Thursday, December 4, 2014

How You're Going To Price Your Computer Game.

For the purpose of this article, I am going to assume you want lots of money. (Image stolen from here.)
Yes, it's time for another post about setting a price for a game. It's lame that I'm writing more on this, but things are really in flux in the game biz and a lot of people (developers and consumers) seem to be confused about how things work now. Here's my up-to-date take on it. I'll try to make it funny so it's less boring.

This is mainly about indie games, but, honestly, AAA games are in the same boat. The time scales and initial price are both bigger, but the pattern is the same.

So suppose you're a small developer and you wrote a game and you want to make lots of money off it. In 2010, it'd be easy. Get onto Steam, price it at $10, and buy a house made out of yachts.

Sadly, getting a time machine is not a viable option because physics. You'll need to do marketing and come up with a price for your game. Since my hot new indie RPG Avernum 2: Crystal Souls comes out soon, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The pricing part, as thinking about marketing makes me break out in fear hives.

How Much Should My Game Cost?

Do it like the pros. Flip a coin. If it's heads, $15. If tails, $20. Done!

Ha ha. I'm just kidding. (I'm not kidding.) Right now the sweet sustainable-business price for indie games looks like $15-20. This range is cheap enough to feel affordable and high enough that you can make a living. As for which one you pick, look at your competitors, and do what they already did.

Granted, some rough riders want to send out their game at $10. This is still feasible, but with one warning: Look at your game and ask, "Can I honestly ask $15 for this?" If the answer is no, you need to look at your work REALLY hard. Figure out if you've made a quality product that brings something distinctive to the marketplace that a competitor can't easily clone. Be ready for a long, sleepless night.

(Obviously, I’m mostly focusing on personal computer games here. Pricing for mobile is an entirely different topic that has been extensively written about elsewhere.)

One more caveat, which is entirely my own opinion. If your game costs more than $10 per hour of gameplay, please reconsider your price. Not for your sake, but for those who write indie games after you. Charging $20 for your elegant 90 minute art piece might trick people into buying their first indie game, but it hurts the chances of their ever buying a second one.

Hokay. You have a number. Now ship your game! Isn't this exciting?

In Stage 1, this is how you see your game.
Stage One. "Will everyone please help me stay in business?"

The first couple months that your game is out, it'll always be at or near full price. A 20% off sale the first week can do really well to goose sales and bring in the undecided, but, otherwise, stick to your guns. Demand money.

The first month or so your game is out is key. It's the time when your game is most visible and people who are really jazzed about it will pay full price. This is why developers go so insane with worry about proper release press, Steam placement, and everything going perfectly.

Here is a very important rule of thumb:
The people who love your work enough to buy it right away at full price will provide you with most of the money that keeps you in business. So you need them.
I can't stress this enough. I've had disagreements with my fans, but I am infinitely grateful to them for rushing in and paying full price. It keeps us making games. Period.

Hard question time again. Are there people out there who'll care enough about your product to buy it right away for full price? If you aren't sure, you may have a rough road ahead of you. Bundles are nice, but you won't make your living off of them.

Anyway, if things go accordingly to plan, you'll get a ton of sales the first week/month and be thrilled and optimistic and float on rainbows. Then, a month or so in, your sales will fall off a cliff. Don't worry. It's nature's way. Just don't let it surprise you or send you into a depression spiral. It's just life.

(It will surprise you and send you into a depression spiral. No mental preparation is adequate to protect you when you see that sales chart line slam downward.)

Give it a few more months for the diehards to trickle in and pay the full ticket. You'll need that money. Then, eventually, sales will be slow, you'll be three months into the long tail, and it'll almost be time for your first Steam sale.

It's time for Stage two.

In Stage 2, this is how you see your game.

Stage Two: "Will you take 25% off? How about 50%? We're pricing to move!"

Once a few months have passed and sales have trickled off, there is no longer anything to gain from always keeping your prices high. It's time to take advantage of Steam and other sales.

(Oh, you are on Steam right? At this point, if you aren't there, you have real problems. Get on it. The standards are way looser than they used to be. Put your game in Greenlight and get your Great Aunt Millie to vote for you.)

You're going to want to have sales. The key for the sales period is to take it slow. For the first sale, 25%. When the next sale comes along in a few months, 50%. And so on. (On Steam, you can also beg a super high discount to get a Flash Sale. Be aggressive for this. Being promoted by Steam makes the big bucks.)

Putting your special little game on sale can be an emotionally wrenching experience. Everyone wants to protect their baby. However, by this time in the process, I'm usually entirely sick of seeing my baby and don't mind tormenting it a little. Try to cultivate an emotional environment of cold brutality.

This process will go on forever, and you have a lot of freedom. You can be 50% off one sale and then 75% the next. Nobody will notice. You have room for some trial and error to find out what makes the most money.

But at a certain point, your work will be old and musty enough that even sales won't make a ton. It's just too buried in the game stores, and too many of its target audience will own it.

Then it's time for the deep discounts. The bundles. The hard sell. Or, to put it another way ...

In Stage 3, this is how you see your game.


A quality game can continue to generate income for a surprisingly long time. And why shouldn't it? If it's fun, it never stops being fun. However, at a certain point, your game will make the transition from "My darling baby that must be loved and cherished." to "An aging asset that must have its value ruthlessly extracted."

That's where the bundles (Humble Bundle, Indie Royale, Groupees, etc) come in.

