The Indie Post-apocalypse

It was 3 years ago when the term “Indiepocalypse” blew up overnight. Because 3 years before that, Steam Greenlight launched. It took a while, but in September 2015 it was suddenly becoming clear that the massive deluge of games hitting Steam wasn’t a fluke.

Releases on Steam per year

The number of games released tripled from 2013 to 2014. Then almost doubled again in 2015. We heard about Airscape, which sold about 150 sales on launch, and innumerable games like it. And then we heard the predictions about what was to come. The warnings. The lamentations.

“If you are thinking of quitting your AAA job to go indie, you probably missed the bus by 3-4 years at this point” – Jonathan Blow

Well, we’re 3 years on. The indiepocalypse isn’t happening. It happened. It’s over and what happens after an apocalypse is of course the post-apocalypse.

Image result for the walking dead

There is a persistent belief that nothing much has changed and all you have to do is make a good game, market it, and stay persistent. I’m not quite convinced.

Just make a good game

This one pisses me off because it’s a tautology. If a game sells well, that is taken as evidence that it’s good and if a game sells poorly, it’s not good. This is circular. It’s survivorship bias.

I see good games failing all the time and the same reasons given for why those games failed can be applied equally to huge hits.

If Undertale came out today and it flopped, they would simply say “it has crappy art. No wonder it failed”. If Dead Cells had flopped, they would say “people are tired of roguelikes.” If Celeste sold poorly, they would say “pixel art platformer is a saturated genre.”

Just market it

I consider most of the advice on marketing to be total garbage unless you are already successful: start a website (no one will ever find it), write a press release (no one cares), post on reddit (woops, totally against their strict self promotion rules).

Only restricting ourselves to the decent advice (i.e. promoting your game to the right influencers), well that stuff is massively harder than it was only a few years ago. The market being flooded is only the start. Consumers have a ton more games vying for their attention, but so do journalists. So do streamers. Their inboxes are absolutely slammed with hundreds of emails on a daily basis. One thing I did while promoting Golden Krone Hotel is search for journalists who had reviewed traditional roguelikes before. I quickly noticed that, while Dungeons of Dredmor (2011) had 18 reviews on Metacritic, I couldn’t find a single new roguelike with any Metacritic reviews. It seems that niche games that could easily get press attention a few years ago can’t get any now.

Even if you do catch the attention of the press or a large twitch or youtube personality, there’s no guarantee you’ll get any sales out of it.

Aztez had five years of positive press coverage and a respectable Metacritic score of 81%. It flopped hard.

Just keep going

I see too many examples of seasoned game developers doing worse and worse. Gone Home selling about 700,000 units vs Tacoma selling 10,000 is probably the poster child, but there are many more.

Even so, I admit that building a reputation is probably the best tool indie developers have at their disposal.

Consider Into the Breach. A turn based tactics game with middling pixel art played on small grid and with permadeath? I don’t think Subset Games would have gotten the attention of anybody if it wasn’t for them having made FTL as their previous game.

Containing My Burguning Schadenfreude

So how bad can things get? Do small developers still have a shot by keeping at it? Those questions brings me to Keith Burgun.

It all started some years ago while trying to find a podcast. I enjoy listening to podcasts and for some reason it’s super hard to find a consistent game development podcast. My favorites tend to close up shop as soon as I start listening. Keith Burgun had a podcast called Clockwork Game Design. It was fairly consistent and it was one of the only podcasts to focus on design specifically, which I liked.

Over time though I started to get annoyed. I disagreed, vehemently, with practically everything Keith was saying. He hated “classics” like Go and made an unconvincing argument that new games are always dramatically  better than older ones. He said “reading” (as in reading your opponent in games like poker or Yomi) wasn’t a real thing. He tended to categorize any game other than the kind he was making as  a “toy” instead of a real game. Finally, he took a massive dump on the entire genre of roguelikes and called them Skinner boxes. That was really strange considering roguelikes were the only kind of game Keith had made and it really set me off because I was working on one myself.

Reader, I was ready for the schadenfreude. This guy was attacking the things I liked on a fundamental level and my stupid monkey brain wanted to see him fail. I’m not proud of it.

But then something unexpected happened. On a whim, I decided to play the last game designed by Keith Burgun and I loved it! Auro is one of my favorite PC games. Ever.  It’s tightly designed, easy to learn, beautiful, deep, and really compelling. I don’t put a lot of hours into any single game these days and I’ve clocked over 100 into Auro. The worst thing I can say is it has a few bugs, but I still recommend it to anyone.

