Pop! Goes the indie bubble?
Oh I couldn’t care less if there was indeed an indie bubble and if it’s popping or not. For me so far it has always been a tough ride and for quite some time I wasn’t even part of what is most commonly defined as indie by working on F2P MMOs (in the collective imagination meaning of it).
What interests me more is to try to pinpoint what some define as the “indie bubble”. Arguing if there was ever such thing or not is irrelevant as some are using this term and not all do to bait page views. I believe the term “indie bubble” is just a semantic shortcut to describe a specific time when we started seeing very small teams or single devs become highly successful. Most specifically when getting on Steam was much harder than it is right now.
Not so long ago it was mostly believed (and probably mostly true) that getting on Steam was more or less an automatic path to get massive amount of money in a very short period of time. This probably goes a bit before the apparition of the Humble Indie Bundles until Greenlight appeared.
Back then the only way to get on Steam as an indie was to send an email and then wait and hope for the best. Few made it but when they did it was almost an event. It meant to be recognized “worthy” of being listed with publishers’ games with way bigger budgets. It meant something special and just that was enough to drag attention.
It also meant that selected indie games achieved some level of quality others were not matching. Sure this “level of quality” was arbitrary based on Steam will but I guess we can all agree that a game like Braid had something special about it back then. Since the selection process was manual it meant that anything “good” was not enough. It had to at least appear to be better than “good”.
Games that appeared on Steam back then made a lot of money and a phenomenon was born. It gave hope to many indie devs and pushed many more people to give a shot at it. It was like seeing the massive success of Minecraft and thinking “hey, I can just quit my day job and make games, look how it’s easy to make millions”. That’s when everyone forgot about why these games were selected in the first place to appear on Steam.
There sure was a higher exposure factor at play here. Remaining on the front page of Steam for a few days (if not more) meant that millions of players were made aware your game existed. Higher exposure, higher probability of making sales, higher probability of making it among the top sellers chart, higher exposure, … The wheel was spinning quite well. But again, as I said, it was believed an automatic process. Create game, get on Steam, $$$. The games getting on Steam suddenly didn’t matter in people’s mind, it was just a matter of creating any game and then getting on Steam.
That’s what people refer to the “indie bubble” I think. Then getting on Steam became easier. It became easier because you didn’t have to be in the top 3 best indie games submitted to Steam this month. The games didn’t need to be extra-good/special to make it there. Good games that would have never make it before were now appearing on Steam. For some time it still provided very good results as the massive exposure was still at play here. Maybe they didn’t make $500,000 but honestly you don’t need that amount of cash when you are a single dev to define yourself as highly successful.
Getting on Steam stopped being special as it was old news. It even became something mandatory in the mind of some players as they started asking “why is you game not on Steam?”. As more and more games are added the level of “quality” required also dropped. It doesn’t necessarily mean that crap is added to Steam as various games will please the various type of players but when it’s no longer special you can’t expect the same results as before.
The thing most people forget however is that if Braid was to be released in 2014 I’m sure it would still have a lot of success even if there’s no more “Steam magic” involved. The difference would be less exposure through Steam itself and less “wow” effect for making it there. It’d probably make less money because of that but still would be qualified as a great success.
If I’d have submitted Bret Airborne to Steam in 2009 I’m sure it wouldn’t have been picked. But now, sooner or later, it will probably make it there. Does it means I can expect the same results as being manually picked in 2009? No. That’s not a bubble popping, that’s just a translation of 2009 reality to 2014. It changes nothing for such game.
Do the few indies that made it back then can now expect the same level of success today only by appearing on Steam? Probably not as now the spotlight is less on them but they still will be successful anyway if they keep the same level of quality.
The mistake a lot of people make when talking about an “indie bubble” is to include themselves in said bubble. If anything it’s the realization that it’s no different from before. I can understand where the term “indie bubble” comes from but that’s just a shortcut to explain what I wrote above IMHO.
The best thing there is to do is to forget about trying to apply others’ stories to your possible future and just do your best to release the best game you can. Just keep thinking that you’re in 2009 and that you might never get an answer to the email you sent to Steam even if in 2014 your game is actually on Steam.