Recently there’s been a resurgence of the topic of the so called “indiepocalypse”, the idea that there are now too many indie developers out there making games, and the increased amount of newcomers has flooded the market and in the end pretty much everyone loses. This is something I’ve felt ever since I started looking into the industry back in 2013. Very quickly the first wave of articles and posts came out on sites like Gamasutra naming this phenomenon as the indiepocalypse. At the time I was more skeptical, but leaned in the direction of those who did forebode of the coming gloom that was the indiepocalypse. Since the trends and data at the time was just starting to congeal, it wasn’t too hard for opponents of the idea to reason how things are actually just fine and there is no real change coming. Well, a few years has passed since then and with the reemergence of the topic, and having become more knowledgeable on the relating topics, I think it’s a good time to also chime in.
“Higher quality games still make money, it’s the low quality games that don’t”
A lot has already been said, with most of the points I would have wanted to make already been laid out in the Polygon article that started this. There are currently a finite number of consumers for games, and there’s also a finite amount of free hours in each person’s day, while each person has a finite amount of dollars to spend. The logical conclusion of these constraints is that a finite number of games and products can be financially successful. This is regardless of quality or price. The argument that good games would still make was possibly the first ever objection to the indiepocalypse, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s what immediately pops into anyone’s mind as a refutation.
This ultimately just moves the goalposts. What happens when everyone starts making good, and high quality games then? Will everyone start to make money? No, that’s just not feasible either, because under certain parameters it’s not mathematically possible. And it looks like we currently are under such parameters given the number of games being released and the size of the market. In fact, we’ve already seen games being produced at higher qualities comparatively and still financially failing. However, it still begs the question: What even is game quality?
This is a question where we can not find an adequate answer to. It’s by definition unquantifiable. But it’s a bit unsatisfactory to dodge the question entirely, game quality surely has some qualitative identifiers such as polish, technical stability and performance, pacing, flow, art detail etc. but beyond these, there’s not much to get a consensus on and it becomes very much subjective about what game has a higher quality when these indicators are close to each other.
A few weeks ago I was in a discussion about the indiepocalypse without someone who was also of the belief that it’s only lower quality games succeed and I brought up this very same line of thought. To make a case, I brought up a couple of games, one was already a hit, and the other is still in development following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Consider Enter the Gungeon and TOME: Terrain of Magical Expertise. You could debate all day about the merits of either, but if I didn’t already know of the success of Enter the Gungeon in hindsight, I could never tell it would be a massive hit and I’d give both of these equal chances for success. Same with other games like the successful hit Slay the Spire and the in-development Children of Morta. Even the developers of commercial these hits didn’t expect such great success and that’s telling.
Game Development is an economic activity
During the latest discourse, Brendan Keogh’s article also came up with a somewhat new point of view on this issue too. It’s something I’ve heard before in the past couple of years to a lesser degree from some indie developers, that game development is like making an indie rock band. Putting aside the disrespect this does to those who do actively choose working in the games industry and are currently struggling, the sentiment is just false and harmful, descriptively and prescriptively.
The first problem is that anything with economic effects can be considered an economic activity. If I’m building a house just for myself, to live in and artistically express myself through architecture, I’m still actively affecting the economy. Whether it’s me buying and using resources through the value and supply chain, or producing a house that I will use as its consumer as well, reducing the demand I would have had otherwise, these are economic activities. Making games are no different, even if someone makes absolutely nothing from their game, they’re affecting the market through their presence alone.
The second problem is that whether something is or isn’t an economic activity is entirely a matter of framing, there are no fundamentals at play here. If your activity involves any form of trade or production, that activity will be an economic one. Keogh and others probably mean economic activity in the more colloquial sense of the word, in that an economic activity is one where you earn a living. But again, fundamentally there are no economic activities then, only what each individual frames for themselves, and as a matter of fact, most game developers have indeed chosen to pursue game development as a career to earn their living through.
My biggest problem though comes with the message and comparison that’s made. It’s curious and peculiar how when game development is considered “just art”, it’s put aside to writing novels and playing in a band, but it’s never put aside say making films. Writing novels has almost no barrier to entry, if you are literate, you can write. Likewise, playing in a hobbyist band requires very little financial barriers to overcome, and since you’re a hobbyist, not too much personal time either. On the other hand, games and films require large amounts of money. They’re the products of multiple disciplines coming together to create a piece. Just as acting or scene design alone don’t make a film, so too doesn’t game design or programming alone make a game. The dedication and practical skills required to make a video game, very firmly move it beyond just a hobbyist activity. There are many factors and enablers that need to come together to create a game, even a small indie game. That’s not even considering the time that’s needs to complete a video game. Most indie games take well over a year to produce, and that’s multiple people with different competencies working full time on the project!
So are there too many games?
Considering that games are economic activities, pursued by people who wish to make a living off of them, and the cost of failure, the conditions to answer this are set. Too many games would be synonymous with a surplus of supply, and considering the amount of sales and market size there really seems to be such a surplus.
There’s no way around this, it doesn’t matter how high the “quality” of these games increase, or how innovative and unique they become. It doesn’t matter whether people create as a hobby or as most do, a primarily business venture. Games are commercially failing, and this is a basic matter of economics and business strategy: more competitors means higher competition, risk and difficulty in succeeding. This goes straight into Porter’s five forces model, and this entire indiepocalypse can be analyzed through that lens very accurately.
There are two things to consider. What are we supposed to do, and what will happen on a macro scale? From the current wave of articles coming out, this article by John Warner is probably the best I’ve seen that answers the first question. We should stop encouraging indie developers, we should make it clear just how hard the current climate is to operate in.
What will happen though is pretty parallel to what we should be doing. Whether we discourage people or not, the market is bound for a correction. It’s now becoming more evident that the surplus in supply is real, and while lower profits is something game development aspirants can and will put up with due to the love and passion they have for the task, losses over years won’t be tolerated. The market correction will show itself through people quitting game development and less games being released over time. This will take time though, because game development is as mentioned before, a notoriously timely activity. Most games take at least a year, but some can take as long as five or six years to develop and publish. Couple that with the desire for freshly graduated students of game development and game design to at least try once before quitting and it’s going to take some time. Responsible tutors, professors and speakers can help divert people from failure earlier, but even that will have a long delay to take visible macro effects.