If you are a long time reader of this site, then you will know that a lot of our team loves indie games. Within the indie genre, developers are able to experiment with ideas outside of the standard ‘AAA’ market. Allowing for a varied marketplace for games of all kinds. Though, as the title suggests, there is a problem within the games market that needs to be addressed. Indie games are being drowned out in the market. We are going to go over what I think to be some major factors in this decline, and possibly explore some ways that various platforms can help indie developers to see more success with their games.
What is an Indie Game
Before we get into the various reasons indie games are struggling, we need to first define what an indie game is. And I know, you are probably saying to yourself “Everyone knows what an indie game is Greg.” and I could say I agree with you. But then, while working on this piece I asked around twenty different people what they would say an indie game is and they couldn’t really pin it down. So we are going to pin it down here before we dig deeper.
An “indie game” is a game that has been independently developed, or developed by a small team without the same resources as a ‘AAA’ publisher would have. That being said, “indie” has become a modifier that has taken on more meaning. You can also consider games pushed by bigger publishers like EA Originals or Devolver Digital “indie games” despite the increased funding because they are usually still developed by smaller teams and have more creative freedom than a ‘AAA’ project. Okay, with that out of the way, let’s dig into some of the reasons indie games are struggling in the modern marketplace.
Overcrowding in the Marketplace
Looking through Steam on any given day will give you a good idea of what I mean when talking about overcrowding. Though I suppose Steam is the extreme here. With Steam being the usual storefront on PC, though that is changing with Epic Games shooting for a spot in the public eye, and most indie games starting there, it is as good of a place to start as any. According to Statista, a website that keeps track of statistical data for various businesses, we can get a look at Steam game catalog numbers per year since it started back in 2004.
While it would have been easy for a game to stand out relatively well in the earlier days of computer gaming, with Steam hosting mainly their own games on the platform at that time. Steam has seen a growth in popularity as more and more people adopt PC gaming and it becomes more commonplace in the market. Just looking at the date, you can see that Steam has seen thousands of games added to the platform yearly, with 2020 boasting a record breaking 10,263. And that is not to mention that 2022 is set to shatter that number already and at the time of writing we are only two months in. With a store page averaging over 28 games added every single day, competition is rough for those smaller indie developers trying to get their game out there.
Also, it is worth noting that this problem is not PC specific as adoption of the Switch in mass during the Covid pandemic caused an influx of indie games to that store front too. Though overcrowding is not the most damning as even certain indie games manage to stick out in a market like that.
Marketing Against the Big Boys
One way some of those indie games that stick out is through marketing. In order for people to buy your game they have to know it exists and marketing is how they find out. Now, I am aware that marketing includes so much, such as ads, websites, trailers, PR campaigns, etc. To simplify it here I want to talk about the general idea of what marketing will cost.
According to Gamedevelopers.com, a website that breaks down various aspects of the gaming industry and their costs, it costs on average $50,000 starting to market a new game a few months out to launch. This includes both the developers time as well as actual market costs for the various forms of marketing one wishes to do. Now, when you factor in a developer’s time it can be anywhere between $50,000-$750,000 prior to marketing to actually create an indie game. The lower end being a solo developer working on their game for a year versus a team working on the same project. When you have to spend basically double your initial budget to just market your game, for it to not recoup the costs on average, is rather detrimental to getting a game noticed. Not to mention they get buried by companies that can spend millions to market their games. This is commonly why an indie game developer will usually partner with a publisher. It helps to spread word of their game in a more cost effective way by using resources the publishers already have established to market their game. Though, just because you promote a game doesn’t mean it will sell. I sat down with Gabriel Keonig, from Ghost Time Games and co-creator of indie game Tux and Fanny to discuss some of the other issues he feels have impacted the sale of his game.
Tux and Fanny, Chat with Gabriel Keonig
How was it releasing Tux and Fanny?
“It was interesting releasing this game, because I knew well before launch that it was the best game I had ever made, largely due to the fact that I had collaborated with another amazing creative for the first time, so it felt like we had something really special.”
How was it trying to get PR for the game?
“I reached out in personal emails and DMs to everyone that I could find who had previously reviewed any of my games (my first big game Jettomero had been covered by all the big sites when I had hired a PR company to help at that time). But I didn’t hear a peep from anyone, sadly.