I realized that I can strongly disagree with someone and still acknowledge that they’re great at what they do. I became very curious about his next game…

So here we are. Keith Burgun’s latest game, Escape the Omnochronom!,  came out last Thursday. ETO is ambitious. It’s designed to be a combination of two genres that I don’t recall ever having been mixed: roguelike and MOBA.

Take a guess then. How well do you think ETO did in its first 72 hours on sale?

While you’re pondering that, a quick diversion into estimating sales on Steam.

Reasonable ignorance

Valve doesn’t publish sales data. We had SteamSpy, but it’s sort of defunct now. We had an ingenious way of finding exact player counts using achievements and that was shut down. We’re pretty much left with one method and it’s actually not too bad. It’s called the Boxleiter Method and it goes like this.

One piece of data Valve does share publicly is review count. Even better is that those reviews are guaranteed to be from people who have bought the game directly on Steam (and not through say a heavily discounted bundle), something SteamSpy couldn’t suss out.

Since a certain percentage of purchases will leave reviews, we can simply multiply the number of reviews by a certain factor and come up with an estimate of units sold. That factor appears to be roughly 50 or 2% of players leaving reviews. Remember, it’s just an estimate but it tends to be a fairly reasonable rule of thumb

If a game has 1 review, it most likely has not sold more than 50 copies. The factor should be much lower in the beginning, since your voice counts for more when there are few reviews. If a game has 20 reviews it has probably sold about 1,000 copies. 200 reviews means 10,000 copies. If a game has 10,000 reviews, it’s sold half a million copies and has almost certainly made millions of dollars. So on and so on.

I would go even further and tell you my personal rule of thumb: if a $10 indie game doesn’t have over 300 reviews, it was probably a financial failure. That is it hasn’t provided the equivalent of what someone could make in industry in a single year.

(300*50*$10 – Valve’s cut) =  ~$100,000

And that’s rather conservative because it doesn’t account for discounts or multiple developers or development cycles longer than a year. Add all that in and 300 reviews probably means minimum wage or worse for all those involved. Remember Aztez, a game two guys worked on for seven years? 71 reviews.

Is this normal?

Using reviews as a proxy for sales, how many reviews do you think Escape the Omnochronom! has generated in its opening weekend (which could account for more than 10% of its annual revenue).

Is it a smash hit with thousands of reviews? Or is it at least on the way to a nice break even at 300 reviews?

Keep in mind Keith has 1500 twitter followers, over 6000 youtube subscribers, 43 patrons, and a popular podcast. He’s written a well received book on game design and his games have been played by thousands if not tens of thousands of gamers. His last game had a fricking 91% on Metacritic. This is what we talked about earlier: keeping at it. Building a reputation and amassing a following.

But also remember something else. It’s 2018.

Let’s Be Realistic: A Deep Dive into How Games Are Selling on Steam

Do you have the answer yet? In reviews? Sales? Dollars? Actually it doesn’t matter what units you chose. Because to a first approximation they’re all the same.

  • Zero reviews
  • Zero comments on announcements of the game launching
  • One curator, who has depressingly enough not even played the game
  • Two comments in the entire forum section

Things have been asymptotically approaching zero. Now we’ve arrived. We’ve arrived at the worst it can get because you can’t sell less than zero. An experienced game designer with multiple shipped titles and a moderately sized following shouting into the void and getting no response whatsoever….

I guess that’s the new normal, but something about that doesn’t seem normal to me at all.

 

 

 

 

60 Replies to “The Indie Post-apocalypse”

  1. I checked your game after reading this article. Thinking back to an infamous article the developers of Auro did, I had a chuckle.

  2. I found this via steam spy and it was a grim read. It makes sense though. Up until early last year me and several friends were always finding new cool indie games on steam to play but not it just doesnt happen and two of us have bought Switches and are mainly gaming there now. The only Steam games I’ve bought in the past year were from bigger companies like SEGA and sequels from mid tier studios like Larian Studios.

    1. I’m sure some people filter them out but EA games are not exactly hurting in general. Many are bonkers successful. Dead Cells as mentioned is one. Caves of Qud and Cogmind are two good traditional roguelike examples…

  3. With all due respect to the developer and the author of this article, this is a prime example of an indie apocalypse game: It’s a game for an audience of one, with no marketing whatsoever.

