Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Surviving In the Post-Indie Bubble Wasteland!!!

Incendiary title. Check. Dramatic image. Check. Time to sit back and let the retweets roll in!
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a widely read and mostly acclaimed article about the popping of what I termed the "Indie Bubble." I promised to write more about what I thought was coming and how I thought a small-scale creative artist could make a living in the times to come. It’s a long piece, and boring, so I’ll try to slip in a fart joke somewhere to keep things lively.

Although I'll be focused on video games, I flatter myself by thinking that the things I have to say apply to creators in all sorts of media.

Quite a few people, publicly and privately, asked for my advice and for my opinion on where things go from here. And I think it is solid evidence of how unpredictable and gut-emptyingly terrifying things have gotten that anyone thinks it useful to ask for my opinion.

Look, I don't know what's going to happen next. I'm not a sorceror. I approach these blog posts like Seal Team Six. I sneak in over the border, plant my bombs, and get out.

Plus, I'm old. I keep mentioning how old I am. Folks, this is not a boast. It's a warning. This whole mess is in the hands of the next generation, who grew up with their bleepy bloopy devices and have an intuitive grasp of them I never will.

I went to see a rock show the other week and these two kids in front of me (kids = people in their 20s) used Instagram, followed by SnapChat, followed by three apps that, I don't even know what they were, and it was like watching the birth of a new species. These people shouldn't be listening to me about anything.

I don't know what is next. But I'm not useless. One thing my weird endurance in indie games has given me is a very fine understanding of the advantages of "being indie." What makes people like us, what keeps us around, why we are needed, and how we can turn that into money. (I like money. It can be exchanged for goods and services.)

(Oh, and by the way, lots of people objected to my use of the word "bubble." Here is why I called it the Indie "Bubble." Because I knew if I did, many more people would read the post. It worked. Ha ha.)

So come with me! Let us, in the spirit of Christmas Specials of olde, learn the True Meaning of Indie.

In the future, young indie developers will have to fight in the Thunderdome. Winners get a 300 word preview in Kotaku.
The Term 'Indie' Is Useless

People in all media argue ceaselessly about what "indie" means. It's a sublime waste of time. Silly eggheads! Indie means whatever you want it to mean.

Indie is a type of business. It's a type of funding. It's a marketing term. In fact, the term ‘indie’ can mean everything but a type of game. Calling a game an "indie game" is like buying a six-pack of beer on sale and offering it to your friends as "on-sale-beer."

"Indie" describes the manner of its making, not the game itself. But you're the customer. You don't care how the sausage was made, only that it's sizzling on the plate and won't give you a case of the gutworms. So, in this sense, the term "indie game" is stupid and useless.

That's a Lie. You Know It. I Know It.

Everything in the previous section was wrong. You can feel it in your gut, next to the worms you got from the sausages. Yet if you try to explain why, you'll get tangled up in words, because you're trying to quantify art, and that is unpossible.

When humans say "Indie," whether in games or film or music, they are describing a quality that is completely intangible and yet entirely real. They are describing the feeling that the creation in question feels like authentic communication from another human being.

What makes my little RPGs "indie"? It's that, when you play them, you can feel the presence of my brain behind them, and you know that I cared. When you play, say, Avernum, you are spending some time living in the world as I saw it when I wrote it.

This quality is not restricted simply to games that intend to be art. My favorite example here is AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome, a game you really should try. It's a simple arcade game, and yet it is written with a very peculiar, hilarious, distinctive aesthetic that makes one feel, after a time, like one is visiting the creators' brains. (If you try it, play levels until you start to unlock the funny videos. You'll know them when you reach them.)

It is possible for an independently produced game to not feel at all Indie. iTunes is full of this. Similarly, it is possible for a big-budget AAA game to feel super-indie. (Insert Saints Row IV plug here.)

You are creating something for people. To affect them. To take one of many possible routes into their brains. We're toymakers, and it's an awesome thing to be. This is the Goal.

Advice #1: Make the thing you care about, and people will sense it. If you make something you don't believe in because you think it'll make more money, players will smell the stink of desperation on you.

And yet, "indie" is almost always applied in the context of small, scrappy, hungry developers. There is a very good reason for that, which you ignore at your peril.

