The Indie Game Bubble

I’ve been meaning to write down my thoughts about the state of gaming and where we’ll go as an industry for the next few years. As we’re in the annual post-E3 lull, this is a good time as any to reflect.

The gaming industry has been in transition for years. With a hollowing out of “B-list” titles, games have bifurcated into two distinct flavors: a few really big-budget AAA titles on one end, and a large number of small budget indie games on the other. The launch of new consoles, along with the progression of graphics ability on mobile devices1, have again raised gamers’ expectations. Whereas major developers have responded with even bigger teams, budgets and productions, the other extreme is also thriving: independent studios, consisting of a handful developers, work on small-budget games that explore new aspects of gameplay or presentation.

Certainly, indie games have been around for a long time, but their current prominence is aided in part by the reducing cost of software development, but much more substantially by their ease of distribution. The Apple App Store and Valve’s Steam platform have massive reach, and are known for publishing a wide variety of quality, affordable games. For gamers, increased availability is both a blessing and a curse: impulse purchases are so common that they have their own meme, and gamers are empirically not playing the games they’ve purchased.

The influx of new studios and games have simply generated excess supply in the marketplace, to the point of overcorrecting for the previous generation’s handful of play-it-safe big-budget titles. With our current systems of big blockbusters plus indie game overflow, classic gameplay hooks have no place; anything beyond a few dollars for a dozen hours of gameplay would be rejected; monetization usually means resorting to tactics that suck the oxygen out of the room for anybody unwilling to force players to solve difficulty spikes with in-app purchases.

The industry will evolve beyond this glut of high-quality, low-cost games. There are too few dollars chasing too many games, and most simply don’t have the branding, clout, industry connections and track record to register more than a curious blip on gamers’ radars. Relatedly, even top games are seeing their value proposition squeezed – full priced, $60 games are now expected to provide hundreds of hours of gameplay, and many are steeply discounted just weeks after expensive launches to stabilize the userbase and realize the promise of continued gameplay.

The market will correct prices and expectations eventually. The interesting question is what gamers will have to weather through to find the right balance of sustained development with quality entertainment.

  1. Beyond an accelerated hardware refresh cycle, mobile devices have also began augmenting their APIs to make building high fidelity graphics easier.

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