    It’s roguelike single player MOBA, with pixel art. Who is this game for? Roguelike players? MOBA players? How many people do you reckon are looking for that type of game, even if they were to find it? There are a handful of YouTube videos about the game, mostly from the developer, with only a few hundred views total. There are maybe two dozen tweets about the game, with no engagement.

    Having a couple thousand personal YouTube subscribers and Twitter followers doesn’t matter. If you want to have a financially successful game, you have to make a financially viable game and have it presented to your core audience.

    1. I agree that the marketing could have been a lot better. I don’t agree that the genre mix doomed it. MOBA might be the most popular genre in the entire world.

      There’s a notion that if you combine genres you only get the intersection of those fans, but I feel it’s closer to the union. If Crypt of the Necrodancer (a pixel art roguelike + [extra genre] game) really only appealed to rhythm players who were also roguelike fans, it would have tanked.

      And taking a swipe at pixel art as being the reason for the game’s failure? Bravo. Needed some real world examples of the exact thing I complained about in the article. There are still plenty of pixel art games absolutely killing it.

  4. Part of this is the lower barrier to entry means a lot more randoms are putting out games – if your barrier to entry was higher, that would eliminate a lot of the bottom end in terms of sales (well, sort of – they’d probably still exist but wouldn’t be on Steam).

    That being said, the precipitous decline from 2017 to 2018 is pretty grim.

    One thing which I think is underappreciated is competition from AAA games.

    I can buy a lot of AAA games for $5-15. Yeah, they’re older titles (those dusty years of the early 2010s), but… well, they’re still way ahead of most indie games.

    The cheaper AAA games get, and the longer they get, the less time people even have to deal with indie games. The expectations for games is going ever upwards, and I think a lot of indie games have fundamentally burned out players on indie games – I know I’m actually outright filtering out indie games on my exploration thing on Steam because of how much dross there is. I still play Indie games, mind, but only when they’re bundled or I get them as gifts.

    I think that bundles have also spoiled us. At this point, if I see an interesting looking indie title, my thought is that I can wait for it to be bundled. And I’m usually right. Why would I buy games for $5-15 ala carte when I can get a bunch of them for $12 on Humble Bundle? Yeah, some of them are going to be disappointing – but that will happen either way, and I’ll have saved money.

    And, well… right now I’m playing For Honor, a big-name, heavily advertised AAA game made by Ubisoft.

    I paid $0 for it.

    When the AAA companies give away their games to promote sequels, that’s an even bigger squeeze on the indie game market.

    1. Good points all around. Personally AAA doesn’t do much for me these days and I would hope they’re competing on slightly different demands, but I can see it’s still a huge factor.

    2. I think about this AAA point a lot.

      Like Jeremiah, I’m not interested in AAA games so I maybe buy one a year, if that.

      But like you(Titanium Dragon) said, when a AAA game is on sale for $15, $5, $0, my instincts are to buy it ‘for when I have time,’ ‘just in case,’ or simply because ‘that’s a good deal.’ (Ex. I bought Ni No Kuni for under $15, got around to it years later, and only played it for a few hours.)

      The fact that smaller and larger games are on the same shelves makes the smaller games look like a worse value by comparison. At the very core of this might be how many consumers consider AAA games – polished, full of 100s of hours of content, ‘good.’ In my experience, though, despite the polish (which has been deteriorating over the years), these AAA games rarely do interesting things. They’re the Law & Order, CSI, House of the games industry – just fine, meeting my expectations, and pretty as all hell.

      I played Horizon last year (borrowed it from the library) for about 6-8 hours. Loved most of it, but when it came time to return the game, I was totally fine not playing it again. I got all of the systems, mechanics, etc. in those first 8 hours. I enjoyed them. I didn’t need 20-30 more hours of that, though.

      I bought Fidel, Stephen’s Sausage Roll, N++ and felt that these games:
      1) added to the industry as a whole, as opposed to maintaining the status quo.
      2) enriched my life as a player and designer of games.
      3) rose about the vague ‘good’ descriptor. They affected me like a good movie affects me – I think about them when I’m not playing them.

      I guess the main point of this text wall is that sales reflect consumer interests, and as long as consumers crave a middling AAA experience, that’s going to be what the market is defined by, by and large.