Putting a game in a bundle in its first year is a mistake. You'll irritate people who paid a high price, and you’ll lose opportunities to sell the thing at a higher cost.

Once it's been out a year, things are different. Then your game is old news, and you're probably more focused on pushing your next title. In this case, bundling is terrific. It brings in more packets of money. It serves as a demo, bringing you a lot of attention which helps you sell your next game. And, surprisingly, past experience has shown that being in a bundle doesn't do a lot of damage to ordinary sales.

Actually, this isn't that much of a surprise. For even the best known indie, the population of gamers who have never heard of you will always be huge. Anything that gives you a bump in visibility will expand the fan base you need to continue as a business. Being in a bundle is perfect for this.

Sadly, bundles don't make as much as they used to. Humble Bundle still does well, but the million other bundles rarely generate much cash. It's another way in which the glory days are gone. Bundling does still increase your visibility, though. So it's still a good idea. Think of it as getting to charge for your demo.

Most people don't play games they get in bundles anyway. They're too busy trying the titles they got ten bundles before.

And Then It Goes On Forever

Since the Indie Bubble popped, getting a small game company to profitability has become far more difficult. In this super-competitive environment, it's tough to build a loyal fan base willing to pay full price. You need a really good title that earns a lot of visibility.

However, once you are making a living, it appears to be easier to stay in business. Thanks to sales, bundles, and the ever-ubiquitous Steam, a good game can continue earning for a lot longer than you might think. And that's even before you start porting it to new platforms, releasing Deluxe Editions, DLC, rewriting it as a Remastered edition, etc.

The Game Industry is changing really fast. I hope all this keeps you up. I'll probably write a new version of this article in six months, when Steam invents a way to beam games directly into your brain.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Are Addictive Free-To-Play Games Ethical? Let's Fight!

Come with me now, as we stare unflinchingly into the face of Ultimate Evil.
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post defending Big Free-To-Play. You know, the evil, soulless big money mobile game makers us indies are supposed to totally hate and stuff. Because finally managing to turn your mom into a serious gamer was SO BAD.

My piece received rebuttals that were worth addressing, and I want to do a little of that now, because I have a new game coming out soon, and I could use the clicks. So.

Objection 1:

Most free-to-play game profits come from a handful of compulsive whales who spend a ton of money. These games use a wide variety of psychological trickery to force players into being addicted and spending outlandishly. This is unethical.

The first two sentences of the previous paragraph are unquestionably true. The big question is the third sentence. Are these games unethical?

And trust me, the techniques these games use can get really shady. For example, a game might offer you the chance to spend money to win a tough level. If you do this, you may well find that the price to do it goes UP. Once the game identifies you as an easy mark, it will start milking you for cash.

Is this sort of thing morally wrong? If you answered quickly, you might want to rethink it. It's a hard choice. A gray area. Internet debates tend to deal really super badly with issues with gray areas, but we might as well dig in a little. Indies developers tend to want to see themselves as moral people, so the question is how we feel comfortable getting money away from people is an important one.

"Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err and even to sin." - Mahatma Gandhi. So you see? I'm right and you're wrong.
A Relevant and Instructive True Story

We used to handle all of my company's sales ourselves. We could charge credit cards, and people would call us to talk on the phone to an Actual Person. Yeah, it was a total pain.

Every so often, we'd get a person who just had bad credit. They'd give us a credit card number. It would be rejected because they were at their limit. They'd give another. At their limit. Again and again, until they finally found a credit card that they could squeeze another $25 credit out of to buy our game.

Whenever this happened, we'd think, "Dude, you are in a lot of debt. You're in trouble. We don't know what you need, but it's not our game."

We could have refused the order from Mister Way-In-Debt. Or, we could have given the game away for free.

We never did either. We took the money.

So you tell me. Was that the right thing to do?

Doesn't the mere presence of this image make my arguments feel more right? (Yes. Yes, it does.)

And Who Cares?

Every so often, someone will think, based on my work and writing, they can nail down my political views with a simple label. This always makes me laugh a little. My political views are a dog's breakfast of points of view from all over the spectrum, shaped by a lifetime of experience. Much like yours.

(The United States is in a situation where it seems like each half of the population thinks that the other half are idiots and jerks and their beliefs are utterly wrong and indefensible. Which would mean that 100% of us are wrong.)

One of my points of view is that we must always place great value on personal responsibility. If person A wants to sell something at a given price and person B (freely and without coercion) wants to buy it at that price and the exchange does no clear, measurable harm to any person C, then that exchange is fine. It should be allowed, and any busybody D who has an opinion about it should probably go bother someone else.

This is a really rough philosophical position to take. Is running a casino ethical? Is the state selling lottery tickets ethical? Is selling meth ethical? Is selling tobacco ethical? (My personal answers: No. NO. No. Just barely yes. Though I might change my mind tomorrow.)

And, even if these four things are not ethical, should they be prevented? Because preventing them has a cost: Infringing on the freedom of the people involved to do what they want with their limited time on this Earth.

If I refused to sell a game to Mister Way-In-Debt, I am taking away his freedom. If I give him the game for free, that infringes on my freedom to make a living and buy little trinkets like food and shelter.

And who knows? Maybe selling the game to Mister Way-In-Debt helped him. The $25 price isn't crippling, and our games are huge. They might have kept him out of trouble for 40 hours. Or gave him a few moments of peace from his quite possibly considerable troubles.

