On Indie Bubbles

26 May
May 26, 2014

So Jeff Vogel’s latest, rather pessimistic post, in which he predicts the collapse of the so-called “indie bubble”, is doing the rounds at the moment. If you haven’t read it yet, you can read it here for context.

Now, it’s worth noting that what Jeff is talking about isn’t really a bubble, in the economic sense. An economic bubble is when the market valuation of goods is higher than it really should be, usually driven by speculators, people who buy up that good because they anticipate its market value increasing in the future and hope to sell for a profit. When the market realizes the good is over-valued, the speculators panic, they attempt to sell their stock of the good before the price they can get for it drops, which of course causes the price to plummet, losing most of them a good deal of money. The dot com and housing bubbles being prime examples.

Now, that’s not what’s happening here, clearly. But it’s not worth getting too pedantic about the exact terminology, as that would be failing to address the real spirit of Jeff’s argument.

For myself, I don’t know whether Jeff is entirely right, but he isn’t entirely wrong. I know from speaking to other devs that being on the front page of the New Releases category on Steam can mean many times the number of sales as being off it. And the flood of recent releases means that each new game is getting less and less time on that front page. Even worse, the default page that Steam loads has recently changed, it isn’t New Releases anymore, it’s “Top Sellers.”

Which really just results in a feedback loop, where being successful makes you more successful, and the boost to “discoverability” afforded by the front page for hopeful up-and-comers, weakens.

It’s certainly a real factor, but that, to me, doesn’t speak to a limited pool of gamer dollars being split amoungst an ever-growing pool of developers. To me that signals the fracturing of Steam’s ability to direct the attention of gamers, Eye of Sauron-like. Since it’s trying to direct your attention to more and more games, and the number of hours in a week hasn’t magically increased, it’s naturally able to give each new game a smaller slice of time. Less time = fewer sales.

eye-of-sauron_0

If Vogel were right, if it were about a limited pool of gamer money being divided up more and more, then you’d expect the top sellers to be feeling the pinch almost as much as anyone. After all, even for a Braid or a Transistor, if this were the core problem, the maths would be inescapable. Sharing the pie with 1000 other developers would be worse than sharing the pie with 10 other developers.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’ve seen nothing to say that the top sellers, even amoungst the so-called “AAA indies”, are having their profits eaten into by the growing flood of greenlit games. Now sure, I don’t actually have stats that they aren’t feeling a pinch, that data is guarded fairly closely, but I think I’d have heard some rumblings. If anything, there seem to be more of the “superstar” indies than there used to be, all doing fairly well. Which, if you think about it, is also a counter to the “limited gamer money being divided more” argument. Since each new AAA-indie released on the service would be gobbling up more of the supposedly-limited cash pie that the existing developers on Steam used to share than any 10 other minor-league indies.

So to me the issue is that we’re seeing the end of a time when, if you got in the door, you were almost guaranteed to be bathed in the attention of steam’s huge customer base for a week or so. Which is enough time to get you some really good sales figures, and potentially grow your customer base to the point where the word-of-mouth becomes self-sustaining. Being greenlit was kinda like winning a free, powerful advertising campaign, courtesy of Valve. Now it’s like winning a much smaller marketing campaign, courtesy of Valve.

So we’re getting back to the point where devs have to work much harder for marketing, perhaps harder than ever before. Which sucks a bit, I had my own dream of Steam fame and fortune, after all. But this is what many indies asked for. Many resented the fact that Steam could act as kingmakers, especially when steam access started to hurt their ability to sell directly to customers on their own sites (many have reported that some of their customers won’t buy games if they’re not on Steam).

Now, I’m not saying that competition isn’t a factor. It is. But competition doesn’t quite work out as simply as Jeff describes, when it comes to art. You see, art and entertainment products aren’t widgets. They’re not directly interchangeable.

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, and you see the next Harry Potter book for sale for $20, you’re not likely to be strongly moved by the fact that there might be a sale for Tom Clancy novels, 3 for $10. Not unless you’re also a Clancy fan, in which case you may have a dilemma. If you’re a Metallica fan, I can’t move you with an offer of a Red Hot Chilli Peppers CD instead.

It’s not like saying this bar of soap is cheaper than that bar of soap, or this running shoe is cheaper than that running shoe. Games, and art/entertainment in general, are not very homogeneous.

A flood of casual match-3 games isn’t likely to be strong competition for the dollars of the hardcore RPG fan base, which is where Vogel operates. Vogel is much more likely to face competition from the recent wave of Kickstarted RPGs, or the Eschalon series, or possibly hard-core strategy sims.

Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t competition, or that it isn’t growing. There is, and it is. But it’s not as simple a story as “publisher dumps a hundred casual game ports on Steam, competition increases 10 fold” or some such. If anything, I think many good niches are still under served, for indies, game backlogs from bundles not-withstanding. I know that, for myself, I buy far fewer RPG or strategy or simulation games per month than I could afford to. And an intriguing new gameplay mechanic or game world is still a draw. Half the kickstarter projects I’ve backed have been in the hope of reseeding some of my favourite genres which have dryed up in recent years. I, for one, am still very much an under served customer. Despite my 50-deep unplayed game backlog on Steam (I’ll get to that in a moment).