  5. Great piece. Glad you like the podcast – sorry there hasn’t been an episode in a little while, but I have one coming soon 🙂

    So yeah, I can confirm your theory here. I’ve sold exactly 24 copies on Steam and maybe another dozen on itch – which actually is slightly better than I expected to be honest. It is true that the game is in early access, but the thing is, even when it isn’t, it feels like there’s really no way to “punch through”. Basically it seems like, if you have more than 10k to spend on marketing, then you can actually start getting the word out, but then it also becomes just a “make back what you spent” contest. The idea of actually PROFITING from game development, for an ACTUAL INDIE, seems almost impossible. I’m feeling like I should go back to trying to sell rock albums or something!

    Anyway thanks again for sticking around even though I angered you so much. For what it’s worth I think I was too harsh on stuff like Rogue-likes.

    You should come on my podcast and talk with me about this sometime.

    1. Good to hear you received this OK. I was a little worried. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing numbers! I am very curious about what all you did for marketing. I surmise you probably emailed some youtubers and also sent out keys through Curator Connect (great process, but I didn’t have too much luck with that myself). Did you try to reach out to any press?

      The first weekend isn’t the end of course, but it doesn’t help when it goes poorly. One thing that surprised me was that the game had no launch discount, since Valve strongly recommends it. Maybe also the release date being off a week might have thrown people a bit? Who knows? This stuff is all tea leaves. I hope this post gives the game a tad more exposure.

      Interesting idea about the podcast. I’d be up for that.

  6. It appears to me that there are too many games, not enough gamers, and therefore the market will have to self-correct and lot of game developers will reorient into either AAA industry, or non-game industry altogether.
    It is harsh, but when I have the choice between Red Dead Redemption, Cyberpunk or Kingdom Come Deliverance, or a 2D game that looks – on screenshots – as thousands other games before it, I will go for AAA.

  7. At the beginning of the article you talk about Airscape and how it sold 150 copies at launch. So by curiosity I went on SteamSpy and was surprised to see it fall in the 200K..500K category.

    I then went on Steam and checked the number of reviews. 2039. Using the x50 rule that’d be a bit over 100K sales.

    Even at a couple dollars per sale, it sounds like it was a massively successfull game to me. Just saying.

    1. Yea that’s interesting and I had noticed the numbers were higher at one point. The dev talked about this actually: https://www.reddit.com/r/GameDealsMeta/comments/51qq4e/airscape_the_fall_of_gravity_eventually_sold/

      From steamdb, it’s lowest sales was at just $0.19. Those 100k units could be revenue as low as $13,000. Even double that and it’s still an abysmal failure for a game when anyone spent a full time year on it (and they spent much more).

  8. So many factors are converging to squeeze out indie developers that I think ‘self correction’ towards a lower risk and more profitable industry is a pipe dream in the short term.

    Technological progress in games is slowing and as a result the wealth of older games that would have quickly depreciated 10 years ago is now providing cheap competition to newer titles. More games are adopting a service model, which means fewer games ultimately soak up more dollars and time. Engines and tools for developing games have gotten exponentially cheaper which has opened the floodgates for less technically inclined developers. Most importantly, the number of consumers entering the western market is running out of growth and without the dollars per person rising developers are fighting for a fixed pie.

    I’ve wanted to make games since I was a kid, but at this point I recognize I’m going to need some financial security before I jump into this ring. I have no idea how indie devs who live in San Fransisco fare.

  9. “If Undertale came out today and it flopped, they would simply say “it has crappy art. No wonder it failed”. If Dead Cells had flopped, they would say “people are tired of roguelikes.” If Celeste sold poorly, they would say “pixel art platformer is a saturated genre.””

    But they are right, Steam is overcrowded with roguelike and 2D platfomers, it seems suicidal to me make a roguelike and hope to break even. And yes Undertale has absolutely crappy art. BUT these games are not good, they are absolutely outstanding. Your game is good for sure and you deserve all credit for that, but to break even you need to make either a very unique, original and remarkable game, or a very outstanding game in a know genre that bring something unseen in that genre. That’s unfortunate but good isn’t good enough. Best of luck for you next adventure !

  10. Hey, I’m half of the team behind that curator account (Notable Releases) you mentioned. We actually started that because I kept complaining that someone at Valve really should be manually reviewing their store for a . That turned into a side project for us (we both have programming day jobs) where we go through every daily release and filter for some minimum bar of earnest effort.