The point is that you shouldn't judge. I shouldn't judge. Mister Way-In-Debt is a free person. That freedom is of far bigger importance than the game, or the debt, or your opinion.

This is even true for entertainment products. Remember, I come from a country where the right to "pursuit of happiness" is enshrined in the second sentence of our founding document.

"The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities. But even the strongest, most free individual cannot find the proper mana cost for Starving Buzzard." - Ayn Rand
Whoah! This Is Getting Heavy!

I know, right? That's what happens when you start tossing around trivial little words like "right" and "wrong".

So Answer the Question. Are These Games Right or Wrong?

I don't know. I change my mind about it every other day.

Look, the facts are that these games are almost entirely subsidized by taking the brains of some compulsive, addiction-prone "whales" and cracking them wide open. They spend literally ridiculous amounts of money, and the rest of us get games for free. And yes, this makes me feel icky.

But if I went out of business and had to look for work and the only job open to me was working on a game like that? I'd probably take the gig. I wouldn't feel super-awesome about it, but I don't think it's so objectionable that I'd starve for the principle.

Ethics can be muddy ground. Even on the Internet.

"Here I go with the timid little woodland creature bit again. It's shameful, but ... Ehhh, it's a living." - Bugs Bunny

Gee, Jeff. Thanks For the Wisdom. Would You Like To Close This Out By Getting REALLY Pretentious?

If you don't mind.


Oh, hang on just a second. I'm going to get all bedrock ethical ethos with you.

I don't think it's safe to drink alcohol, or smoke, or gamble, or become a stuntman, or climb Mount Everest, or blog on social justice issues, or do drift racing, or ride horses, or fight in The Octagon. But I have to respect your freedom to do those things, as long as the only person harmed is you. Which means I have to allow people to provide the ability to do these things, because forbidding them would infringe on your freedom to have them.

This isn't kooky libertarianism. This is a fundamental principle of my country.

So think what you want. Say what you want. Try to direct compulsive spenders to more reasonable alternatives. (I think it's bonkers for anyone to spend a ton on Candy Crush when so much cheaper equivalents are available.) And that, I'm afraid, is the end of the issue. If you, with the pure power of prudence and rationality on your side, can't convince the lost to play a different game, maybe your viewpoint wasn't as indestructibly self-evident as you thought.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

On New Games, Rewrites, and the Pain of Higher Prices.

Fourteen years without an update is long enough.
We have finally announced our next new game. It's Avernum 2: Crystal Souls. It's a complete, ground-up rewrite of Avernum 2, which came out in 2000. It, in turn, was a rewrite of Exile 2: Crystal Souls, which came out in 1996. We at Spiderweb Software are about nothing if not integrity.

You can see a trailer and other info here. Avernum 2 is probably tied with Avernum 3 for our most beloved game, and I know a lot of fans are looking forward to a reboot. Now with better design (I hope), a better interface and graphics (in my opinion), and the ability to run on tablets (yay).

We don't half-ass our rewrites. This one is taking a full year. New material, new quests, a new dungeon, more dialogue, actual boss fights. You might not like our work, but you can't fairly say we're not trying.

But enough self-promotion. I've said a lot of overly self-assured stuff over the last few months about the state of the indie games biz. Now that I'm having to actually make hard choices and release games, I wanted to talk a little about how I'm adjusting to the New Game Reality.

Sometimes, you don't need a full 140 characters to drop the truth bombz.

We're Raising Our Prices.

I thought this tweet covered it perfectly.

I have said for years that indie developers have to be careful not to charge too little for our products. Most of us tend to the needs of small, niche audiences, and we have to make sure to set a price for our specialty products that enables us to stay in business. For a long time, our new RPGs were $20.

But then something happened I would never have predicted: The Indie Bubble. Almost overnight, there was a massive increase in demand for games like mine, and there weren't many good titles. All of a sudden, my games were getting the sort of placement on places like Steam we could never get in a normal environment.

So we reacted accordingly. We lowered our prices on Steam and similar services to $10, a price low enough to motivate people who stumbled on us on the front page of Steam to give us a try. Tons of people were seeing us for the first time, and we tried to take advantage.

Things have gotten back to normal. We are back to getting a modest amount of visibility and press, and most of our sales are from fans and members of our particular niche. Our last game, Avadon 2: The Corruption, sold a reasonable number of copies, but the $10 price didn't generate enough revenue to make writing the game worthwhile. We can’t run a sustainable business on $10 games.

So we're going back to the old days. Our new games, going forward, are back to being $20. We have to count on existing fans and retro RPG gamers to provide enough sales to stay in business.

It's terrifying. What if our audience isn't there anymore? What if there is now too much competition? What if my games just can't cut it anymore?

It's scary, but it's been scary since we started out in 1994. We've had times when we flirted with going out of business, and I'm sure we will in the future. But the days of universally cheap indies are over. A lot of small devs are raising their prices, and I'm one of them.

And look at the bright side: All of our games will be cheap eventually. Steam sales still exist, and we'll still put our older games out there with steep discounts. It'll just mean you'll have a longer wait until they are two bucks on Steam or show up in bundles.

One Implication Of This

I have always believed that if you're going to charge $20 for a game you have to have a demo. Ten dollars is cheap enough that you can get away with it. However, if you're going to charge $20 for a game you can't get a refund for, I feel you are ethically required to give a gamer a way to check it out and make sure it'll run on their machine.

