Indie developer round table
We sat down with developers of four of 2016’s most exciting indie games to get their take on the state of the scene and industry at large
Raphael van Lierop
Founder and creative director, Hinterland Studios
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine,
Far Cry 3
Company of Heroes
Dawn of War
Developer, composer, and writer, Campo Santo
Founder and creative director, Compulsion Games
Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale
Co-founder, writer and lead designer, Fullbright
F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate
What do you think of the current publishing landscape for indie games?
Guillaume Provost: Still one hundred times better than in the retail era! Although it is true the market has gotten a lot more crowded this year, people sometimes forget that we used to have to package boxes and send them to retail stores to sell games.
Raphael van Lierop: It’s pretty incredible. There are a host of independent developers out there that wouldn’t exist today if not for the range of low-barrier digital platforms like Steam, and the respective stores on Xbox and Playstation. Mobile games are in a worse position, but things on PC feel very robust. Looking at today’s landscape in comparison to the options available to independent developers ten or even five years ago – getting a game to market as an independent developer has never been so viable.
Steve Gaynor: I think that it’s interesting how we’re seeing how stuff that started in earnest five years ago is reaching its logical conclusion. Steam really started to have a focus on indie games and Steam was the place to get your indie game seen because the barrier to entry was so low. It’s just interesting to see how now there’s an amazing flood of small independent games on Steam, because of Greenlight and Kickstarter and all of these things that started to allow more people to make games like that and get them to that service. We’ve also seen how now indie games on console platforms are really kind of a given. They’re part of the identity of those platforms now in a way that feels integral rather than just ‘look at this new crazy thing’.
Chris Remo: There are publishing options if you’re really small-scale and you’re looking to get the money to bring to completion a concept that you’ve already proven out, or if you’re fairly large-scale and are willing to give away a fair amount of creative or financial control. The middle is the toughest place to be, which feels like a mirror of larger-scale triple-A development as well. In the current market, the impulse is either to bet big on likely hits, or bet small on low-risk projects that might luck out and hit big anyway.
What are the challenges you expect indie game developers are likely to face in the coming year?
RVL: I’m not sure the coming year will be any different from previous ones, in terms of the challenges we face. Making great experiences, finding our audience, keeping them engaged. That’s what we’re all working hard to do. I think the main difference this year will be VR. There’s a lot of buzz around it but no business model yet. I suspect a lot of money will be spent and lost on trying to secure the first-mover’s advantage in search of the “killer app”.
SG: I think that part of the ebb and flow of the indie games market is actually based on the console generation. In the early years of a console generation I think you have these really big splashes, like Destiny being an early title this generation, and just really big games that justify your purchase of this new hardware. If anything, I imagine 2016 might be the year where part of that trend starts to lighten up and people are looking for more kinds of different games they haven’t played before. It might be a really good time for indie game releases compared to the first year or two of a new console being out.
CR: Probably the main challenge indie game developers will face in the coming year, and in all the years after that, will continue to be the challenge of keeping the lights on.
Concerns have been raised over the sustainability of indies after Steam sales data became more public. Do you subscribe to the idea that ‘the indie bubble is bursting’?
GP: The bubble isn’t bursting… games have always been this way: few winners, and many losers. We’re just seeing it more clearly with SteamSpy. The more saturated the market becomes, the more polarized the market tends to get; and we’ve seen it happen on mobile. People will stop just buying opportunistically and start flocking towards what their friends like instead. But you can still sell a small game for $5 or a huge game for $60; and I think that allows for a lot more diversity in the types of games that can be successful in the space.
RVL: Not so much a bubble bursting as a reality check. I think Steam is a bellwether for what’s happening to the industry in general due to the unrelenting shift to digital. Steam is the Netflix of games, in the sense that it’s an alternate distribution platform that’s shifted the focus from relationships with the gatekeepers (publishers) to relationships with the community (i.e. people who are passionate about your content and willing to pay for it), and as a result has opened up markets to new types of content.
Player expectations are also rising and the lines between independent and “triple-A” are blurring, as far as the quality of the player experience, but in general the calculus remains the same as it always has – make more money than you spend, keep doing that.