    I thought I’d add a few observations you might find useful from doing this project for a half year:
    – We see roughly 30-40 games every day (we only check M-F). And I think we highlight about 10 games per day. Huge problem That’s still a lot of games, but hopefully it provides another useful data point in determining precisely what’s in the marketplace.
    – Speaking of filtering, we often filter out games that are anime puzzle sliders, cheaply made jigsaw puzzle games / trivia games, etc. Just to give you an idea of what we’re filtering.
    – I spend a lot of time visiting developers’ websites/social media. It would be completely off base to say something like “if you build a website and tweet a lot, people will come”. But I have also noticed that many devs that don’t get attention don’t even bother with that. My running theory (Richard has some slightly different ideas) is the devs should put effort into website/social media/standard stuff, but they also need to find that extra something that will help build a community eager to buy their game day one. Building up a name for yourself over several releases seems to help. And luck. A lot of luck.

    Anyways, I hope you found some of that useful.

  11. ETO sold horrible since it looks bad (very generic pixel art, not even close to Dead Cells, Stardew Valley, Into the Breach or Celeste level), has very watered down genre (and I can’t even say what’s this game about looking at 5 samey screenshots). Pretty sure if Keith released it 5 years ago it won’t make a huge difference in sales.

    Look at indie games tinyBuild and Chucklefish publish – they sell well, have decent marketing and actually look good and desirable.

  12. Be strong brother. My game “Shadowlings” failed too. My biggest dissapointment was, that Rock-Paper-Shotgun reviewer called my game “the best swordfighting game I’ve played for years”. I though it will raise my game popularity, but nobody cares.

    That article in RPS and good player reviews makes me mad: i feel like i have created realy good game (good enough for indie, at least), that could make happy many ppl, but almost no one is ready to give it chance, and try to play it.

    P.S. Excuse me for bad english

    1. I’m sorry man, but your game is painfully average. Just from the screenshots and the trailer it’s simply not a game I would even think of buying. The swing of the sword looks horrible, the models are tiny and very ugly, and the game’s aesthetic also isn’t great.

      I apologize for trashing the game that you’ve been working really hard on but you need a reality check. Based on the marketing material you’ve provided me, your game is not good. It looks painfully, painfully average. Your standards need to be much higher if you expect to sell well.

  13. So… 4 months ago I released a game. I thought it tanked. I did not turn a profit and the revenue itself was not enough to justify doing indie full time anymore.

    Now I’ve read your article, I seem to sell well above average. That was sobering…

  14. Is this worse on Steam than on mobile? I released Meteorfall on iOS/Android this year and it’s on it’s way to over $100k in revenue this year, which isn’t a ton by big indie standards, it’s doing OK compared to the #’s posted here. This could be the ‘surviorship’ bias you were referring to, but I’m curious about whether mobile is different. I have to imagine that there are even more games on Mobile than on Steam (but I could be wrong). Assuming that’s true – is possible that App Store curators are doing a better job than Steam, and that the problem isn’t too many games, but that Steam sucks at discovery?

    1. I’ve been following your game on Twitter and have to say I think you absolutely nailed the art, which possibly explains much of your success. It does seem that the App Store does at least some curation as opposed to Steam. Valve has admitted they’ve pretty much given up on that and their algorithms are driven on sales. You already have to be selling well to do well. Still, it doesn’t seem wise to bank on receiving curation.

  15. “91 at Metacritic”, yea, only because of 4 reviews, the minimum allowed by Metacritic. The game isn’t really that much.

    Why indie games flop? Because of the genres you pick, that’s the main reason. Most of the examples here are from strategy, turn-based, slow paced, etc., the most boring genres ever (Auro, Escape the Omnochronom! and Aztez are strategy/turn-based).
    Sure, there is an audience for it, and if you make it right, it’s probably for everyone.

    So before you jump into weird amalgamations of genres, of boring ones, you need to make a solid classic title, that you understand and want to play on sight, so 0 strategy, 0 Tower-Defense, etc. Into the Breach is popular because FTL was, not the other way around. They made their first game a roguelike/lite which at the time was a very popular and loved genre, allowing them to take a risk by releasing a game in a niche and slow genre, strategy.

    Long story short, you need to make good games, yes, but good games that are marketable to masses, to build a reputation, that allows you to make more of the kind of games you want. Why do you think shooters rule the world? Because everybody loves them, it’s the safe bet, you build a reputation by making a good one. For example EA, the worst company in the world with the godly awful Origin, made Battlefield which made them rich, but also made Unravel and A Way Out, both risky and niche games, that allowed them, based on their previous popularity and money, make this weird and interesting, but still niche, games.