Of course, we never stopped making big, meaty demos available on our web site. And we never will.

TL;DR version: This is how you should picture me.

Rewrites. Remasters. Remakes.

Indie game developers seem to be having a real Sophomore Slump problem. When I look at developers who had a hit, I'm not seeing a lot of really inspiring follow-ups.

Sure, there are a few developers (like Supergiant and Klei Entertainment) who have really managed to keep their momentum going. However, a lot of small devs who produce a great game either go crazy and quit, get caught in an infinite development cycle on a new product, can't even get started on a new product, or release a new product that's just kind of meh. I was smart and avoided this problem by never releasing a great game in the first place.

This is why I think you're going to see a lot of indie devs recycling their hits. Remastering them and releasing them on new consoles. Rereleasing them with new material. Doing full rewrites.

This is as it should be. It's good for developers and it's good for gamers.

For developers: Look. Writing a game is hard. Writing a good game is harder. Writing a good game and actually having it catch on and become a hit is catching lightning in a bottle. It's almost impossible. It almost never happens for one developer twice. If we let developers turn one hit into a career, it helps more developers make a living, which encourages the writing of more games.

For gamers: Look. If a game is fun, it doesn't stop being fun. Castle Crashers will still be awesome a decade from now, and I am surprised that it hasn't been ported to the new console generation yet. I talked to several developers at PAX about the expanded versions of their games that are forthcoming, and I'm thrilled. I liked them before, and I'll like their new levels on the PS4.

One of the things I've always hated about our art form is how it discards its classics as technology moves on. Anything that keeps good designs fresh and playable is all to the good.

A large part of my professional life now is acting as curator for the things I made when I was young. I spend my time trying to be respectful to the work of my younger self, bringing it into the modern day while preserving the stuff that made people love it in the first place. It's a very different sort of job, with its own challenges, but I do enjoy it. I wish more people did a better job of respecting what they made when they were young. (CoughGeorgeLucasCough)

So I guess what I'm trying to say is: I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1 is one of my favorite games of the last console generation. If it comes out for a console with online matchmaking, that is the console I will buy. James Silva, MAKE IT HAPPEN.

When Will My Rewrite Be Out?

I've been shooting for early December, by my increasing old-person-exhaustion is making it hard to keep up the furious pace of younger days. The Mac and Windows versions will probably be out in January. iPad a few months after that. I don't know how to develop for Android and getting a good person to do a port is hard, so I'm not sure if that will ever happen.

And that’s what we’re up to in the Business World. New game soon. Hope you like it!

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.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Indie Bubble Is Popping.

Writing this article really stressed me out. I reworked it over a dozen times. To calm down a little, I will intersperse this with image that came up when I Googled "Free cute animal clip art." Here, we see a teddy bear who is addicted to The Spice.
I've been threatening to write about the popping of the Indie bubble for some time. Everything has finally started to come together. It's a miserable thing to have to talk about, but the conversation is long overdue.

First, a brief history of the Indie bubble. In 2008, big budget developers were doing fine, but they had mostly abandoned a lot of genres many gamers loved (puzzle games, adventure games, 2-D platformers, classic-style RPGs, Roguelikes, etc.)

A few young, hungry developers stepped in and showed that classics can be written on low budgets by young, plucky people with unruly facial hair. (Braid. World of Goo. Castle Crashers. Minecraft. And so on.) They were rewarded with huge accolades and many millions of dollars.

Shortly after, other developers stepped in with their own games. They weren't quite as classic, but they were decent, and these people made fewer millions of dollars. Some old super-niche developers (Hello!) were able to rerelease old games and get caught in the rising tide.

Then even more developers, sincere and hard-working, looked at this frenzy and said, "I'm sick of working for [insert huge corporation name here]. I would prefer to do what I want and also get rich." And they quit their jobs and joined the gold rush. Many of them. Many, many. Too many.

And now we are where we are today.

Indie gaming has seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. A deer rocketing through a forest powered by its own poop. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Is it me, or is this bunny totally murdering this other bunny? IT'S GETTING REAL!
My Thesis. (I Have One.)

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I am in love with games. Video games in particular. Indie video games in super-particular. I am more smitten with them than I should be.

(That’s why I’m not angry at the big mobile game makers. They found a way to get my parents to want to be gamers! That’s awesome. I could never do that, and I lived with them!)

The rise of indie gaming over the last few years has been fantastic. It’s given birth to a lot of good, well-funded companies, that have the chance to make great products. (Like Transistor, that, as I write this, just came out.) As long as these companies keep making top-quality work on a reasonable schedule, they’ll be fine.

But lots and lots of other companies are trying to enter the space, and I’m not sure how many of them are aware that things are changing rapidly. Strategies that were sold to them as the Way To Go are rapidly becoming less effective, while forgotten strategies from back in the day may deserve new consideration.

(Of course, I'm talking about PC indie gaming here. On mobile, big free-to-play stomped out the little guys years ago.)

So what this grumpy old fart is saying is that there are Issues. They should be discussed. There are new obstacles that should be planned for and forces you may blame for your problems that, in fact, you shouldn’t. If you are a green developer, face these facts, or I believe destruction awaits.

The easy money is off the street. If you want to make it in this business now, you have to earn it. It's a total bummer. Blaming Steam won't help.

Enough preamble. Let's get to the evidence, shall we?