The facts: Most people want this. This will sell more than you. But people need to know that they have choices besides this.
Our Greatest Advantage!!!

Our biggest advantage is that people like us. They want us to succeed.

Small game developers fit the archetype of the lone tinkerer, slaving late into the night, creating because they are driven to create, damn the consequences.

In my culture, at least, this is a truly powerful and beloved archetype, one buried deep in the cultural and professional DNA of our society. When people see you as a driven tinkerer, rich in drive and creativity if not in wealth, they will want you to succeed. It is then a short jump to actively helping you to succeed.

As long as they like you. (But more on that later.)

Indie games will have their ups and downs, but they will always be around, because people will always be driven to make toys, success be damned. And there will always be profit in that, because some people will be determined to make them succeed, because they can't stand to live in a world where the little guy can't make it.

Advice #2: Never forget that people want to root for you, and be someone they'll want to root for. When your survival is necessary for the psychic health of others, that’s good.

Pictured: The indie ideal.
An Instructive Example

When I saw the game Octodad: Dadliest Catch at PAX a couple years ago, I had to write about it. Note, I've never played it. I only watched a few seconds of it. That was enough for me to know it'd be a success.

It's a game where you play an intelligent octopus with a human wife and children, and you have to perform tasks without them realizing you are not a human too. Much of the fun comes from the imprecise controls, which make your character flop all over the place in a humorous, destructive way.

Yeah, it's bonkers. What made me sure it'd do well is this: There are a lot of people who would buy it because they wanted to see a game like that be a success. (See also: Goat Simulator.)

To be clear, the quality that brings this sort of support is not humor or novelty. Your game doesn't have to be wacky or gimmicky or hentai-scented to succeed. (Though humor can help a LOT.) It just has to feel personal. Being in some way surprising is also helpful.

But again, this all depends on people wanting you to succeed, which means they have to like you, and they have to keep liking you. So you should know how to manage that.

Heading Out On the Path

OK, here's the usual scenario. You're passionate about games (or music, writing,  acting, etc). You've been doing it as a hobbyist for years, and that's awesome. Creating things as a hobbyist is a noble activity. All those famous designers you look up to? Practically all of them were writing games for years before they made the one you heard of. It takes ten years to make an overnight success.

But you've been doing it for a while, and now you have a hot idea. You think you can turn it into money. You want to Go Pro.

Now, before, I always gave the advice to look for an underserved niche and serve it. I kind of have to take that back. One of the tough things about the glut of indie games is that the number of underserved niches has gone way down. As I write this, Steam is getting a new RPG a DAY. So many. Does this worry me, a writer of RPGs? Hell yes. But I write RPGs for a living. It's all I'm good for. So, even if I see a sexy new market somewhere else, I have to die on this hill.

Inspiration strikes where it strikes, and individual creative processes are very important. Write what you care about, even if it's another 2-D platformer. If you like to work alone, work alone. If you need to be part of a team, do that. If you don't mind doing things on the cheap (like using stock art and music), that can work. If you need perfect professional work for everything, that's what you need to do. (But be prepared to pay the price.)

Advice #3: Figure out what your process is, and then respect and defend it.
How the game industry sees me. "Golly! Is that one them new-fangled computer thing-a-ma-bobs? Gosh!"
So You Have a Dream and a Process

You're working on your game. You believe in it. There is a subset of gamers, maybe large, maybe small, that you can look dead in the eye and say, "You HAVE to try my game. It will change your life." (If you can't honestly do this, you need to go back a step or two.)

Now you need to write it, and you need to sell it. To do this and make money at the end, you need to keep two key variables in mind: PR and Budget. The reason I am writing this article is that the way of dealing with these variables is rapidly changing.

First, there is how much PR you can get. Word of mouth. Web site articles. YouTube videos. You NEED some PR, to start the word of mouth at least, and you need to be realistic about how much you can get.

Some people misinterpreted the end of my indie bubble article to mean I thought that indie games would die out and there would be no more hits. Of course, this is ludicrously far from what I was saying. Their have to be hits. Journalists need hit games to write about. Steam and iTunes need to make hits to sell. Gamers need hits to buy. Some games will always get the golden PR ticket, because the system demands it. The problem now is that, to get the attention, the number of rivals you have to elbow in the throat is WAY higher.