    1. Maybe turn based is less popular in general, sure. There’s always Civilization to remind you that it does do very, very well. Aztez is first and foremost a fast paced brawler. You repeated exactly what I said about Into the Breach as if it was the opposite, but OK.

  16. to be honest, when i saw “golden krone hotel” i thought it sounds familiar but i needed to google it. Ive seen it several times but it never stayed in my brain largely because of lack of any identity. Trailer says its abut vampires, but it looks like generic fantasy dungeon crawler. There is nothing to react to emotionally, no faces, no charged colors.
    Just think about count Orlock crawling out of pitch black shadow and now just reimagine it as dude walking on a brown sandy floor.
    That moba/roguelike game aso look like something i would scroll by. Check out stoneshard as example of something that got people attention by coherent visual theme. Youll definitelly wont get far just on programmer art.

    1. Youll definitelly wont get far just on programmer art.

      Other than the cases where it makes you billions of dollars, sure, I agree.

      1. such as?
        minecraft tried to copy ultima underworld + deliberate voxel art polished up later
        stardew looks on the level if not better than snes games it emulates

  17. I agree with all your conclusions, but your assumptions regarding the review to sales ratio seems a bit off to me. Or you are entirely right, but the ratio has changed over the last 4 years.

    I released “Into the Dark” ages ago on steam…

    https://store.steampowered.com/app/266050/

    …and, well, it has a total of 50 (direct-purchase) MIXED reviews and I can assure you I made more than 100k on it net. (But less than 200k, to be honest)

    Fast forward to 2016 and releasing “Father’s Island”:

    https://store.steampowered.com/app/460940/Fathers_Island

    22 mixed reviews, and I struggled to recoup the dev costs of 30k Euro. I did in the end with some bundle and 3rd party store sales, but it was a close one.

    Do you think it’s possible that the amount X (sold copies) per review left has also declined over the years?

    Best,

    Ivan @ Homegrown Games

    1. I would think that the factor has changed. You released Into the Dark in 2014, and in 2014 there were 1771 games released on Steam. In 2016 there were 4207. So I would think that you would have been able to get a lot more visibility on the store in 2014.

  18. Thanks for the article, even though I don’t concur with everything, especially with the examples.
    It reminds me quite a bit of the developer of Eldritch. Eldritch was a great success (especially for a single dev), but the next release (Neon Struct) sold a lot less. After the third game (Slayer Shock) he searched for a job, because the sales were next to non-existent.
    Of course you could blame the somewhat lacking quality, or the increasing amount of games on the market. But to be honest I think the lack of marketing for the second and third game was the biggest problem. Maybe he thought he could repeat the success of Eldritch just like that, but apparently a DeusEx-lite and a Buffy-inspired action-roguelite needed a lot more PR.

  19. This post is actually a good marketing. I remember that Race the sun devs did the same and now look at their sales (500,000 .. 1,000,000 according to steamspy). I will not be surprised that this moba roguelike game will catch on thanks to this post.

  20. Really loved this article and all the thoughtful comments! Took a look at your game trailer. I’m a professional motion graphics guy as well as a hobbiest game dev. I think trailer mogfx can do so much for marketing and taking production to the next level. Even retro gfx like your game can feel much more modern and cool with the proper treatment in the trailer. The trailer for crypt of the necrodancer is incredible. I’d watch it over and over. It’s certainly just one facet of marketing, but obviously an important one I think a lot of indies overlook. I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not saying my trailers are God’s gift either, but I think maybe your trailer could benefit from a makeover. Those 2.5d title slugs could be a lot more exciting and could incorporate more cool design elements from your game. I think indie devs should consider hiring a pro or getting a friend who specializes in this stuff to make what is often a possible customer’s first impression of your product really pop and sizzle. That said, as you point out, maybe even a good trailer can’t save anyone in this climate anymore. At least it’s worth a shot if all else fails. Good luck and I look forward to reading more of your insights!

