Indie Games Are Not Going to Save the Industry

These days, I can’t help but feel worried for the future of the gaming industry.

Game development seems largely split between two extremes these days: The high-budget Triple-A game developers, and the starving indie devs. On the Triple-A side of things, publishers and developers have fallen into a rather nasty vicious cycle. Game budgets and dev team sizes are growing at an alarming rate, while the expected profits become more and more unreasonable. It simply doesn’t feel like current Triple-A method can remain profitable for long, without collapsing in on itself.

The other extreme, however, is an even riskier gamble. Indie games have been hailed by many as a bastion of creativity and diversity in a sea of lookalike Triple-A games. On the surface, it seems easy to believe these claims. Look a bit closer, though, and you see how quickly these claims fall apart.

While there are some amazingly creative indie games, they are often lost in a sea of rip-offs and poorly mashed-together ideas. Look through the steam new releases and you might find the occasional interesting game that has been executed well, but you’ll have to sift through a million minecraft clones and bad mobile ports before you reach it.

It’s not hard to see why so many choose the rip-off route, however, when the alternative is to spend all your money on a new and creative idea, only to see it come to naught. This was the case with Matt Gillgenbach’s Retro/Grade, a game that won numerous awards but which failed to turn a profit. In Gillgenbach’s Retro/Grade Postmortem Diary, he said that the game was financially ruinous for him and that he would not do it again, given the chance. The failure of Retro/Grade and his ongoing issues with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder led to him kickstarting the game Neverending Nightmares, which was based partly on his own depression.

The issue of indie games and money gets even more complicated when so many people don’t realize how much it costs to make a game. Both Mike Z and Katie Chironis wrote pieces on the way big-budget kickstarters are hiding how much it actually costs to develop games. Both Yooka-Laylee and Bloodstained are burying the fact that most of their funding is coming from outside sources, and that the goal listed on the store page is only a fraction of what the game will actually cost to make. The sales breakdown for Shovel Knight supports this idea. Even after far exceeding their kickstarter goal, Yacht Club Games ran out of money long before the game was complete and had to go for five months without paying their employees.

Good indie games cost quite a bit of money to make, more than the average kickstarter goal would have you think. So when your game fails to turn a profit, as was the case with Retro/Grade, can you muster up the cash to make another one? After potentially 5 months (or more) of not getting paid and working long hours, can you afford to not turn a profit? Cases like Retro/Grade and Skullgirls show just volatile and unfriendly the game industry can be if you’re not a big-budget studio.

So with the AAA gaming bubble on the verge of bursting and indie game devs barely keeping afloat, what’s the future hold for the gaming industry? Will we all be going mobile within the decade? I’m holding out hope that the industry can right itself, but if a change is gonna come, it won’t be at the hands of indie devs.

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