Game Design From Outer Space

Yeah, sometimes indie development can be depressing. But we have something to say about the great apocalyptic article by Jeff Vogel. Optimism here!

Indie Soap Bubbles

Sometimes a reality check is a great thing.

Even in these times of information overload is damn easy to form a distorted opinion about something.

Everyone is biased. Sometimes that’s even a good thing: you need to create your vision of the world and stick with it. Truth doesn’t lie only in one place, so, you define parts of your world with vision.

So, I’m going to start saying that this article by Jeff Vogel is indeed a great one. And that is useful, sometimes, to listen to people warning you about what you’re doing and telling you that hey, maybe not everything is going to work.

And I’m conscious of the fact that being an indie developer is definitely NOT a matter of create game, market it, go on Steam, profit! It’s fricking hard work, and failures and impostor syndrome and depression and a lot of dark stuff. It is. And there’s no guarantee of success, that’s clear. And in the long run, we’re all dead. Fair enough.

But still I would like to argue about some parts of that article, and maybe throw some good optimism in. Because I think that without optimism it’s not even worth trying. Let’s start.

Develop, Steam, Profit!

You see, the conventional wisdom now is that, to make it in indie games, you need to blow it all on one big, flashy title. Spend all your time at GDC giving the gaming press hot oil massages. Then release it on Steam, get fifty articles written about you, and make meelions of dollars. Buy a Tesla, give interviews, have your next game be a 2-D platformer, and die happy.

Yeah, the conventional wisdom is plain wrong. First of all, I think there’s no need to follow this path (Jeff doesn’t think it either, to be clear). Making meelions of dollars and have a Tesla car is not and it can’t be a good measure of success. I love Tesla cars by the way, and Italy right now is not a country where you can get rid of the necessity of a car entirely, but still, having a fancy car is not in my wishlist. Take Michael Brough, for example. He made a lot of small titles, which interest a very small niche of people. Most of them are free. But he has been extremely good in talking to that people, at the point that he could pull a game in the iSomething App Store at £3.99 – a price that 90% of people dealing with that market wouldn’t hesitate to call insane. And from what I know, it’s doing quite well and it’s giving Michael what he needs to go on creating new stuff (yay!).

Getting what someone needs to go on creating new stuff. That’s a better definition of success than make millions, don’t you think?

Too Much Stuff Will Kill Everyone!

On October 29, Steam accepted 100 titles for publishing from their Greenlight system. A HUNDRED. IN ONE DAY. JUST ON STEAM.

This is the problem with so many indie devs cozying up to the Escapist and Kotaku and the PA Report. There is a flood of new titles, so many that Humble Bundle sells them in Costco-sized bundles of a dozen for a dollar. A lot of good titles won’t ever get that press. They just can’t. There’s not room.

That is quite a dangerous thought. Ok, Steam is getting less profitable. So what? That just means we need to find new ways to sustain ourselves. Is it hard? Yes, you can bet on it. But that’s how it always has been. We should deal with it and be creative and good in talking to our audiences. The democratisation of game development is a great thing. This way of thinking can unfortunately lead to more gatekeeping. And I still think gatekeeping is something we should leave behind us as soon as possible. There are new, better ways. That doesn’t mean the disappearing of every brickwall. Brickwalls are still there, but are in different places. Rules have changed and that’s a good thing.

New Gatekeepers

Also, the gaming community doesn’t care about indies as much as we like to think they do. (Minecraft is an ultra-mega-uber hit, right? Well, Grand Theft Auto V made more than it in like 18 seconds.) The gaming press knows that gamers only want to hear about so many indies. Soon, they’ll start picking who lives and who dies.

Yes, and no.

First of all, comparing Minecraft and GTA V is misleading. They play in completely different fields, and you cannot really measure their success with only the metric of how much they’ve made. Come on.

Secondly, yes, the gaming press is already picking who lives and who dies. But still, I envision a future of curation, of people talking to niche markets also. We cannot ignore that. Niches are extremely good for indies and there’s still a lot of profit to make there. More: there are a lot of unexplored niches that want to play games. And the fact that 99% of gaming content is targeted to late-teen heterosexual white males should tell us that there’s a lot of uncharted territory around. Let’s explore it!

The gaming community doesn’t care about indies? Well, who cares? There’s other people out there. Find them, talk to them, follow new paths. And don’t fear niche markets. If I spend 10 and earn 100 is the exact same revenue than if I spend 10000 and I earn 100000.


Worthy titles sometimes fall by the wayside now. There is no inherent universal justice that decides that the “best” games succeed, whatever you mean by “best”. Some gamers will love you, and some won’t. You have to hang on until one of those gamers becomes an editor somewhere. The more niche your product is, the longer you will have to wait.

The good old luck argument.

Well, here’s my point. They say a four-leaf clover will bring you luck. Some people says that they aren’t lucky because they’ve never found a four-leaf clover. You can dismiss those people saying they’re stupid and superstitious. But let’s think this through a bit.

A four-leaf clover is an uncommon variety of clover (it’s not clear if that’s a genetic or an environmental mutation, but that’s not important). The only way to find a four-leaf clover is to actively look for it, spending a lot of time and patience. And in the process one will find an awful lot of regular clovers.

So, the real lesson we can draw from our little four-leaf clover is that luck is not something that just happens. You have to actively search for it, going through a lot of failures. You need patience and strength and hard work. So, yes, probably luck exists. But it won’t just come to you, you need to actively search for it. And you need to see failure just like another regular clover rather than like a signal you are unlucky and you should give up.

Oh, and I don’t think there’s a bubble here. The bubble is elsewhere (Facebook, I’m looking at you!) where investors throw money for products that won’t last. What I see looking at the indie community is a lot of hard work, sharing, positivity and passion. Not everyone will be a billionaire. But probably a lot of people will live of making games (and contract work). And I’m fine with that.

Oh, and don’t forget to watch this amazing talk by Zach Gage!