This adorable dinosaur is mocking your dreams.
The Big, Big Problem. The Only Problem.

The problem is too many games.

How bad has the problem gotten? How towering, bleak, and painfully unavoidable? It's gotten so bad that even the gaming press has noticed it.

Steam released more games in the first 20 weeks of 2014 than in all of 2013.  I don't know why anyone acts surprised. How many times last year did we see the article, "Another 100 Greenlight games OK'ed for publishing!"?

This wouldn't be a problem if there were a demand, but there's not. After all, almost 40% of games bought on Steam don't get tried. As in, never even launched once! At least the people who download free-to-play games try them.

(To be clear, this isn't a problem because these games will keep people from buying new ones, though there will be some of this. People mostly don't play these excess games because they didn't want them. The problem is that a business based on selling things people don't want is not a stable one.)

Because this flood of games is so unmanageable, Steam has been doing everything it can to throw open the gates and get out of the messy, stressful business of curation.  This is absolutely inevitable. It's also going to winnow out a lot of small developers, who don't have the PR juice to get noticed in the crowd. (Think iTunes app store.)

With so much product, supply and demand kicks in. Indies now do a huge chunk (if not most) of their business through sales and bundles, elbowing each other out of the way for the chance to sell their game for a dollar or less. Making quick money by strip-mining their products, glutting game collections and making it more difficult for the developers who come after to make a sale. (I am NOT making a moral judgment here. It is the simple consequence of a long series of calm, rational business decisions.)

Indie gaming started out as games written with passion for people who embraced and loved them. Now too much of it is about churning out giant mounds of decent but undifferentiated product to be bought for pennies by people who don't give a crap either way.

It's not sustainable.

When I asked this lion, "Will Steam Early Access make things better?", it made this face. And then it mauled me.
It Really Is the Only Problem.

It's simple math.

All gamers together have a huge pool of X dollars a year to spend on their hobby. It gets distributed among Y developers. X stays roughly constant (up a little, down a little), but Y is shooting up. A fixed pool of money, distributed among more and more hungry mouths.

Those mouths are your competitors. All your heroes? Notch, The Behemoth, J. Blow, etc? They’re your foes now. Are you ready to fight them?

You can talk all you want about how mean Steam was to you, or how much "discoverability" is a problem, or about how important it is for developers to go to GDC or the PAX Indie Warren or to cool game jams or whatever. It's all a distraction.

X dollars, Y developers. That's all that matters.

And if X stays constant, the only way to solve the problem is for Y to go down. I'll give you a second to work out the consequences of that for yourself.

Another Dimension To The Problem

I can already sense people are unconvinced with my "proof" of why a shakeout is ahead, so I need to point out something else. It's the problem with being a middle-sized developer (a problem that extends to many fields, not just games).

Suppose you are a super low-budget micro-developer like me. It's not super-hard to survive, because I can get enough sales to get by with a little cheap marketing and word of mouth advertising. I'll be all right.

Suppose, alternately, you are a huge AAA developer with massive budgets. You can afford the massive marketing necessary to generate the big sales you need to pay for your expensive games. You'll be all right, until you're not.

But suppose you're a mid-tier (sometimes called AAA Indie) developer, with $500K-$2 million budgets. You have a problem. You need advertising to get sales, as word-of-mouth won't cover it. But you can't afford a big campaign. The only way you will turn a profit is if you get huge free marketing from Steam/iTunes placement and press articles. (Which is why going to big trade shows and cozying up to the press is so important.)

But when there are so many games competing for free marketing, you have a serious problem. According to their site, the Indie Megabooth at the last PAX had 104 games. 104! At one PAX! Just indies! The games industry doesn't need that many games this year, period. #mildexaggeration

If you are an established developer journalists love, like Supergiant with Transistor, you have a chance to stand out from this horde. If you don't already have a hit, I don't know what to tell you. If I were you, I strongly suggest you write an utterly flawless, ground-breaking title and utterly blow everyone’s minds.

It's a rough spot to be in, and that's where a huge chunk of current indie development has placed itself. Some will shrink down, some will leap to the higher tier. But it's going to be super rough in the middle. Again, to see how this works in real life, look at iTunes.

Oh, and by the way? If you disagree with me on any of this? I HOPE I'm wrong! I want you to convince me I'm wrong!


Um, I said "cute" animals. Come on, Google. YOU HAD ONE JOB!
Stop Blaming Steam!

I am somewhat irked by developers blaming Steam for their problems. "Why don't they publish me? Why don't they feature me? Why won't Steam make me rich!?" All of it said in exactly the tone of voice my 8 year old uses when she's angry her older sister got a bigger piece of cake.

If there has been one true hero in this story, it has been Steam. If, in 2008, I'd written my dream list of what a publisher could provide to help the little developer, Steam would have done it all, and then some.

I have a private theory, that's really only in my own brain. It's this. Valve is full of really cool people, who truly love games. But, at some point, with Steam, these basically nice people suddenly found themselves in the position of deciding who lives and who dies. It's a stressful, miserable place, and they didn't like it. It just made it harder to get out of bed in the morning.

In the last few years, Steam workers were the ones who handed out the golden tickets. They gave one to me. (Everyone on Steam made a lot of money. Even niche-developer dingleberries like me. You could put Pong on the front page at $20 a copy and still make a fortune.) The guy next to me who didn't get the ticket? He was angry. At Steam, at me, at the world. But mostly Steam.

