And does it matter if it bursts?
If you ask 10 indie game developers what an “indie game” is, they’ll give you 11 answers. What all can agree on is that they’re in an economically precarious position—and some fear that the current “indie games bubble” has already popped.
Even if you’re not entirely sure what an indie game is, you’ve probably played one. Undertale, Among Us, and Stardew Valley—all enormously popular games—were made by small teams, and in the case of Undertale and Stardew Valley, by developers working on their own. Indie games take on a kind of mythological importance in the wider video game industry, especially to players. For them, indie games promise the chance to find a bespoke game made specifically to your interests; for developers, they offer the chance that your game could become the next Among Us and skyrocket you to fame and fortune.
But according to Hannah Nicklin—CEO, studio lead, and creative director at indie developer Die Gute Fabrik—there are further distinctions to be made than just the term “indie,” especially in terms of team size and economics. In her book, Writing for Games, Nicklin describes “indie games” as a range that starts with hobbyists like modders, to DIY one-to-two person teams, to games made by a dozen or so people funded by arts grants, to “AA” games, made by small companies with access to considerably more funding—the (relatively) little siblings of AAA games produced by major publishers, but the giants of the indie game world.
“I described them by levels of precarity,” Nicklin told me over Google Meet. “Although this is kind of undermined by recent layoffs in AAA.”
While indie video games of all sizes can and have found audiences and success, the era in which indie developers could compete in the same marketplaces as their AAA peers (say, a mobile app store like Apple’s, or online platform like Steam) is more recent. As chronicled in Indie Game: The Movie, which tracked the development of Fez, Super Meat Boy and Braid—all early 2010s indie game successes—the narrative inspired a sense of possibility within the game developer scene: that one could make a game by yourself or with a small team and that that game could both be respected as art and find financial success.
Maybe that was always a pipe dream, a mythologizing of the present in order to valorize a very small number of successes from the past. If there’s any truth to the idea of an “indie games bubble,” then it’s this: there’s a sense among indie game developers that what good times they’ve had are now firmly in the past. Many see a future, sometime soon, where no one will be able to make a video game except for the multimillion-dollar corporations that otherwise dominate the market.
Not helping matters are the major corporations themselves. Unity, a ubiquitous building block of many video games, recently announced a plan to charge developers for players installing their games after they reach a certain threshold. Brandon Sheffield, director of indie studio Necrosoft Games, explained the problem for developers in a blog post called “The Death of Unity,” using the indie game Vampire Survivor as an example. Vampire Survivor costs five dollars on the online games marketplace Steam and was a huge success in the past year.
“Vampire Survivor’s edge was [its] price, now doing something like that is completely unfeasible," Sheffield wrote. "Imagine releasing a game for 99 cents under the personal [Unity] plan, where Steam takes 30 percent off the top for their platform fee, and then Unity takes 20 cents per install. Now you’re making a maximum of 46 cents on the dollar.”
Although Unity has walked back some of these plans, they caused an uproar among indie developers, with at least one developer canceling a project because of the proposed changes.
Why does it matter that it might be harder than ever to make indie games? Ask their dedicated, sometimes obsessive players. According to Tess Snider, co-owner of indie studio Hidden Achievement Games, they fall into two camps. Some are “romantics”—players who become deeply and particularly attached to one game, to the point of not wanting to play anything else.
“I have run into multiple people who were really glued to one of [the games I worked on], including one who hilariously didn’t even know he was talking to people who worked on it,” Snider said.
The other group of players are simply attracted to games new and strange. Snider calls them “neophiles.” “They’re also an important part of the indie fan ecosystem, because they’re great at surfacing games that would have otherwise slipped through the cracks,” Snider said.
“The reason it feels like people connect with indies [more] deep[ly] is the human element: The bigger a team is, the more it loses its ‘face’ as a player realizes a small army of people work on a game,” Sebastian Faura said over email. Faura is a social media and digital content manager at Amplifer Game Investments, which invests in indie video game studios.
“The ‘underdog’ circumstance of their development is also a huge aspect, as people resonate with some of the difficulties that indies face. They feel like their support has more impact, and thus form a closer relationship to the developers,” Faura continued.
The narrative of a solo developer is an undeniably enticing story. The story of Eric Barone, who developed Stardew Valley alone in his basement for four years before it became an international sensation, is the stuff that the American dream is made of. For players, it’s easy to project your desires onto indie developers—if they can make it, anyone can—and to think of your hand in their success.