So building games for an untapped niche or coming up with an original design can still leave you relatively free of competition, even in a heavily-crowded marketplace. That’s one of the wonderful things about creativity in design, it can leave you with a sort of pseudo-monopoly, at least for a while. Your unique mechanic, style, storytelling, world or thematic flavour can be something that no one else can easily or quickly copy. It’s a lesson Minecraft should have burned indelibly into our minds.

One last point, on bundles and backlogs. Sure, I’ve picked up many a bundle myself, usually in the hope of finding a hidden gem. And many of them languish unplayed. But, in my mind, that’s more like spending money on discoverability than anything else. I used to plonk down similar levels of cash for game magazines each month, mostly for the demo cds. Sales and bundles are mostly filling the role of demo cds these days, for me, acting as a way of paying a small amount to try something you’re not willing to buy blind at a higher price. If I like it, I’ll look for sequels or DLC or other games by that developer to buy full price.

cd

You could that the comparison is wrong because they’re full games, not demos, and won’t lead to full sales later. But they still seem to fit into that role and ecosystem, to me. As a gamer I spend a negligible amount of money to sample a wide range of titles that I otherwise wouldn’t, and it doesn’t bother me a whole lot if some of those go unplayed. And, for the developers, a small amount of cash from a large number of bundle buyers willing to try your game at that low price is comparable to 1 in 100 trying your game demo and deciding to buy it full price. Maybe even better.

All those unplayed bundle games, just like the games I hadn’t played on demo cds, don’t seem to stop me eagerly buying titles I’m truly sold on, when they come out, at full price. They don’t seem to be directly competing. There seem to be two categories of games in my head.

Category A – games I’m really excited about, which I want to play as soon as I can. That category feels like it’s empty most of the time, I go months between satisfying that drive. When a game does enter that queue, I consume it as soon as possible, making time in my evenings for it, playing it until I’ve finished it, savouring the experience. Then, sadly, I go back to reading the news and watching trailers of upcoming titles , waiting the months and years for the next anticipated game to finally release. Months of waiting, a few weeks playing. Far more demand than there is supply.

Then there’s Category B. This is the category for casual browsing. This part seems to exist to find new games to add to Category A. It picks up games when they’re cheap to try and doesn’t feel much urgency to consume the games already in the queue. They’re there for “whenever”. Since so little has been invested, there’s no remorse if I play a title for only half an hour before deciding I don’t care to keep playing. In fact, many titles I forget I own, I’ve bought some Category B games repeatedly, forgetting that I’d picked this or that title up in a previous sale. Games in Category B will always be bumped aside for Category A releases. They don’t seem to strongly compete for my attention. Unless a game graduates from Category A to B.

That’s me. What about you guys? Do you find something similar? Or do you think my comparison way off?

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4 replies
  1. DarkCarnivour says:

    Good post and that is a great article from Jeff Vogel.
    I think that what he talks about is a real thing, but that it isn’t quite as simple.

    He says: “With so much product, supply and demand kicks in.”

    That may apply where all the games being made are the same.
    I agree with you that games (art & entertainment) are not the same as commodities. There can be saturation in a certain genre or even just many similar games in a genre, but demand can be instantly created when a new concept is introduced and people suddenly want something they didn’t know they did the day before. I’ve spent all the money I’m gonna spend on what I see on Steam, but put up a new game that has something I want and I’ll magically find more money.

    To me it looks more like things that were once a radical revival “8 bit pixel puzzle platformer!” and the have filled up.
    The optimist in me says that saturation in one area is opportunity in another. While the majority is flocking to work the gold mines, maybe it’s worth working in the silver mines.
    I still see a few niches (to me at least) that are heavily under served. (try finding PC fighting games, local coop games, etc…) Go make a game “inspired” by Simcity 2000, polish up the controls and interface a bit and see what happens… Or do a real Dungeon Keeper-like.

    I’ve also been thinking about the phenomenon of everyone buying more games on Steam than they can possibly play. The article suggests this indicates a change in supply vs demand. I’m not sure that is equal to low demand. That would assume demand is equal to time-for-playing. I think demand is based simply on desire and constrained by buyers’ funds. In short, people have more cash than time and the applicable demand is based on cash, not time.

    This situation seems to be all about Steam, but I feel there is little change. Before we had to fight for the spotlight to get the numbers to get on Steam. In the future of this prediction, we would be fighting for the spotlight to get the numbers to get enough sales.
    For those existing heavy weights, there is little difference as they have existing visibility.
    I guess the biggest difference is for those entering the market. They have to do more to stand out, but doesn’t that sound like the way it always is?

    Reply
  2. gareth says:

    Pretty much agree with everything you’ve said!

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] I’ve actually written a blog post on just that subject, up on my personal blog – http://garethfouche.com/on-indie-bubbles. […]

  2. […] Gareth Fouche – ready to release his first commercial indie game System Crash – has laid bare his hopes and concerns. […]

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