Steam found themselves in a position of being hated for something it could do nothing about. Not to mention the fact that the sort of curation they were doing was impossible in the long term. You shouldn't want the games you can buy to be controlled by some guy at a stand-up desk in Bellevue, WA. They aren't wizards. They can't tell what's going to be a hit any more than anyone else. The free market has to do that job.

So they stood aside and opened the floodgates. Supply shot up and demand stayed even, which means, by a certain law of economics (the first one, in fact), prices have to drop. Which brings us to the bundles.

Christ. How long does this blog post go on for anyway?
The Bundles. Oh, So Many Bundles.

I've long been a vocal fan of Humble Bundle. They're good people who want to make the game industry cooler. Their sales widgets are an amazing tool. We use them ourselves. Their bundles started out as a fantastic way to showcase what our slice of the industry has to offer and help charity to boot.

Now, however, there are a lot of bundles. Many of them. Their main purpose: help established developers squeeze a few more dimes out of fading (or faded products). They are a product of the glut.

As I write this, Humble Bundle is running two weeks of DAILY bundles. That's, like, 3-10 full-length games a DAY. Spend a hundred bucks or so, and you'll get enough solid titles to keep you occupied for years. You should do it. It's a bargain. Then you'll only need to pay full price for the one game a year you really care about, and you won't need to worry about risking cash experimenting with new developers.

Then, give it 2-3 years, and you won't have to worry about new developers, because there won't be any.

Again, there is NO moral judgment here. We're all making calm, rational business decisions. I'm just saying where it's going. Where it has to go.

It just can't last. Bundles used to earn a ton, but they don't anymore. If making pennies a copy selling your games in 12 packs is the main source of a developer's income, that developer is going to disappear. Also, all of the bundles and sales encourage users to expect to pay a price too low to keep us in business. It’s just the same race to the bottom as in the iTunes store, except this time we were warned, and we did it anyway.

And hey, I’m not blameless in this. My games have been in a million sales and bundles. It’s what you have to do now, and I’m just as fault as everyone else.

If someone tells you this is the slightest bit sustainable, they are misleading you. There are lots of different reasons to do this. Maybe they need to fool you. Maybe they need to fool themselves. Just don't believe them. X dollars, Y developers. That's all that matters.

"FTL, what is best in life?" "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to get sweet iTunes store placement."
Just One More Data Point

Actually, what drove me to write this, more than anything, was the first minute of last week's Zero Punctuation. It's kind of a gut punch.

It's the time of year when Yahtzee normally shines his giant flashlight on some under-noticed, deserving indie game and elevates it to the big leagues. Instead, he threw up his hands and reviewed the 2012 title FTL. FTL!

Seriously, what sort of review can you write about FTL in 2014? I can cover it in four words: "Yep. It's still FTL." What? There's an iPad version out? Fine. Ten words: "It's still FTL. Also, the iPad version doesn't crap itself."

(To be clear, FTL is a very good game. But I suspect that, at this point, its authors wouldn't mind sharing a smidge of the spotlight with a less established developer.)

With so many games out, picking the good ones out of the crowd is a huge job. As far as I can tell, nobody, and I mean nobody, is willing to do it. This is why, despite such a flood of product, so few games have broken out from the crowd so far this year.

If most of the indie developers went out of business, are we so sure that, outside of the game dev community, people would even notice? Are we so sure a hearty herd thinning isn't what they secretly want?

I Shouldn't Have Written This.

Because it's redundant. I mean, we knew all of this, right? Gamers certainly know. It's been a few years since looking at the new indie games went from, "Ooh! Let's see what treats await me today!" to "Aaaahhh! So much stuff! I am stressed out now!"

Also, it bums me out. I feel like some jerk who sees a guy's pants fall down and points and laughs and shouts, "HA HA! Your pants just fell down!" The pants-down guy has my sympathy. My sales are way down too, so if you hate me, I hope that fact gives you a little smile.

But all this stuff seems pretty obvious. Someday, as things shake out more, I want to try to get into a much more interesting, chewy topic: What happens next? And, if you still want to write indie games, perhaps a grizzled old survivor of multiple booms and busts can provide some helpful ideas.


Edit: I fixed a date and corrected the number of games in the Humble Daily Bundles. I swear I fixed that once, but the correction was lost in the flurry of rewrites. Also, anyone who wants to hear more of my natterings can follow me on teh Twitter.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Please Stop Complaining About Free Mobile Games Now. PLEASE.

God. When did Indie game developers start acting so darn superior all the time?
Like many self-declared oh-so-serious gamers, I've long been irritated by casual mobile free to play games. I finally managed to get over that. I don't know what was wrong with me. Things now are just fine.

Ok, yeah, we know, we've all heard the arguments. Mobile games are too dumb. Too brightly colored. Too greedy. It's irritating to see ads, to be asked for money. They make too much of their money from compulsive "whales." We're nerds, and grannies are sneaking into our seekrit kewl gamer basement. Mobile game developers are too obsessed about money metrics and not enough about creativity. (As if the Indies are blameless on that score. "But my new tower defense game is really groundbreaking!" Please stop talking to me now.)

Mobile games are not what gamers and Indie developers want gaming to be. And this is the Internet, so, if anyone likes something different, THEY MUST BE DESTROYED.

Yes, you've had your say. You don't like mobile games. We got it.

So please give it a rest already?

