Indie Games Are Doomed, Crowdfunding, and “PR”

A lot of my recent jive about the business of making games has been about the weakness of the AAA Crunch-style development cycle, how it is untenable and vulnerable and not actually making great games and based on little more than a misplaced value on “hard work” martyrdom over actual productivity. But lets get real – this is not something a relative outsider like me is in any position to change any time soon.

The antidote to this has, for the last few years, been an indie gaming community, often supported with crowdfunding. DoubleFine made Broken Age that way, I’m currently playing through Pillars of Eternity which was made that way, and I’ve personally worked on a D&D-style project made through smallish publishers that was launched via crowdfunding. I can say legitimately that indie gaming paid some of my rent! So there, while I’m still new to certain levels of it, I can say I’ve got a more reasonable basis for commentary.

The challenges facing crowdfunded indie devs aren’t the same challenges facing the big salt mines, but what provokes this post of mine is this doomsaying over at Gamasutra, which calls indie games doomed and espouses a familiar mantra about the character of hard work being the antidote (oh, and make sure you’re serving an under-served corner of the gaming market).

Ultimately, I think I agree with Jeff Vogel’s thesis: there has been an indie gaming “bubble” that has burst as AAA competition has come to muscle some great games out of the space they might otherwise occupy – folks have X amount of dollars they’re spending on games, and that amount isn’t going up. It’s harder to “strike it rich” making an indie game than it was 3-4 years ago, but it’s not impossible to make a living.

I think what a lot of successful crowdfunding that isn’t from well-known names does right is that it hits a dedicated fandom that isn’t being served. That might be adventure game fans, or isometric RPG fans, or hexcrawl adventure fans, or Pathfinder fans, or whatever. This might be part of what hurt Tale of Tales – reaching out beyond a passionate audience is competing with devs with more dollars and connections and worker-hours than you’ll ever be able to muster as an indie team. In comparison, it’s what makes Steam Early Access kind of successful – you can create a community around your game, create fans who want to see it developed and improved, people invested in its success.

That kind of community can benefit from crowdfunding in a major way. It won’t usually be multi-million-dollar mania, but it can be adequate, and it can be sustainable, and sometimes, when the stars align, when luck is on your side, and maybe when you can attract the right kind of attention, you can have a fairly major success. If you’re wanting to roll in filthy lucre, no, that’s not your path, but if you wanted to do that, video games aren’t going to be your best bet anyway.

So my outlook is a lot more optimistic than Jeff Vogel’s, in the end. While he might extol the virtues of hard work, I’d rather extol the virtues of community – what matters is a passionate core. If you can find that, if you can earn that, and if you can keep that, that’s all the “PR” that’s truly necessary. Everything else is tweetin’ in the wind.