Recently my thoughts are starting to wander towards the economic end of game development. I’m honestly reluctant to get that far ahead of myself, but there are a number of intriguing theories struggles involved. Also, as mentioned in the earlier posts, there’s no harm in planning. Well, there is some harm, but it beats the alternative of doing nothing. More than anything I’ve written to this point, this entire post lives up to the distinction, Unqualified Advice. Since we’re already inching towards the absurd, I’ll extend my musings beyond the scope of indie games and take on independent media in general.
After a creative project takes form and approaches completion, almost every creator runs into a choke point. Your work is improving; you’re getting more serious. Yet you need more time. Ultimately you find yourself stranded somewhere between hobby and career. It doesn’t matter whether you’re making $1 or $1,000. The fact is that you have an inspiration that won’t go down quietly, but that very same ideal is too resource intensive to be approached casually. This is development limbo, where good ideas go to die. Your only hope of breaking through is taking the process more seriously. That boils down to having the financial stability to bankroll your next creation. So as the challenge takes clear shape, how do you make the jump towards art as a career?
A special breed in particular. The basement-level fan. By this point, we’re not talking friends and family; we’re talking strangers. Strangers who upon hearing/playing/seeing/experiencing your initial, unpolished work know they have to support its development. The support doesn’t necessarily have to be financial, but it has to exist.
It takes a tremendous fan response for any artist to move from pushing freeware to making a profit. The freeware period can be seen as an unpaid apprenticeship of sorts. Fans that don’t buy the product are still your best avenue for generating interest. Chances are, if you’re creating freeware, you don’t have that much to spare for advertising. This exchange of accessible media for word-of-mouth advertising, a situation where fans at the beginning are more valuable than fans at the height. This paradigm is quite prevalent with indie games, but it’s much more apparent when examining independent music.
Independent music functions as a much more coherent social scene, leading to more complicated exchanges between fans and creators. I recently saw Future Islands in a small venue for just $12.25. I got to see the band up-close-and-personal without much of a struggle. Strangely, as their popularity increases the relative value of their concerts would decrease for many current fans, myself included. The more fans, the more general demand, but the less attention. To some extent, I feel entitled to “service” at the current standard and if I had to pay $30-50 a ticket and deal with more crowded venues, I might shy away from going to more concerts.
On the other hand, I’m not the perfect basement-level fan. I didn’t listen to them back when they were Art Lord and the Self Portraits. I didn’t even hear about them until the release of their breakthrough album In Evening Air. So it’s a vicious cycle. For every fan like me feeling threatened by the band’s increasing popularity, there’s someone who supported them from the start who already thinks I may have made things worse. This is the likely origin of the hipster mentality, “I liked them before they were cool.” Those fans want to hold on to their basement-level credibility and I can’t honestly blame them.
Luckily, that scenario doesn’t entirely apply to games. There are no public performances and increased demand is much less of a direct burden to the initial fan. However, games are much more mechanical than music and less open to improvisation. In my estimation, independent game developers have to worry more about being market-friendly than comparable musicians. This leads to issues such as genre-erosion, where sequels sacrifices depth in an effort to expand the audience. Musicians have done the same, but they are under much less pressure to do so. Direct sales make up a greater percentage of revenue in the indie gaming industry.
Market-friendly changes aren’t inherently bad (gunplay and inventory improvements from Mass Effect 1 to 2). However, they often rely on scrapping hardcore systems that drew in the initial batch of fans (Mass Effect examples: exploration, weapon variety). Here lies the trap, how do game developers satisfy the basement-level fanbase, while expanding the audience enough to be financially viable?
I’ll be interested to find out.