit devs is down to the industry using steam for everything not just for distributiin (which you kind of have to). It was a short, lucky stretch of time when just happening to be on steam was enough to get the word out. But no business is gonna thrive by just happening to be in a particular store. You have to market and advertise.


Gee, really? I would have thought when it came to old games, developers would just package it once and release it the same way everywhere.

Back in the day you could at least count on Steam to make installation problem-free (as opposed to having to decipher some cryptic error or another and then proceeding to hunt down XNA or vcredist or whatever). How troubling.

Glad to see I’m not the only who looked at this graph and thought, “That’s not how a pie chart works.”


Private or public, their goal is to establish a semi-monopoly position when it comes to digital game distribution. As a AAA developer themselves they tend to favour the star-system approach when it comes to Steam and also tend to fall victim to bad management practises (another way in which they’re similar to other large media/entertainment distribution/marketing companies).

Unlike legacy media companies where there are 4-5 large incumbents, however, the Steam service is currently the main player (dwarfing competing services like GoG and Humble). Like legacy media companies they allow a lot of horrible crap to be distributed through their network.

There are ways for indie devs to work within this system, just as there are ways for working actors to hustle their way through careers in the movie and TV industries and session artists to make their way in the music industry. Relying mainly on any entertainment industry’s distribution/marketing behemoths is not a formula for success in any context because all those companies care about are hits and stars and creating feedback cycles to generate both.

Only if the devs aren’t doing any of the other things you mentioned:

It’s a full-on effort. One indie studio I noticed that did it right is Compulsion Games, creators of “We Happy Few”, which in addition to all those other things began with a Kickstarter.


For sure, it can be done. Hollow Knight, Shovel Knight, Wasteland 1 & 2, Shadowrun, and a few other small games were quite successful but i’ve seen more failures in that space, even with veteran developers. I’m just not convinced Kickstarter is a good use of a developer’s time, i think there are better ways to engage with gamers that aren’t as risky.


Random thoughts in no particular order:

This seems like what happened with consoles in the late 1970s, when the market got flooded with crap (E.T.?)

I often will insist on playing a demo before buying, especially if I haven’t heard anything about the game.

I have some 50 games on Steam. I could never buy another game and be relatively happy.

Many Indie games don’t appeal to me. I hated Stardew Valley and Rise to Ruins. I love Banished, but it’s got good graphics, as well as good gameplay.

There’s always Origin and Battlenet, in addition to GOG.