So Jeff, What Got Up Your Butt?

Lots of things, but this tweet was kind of the final straw. In my butt. #mixedmetaphorpromode

Sure. I'll get right on saving mobile gaming, as soon I finish this Hearthstone match. Then I'll ... WHAT? RELEASE THE HOUNDS AGAIN? I HATE HUNTERS SO MUCH!!!
I feel a little bad picking on Notch here, because he's a decent guy and critiquing tweets is already a waste of time, but his tweet bugged me for two reasons.

First, "save mobile gaming?" From what? Being crushed under a giant avalanche of cash?

Second, this is a smug dismissal of a huge chunk of the game industry that keeps a lot of developers employed making games that a lot of people really like. It's also the most emotionally manipulative argument possible: OH, won't someone think of the CHILDREN!?!? ("Honey, are you letting little Billy playing Clash of Clans?" "Yes." "You MONSTER!")

By the way, in my observation, the younger generation isn't playing mobile F2P. The kids are spending all their time in Minecraft. Somehow, I think they'll be fine.

(Actually, if you want a better example of the Indie Developer sense of superiority, this recent article in Polygon is the gold standard. His attempts to use mathlogic to prove that these immensely popular games are actually hated are genuinely amusing.)

While we're all relieved that Indie gaming is ready to swoop in and save us from what we want, those of us who hate mobile games should take a moment to consider why we do. Speaking to gamers here: When you viscerally hate something that has never hurt you personally (or even affected you, really), it is possible that the true problem is really somewhere inside your own head.

So let's examine some of the reasons why we fear and hate our new Mobile F2P masters.

"Hearthstone doesn't count. I don't consider one of the bad free games." Yeah. Everyone says that about the one they like. 

One. "The People Who Make Them Are Soulless Business Drones. Not Cool Arteests Like Us."

Yeah, pretty much. I've been to casual/mobile game trade shows, and, man, that is so not a nerdy place. It's a bunch of NormalPeople and MBAs, with nice clothes and haircuts, tossing around weird business terms like ARPU and ARPDAU and AMPU and DILDONG. And sure, they all like Game of Thrones, but they don't like it in the correct way we do.

Sometimes I think that the gamer hate for mobile is not because it's unsuccessful (because it's massively profitable) or because they provide people with mind-boggling amounts of leisure fun (because they do), but because they remind us of the grade school bullies who laughed at us and took our lunch money. But this time they're doing it inside OUR industry.

People who write free games, from Candy Punch Saga to Hearthstone are doing what we do, but better. (And yes, Hearthstone has "Casual" appeal too, whatever that means. Ten million registered accounts says so.)

The people making those games may not being doing it our way, by our metrics, but they are passionate about giving lots of people something they like. Hell, they care about how many people play their games way more than I do. They'll lose a week's sleep over increasing their player base by 0.01%, because that might be the edge they need to stay employed.

The sheer scale of the entertainment they provide is mind-boggling, and they're doing it mostly for free, with, by the way, game systems that mere mortals can actually understand.

Why did free games take over the world? Well, you can pick up the entirely of Hearthstone in five minutes. Think you understand the rules to Magic: The Gathering? Nobody does. Look what it takes to understand that game.  It's madness.

Maybe accessibility is our problem. "Hey, man, I was wasting my life stressing about impenetrable rules systems before it was cool."

Two. "They Write Simple Cartoony Games For the Most Casual."

And they're rich. Aren't you just angry you didn't think of it first?

What people seem to ignore is that these games provide the most challenging hardcore experience available in games today. Want a rough time? It's simple: Don't spend money.

(A common logical error made when analyzing mobile games is seeing that only a small percentage of people spend cash and concluding this means people don’t like the games. This is a huge mistake. I’ve never paid a penny on free games, including several I love. This just means that I’m awesome.)

Free games, even the more casual ones, solve the great problem in game design. They thread the needle between Casual and Hardcore. Want a light, easy experience? Spend a little money. Want a punishing experience that takes lots of time and care? Play for free.

Yes, if you pay for free, they'll put a lot of time blocks in your way, both arbitrary waits and levels you'll lose a lot of time. But that's what serious gamers want, right? To do something hard and finally succeed? And this time it's even more fun, because you did it for FREE. It feels like you got away with something!

Hay Day, and enormously popular F2P game. I only put up this image because I think it'll annoy gamers.
An Aside. You Think You Know Hardcore? You Don't Know Hardcore!

People who ask for and play tough games are really full of themselves. We all know that. You won Dark Souls? That's nothing. I have a friend who beat Candy Crush Saga without spending a penny. Took months. You want strategy and grueling persistence? There it is.

And she's not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination. She's as casual and casual gets, and she's a more dedicated, obstacle-toppling gamer than you are. Even if her game involves hitting a spastic teddy bear with clumps of purple gumdrops, or whatever.

Three. "If You Don't Pay, You Have To Spend a Lot of Time Getting Power."

Sure. And this makes it different from non-free games how, exactly?

People have a problem with this now? Well, I don't remember gamers having a problem when we all burned up our youths in the twin furnaces of Everquest or World of Warcraft. Used to be, in Everquest, every fifth level was a "hell level," where they doubled the number of experience you needed to pass it for no reason. It was arbitrary, obnoxious, and ridiculous. I still have nightmares about level 45.

If you complained about it everyone jumped down your throat and called you dirty names. Players just spent the hours grinding. With great concentration, you could convince yourself that you were having fun.