“Even though AAA games may push the limits of what you can do in a game, I think indies push the limits of what you can feel in a game,” Adanna Nedd, writer for the indie game Recommendation Dog on the boutique handheld console, the Playdate, said over email.
“As someone who’s played video games for a long time, I think people connect so deeply with indies because they’re pushing the mold of what games are,” Nedd said. “Hades is a tale of family trauma through the lens of a roguelike game, which sounds weird on paper but works really well as a game. Your endless attempts as a player echo [main character] Zagreus’s endless attempts to escape and be free from his unhealthy home.”
Indie games, even in their most profit-driven form, are the most fertile ground for experimentation within game development. While AAA developers can push the technology of games forward, being beholden to market forces that demand a return on investment does not always lead to an atmosphere where experimentation is valued. It feels like the difference between seeing a movie made by a major studio like Disney versus one made by the rough and tumble Troma Entertainment: one might be more polished, but the other can be weirder, wilder, gorier, stranger. A new Assassin’s Creed game can show you moments of incredible spectacle, but it can’t have a borderline anti-player design philosophy like Consumer Softproducts’ gig-economy first person shooter Cruelty Squad can. A game like Hades can lovingly polish its focused, cyclical narrative because the game does not also have to offer its players infinity in the way that Bethesda’s Starfield has to.
“From a design standpoint, indie games tend to have a bit more latitude in making unique choices,” Faura concurred, “both because you're more agile as a smaller team and because you’re taking a greater risk making that choice.”
Despite their potential to be tremendously successful, indie games—and their developers—are defined by their relative positions of precarity, says Nicklin. It takes time and money to make a game, and indie developers are beholden to government arts funding, whatever economic privilege they might possess, or lenders. According to Nicklin, U.S.-based AAA game developers and publishers were more eager to throw money to various indie developers over the past decade. But times have changed.
“There’s been a huge amount of investment and people recognizing the indie things can take off,” Nicklin said. “All of these bits of money you can trace back to cheap debt. It’s also why the bottom is now falling out of indie funding quite honestly. The big conversation on the street—on the Discord—is very much that [indie developers] are finding it really fucking tough right now.”
Die Gute Fabrik’s upcoming game, Saltsea Chronicles, is financed by Private Division, which is owned by Take-Two Interactive, a AAA games publisher. In the past they’ve had the help of government grants from the studio founders’ native country of Denmark.
“Like, Take-Two! Big and scary and, you know, huge. Definitely not an indie,” Nicklin said. “Private Division was set up as their ‘We’re interested in what we can do in the indie space’ [project].”
But even though Die Gute Fabrik was able to secure funding for Saltsea Chronicles, Nicklin said that trying to find the money for their next project has been more of a hurdle.
“Because we were still in the era of cheap debt, when we funded Saltsea Chronicles I was able to secure funding for a project with little-to-no prototype,” Nicklin said. “Now I’m trying to fund what comes next. I’ve been trying to do it for a year, [but] we haven’t had the resources to produce a full demo. And right now the answer [I get] is, ‘We need a full vertical slice to say yes to anything,’ because the [financial] risk is so much more substantial—or they perceive it [to be].”
For Snider, this latest indie bubble has already popped.
“There have been multiple indie game bubbles. I’d say that the first one was back in the 1980s!” Snider said over email. “The consoles and arcade machines were locked down, but the early computer days were the wild west. Anybody could make a computer game.”
Indeed, in the early ’90s, a thriving queer indie scene in the Bay Area advertised their computer games in queer newspapers. But as game sales moved into brick-and-mortar game shops, that bubble burst.
“Then we had, what I would call the ‘Breakout Bubble,’” Snider continued. “That was the Braid and Super Meat Boy era, around the late ’00s-early ’10s. The folks who rode the Breakout Bubble were benefiting from new online distribution channels, but this was before those channels went really wide, so they didn’t have a lot of competition from other indies and shovelware”—cheap junk added to platforms by the shovelful.
Snider cited indie developer Jeff Vogel’s blog from 2014, “The Indie Bubble Is Popping” as the definitive source on the history of that particular scene. Written as that bubble was collapsing, Vogel states succinctly, “The problem is too many games.”
The issue of discoverability—the chance to get your game in front of the eyes of a player who might want to play it—still persists in indie games.
“I don’t know how anyone could perceive our current situation as a bubble. It is utterly bleak out there, and it has been for years now,” Snider continues. “68 percent of all titles released on Steam in 2019 earned less than $10 thousand, and 91.5 percent earned less than $250 thousand. That means that most games aren’t making enough to be sustainable. Hell, we landed in that top 8.5 percent, and we still aren't making enough to fund our operations with our games alone.”