(Yes, I just said that Steam and Apple make hits. If they decide they just want to make a game a hit, they can give it great placement. This phenomenon happens in many media. We've been lucky so far in that the games chosen to be hits are generally good. This will not always be so.)

Here's the key point about the PR. If your game is really good, you'll get word of mouth. With work and press releases, you can get more on top of that. You need to estimate how much press you can get, and adjust your budget accordingly.

Consider Spiderweb Software. We do our games on the cheap, and, as a result, we don't need to get a lot of press to make a solid living. Most people don't want to take our route, but you should know it's open to you. If it was necessary to go to conventions to get enough attention to survive, Spiderweb Software would not exist. I'm just not good at working the crowd.

Advice #4: Do PR or die. I don't know what you should do, but you need to do SOMETHING.

Then, Budget

After you know what sort of attention you can get, figure out how much you can afford to spend on your game. I don't have a lot to say about this. If you're SURE you need a hot big-name musician to score your game, hey, that's your process. My opinion is unimportant.

Just remember that every 5% you shave off the cost of making your game gives you a 5% better chance of business survival. Just make sure that 5% is worth it.

Me, I live cheap. I'm a bottom feeder. I'm merciless about reusing assets from game to game. Rendering creatures in Poser instead of getting a pricey freelancer. Buying cheap, royalty-free sounds. We sell detailed, interesting stories, written in nice, cheap text, and skimp on everything else.

We're so cheap that sometimes, at conventions, other developers make fun of me TO MY FACE. If you know how generally cordial indie developers try to be to each other, this is worth noting.

Most indie developers would rather throw their computers into a fire than release products with my level of polish. But I have a plan. I intend to retire in this business, and I will do what it takes to make it happen.

Advice #5: Don't forget that the best reason to go indie is that you get to do things your own way.

How you want your audience to see you.
On Being Likable

Seriously, the greatest advantage indie creators have is that people naturally sympathize with us and want us to succeed. Play to your strength, and remember, every time you act like a jerk in public, you're hurting all of us.

Cultivate a FRIENDLY personal relationship with customers whenever possible. Answer e-mails. Be present and engage users on forums in a friendly way as much as you can stand. Try to make a demo available so users can make sure your game will work before they pay for it. (I haven't been good about this lately, and I regret it.) Give refunds. Give advice. Use smilies. Be a nice person.

If you do a Kickstarter or Steam Early Access, be damn sure to live up to your promises, or give the users a timely, informative reason why you didn't. Doing otherwise hurts all of us.

Do your best to say yes to REASONABLE requests. It's OK to say 'no,' though. It's your game, your baby. Sometimes, you have to live up to your own ideals, even though you'll get a lot of undeserved hate for it. Here's a good example.

How you don't want your audience to see you.
Don't Look Sauron In the Eye

Conversely, if someone is mean to your game on some stupid forum somewhere, never ever engage them, attack them, argue why they're wrong, whatever. Nothing good has even come out of doing this. Ever. Some people won't like your game, or they won't like your face. Let. It. Go.

Here's a rule that I have violated many, many times, and I've always regretted it: If you must go out in public and air your edgy opinions, remember that goodwill is like money, and you are spending it. It is very easy to cross the line from being a positive archetype (sincere, small creator) to a very negative one (dour, humorless, judgmental blowhard).

This is one of the reasons I wrote the article a few weeks ago defending mobile games. If you are the hip indie developer who lectures gamers about what they should or should not want, you will make them defensive. Then they will get angry. At all of us.

Obviously, I'm not saying you should never say anything. Goodwill is money, and money doesn't do any good if you don't spend it. Just learn from my mistakes. People like us much better when we come forward in a spirit of being friendly, accepting, and eager to help.

Advice #6: Be nice and humble.

I Still Don't Know Where the Game Industry Is Going

Nope. Nobody does. No idea. This whole medium is completely new and without precedent. Nobody knows anything.

But there are some things that always work. Creativity. Determination. Believing in yourself. Working hard. A bit of luck. Kindness. Humility.

The bubble has popped, but we'll keep going on. As long as we make sure to embody the right set of ideals, gamers will refuse to let us fail.