Treating Indie Game Development as a Business Isn’t News, Is It?

A couple of days ago, Mike “PoV” Kasprzak announced his retirement from game development.

He will still be working on Ludum Dare and isn’t going away, but he’s no longer going to try to make games for a living.

Part of the reason is because he’s not feeling any younger and is looking to settle down. So I won’t post that potentially embarrassing picture of him eating at the Ludum Dare meetup for GDC 2011.

But part of the reason is because he’s concerned about a lack of opportunity in game development:

…my point is that it’s no longer about just making games. It’s not about games that look good, games that play well, games that have a message, games that are different, games in a popular genre or theme; No, instead it’s all about games that stand out, and games people want. You can’t advertise or market your way to success. Those things help, but only if the game itself has that potential. Almost every successful indie you know has put multiple years in to their projects. And for every indie you know, there are hundreds you don’t. It’s not practical to just make games and hope to make a living.

This news came shortly after Tale of Tales announced they were giving up on commercial games:

We really did our best with Sunset, our very best. And we failed. So that’s one thing we never need to do again. Creativity still burns wildly in our hearts but we don’t think we will be making videogames after this. And if we do, definitely not commercial ones.

There was this excellent article on Destructoid the other day claiming that game development is getting crowded.

And the problem is that just making a good game is no longer enough. The job of the modern indie developer is to make a good game & put it in front of millions of people.

And I think that means that we need to change how we think of indie game developers. From basement coders to people who understand marketing & business. After all, what we’re doing is running small businesses.

It sounds like the easy days are behind us, and it is going to take real work from now on to not only make a good game but also to do the ugly, messy things that it takes to run a business, such as marketing and sales.

But wait…hasn’t this always been the case?

I remember reading about the swelling of the supply in games on the Indie Gamer forums ten years ago. Someone was nice enough to keep track of the releases from week to week, as well as the top games, and eventually a conclusion was reached: if so many games are getting released every day, and it takes you anywhere from months to years to make a game, that’s a lot of competition you have to wade through to get noticed, and that’s only if you don’t count the many games released AFTER you’ve released yours.

So marketing and promotion were seen as key differentiators. People dedicated to these roles popped up because there was a big opportunity. Game developers wanted to work on games and outsource their marketing.

And this was back during the popularity of Flash portals, before the modern mobile era.

Here’s an article in 1999 responding to a post about why game development sucks:

Talin says there are lots of reasons for failed products. Crappy products, crappy marketing, crappy distribution, crappy placement at the stores etc.

But, ultimately it usually comes down to the fact that not enough people wanted to play your game. Especially in this day and age when you can put your game up just by uploading it to some file website. If your game is truly something tons of people get addicted to it will spread around this new wired world. If on the other hand people don’t want your game nothing is going to make them want it.

People were still using shareware to market their games back then.

So, yes, the tools to make games today are easier to access than ever, which means anyone can make games, which means anyone is making games.

It’s crowded, and it is hard to stand out.

But it has always been a business, and most of the serious indie game developers knew this fact. It isn’t some new revelation. The tactics might change, but the understanding that you needed to do market research and get people to know your game even exists was always there.

I don’t like cliché, but “If you build it, they will come” isn’t a viable, sustainable strategy for a game developer. It hasn’t been one in a very, very long time. Maybe when the first personal computers were being released, and your competition was almost no one, then sure, just having the only game in town might work.

And if you are only interested in making games as a hobby, then go to town. Make the games you want to make and see if people might enjoy them. Maybe you’ll make some pizza and beer money as a bonus!

But if you are interested in a sustainable living making games on your own, it’s hard because you aren’t just making games anymore. You’re doing market research. You’re doing product management, which is different from product development, which is different from project management. You’re doing contract negotiation, hiring, firing, accounting, accounts receivable, accounts payable, and more.

And if you are doing it by yourself, you still wear all of those hats even if you neglect a number of them.

But none of this is really new. It’s just an awkward truth that has to be learned by each generation.

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