    1. Thanks for the comment. I know the trailer could be better, but trust me I did put a huge amount of effort into it already. I wrote a program to generate those title cards and thought they looked a lot more dynamic than what the other tools were giving me. I LOVE the Necrodancer trailer and believe it or not, that was the main guide for mine. The voice overs back and forth were meant to evoke the same feeling. Maybe next time I will just pay someone to do it…

  21. In its early days, Steam was the darling of Indie devs, where we could feel safe releasing a game that we knew was niche but high quality, and trust that it would find at least some audience.

    But that’s clearly no longer the case, and recent articles like this make me feel not-quite-so-bad about the instant failure of my last release one month ago. (https://store.steampowered.com/app/796920/Xenoform/)

    The only potential upside I can see to this is that, by abandoning any attempt at curation, Valve has opened up the market for new sales platforms where players know they won’t have to wade through a river of crap to find a few gems (e.g. Discord’s upcoming service).

  22. I don’t mean to be overly depressing, but maybe the ‘end state’ for indie games is something like the current state of indie music. An album or single self-released by a band will almost invariably sell a very small number of copies, cost more to record and produce than it will ever recoup, and the general assumption is that band members have day jobs or some other source of revenue.

    1. That’s the analogy everyone is using and it feels pretty accurate. I absolutely am in the “don’t quit your day job” camp anyway.

  23. It seems to me (this may have been said above, sorry) that the issue is tools for sifting through. I would hypothesise that as there are more and more choices eventually people just go back to the big obvious ones because they can’t see themselves making a reasonable choice.

    I am not sure how I would test this hypothesis.

  24. Welcome to the business world! The problem is that the indie gold rush was the exception, not the norm. What people don’t realize is Steam is not a publisher, they are just a store front, and when you have 30+ titles a day, there is nothing they can do to make your indie game visible. The reason why publishers still exist in the day of digital distribution is to help get potential buyers to their games. When an indie makes a game on their own they aren’t just a creator, they are now a business. And like any business, they have to find a way to get the word out about their product. Simply putting out a game/product is not sufficient enough. There is no indie-apocalypse, there was just an indie gold rush where the path to make money was too good to be true, and supply and demand took over. I find it fascinating that someone said throwing $10,000 at advertising would be a waste because they would never make that back in revenue. When I hear that, it makes me wonder if their game is really a good enough game when the creator themselves basically said that it is not worth investing in.

  25. The problems here are multiple.
    Firstly the barrier to entry (Google this phrase) is incredibly low. People can knock up an app on their PC in their free time and then publish it. They might whinge about the Google and Apple %, but the platform holders are doing all the heavy lifting.
    Secondly as a result of this low barrier there is an immense oversupply. More than a million games. Many never played. Anyone entering such a market is a fool unless they have some massive differentiation (a good word to Google). Most people don’t know what differentiation is.
    Thirdly lack of curation. There is a huge amount of dross and me too out there, because nobody is preventing it from being published. The world doesn’t need any more Froggers.
    Fourthly nearly everyone publishing a game doesn’t know what marketing is. And marketing is far, far more important than the game itself. The people who understand marketing games are the people who succeed. If you want to succeed form a partnership with a marketing person, not with another game maker. But be aware that marketing is far more difficult than game design and good marketeers are far, far rarer than good coders.
    Fifthly there are more gaming platforms out there than ever before, try writing a list of all of them down, then challenge your buddies to add to it. Then work out which platform has the least competition and start there.
    Sixth, look for an area with a much higher barrier to entry. Then find the resources to overcome that barrier. You will have vastly less competition.
    .
    Now before you go red in the face and accuse me of being an idiot try thinking about the above. Look at real world examples. And don’t waste your time and/or money unless you are sure about what you are doing, have a guaranteed success on your hands and, most of all, have amazing marketing.

    1. how about to tell her shut down your PC and go live in a cave?! and dont try anything?

      very very negative. there are many bad games sold millions of copies and they not worth it at all, they dont know marketing they had luck

      so dont come here and tell her negative BS and make it look super hard and IMPOSSIBLE, it is very possible to make a successful game if she love what she doing she wil make good games , there are many freelancers and ready game assets and other good game engines that will help her or anyone to finish their games, she only need to not give up and keep doing what she love at the end she WILL sucess

      ( i dont care about my english or grammer )

  26. I can’t tell if there is anything good to find in the catalogue because the Steam store front tools don’t provide decent refinements of such a big list. I very quickly give up looking.

  27. We released Gates of Horn and Ivory on September 7th 2018 and we have kept contacting streamers & various other types of media to do gameplay videos & articles before and after the launch. EnomView made a 9/10 review of the game. Various streamers have streamed the game and posted reviews on YouTube. We even have a competition going on at speedrun.com.

