Indie Games Are Fucked: Why, How, and What We Can Do About It
On April 7th, Ars Technica released an article about how 80% of Steam games make under $5k in their first two weeks.
If you’re an independent developer, especially if you’re a solo dev, this is pretty disheartening (if not really surprising) news. And let’s be clear: though Ars Technica was vague about it, “80% of Steam Games” really refers to its indie games, as they get the fewest marketing dollars.
Ars Technica's Steam Sales Chart
However, since most of the article itself is a straightforward description of their data collection methods, alongside a section for Valve’s PR copy, one thing you may be wondering after reading it is “why?” Why do so many indie games make so little? And more importantly, if you’re a developer yourself, what can you do about it?
The TL;DR is this: the indie market’s fucked, the old strategies don’t work anymore, and we’re here to help.
For those who want a little more detail, read on below:
Most Indie Devs Don’t Have a Go-To-Market Strategy…
…beyond maybe “put your game on Steam and pray.” These days, with how many games flood its shelves (around 21 per day in 2017), it would be a miracle for you not to get buried. That’s not even accounting for how failed initiatives like Steam Greenlight have caused many gamers to lose faith in its independent catalogue. That’s why you need a plan.
Marketing strategies for games can vary drastically, as depending on who your audience is, reaching them will take a different route. The one thing they all have in common though, is money.
Small independent teams have two channels they’ve traditionally used to keep promotional budgets down: niche markets and gaming influencers. And below, I’m going to break down why aiming at them doesn’t work (as well) anymore.
Niche Markets, and Why They Are Harder Than Ever to Appeal To
Pandering to furries is pretty much an accepted indie marketing tactic.
Games like Undertale, Night in the Woods, and Dust: An Elysian Tail got popular in no small part due to how their character designs appealed to the furry community.
From a marketing perspective, it makes perfect sense. As a niche community which tends to produce a lot of art and other fan material, furries are a veritable marketing machine. If your characters can capture the attention of a furry artist or two, you’ve basically created a couple proselytes.
Behold! The queens of furry-bait! Gaze upon them and despair.
Furries aren’t the only community indie devs have aimed for, of course, just the most provocative example. Another big one is retro-gamers; doubly good as the retro-aesthetic also saves money in asset generation. Some try to homage the aesthetic of existing niche properties without violating copyright. Other times, developing for depreciated genres is a thing many indie devs have previously found success doing. Believe it or not, the roguelikes, isometric RPG’s, and narrative games that flood the market these days all used to be quite novel.
No matter who the target community is though, the goal is always the same: getting people to share your game. The idea is that since niche audiences aren’t used to getting material aimed at them, they’re more likely to spread it around.
These days though, games like FTL, Bastion, and Rogue Legacy are really more “rule” than “exception.” Which brings me neatly to the first problem with this approach: oversaturation.
…and many, many more you’ve never heard of
Previously, these communities rarely got content designed for them. Now, there is so much content made for them, the incentive to share is gone.
With games like Rivals of Aether, Overgrowth, OneShot, Armello, Them’s Fightin’ Herds, Freedom Planet, and many more, there’s just too much furry-bait for any new stuff to really catch without an existing audience. The 16-bit retro aesthetic is so common, it’s has become the default image many think of when they hear the word “indie game.” And even mainstream games now all come packaged with procedural elements.
Where once these elements would help your game stand out from the crowd, these days, they would make you blend into a different one. Maybe that’s why mainstream developers have taken notice.
You think you can do furry-bait? I bet you can’t do it better than Nintendo.
You want to cash in on peoples’ nostalgia? I hope you can outrun Sega and Capcom.
You think a retro aesthetic can save you money? Well guess what? So does Square.
Big companies with big company money are investing in niche appeal as well. The sad fact is, the idea of aiming for niche markets really isn’t so niche anymore.
Influencers, and Why They Don’t Have Time for You
Gaming influencers have also traditionally been invaluable for indie devs. Let’s Players, Streamers, and Gaming Shows have all previously been phenomenal resources for developers.
In days past, convincing mid-level streamers to air your game wasn’t overly expensive. After all, wasn’t so long ago that this kind of content was niche as well, and had close ties with independent developers. These days though, it will generally take more than a free copy for your game to get play with an influencer who has an audience.
Streaming has mostly overtaken traditional YouTube Let’s Plays. And most streamers’ audiences tend of focus on a few kinds of titles. These are new AAA releases, free-to-play games, or online-multiplayer games with massive financial backing. To trend on Twitch, you’ll need to outcompete the likes of Hearthstone, Overwatch, and Fortnite.
Twitch is very trend-heavy too, which makes things even harder. One recent trend is Twitch drops. Viewers tend to flock to games that will give them stuff to watch it, which naturally means streamers try to focus on games that offer them. The extra scope to develop and integrate those drops is something many indie developers can ill afford; that’s if you’re even making a game that could theoretically support them in the first place.
As an indie dev, it can be tempting to be frustrated, but understand: they’re trying to make ends meet too. For a lot of these Streamers, time not spent chasing trends is money left on the table. Many may even want to help you but there’s a real opportunity cost to doing so. Meanwhile, the same problems we mentioned before also apply here.
Many Streamers past a certain size will be inundated with hopeful developers, selling their games. At the same time, big gaming companies have also long since woken up to the potential these channels represent – and unlike you, they can pay. Heck, Raid: Shadow Legends got so much money thrown behind it, influencers promoting it literally became a meme for a hot second.
More and more, unless you can afford to pay them or work out some sort of deal, it will only get harder and harder to get traction with influencers that actually have an audience.
VoxPop: Who We Are, and How We Can Help
As developer myself, the Ars Technica article wasn’t even remotely a surprise for me. If you’ve ever tried to sell your own games before, or spoken to someone who has, I imagine it was the same for you. My biggest dream is to create a tool indie devs can use to promote themselves, and to make this a little easier.
That’s why I founded VoxPop.
At it’s core, VoxPop is a sales platform with a profit sharing business model. The idea is that a portion of each sale, determined by the developer, is set aside for those who help the transaction go through. By seeding the files, on-boarding new users, and, critically recommending these games, users receive a portion of each sale. Developers can promise special rates to specific users as well.
So how does this help you, the developer? The first way is by encouraging your users to talk about it. Remember how the purpose of making games for niche markets if to get them talking about you? This works off of the same principle. Having a small incentive to share might encourage people who normally wouldn’t.
Having a profit sharing mechanism in place may also open influencers to be able to display and talk about your game. Where the opportunity cost of playing a niche title would have dramatically hurt them in the past, being able to share a little of the profit can offset what they would otherwise stand to lose.
Arguably the most important thing VoxPop does is give you a tool to approach influencers. As mentioned before, many Streamers won’t have time for you unless they stand to earn something. But now, instead of putting down a lot of money you might not have, you can promise a portion of the future earnings to partners and influencers if they help you.
At the end of the day, I think people do want to support the artists they enjoy. I believe that the path to sustainability lies in making it worth their time to do so, and by letting them share in the story your game’s success.
If you want more information about VoxPop, spend some time cruising the rest of our site. Whether or not you decide to hang around though, I hope some of the analysis here was helpful to you.
Small fishes like us need to stick together, right?