4 Dec 2012

No Country for Old Men

A combination of Kickstarter and indie games culture are driving down the price of development to the point where creating indie games is the preserve of the young, the reckless, and the rich.

Taken from MyGaming.co.za

Recent Kickstarter campaigns have highlighted that there is a great unwillingness to crowd-fund an indie game with a realistic budget. Accusatory disbelief of development costs has been bandied about in comments on numerous articles around the inforweb.

We've seen projects like the quite-simply-great Spud's Quest be lauded for being the right price (£5,000), and also Fist Of Awesome being funded for a similar amount. These games were both in a substantially completed state upon going to Kickstarter.

There are two things that concern me about these observations:
  • Decrying salaried studio staff as expensive drives down the value of game development skills;
  • The Kickstarting public expect games to be nearly-finished and have a token amount to bring them to market.
That game development is being devalued is the gravest concern to me, both as someone who's brought an indie game to market and as a consumer of the medium. Are we really saying that people earning a decent salary (but still lower than that of someone with a similar skillset in enterprise) are over-valued? That we don't want people to be able to have some modicum of job security to follow their passion?

I was most surprised at the number of indie developers bemoaning the cost of the Dizzy Returns KS. You would have thought that indie developers, struggling to make a living from their passion, would support the notion of people being paid reasonably to make games.

If this trend continues we will fast approach the horrible state that music is in. A great many people spend their lives trying to 'make it', virtually none succeed, and even those that have moderate success normally rack up huge debts. The industry is polarised into original creative works that bankrupt their creators, and AAA sure-fire hits that cost vast sums to make but have all the originality of mechanically-recovered reformed ham.

The issue of the Kickstarting public expecting games to be nearly finished is at odds with what I considered the site to be about, and the primary source of my personal concern.

How are new and original ideas supposed to get off the ground? Getting a game to alpha is not a trivial undertaking, and doing so in a fashion that looks pretty enough to sell itself in a crowd-funding campaign is an order of magnitude more expensive again. The answer, according to griping indies and internet commenters, is to self-fund and/or develop in your spare time.

At the end of such an unfeasible task you get the great pay-off of a few thousand quid. Which will get you what exactly? I suspect there is a substantial disconnect between the realities of any significant development project and the expectations of the public, likely proliferated by the popular image and ideal of the impoverished indie developer living on noodles in their parents' house.

"But Notch made Minecraft by quitting his job," I hear you cry. Yes. That is all very well and good for a man with no mortgage, no family, and no children.

How exactly is one to create an indie game when one has responsibilities? As any parent will tell you, spare time does not exist. Making your family live in poverty for your dream is not reasonable, responsible or fair. Asking for crowdfunding will elicit the same outraged responses of "you want to pay yourself? To pay your bills? You should be living in a shoebox to make this!"

In summary, I believe the popular image of the indie developer has made it all but impossible for a person with responsibilities to create independent games. Kickstarter has exposed this mismatch with reality, and threatens to further engrain it. Furthermore if this trend continues the skillset required for making games will be devalued until we reach the point where nothing of artistic merit will be created by people with a reliable income.

Brandon Boyer said in one of his GDC presentations that indie development goes in cycles, swinging between golden ages of creativity and accessibility, and sparse periods of impenetrability. I suspect we are seeing the end of the most recent golden age, and it won't be until another market disruption happens that indie games development will be as accessible as it has been for the last few years.