    However, to this date, the game has sold 12 copies meaning a bit over $100 USD revenue minus Steam fees. We have not yet even covered the Steam & Asset costs.

    We are going to keep marketing and try our best of course. This is our first shipped title and all the marketing is new to us. KeyMailer has helped a lot. Advertising on Reddit and Discord has caused our guys getting banned from the servers, although we had no bad intentions.

    Sometimes it seems like the whole world is against us. I just want to believe that it’s not the reality but it’s just the strict policies on websites to prevent free advertising. Entrepreneurship is hard. Just going to have to get used to it.

    If you want to support us, you can buy our game on Steam for a cheap price considering its content. I know this is a pathetic call for help but I guess that is what indies should be doing in order to not get themselves banned as ad-bots.

    Peace.

  28. Well, maybe if they’d release a physical version of Tacoma instead of waiting until I’ve already bought it digitally before giving me a disc so I’ll buy it twice, I would have bought a copy already, dammit.

  29. why is it an Indie-apocalypse if a bunch of people can’t sell things on just one market place?

    Steam may be the largest marketplace for software but that doesn’t make it the end all be all.

    what about itch.io, pico8, game jolt, heck your favorite gamedev forum etc., etc. other places these developers could have marketed their game at?

    I don’t think its wise for a developer to be hung up on the fact they couldn’t make it on one market place.

    Steam isn’t the reason for your game failing, you have to be able to maneuver around them.

    Steam isn’t paying you. Players are.

    1. That’s a nice thought, but the reality is Steam has a virtual monopoly on the PC games market. Almost invariably, a game will sell about 1% on other stores as they do on Steam. Your game fails on Steam and then does 100x worse everywhere else.

  30. Maybe it bet better of all developers leave Valve, everyone knows Steam doesn’t do anything, you spend $100 to get access to upload the game. There is nothing special about spending $100 uploading a game that other websites do it for free.

    That $100 can be spend on real marketing not so call fame tha people believe exist.

  31. I remember another article from a decade ago that talked about an almost identical problem in the book publishing industry. People though that the advent of the internet and online booksellers like amazon would create a new creative gold age where even the most niche type of books would find an audience.

    Instead the opposite happened. More books than ever were written but only an extremely small number of books ever sold more than 1k copies. An enormous and increasing number of aspiring authors never saw a dime from their writing, almost no mater how good they were compared to other ages.

    It turns out that even if the amount of books being published increases and people like to read more (debatable), people dont have the attention span or time to seek out niche books. They will still go on recommendations and those recommendations will be based on leads from other recommendations and then you have a short circuit of a hundred popular books or so that people talk about.

    Because people dont *need* to look outside of those 100 books at any given time to satisfy whatever itch they need to scratch at the moment.

    On steam people have libraries full of games that they bought in a sale and never played. They dont need to trawl for more of them in the suspicious indie section. They just need to install one and play.

  32. Go look at some screenshots of Super Nintendo games. Roguelikes: Shiren the Wanderer, or Torneko no Daiboken. Notice anything?

    If your game would be laughed out of the room in the presence of games made in the 1990s then it is bound to fail.

    I am a fan of pixel art when it is done well. Modern examples with super basic monochromatic styles like Downwell and Minit have cohesive art that would not look out of place on a Gameboy. So it’s entirely possible to do pixel art in a very basic manner but still achieve a sense of style and personality, which your game is utterly lacking.

    With the way it looks now, I would be surprised if your game managed to pass muster on Greenlight. And I suspect if it managed to do that, it would have required a lot more marketing than you put into its actual release.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Anonymous!

      This post wasn’t about my game at all but I appreciate you taking the time out of your day to be a raging asshole all the same.

      I don’t actually think my game would get “laughed out of the room” compared to games from the 1990s. Though they’re slightly different styles, I don’t see one of these as orders of magnitude worse than the other.

      https://r.mprd.se/media/images/36134-Torneco_no_Daibouken_-_Fushigi_no_Dungeon_(Japan)-1460139947.png

      https://steamcdn-a.akamaihd.net/steam/apps/497800/ss_050efb7820d3bffafbf5aece5ac205139c7887c3.1920×1080.jpg?t=1532194398

      Probably it’s just because I (and the thousands of people that bought my game) are biased.

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