Now, the worst thing that happens is the game, to advance, forces you to pay or get this to stop playing for an hour. You don't even need to spend that hour killing the same goblin over and over again. You can go do something else!

Seriously. Whatever ridiculous hoops free games make you jump through to advance? Hardcore gamers have gone through ten times worse. And we did it to ourselves. And we convinced ourselves it made us cool.

An Aside. Of Course, It Can Be Done Badly. Of Course.

It's not hard to make a F2P game that sucks. A recent instructive example of the Internet Anger/Entitlement Complex was EA's free Dungeon Keeper game.

Now, I never played it. And neither did 19 out of 20 of the people who complained about it. From what I heard, it committed the cardinal sin of making people wait too long to do anything and forcing them to spend money to see any of the game's cool stuff.

And they were punished for it. Even in the ancient shareware days, we knew that the free version had to be enough to addict your customers. Dungeon Keeper didn't do this, and it messed up in the harshest, most unforgiving of markets. Result? Don't bother to look for it in the top sales charts. It's not there.

But that has nothing to do with the bizarre level of screeching that accompanied its release. To hear gamers talk, it's like EA defiled some sacred institution of modern society.

Dudes, I was there when Dungeon Keeper came out. I bought it with real money. And ... It was fine. Halfway decent. And that's it. Look at it this way. If it was such a hot property, why was the license allowed to lie fallow for fifteen years?

(Bonus Young Developer Advice: Looking for a game idea? The apparent desire for a new version of Dungeon Keeper might be something you can profitably take advantage of.)

"I have two jobs, three kids, and four minutes to rest." Why don't you spend that time pretending to have a miserable, meaningless life? "Because I don't hate myself."
Four. "These Games Are Shallow and Don't Provide a Rich Artistic Experience."

Yes. Thank God.

I've lost count of the number of indie developers who cursed these games as being mere time-wasters and dopamine-generation buttons. Why wouldn't you instead play an iphone game that provides a varied, rich artistic experience, like ... like ... Yeah, I don't know either.

Look, don't listen to indie developers. We all may be, oh, I don't know, a tiny bit in love with ourselves? I missed it when the world elected us the High Princes And Arbiters Of Leisure Time.

Candy Crush Saga fans aren't sheep or Muggles. They are making highly rational choices about spending limited time and/or money for maximal rest. Papers, Please! is a great game, but it's also stressful and depressing. If you look down on someone who prefers Pet Rescue Saga, you may have lost the plot on this whole "game" thing.

Some may have forgotten that, most of the time, all people want is a painless way to escape stressful reality for five minutes while waiting for the bus.

Five. "Casual Games Monetization Isn't Ethical."

The best evidence is that a tiny fraction of mobile games players make up a huge chunk of the income. These super-players are called "whales." It's really interesting.

I used to be concerned about it. Not so much, now.

I was uncomfortable with a business model of coldly extracting most of your earnings from a tiny percentage of "whales" in your user base, but it could be WAY worse. There's a hundred casinos within an hour's drive of my house, and those icehearted bastards will take your house, smile, and sleep like a baby afterwards. Who is protesting them? At least nobody ever lost their kids' college money playing Candy Crush.

I hate to get all Robert Heinlein on you, but unless Zygna agents are sneaking into your house in the middle of the night to load Epic Bakery Candy Saga Pony Plus on your phone, the reason people play these games is because they like them. They picked them out of a market that provides a million places to hop to if their current game irritates them. I'm sorry if it angers you if someone chooses to play Flappy Bird or 2048 instead of your soul-enriching art piece, but that's the breaks.

(Of course, when these games have actual gambling, it'll be a moral apocalypse. Argument for another day.)

Fun Still Matters. Games, Remember?

My wife has a serious love/hate relationship with these games. When Candy Blast Mania hits her up for cash, her eyes glow incandescent with rage. And yet, she's burned through hundreds of levels, exterminating bosses with robotic efficiency. Not paying for it only makes it more fun.

I won't embarrass us by revealing how thoroughly Hearthstone has occupied our brains. Again, not costing a penny.

I'm always in awe of people's ability to take a cornucopia of wonder and upend it, pawing through the treasures within in the hope of finding a dried rat turd or something. We're getting an awesome deal here, people. Perhaps too awesome. There's probably a big business shakeout approaching this market in the next few years, but it's nothing compared to the apocalypse small Indie developers are about to face.

(Don't believe me? Go here and watch the first minute. This is the way the world ends.)

Daily earnings for the top ten mobile games. I think my favorite thing is that some people think the war isn't over.
The Peace of Letting Go

So you might as well be cool with it. Because, well, look at this sales chart. Those revenue figures are per DAY.

This isn’t competition. This is implacable domination. This is the Huns stampeding over the border, driving the survivors into the caves, and salting the earth. Except that the Huns, in this case, were us.

The people have spoken, the bastards. For Indie developers to say to gamers, “No, you poor, lost little lambs, this isn’t really what you want. Let us saaaave you,” is getting more than a little embarrassing.

Indie was, is, and always will be, niche. Add up all the earnings of every Indie game last year, Minecraft included, and it’s probably still less than Supercell’s monthly Snapple budget. All we can do, going forward, is find a way to deal with it.

In our house, dealing with it will include a lot of Hearthstone. And, of course, gathering colored candy into easily extracted clumps.