In order to stay afloat, Hidden Achievement games has taken on contract work for larger studios. Snider has done contract gigs since they first started working as an indie developer in 2009. Although they’re comfortable with this arrangement, it does take time away from Snider’s personal projects.
“I don’t need to contract full time—I don’t need that much money—but I’m often doing some very time-intensive work for my clients, and I end up putting in a lot of hours, anyway,” Snider said. “My current project is very neglected, and I need to dig back into it (once I get Starfield out of my system).”
What hasn’t helped indie developers in the last year is the collapse of Twitter as a social media platform, and the impact of the economic recession on the media industry.
“Especially within the last year, discoverability channels have taken a major hit,” Sebastian Faura said.
“Press, as an example, already had a difficult time trying to provide coverage for these smaller titles while trying to balance the priorities of their outlet. This last year has exacerbated that significantly,” Faura said. In the past year, video game press has suffered intense layoffs alongside the rest of the media industry, with some outlets shuttering entirely.
“Social media follows closely behind as audiences retreat towards retained community spaces, or leave social media entirely,” Faura continued. “Only select platforms seeing any kind of growth or organic discoverability (which indie developers then have to learn to take advantage of, all the while trying to get funding and making their game at the same time). Even with funding and support, developers are still bottlenecked in choice for discoverability methods as compared to previous years.”
Not all developers agree that this moment in indie games indicates a complete collapse of the market. Olivia Wertheimer, who received a degree in 3D modeling in 2020 and now works as an indie developer, says it’s a matter of perspective.
“I won’t deny, it does sound akin to the ’80s game bubble, which was disastrous for the game industry and practically killed the Atari company,” Wertheimer said over email. “Yet at the same time…If we consider games not as products, but as art? Then it’s more like an art platform like Deviantart or Inkblot. There’s people’s first pieces, their continual improvement, and some amazing art pieces.”
“I do think games as a product [are in] a dangerous indie dev bubble,” Wertheimer continued. “But games as an art [are] having a great time, as more people than ever before can create this art. If we can improve accessibility within the industry, even more people and stories can join.”
Tobias Springer is the founder of tobspr games, a German development studio that began with just him but has now grown to a team of seven. His game shapez was ranked 23rd on Steam’s list of top-rated games in 2020. Although he acknowledges how difficult it can be as a small developer in this moment, he considers it just a numbers game.
“I don’t think there’s a bubble that will burst,” Springer said. “Definitely it has been easier to release smaller, less-polished games on Steam for example, which is why the percentage of successful indie games is lowering.”
“The expectation on indie games has risen, now you need to have a great game, as well as good marketing—it’s not enough to just build something, release it without any marketing, and then hope for the best,” Springer continued. “However there are still a lot of successful indie games coming out every month, so it’s definitely possible!”
Springer’s next game, shapez 2, is partially being funded by the German government.
Defining and understanding the funding and discoverability problems of indie games gets messier when you consider that indie developers aren’t always champions of the form.
“Steam, app stores, and surprisingly the Nintendo E-Shop are full of both gems and schlock,” Wertheimer said.
“The mobile marketplace is especially polluted with garbage from corporate shovelware farms,” Snider echoed, “and they’ll be happy to exploit any mechanism you use to try to surface the real indies.”
“I think as an industry we can assign ‘goodness’ to being an indie,” said Victoria Tran, community director at Innersloth, the company behind the indie mega-hit Among Us. “But an indie developer could technically be a person in their basement who rips the Among Us assets and uploads an exact replica of the game and calls it ‘Among Us 3’ or something,” Tran continued. “It’s weird!”
If any of this matters to the people who buy and play indie games—many of whom don’t make a distinction between the games made by publicly traded companies and the ones made by a group of 10 people—remains to be seen. Players want the things that indie games offer them—new experiences, boundary-pushing art, narratives that make them think and reconsider the world. But they’re also loyal consumers, prone to devoting themselves to a single developer or company, and eager to buy into the idea that just because something is popular, it’s good. What you’re left with, beyond the devoted indie game fans (romantics and neophiles alike), are people who need the culture of indie games to push the whole industry forward, but who don’t necessarily want to support the outsiders—or particularly care.
“Blanket statements are rough to make because it’s not like no one cares, but also every single person who plays games probably doesn’t care either,” Tran said. “If you showed me five cars and told me one car was made by super cool independent mechanics in Italy while the others were made by Toyota, my response would be ‘Oh. So which one should I drive?’”
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