SG: The Steam audience is continuing to grow, but at any given time there’s only so much money going into the system to go out to developers. I think that it does feel as if it’s being distributed over more developers now than it used to be and I think that’s a good thing. It sounds more healthy to me overall. In a weird socio-economic analogy, it’s good for all of the wealth not to be concentrated in one percent of the games that are being released.
I think Valve is aware of that. Valve is very much a market economics focused organisation. It runs Steam like a self-contained free market that it pulls the levers over, which means it can adjust and regulate its own market. I think that’s what we’re seeing now with this year’s holiday sales, it’s only doing one discount for the whole thing and it’s choosing who gets featured. I don’t really have any inside information here, but I think it’s a method of trying to rebalance away from the race to the bottom of mega discount culture.
CR: Very few of the people who would like to make a living by independently developing games actually end up being able to, and whether you’re one who gets to do it doesn’t have to do entirely with talent. Talent helps, but – like any creative field – it’s such a matter of circumstance and luck. I don’t think that will change soon. Usually, when new business models and technologies are introduced, there’s a bit of a gold rush that happens when both creators and the public get excited. But then eventually they settle down and reach an equilibrium, which might be favourable to creators and might not be, depending on lots of details.
How do you measure the success of an indie game?
SG: From my point of view, we’ve always wanted our games to do well enough that we can make another game based on how well they do. If you lose money on your game then that’s a problem because there is only so long that you can keep doing this if the game is not going to actually sell. But there’s always the other side, and I think this is true in big games as well as indie games, of how much does it connect with people?
How much does it connect with an audience in a way that is unique? You can have a game that does however well it does commercially, financially, etc, but if it really makes a connection with an audience that cares about it and they find something special in it that they haven’t been able to find anywhere else and you can tell from their reaction that you’ve made something that matters to somebody, I think that’s the aspect of the success of a game that’s more important to your soul, I guess [laughs].
RVL: Community engagement is the first measure of success. Are your players happy with the experience? Are they investing time in your game? Are they sharing it with their friends? Are they encouraging strangers to give your game a try? Steam reviews are a good indicator of this engagement, as is interaction on social media, forums, and of course, presence on YouTube and Twitch. Beyond community engagement, you’re measuring success by sales and revenue. Success means you make enough money to take risks and still plan a future for your team and studio. That’s all most independent developers want.
CR: It depends what kind of success you need. For most indies, financial success means being able to make another game, ideally without outside investment. That’s our goal, certainly, even though we’ve had a great experience with our funding partner, Panic. On top of financial success, creative success for me would be defined by having really interesting pieces of criticism published about our game.
Obviously, I hope the game is reviewed well, but what’s more exciting to me personally is the idea of the game prompting thoughtful and unique writing and responses, whether or not they’re purely positive.
GP: I’m not sure what the definition of “indie” is anymore; but the reason many of us are independent is because we want to try new and different projects that we feel passionate about. So to that extent that developers are pushing the boundaries, narrative, gameplay or the type of games coming to the market, and seeing enough commercial success doing it to keep doing it are “successful”. The more diversity in game experiences we can bring to the market, the wider our audience will be over time.
With third-party publishing and larger studios, are the lines between indie games and ‘regular’ games becoming blurred? What’s the delineation in your mind; what’s the difference to you?
GP: I think independent developers are getting crowded, and that is pushing some developers to get bigger and to create products that will encroach in the traditional triple-A market. There’s still a pretty large gap in scope however, between – say – Outlast and GTA V. What we’re seeing from some independents is a shorter, more focused triple-A experience. Personally, I like the formula. I think there’s a large segment of gamers who have a limited amount of time to play games, and who prefer to experience different games with that time.
RVL: I think the term “indie” is confusing and I’m not sure what it really means. It used to refer to an aesthetic. Then it meant you weren’t publisher-owned. I think people use the term to suggest, interchangeably, a genre as well as a scope, and some sense of the creator’s voice coming through clearly in the work.
In that paradigm, I think games from independent studios that are self-funded, or funded outside the traditional system (whether it be Kickstarter or Early Access or whatever), are all “indie”, regardless of the kind of experience they deliver. In other words, “indie” isn’t a size but a state of mind. I think it means you are close to your community and you have more freedom to pursue your own creative sensibilities. Profit and product are not your primary goals, and you aren’t beholding to shareholders.
