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.


Dave Voyles said...

Very well said.

Dave Voyles said...

Very well said. I completely agree.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I think Kickstarter is a lousy way to fund a game anyway. It's a one-off process that gives you $0 even if you hit 99% of your goal, and it's really only useful to those who have large networks or are industry rock stars.

In our case age was a clear positive factor, as we did a round of friends & family fundraising to pay for our first game -- and young kids have a lot fewer f&f with cash than us older types do :)

So I think that Kickstarter is one possible funding source, and not necessarily a very good one. There are a lot of other ways to make games, and a lot of other ways to make money. Every dev and studio has to decide what works for them; I suspect that for a large majority Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are not the answer.

Deejay said...

@Anonymous & Dave: Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Anonymous: Do you have any suggestions for other sources of finance, other than F&F? In the UK there's they Abertay Prototype Fund, but that's only £25k and they say it's unlikely to go to sole developers.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what the argument is? There is risk and reward with any business initiative, and Kickstarter perhaps offers the loosest form of business plan? I doubt any other form of finance allows a similar kind of pitch - and they would take time and resources to which you allude few people have?

I think most entrepreneurial routes are beyond the reach of most people with families too - not restricted to games. Perhaps these are choices in life we have to make?

What should perhaps be celebrated is that we now have Kickstarter, where before we didn't. It just may take some time for everyone to understand the mechanism!

Chris Chillingworth said...

I've not funded a lot of projects, but I have a couple. One thing I've noticed is that not many projects breakdown/justify the target fund for all to see.

If you sit down and speculate what's involved in making a game, film or a record then you can sort of understand what initially look like very large sums of money. But on the other hand, there must be a degree if scepticism out there that by funding you could be funding the developers lifestyle more than the game costs.

If these costs were broken down (for they must have done this to have assigned their target in the first place) then it might help people realise that these costs stack up.

Also could open the door to people having a say on where they think the money should be spent (guided by the project manager). We have assigned 20k to making this bit, but here's a poll, do you think we should spend it on this other part instead?

I don't know the first thing about fundraising for a game, but from a fellow funder and casual player of games it seems to me that projects could do more to educate potential funders, this raising the trust levels a little.

On the subject that developers should know better than to moan about high targets and should probably support more than complain, I don't know enough about the industry to really comment, but would jealousy be a factor in this? "I would love to make a game with a 200k budget and I'm jealous of the fact you might get to do it"

Deejay said...

Hi, latest Anonymous!

I agree that Kickstarter is good thing. If you follow the links at the top to "Indie Advice", you'll see I'm a proponent of it. You've got a fair point regarding entrepreneurship in general.

My concern is that the "indie image" combined with Kickstarter makes funding a very public race to the bottom. For instance, if I tried putting up a KS campaign, asking for funding to cover my monthly outgoings (mortgage, bills, food) then the amounts required would be exorbitant compared to the meagre sums that the public no consider to be reasonable.

Deejay said...

Sage words, Mr. Chillingworth!

Ian Garstang said...

Any chance to get some start up capital for your game has to be good... Doing it for the love of it is great but it helps to be able to put food on the table... especially if you have a family.

I've backed 2 Kickstarter projects so far and I think its a good place to start. However if you are really serious you need to look at alternatives as well.

Deejay said...

@Ian Thanks for commenting!

Does anyone know any decent forms of startup finance except for Abertay Prototype Fund, Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme and Kickstarter?

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robbin505 said...

I completely agree. First off, I find that the public is really clueless about the industry. I see a lot of comments about how developers seem to be spending a lot of money on labor. No kidding, what do you think you pay for? You are paying people to make a game, that means you are providing a living wage for the length of development. What else would the money be for? Secondly, I don't think they get how much the average AAA game costs to make. Anyone who thinks that $3,000,000 to make a game is expensive is seriously uninformed. The fact that inXile can make a game on that much is because of expertise and years of practice. Third, I love the idea of straight to consumer games. I can't find a game that I want to play, I get together with like minded individuals and pay a team to make one. This is perfect. Devs make games they want to, players get games they want, everuone involved has a voice and the end product is a collaboration, everyone feels fulfilled. This is the way it should be, crowdfunding is just leveling the playing field. Anyone who thinks that indie means cheap will make indie cheap. Indie is what it is because no one wants to put up the money for a good product. If you want to play COD, pay your $60 and get your game. If you want an interesting RPG where do you turn? RPGs have been so dumbed down for the masses that they have lost what it means to be an RPG. That is why I jumped at the chance for Wasteland 2, Torment, and Project Eternity, finally RPGs that are true to the genre. But that means paying up front for AAA development. This is where the problem comes in. Everyone wants to nickel and dime the indie devs. Look at the bundles for proof of that. I see complaints all the time that people want more for their $1.25. Why is it that they are willing to cough up $60 for COD and other games that are basically just clones of each other but any original idea comes along and everyone wants it for free?

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