Every review we’ve had for the game to date has more or less been people who saw us trying to spread the word and reached out directly to us, and it’s all been smaller review sites. Extremely grateful to every one of those people, and they’ve been wonderfully vocal about the game since their reviews as well.
But despite repeated attempts, I’ve had about zero luck getting the game into any larger news sites. Which wouldn’t be so disappointing if it weren’t for the fact that everyone else seems to be loving the game so much.”
How about spots outside of standard game review sites?
“Similarly, the game has had almost no significant views on youtube, until this past week when a larger German youtuber played the game and got arguably more eyes on the game than we’ve had since launch.”
What is something you attribute to the struggle Tux and Fanny has had?
“I’m sure at least part of the struggles we’ve had are due to the way the game looks, which is very simple and low-tech for the most part, but the strength of the game is in the vibe, and the experience itself once you start playing. It’s a weird game, but it’s also a love-letter to video games in many ways, and much more than that as well. It’s nearly impossible to convey the feeling of the game to anyone in screenshots and a trailer alone. I think a lot of people didn’t even give it a second thought when it first showed up in the eShop.”
How do you feel storefronts, such as Steam and Nintendo, have handled your game?
“We unfortunately didn’t have much time to try to coordinate anything with Nintendo leading up to launch, so it released onto the eShop without any 1st party fanfare, and from there I think it just kind of rolls on through. There’s a lot of games being released each week, inevitably there’s some larger ones in there, and as far as I know there’s no merit-based system for showing games in the eShop, so after a couple weeks, the game is essentially buried by new releases again.
The PC version, I didn’t release the game on Steam because I have a lot of issues with their platform, (their inability to deal with toxic and hateful communities being a major one). So the PC release was only on itch, which was a bit of an experiment, honestly. I wasn’t sure if anyone had ever done a Switch and PC launch, using only itch as a storefront, so I wanted to see what those numbers might look like without needing to compete with Steam at all.“
How has discoverability on itch.io been? And how does it compare to your experience with Steam in the past?
“I’ve tried reaching out to them before about options for promoting or featuring a game and never got an answer, so they just don’t seem equipped with any great options for that kind of thing. We were in the top 15 sellers in our opening week, which gave us slightly more visibility, but after the initial surge of fan sales ran out, we dropped off that radar again.
My experience with Steam was similar to releasing games there in the past. The platform feels largely indifferent, and more interesting in pushing games that are already selling well. There’s no curation on any of these digital stores, so whoever has the best marketing or the best click-bait cover always seems to dominate.”
I want to take this time to thank Gabriel Keonig for taking the time to speak with me.
Curating in the Storefront
I would like to touch a bit more on something Mr. Keonig brought up in that interview. The act of curation on these digital storefronts. For those unaware, essentially curating a storefront is basically referring to quality control. And well, let’s just say that Steam is pretty bad at handling quality control, especially when games known as “asset flips”, where people buy asset packs and basically just throw them into a game engine, exist on it. They also have had games, such as Shadow: Treachery cannot be tolerated, sell without any actual game in the folder.
If companies like Valve, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft took the time to do some moderation to their store fronts it would hopefully clean up a lot of the storefront and allow for better exposure for smaller titles.
Swimming Through a Sea of Games
Along with curation comes making an easy to navigate storefront. Some stores manage this by using a user generated tags system, or a more basic genre system to organize their games. And sure, if you have only a couple hundred titles that might be a viable way to handle organization. But the simple fact is that no digital storefront handles their library well in this day and age. Even a search bar isn’t good enough since you can’t find a game you don’t know the name for.
I will give a point to Valve Here for their Discovery Queue. While not perfect, it can help showcase some smaller games at times that are similar to what you are playing or own. That being said, this is far from perfect. I have never had this system suggest something that has no or low user reviews, for instance. So while it might show me some indie titles, it is only showing me the popular ones.
All of this boils down to indie games struggling to find a foothold in an ever-growing market and that digital storefronts need to do better to support Creators in getting their products out there. If things don’t change, while I won’t say it will be the end of the indie games market, we will continue to see many games not be able to get a solid footing.