This is something I give a lot of thought to. Partly because I see other people talking, sometimes worrying about it quite a lot. I should put my own position and experience into perspective here, for anyone who is new to the blog. I started making indie games in 1997. Since then I worked for about 5 years in total in AAA dev, the rest of the time I’ve been part or full time indie, and I’ve been full time for a good nine years. I made Kudos Democracy and Gratuitous Space Battles.
The market for indie games has changed beyond all recognition since I started. When I started, the site you aimed to get on was not steam, but download.com. The other big site was Tucows, and later came Yahoo Games and Real Games (remember the real player?). Buying online was treated with suspicion. Online sales services paid you by a mailed check. Everyone bought direct from the developer, and normally got a code to unlock the game, which came packaged as a zip file.
a simpler time…
How times have changed!
The market for games in general, but indie games in particular, has snowballed since then. The general short-term lazy answer to this is ‘because of steam’. Sure, steam helped, but selling indie games online paid off my mortgage before I even got a game on steam. Sites like Yahoo Games and Big Fish Games did very well indeed for the developer. I remember getting a $20k check for ONE MONTH from yahoo games. happy times… The reason I’m, saying this is not to boast, but to point out that the existence of online portals that market and sell indie games and make good money for developers isn’t that new. The thing that is new is the scale. Those $20k checks are no longer a big deal. You know whats cooler than $20k? $200k! or maybe even more!!!!1111.
The problem is, we have a LOT of indie developers who have joined the story in the third act, when the $200k is the norm, and $20k is nothing to write home about. Not for them the idea of coding from your spare bedroom with expectations only of meeting the bills. Now the indies expect to get that $200k a month. They cut their clothes accordingly, with rented offices, new PC’s, appearances at all the trade shows at around $10k a time after travel & marketing stuff is taken into account. The minimum team size now seems to be about 4 full time devs, plus contractors, voiceover talent etc. Budgets start at $50k and go up and up and up. But it’s fine, I hear indie games make $200k a month…
A small indie team circa 2014
And the thing is…. some do, or they have done for quite a while. There are plenty of stories about the money indie devs are making. I’m not doing bad myself, and the only reason I keep quiet about the money my games make is I think it’s VERY misleading data for people starting out. I read a great article recently about devs who worry when they ‘inspire’ people to quit their job. This is indeed worrying. People suffer from enormous confirmation bias. They want to hear that they can get rich making games they love, who wouldn’t want that? I did my bit by giving two really downbeat and depressing ‘de-motivational’ talks at world of love and its follow-up where I point out the harsh business realities of selling an indie game and making a living. Generally, people don’t want to hear that.
The stories about steam and humble-generated millions, plus notches sales stats have persuaded a huge number of people to go full-time making indie games. Good luck to them, I wish them all well. I love indie games, I’d rather the next Call of Duty game was cancelled and the money spent making 200 small indie games instead. That would be great from my POV as a gamer. But…. I worry that the current setup is not sustainable, because so many people have entered the business during boom time.
Bluntly put, Boom time is where the middlemen get rich selling services to the suckers who just joined in before the crash. Do I think there is a crash coming? Yes. Why? Well it’s got nothing to do with steam ‘opening the floodgates’, which is firstly just exposing the reality of the market (and hopefully calming the boom) but secondly going to be fixed by them soon anyway…
The guys selling shovels got rich…
The simple problem is a lot of indies are running at a huge loss and they don’t even realise it. Their expectations are sky high and their experience of the business is zero. Your first game will probably LOSE money. Mine did, and my second, third, fourth and fifth. The good news is, I made them all part time and had no kids to support anyway,m and the budgets were tiny. I used coder art for them all. Once I finally worked out how to do things I did my first full-time games, then my first with non-coder art, and so on. At each stage, I spent another 25% or more than the last game, and expected maybe 25% or more sales. I NEVER assumed the next game would make the same as the last, let alone more, and I certainly never required it to in order to pay my bills. I was slow-and-steady, and cautious.
And I’m still here.
But I strongly suspect a lot of indie devs won’t be in 2017. The ratio of developers who will earn $100,000 next year to the percentage who think they will is…probably quite scary. If you are new to the business, and are making your first game, and expect it to make money, don’t forget that many of those devs you read about are like me, with 17 years experience selling indie games (and in my case 34 years of programming). Keep your confirmation bias in check and look out for developers with the same experience and background as you to draw real conclusions about expected sales.
the average indie biz plan
I encourage people to reach for the stars and follow your dreams. I do, but I also make damn sure I’m prepared. I always like to be assured of victory and guard against any possible failure. You *can* be ambitious AND cautious. I think there *is* a crash coming, when all those ‘first indie projects’ finally ship….to not *that* much in sales, and a whole swathe of developers realise that they need to go work for a bank programming stuff they hate for a while as they build up the experience.
I don’t like to be the prophet of Doom, but I do see a lot of business plans and projections from indies that are frankly terrifying. Do your homework.