I don’t think “indie” means you’re making a certain type of experience, although I think certain types of experiences tend to be made by studios we consider to be “indie”. There’s causality there.
SG: My overall view is that it’s pretty straight-forward in that an indie game is something that isn’t published or released or owned by a publisher. There are definitely small games coming from small teams within Ubisoft or whoever, but it would be a stretch to say that Child Of Light was an indie game, because it was from inside this multinational organisation.
I’m in no way trying to denigrate the game or the experience itself, but I think there is something meaningful about a game having come from a studio that was independently-funded. That we’re doing this with our own money or investment from individual groups and we’re making this happen outside of the shell of a larger organisation.
CR: If anything, the lines between the studios themselves are getting less blurred. Triple-A development is becoming more massive by the year, and it’s hard for me to imagine anyone confusing that with most indies. Even the largest indies are pretty easy to distinguish from a typical major publisher-owned studio. I think blurring might be occurring in player perception of the games, largely because the potential scale and ambition of independent games has become disproportionate to their developers’ team sizes.
As a player, if you compare No Man’s Sky and Assassin’s Creed, depending on what features are most exciting to you, it might not be obvious why one of those games requires only a dozen people to make and the other one requires some number of hundreds that I’ve lost track of at this point. While the kind of people reading this interview are probably aware of the distinction, I bet it’s safe to assume that most people buying games have absolutely no idea whether what they’re playing is made by ten people or a hundred or a thousand.
Do you think young developers getting into gaming would be better served starting in indie development or getting experience at a large studio?
CR: It is never possible to give advice about getting into games that will apply across the board. But if I had to make a call, all else being equal, I would say it’s probably better to get experience at a large studio first. You’ll learn a lot of institutional and team practices that are harder to learn on a very small team when you have much more responsibility out of the gate and there isn’t a lot of time or room for training or easing into roles. You can always translate the experiences you’ve had on large teams into your small-team work. Game developers love to gripe about all the problems with large-scale development and how wasteful it is, and there’s some truth to that, but most indies I know who are successful and consistent came out of large-scale development and learned important lessons from it.
GP: I think they’re better off starting with independents; even if it’s less sexy. It’s harder, you’ll learn faster and you’ll touch many other disciplines very quickly and be given more responsibility. So – as a developer starting out, it’s a great way to accelerate your career. On the flipside, it also pays less, has less security, and it can sometimes be harder to control the quality of the projects you work on, especially if the studio’s management isn’t capable of mustering the funds and organisational skills to bring great games to market. When looking for jobs, I always chose people first, projects second and conditions last.
RVL: I think young developers getting into the industry are best served making something. There are certainly valuable lessons to be learned working at larger studios – mainly, teamwork, worth ethic, and learning how to collaborate within groups. But those lessons can be gained in a variety of ways. I know that I lean on my years of hard-won experience in the “triple-A” industry, every day. I don’t think I’d trade those years for anything, because if not for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
SG: It’s really hard for me not to just speak from my own personal experience because I spent a lot of years at larger studios and I learnt a lot. Half of Fullbright now are people who worked at 2K Marin. My year at Irrational was an invaluable experience for me. But everything you do is an expression of the experience that you’ve had. So, I’m really glad that I had the kind of experience that I did before we tried to make a game like Gone Home.
There are certainly developers like Derek Yu [Spelunky] or Edmund McMillen [Super Meat Boy] who just came up by making small games in the indie space for years and years before they honed that into a major hit. I think there are certainly still advantages to coming up through big studios. It’s basically on-the-job training, a paycheck and you make contacts with lots of people who you work with at the studio and other studios. On the other side of it, it means that you’re going to be working on somebody else’s game for a long time and it can be a real challenge to bring your own heart to that and remain invested and get the most you can out of that. Because a lot of it is luck of the draw.
I’m very lucky that I got to work at places that were a good match for me and allowed me to explore what I was capable of before I went out on my own.
For more great independent game coverage you should read Play’s Indie 100 special. Download it now