Game Industry, Indie Games and Indiepocalypse

How many people here picture themselves working in the game industry or in an adjacent field (AR/VR entertainment tech, educational games, etc.) after graduation?

 

Warmup exercise: it’s a Wednesday morning 10 years from now. Describe your day.
Ideal but realistic scenario: no sci-fi situations or self deprecating jokes.

Indie Games

What is an independent game developer?

Small developers have been around since forever but it’s only in the mid-00 that a new idea of independent game development started to emerge.

I think it makes sense to locate the indie games movement in the context of a broader indie / DIY culture.

Which includes indie rock via punk.

Post-hardcore band Fugazi

Independent cinema.

Reservoir dogs

Independent comics and publishing

Daniel Clowes

Indie != obscure or marginal

And we can connect it to broader trends like the DIY/maker movement, open source, local farming etc.

As both a rejection of regimented factory and office work.

And an affirmation of an excess of creativity that is not captured (yet) by the capital.

Independent from what?

The machinery of gaming has run amok… An industry that was once the most innovative and exciting artistic field on the planet has become a morass of drudgery and imitation… It is time for revolution!

-Greg Costikyan Death to the Games Industry – An early indictment of the game industry

 

1992
the typical development budget for a PC game was as little as $200,000

2005
For A-level title is around $5m
For triple-A title $10m is common

2010
Average AAA TITLE BUDGET: $28M

 

What happened?
Factors include: Moore’s law, CD-ROM, 3D

Today, art assets (not programming) are the main cost driver. As machines become capable of rendering more detailed 3D models in real time, the market demands more detailed 3D models

  • Sales are growing but production costs are growing faster
  • The average game (not the industry as a whole) loses more and more money.
  • The publishers make up the losses on the few games that hit.
  • Big budgets breed conservatism. Publisher don’t want to risk a lot of money.

 

Only 20% of games that start production will end up with a finished product.
And of that percentage of finished games, 20% will make a profit.
This means that 4% of all games which start production will eventually make a profit.

-Electronic Entertainment Design and Research 2008

 

Before digital distribution the issue of shelf space was crucial. Most of the sales were concentrated in the first 2 weeks after the release. Marketing was (and still is) a big part of the budged.

The result was a Hit-based market where big budgets bred conservatism and there was little room for niche products or risk taking content.

Then hardware manufacturers and some publishers figured out the “long tail” paradigm

So you want to work in the game industry

Crunch time
The EA spouses controversy. Cutting costs by establishing up to 80-hour work weeks instead of hiring new developers.

You don’t get a game out like that with a bunch of people who don’t have any passion about the quality of the product and don’t want to spend that one extra night.

– Epic CEO, who stated his company would not hire people willing to work for less than 60 hours a week

Geek culture takes such strongly held commonalities of interest and consumption far more seriously than most other subcultures.[…]
The exchange is simple: you will work 60-hour weeks for a quarter less than other software fields; in exchange, you have a seat at the table of your primary identifying culture’s ruling class.

You Can Sleep Here All Night: Video Games and Labor

Talent Burnout

They’ll work new employees until they burn out and then replace them with another fresh face who’s eager to prove themselves in the industry – working harder for less money.[…] The developers that work their way up at these studios are either the most determined or the most stubborn – but not necessarily the most creative or the most fulfilled

Is The Game Industry A Happy Place?

Gender (wage) gap

Survey by Game Developer Magazine 2013

Cyclical Layoffs
“Layoffs are more than just losing a job; they’re gaining a mountain of uncertainty, stress and financial concerns. I have moved my family more than seven times over the last 16 years, across the country and up and down the west coast. I’m a pro at living with very few material possessions, as I grew tired of lugging them around. As you can imagine all those moves put an enormous stress on relationships, both personal and professional. Your circle of immediate friends shrinks to zero with every move.”

In big budget game development publishers set hard release dates for a game (e.g. Christmas), the studio hires as many developers possible and it may find itself bigger than it can afford to be.

At the end of a successful project developers may get laid off because they are not needed for the pre-production of the next title.

Why Game Developers Keep Getting Laid Off (talks about good practices too)

 

Dozens of developers, many of them decade-long veterans, have left BioWare over the past two years. Some who have worked at BioWare’s longest-running office in Edmonton talk about depression and anxiety. Many say they or their co-workers had to take “stress leave”—a doctor-mandated period of weeks or even months worth of vacation for their mental health. One former BioWare developer told me they would frequently find a private room in the office, shut the door, and just cry. “People were so angry and sad all the time,” they said. Said another: “Depression and anxiety are an epidemic within Bioware.”

From the feature What Went Wrong with Anthem that summarizes a lot of the issues reported here

INDIE IS MORE THAN “SMALL BUDGET”


The indie games movement emerged as a response to all these issues. Indie came to signify:

  • Self-directed creative work: experimental, personal, risky…
  • New distribution channels (in part provided by major players): Steam, app store, itch.io, festivals/party/new arcade
  • New funding models: Indie Fund, humble bundle, Kickstarter, Patreon
  • New game criticism/journalism: expanding the notion of pleasure, complicating the notion of quality, reaching new types of players.
  • Community support: belonging to a scene of practitioners, collaborating rather than competing.
  • Different development cycles: prototype often > release early > polish and commercialize only if it works
  • Soft deadlines
  • Creating a more inclusive community in term of gender, class, race and background (informal education, alternative conferences, advocacy)
  • Reframing game making as artistic and cultural practice, not necessarily an industrially organized job
Indie/AAA is not a binary category

However

Solo indie developers earned an average income of $11,812

57% percent of indie game developers made under $500 in game sales. On the other end of the spectrum, 2 percent made over $200,000 in game sales.

6 key points from the 2014 Indie Salary Report

Is independence just for people able or willing to take massive financial risk?

Independent production and platform capitalism

These independent subjects are intentionally leaving massive corporate structures.

Directly or indirectly competing against them.

Creating alternative networks in the process.

Independent cultural producers look for forms of reward that are not exclusively monetary.
Things like reputation, friendship, personal empowerment and so on.

But the capital eventually catches up and restructures itself.

It changes shape in order to capture and extract value from these new energies and dangerous desires.
Disrupting the alternative networks and human economies that emerged from this exodus.

In gaming, this restructuring consists in a shift toward the control of
platforms and distribution systems.

30% of cuts for the monopoly of distribution.
In PC gaming the Epic Store is trying to disrupt the quasi monopoly of Steam

Indiepocalypse

In the last couple of years people have been to talking about Indiepocalypse in relation to a series of pointers such as:

The seemingly exponential increase in the number of releases.

The decreasing sales and revenues, even when take into account quality and reviews.

The disappointing commercial performance of some critically acclaimed, multi-year projects. The ones that apparently did everything right but still underperformed.

(Switch to Indiepocalypse presentation)

You can find more of my thoughts on the indiepocalypse here

Unionization

The indie lifestyle is not a solution that fits everybody.

In the last two years there has been a growing support for the unionization of game development.

Some of the goals:

Empower employees to negotiate with bosses.

Setting pay scales, benefits, work hours, etc.

A union can also help by pursuing underpayment claims, taking court action on behalf of bullied or harassed workers, severance packages. etc.

Unionization can happen on a enterprise level or, with enough support, on an industry-wide basis through collective bargaining agreements.
Co-operatives models are also being explored as an alternative to the existing structures.

Closing exercise: plan the hypothetical steps to reach the ideal scenario described at the beginning.

Here’s a starting point: an almost complete list of all the students who took this class from 2010 to 2014