Dabe Alan

Pulling up the ladder: how indie developers are losing the ability to help each other

Pulling up the ladder: how indie developers are losing the ability to help each other

Ben's note: This is post from Vlambeer's Rami Ismail is an interesting look at what happens when indie devs have a relationship with the platform holders that sell their games, and how having something to lose makes it harder to help out other developers.

Back in the early days of our medium, games were made by enthusiasts and small groups of people with the technical expertise required to program complex machinery. Over time, the medium started expanding its reach and these small groups of enthusiasts organized into small companies. Gaming went through its arcade and shareware eras – a time in which games started to gain a more mainstream appeal. It wasn’t long before some of the companies started growing beyond just creating games – some of them started buying other studios or projects. The amount of money to be made in games skyrocketed and games were suddenly available in retail stores. The age of ‘AAA’ games had begun.

With that, the ability of small groups of programming enthusiasts to distribute games fell away. There was no efficient way to create a game, print it to a physical medium, create the manual and the games packaging – let alone handle the logistics of distribution to retail stores. What remained were studios that made ‘AAA’ games and somewhat smaller studios that created ‘budget’ titles. These budget titles were made by medium-sized studios and although many amazing games were made by studios like these, the majority of their output were clones of the larger popular games, but with lower quality and a lower price.

The internet brought digital distribution and changed everything. In this new world, logistics were no longer a problem and the new big players were online stores such as Steam, platform-specific console stores, and app stores. Suddenly, small enthusiasts had a viable model to reach an audience again. As that group slowly grew out of their garages, the indie scene as we know it started to form. These ‘indies’ were small, agile, flexible and rapidly stormed every new opportunity, releasing games in a matter of months instead of years. They made games from their heart with little compromise. Their leanness allowed them to adapt to the rapidly changing landscape without dealing with layer upon layer of bureaucracy.

Squeezing out the middle

In time, the middle-sized studios started to disappear. They could not compete any longer as they did not have the flexibility of the indies nor the quality and budgets of the AAA studios. Indies started growing in size and relevancy, with titles such as Braid, Super Meat Boy, and Castle Crashers leading this new time in gaming. In the last few years, dozens upon dozens of individuals and small teams achieved success – whether it is Minecraft's Markus Persson or games such as Faster Than Light, Fez or Antichamber. Indie gaming had become a thing that your average gamer has heard of.

Digital distribution was perfect for these indies – and thus indies and digital distribution started working together more closely. The App Store offered an equalized environment, Steam offered a tightly curated ecosystem and Android was completely open. Everyone could make a game and release it on any of these platforms, given that they could prove they could deliver.

As things progressed, the amount of indie games vying for these positions started to increase. Apple’s elusive Editors Pick Feature became an important part of a successful launch on iPhone and iPad, while online store Steam implemented a democratic system named Greenlight for its consumers to pick what game they’d want to see on the platform. Sony started proactively reaching out to interesting developers, quickly amassing a lot of credibility in the indie scene and a massive network of indies.

There has never been a better time to be an indie. Practically every indie you know of has in some way benefited from these systems and support structures. There are conventions, events, specialized press, initiatives like Indie Fund and Indie MEGABOOTH, forum and, mailing lists. The scene has become a tight-knit network of aspiring developers, dreamers, artists, zinesters, thought leaders and influencers willing to help out wherever they can, whether it is in terms of game design, theory, business, ethics or diversity.

A few months ago I played an early build of Lucas Pope’s upcoming immigration officer simulation game Papers, Please. Recognizing the prototype as a clever, charismatic game filled with little touches, interesting moral questions and an honest-to-god narrative, I was absolutely certain that if people got to play the game, they’d like it. Thus, as me and many indies along with me often do when we run across something wonderful, I started writing an e-mail to Pope, introducing myself and asking him if there was anything I could help out with in my field of expertise or through my network.

Pulling up the ladder

But suddenly, I realized that there wasn’t much I could do for Pope - and it took me a while to realize why: successful indie studios have unintentionally been pulling up the ladder behind them leaving little way for others to follow them. Now that digital distribution platforms cater to indies better than ever, its effect has been tremendously positive on the indies we know of – but what about the indies we don’t know yet?

The App Store is so saturated with great releases that a new game by an unknown developer won’t get the attention it needs, while Steam’s Greenlight is a mess due to it simply being a popularity contest that barely any new developer can challenge. Sony is doing amazing work with their network, but they have thousands of high-quality, dependable and known indie titles available to them before even having to look beyond those.

The increased cooperation between platform holders and indie developers allows platforms to tap into a network of specialized curators – the indie developers themselves. The unseen problem is that such curation is performed by people that have a stake in the platform they curate for. If an indie developer sends two or three games of lesser quality or lesser interest to a platform, chances are that it will impact their ability to recommend new games as well as their standing relationship with the platform. Suddenly the successful indie developers have something to lose, and business relationships to consider. It has become harder to stick one's neck out for something new and original.

In other words, risky titles by new or relatively unknown developers have very few viable ways to get on platforms anymore, unless someone with reach is willing to take the risk to champion the game online or within the structures of a platform. The assigned curators tend to be other developers, who now have stakes in curating and thus can’t properly fulfill their role.

This is something I’ve personally struggled with. Even though I’d love to suggest risky games to Apple, Sony or Steam, I am reluctant to. This is a task that was thrust upon me, a task I happily fulfill, but also a problematic one. Indies should not co-curate other indies on digital distribution platforms they work with.

This sounds like a typical discoverability problem, but the stakes here are higher. The indie scene relies on a support network of big and small studios, of successes and failures, of personal and commercial, of experimental and to-the-point. The inherent diversity in the perspectives of people in the scene is what makes the scene capable of existing at all. We risk splitting the scene in two – a ‘new indie’ of small developers without a proper fighting chance and a new, more adaptable version of a ‘middle ground’ in the successful indie studios.

People respond with the idea that every medium goes through this phase – yet I claim we are in a unique position where we are already fighting this development. We have a global, worldwide reach through the internet, videogames are still less than a century old and we have knowledge of how other mediums evolved. Websites like Terry Cavanagh’s freeindiegam.es or Dom2D’s weekly TIGSource roundup on Venus Patrol allow interested parties to find some of the games that might otherwise be unnoticed.

Personally, I have been working with Indie MEGABOOTH overlord Kelly Wallick to bring a curated area to the MEGABOOTH to show games of developers that wouldn’t be able to or wouldn’t consider showcasing at the Penny Arcade Expo.

This problem of outsourcing curation to indies is a larger, structural problem that cannot simply be 'solved'. But there must be ways to improve upon the result in which the scene splits in two separate fields, in which case we would also lose half of the perspectives available. If anything, we should try and enrich the diversity in our scene.

So this is our challenge – or our responsibility: to force opportunities across the board for both large and small indies and sustain and promote the diversity of indie games in a meaningful way. I don’t know what the solution is, but if we could pull the ladder up, we can also let it back down.