Indie developers and indie games are in the news lately, especially as major consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox move to make publishing ever more easier for smaller studios:
"After lots of pressure by the public, gamers and game developers alike, Microsoft eventually caved with the Xbox One's independent developer publishing practice and allowed for self-publishing. As of the publishing of this article, the company has 32 different indie studios signed up to self-publish on the Xbox One. Microsoft says that it has sent out more than 50 developer kits to studios….” – Xbox One vs. PS4: Next Gen Indie Games
What exactly does it mean to be an “indie developer”? Basically, an independent developer makes apps or games without the exclusive financial backing of a large company. Independent game development has especially taken on a life of its own, with digital distribution making the indie movement completely sustainable for the global gaming market. The indie market has a much lower entry barrier as far as revenue needed for success, as one developer noted in a recent interview:
"It can be a huge success for us with numbers that, for a large publisher, they would think, ‘Oh, well, we really wanted (to sell) 3 million' " units, he said. “Indie games used to be sort of a negative term, but now ... there are very high-quality independent games," Magaha said. "There are very successful games that are labeled as ‘indies,' and it's a cool thing now. It's like independent films are a cool thing." – “Download Distribution Opening New Doors for Indies”
One of the most solid examples of successful indie game development is Minecraft. Minecraft’s creator, Markus Persson, had this to say about the rise of independent game development:
"I think part of the label of 'indie' is that you make games for the sake of making good games rather than just to make money, so there's an inherent will there to be experimental and original. But as with any craft, I think it's important that you know why you're doing it. If you just want to express yourself or affect people, you shouldn't waste time trying to make business deals. Some of the time you can get lucky and find something new and exciting, but many times you just end up alienating the player unless you're very careful at exactly how you break the conventions. [In Minecraft], the combination of being able to create anything you want and the randomly generated worlds and encounters means there's a lot of room for personal stories." – “The Rise of the Indie Developer”, gamespot.com
The indie movement isn’t limited to game development; there seems to be a rise in valuing “homegrown” products, Ma and Pa productions, and hyper-focused vision rather than the automatic choosing of the “big box”. Thatgamecompany’s Kellee Santiago speaks to this trend:
"As a gamer, I certainly want to play more games like this," Santiago says. "I'm also someone who values games, music, films, and books that have a sense of soul and real personality to them. I would love to see more developers try and create games like this. We know there is an audience out there wanting this kind of stuff, and the gaming conventions we're familiar with are so limited; the craft of video game design is still so young so I don't think there is as much a need to rely on past design principles. There is opportunity to stand out."
A recent survey conducted by the Game Developers Conference of more than 2500 North American game developers who attended the popular conference in 2012 or planned to attend in 2013 offered some intriguing insights on independent development outlooks:
- Independent game development and smaller indie teams are making steady gains. 53% of respondents identified themselves as “indie developers”, and 51% of these had been developing games for less than two years.
- 46% of the respondents work with organizations of ten people or less. Around half of those worked with an established publisher on their last project.
- Smartphones and tablets are what most developers are working on, with 55% of respondents currently creating games on these platforms. 58% plan to release their next projects for smartphones and tablets.
- Don’t count out the PC: 48% of developers are developing current games for this platform, and 49% are planning their next games for the PC.
- Overall, tablets and smartphones are grabbing most developers’ time and interest, with 58% and 56% (respectively) interested in developing games for these platforms.
Overall, the current climate for independent developers is extremely favorable, and looking to become even more so.
Challenges of indie developers
One of the most significant challenges for independent developers is simply time. For example, an indie developer has fewer resources to support the growing list of device models and platforms for which to develop apps. There’s also the marketing budget to take into account, app optimization, and simple word of mouth. The idea of scaling in order to compete could potentially lead to independent developers banding together to make a bigger splash in the industry – after all, many hands make for light work.
In addition to the relative disadvantage of having less resources than the bigger studios, the challenge of simply being found in app stores is one of the biggest facing any developer, big or small. The problem for developers is two-fold: there are literally millions of apps available, and there seems to be no good system in place for helping people to find what they are looking for in an intuitive way.
There are simply a lot of apps out there, with more coming into the stores on a daily basis. The problem is finding the good ones, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the ones with the most downloads. While app stores are constantly evolving, there doesn’t seem to be a good structure in place for people to find anything outside of the inevitable curated top ten lists. The basic problem is this: thousands of apps are launched every week, some good, some bad, some mediocre. There is a major signal to noise problem, and in-store app discovery is at its earliest stages. How do developers get their apps to rise above the rest? Merely building an app doesn’t translate into getting people to notice your app. How do you get consumer to notice the app, and what will they do with it once they get it? How do developers start connecting with their users more, and getting their app into the hands of the people who really want to use it?
Developers that don’t have the brand recognition or deep marketing budget pockets the big studios do can still do quite a bit to compete in the app store ecosystem. Creativity, persistence, and the ability to reach underserved markets is the key. In addition, it’s fair to say that indie developers also have some pretty significant advantages over their larger developer counterparts. For example, the ability to quickly pivot and direct resources towards new technology is something that indie developers are uniquely poised to do. There’s also the opportunity to take risks that larger developers aren’t necessarily always able to take advantage of:
“For a smaller studio, a unique game that fails is not necessarily going to ruin their reputation as much as it would for a larger one with an already established fan base. Obviously, this comes primarily from the fact that they don’t quite have a reputation established quite yet, but this allows the studio some wiggle room for growing, contracting, or starting over all together. Small studios almost seem to get a bit of a pass in terms of critical flops and, should the game be unique enough, these titles often get praised despite their shortcomings. Worst case scenario, they rename their studio and start from scratch, a move that flies under the radar more easily the smaller the studio is.” – HorribleNight.com, “Limits Are Advantages for Indie Developers”
As independent games continue to gain traction with consumers, independent developers will also continue to invite attention from established companies in order to help them created, pin down financing, and pursue greater opportunities and recognition. If you are an independent developer, what do you think of this recent focus on independent games and developers, and where do you think it might be going? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.