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The Rise and Fall of the Lone Game Developer (jeffwofford.com)
471 points by putzdown on Jan 13, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 176 comments

More like, the iOS app store gold rush ended. The indie dev scene is thriving on PC. Stop throwing your time and money away developing for a platform overwhelmingly used by people that don't really care about your games, that are looking for brief distractions while they wait in the checkout line, and by and large refuse to pay even a dollar for the privilege. Don't blame the industry because you avoided the platform used by people that actually buy games, play them for hours a day, tirelessly promote the good ones on message boards and amongst their friends, and will actually appreciate the effort you put into your work.

Also, Donkey Kong was not created by a "lone game developer." Miyamoto may have designed Donkey Kong by himself, but he had entire team of contract developers at his disposal.



The gold rush was almost over before it started on mobile - it did not take more than a year for things to become extremely competitive. Flash games suffered a similar fate. Consoles have not generally been indie-friendly but Playstation is now making a better effort on that front, although they are still mainly catering to indie devs who have already "made it." Greenlight is becoming quite competitive (there were 17,000+ active games when I was on there). Kickstarter seems to have lost a great deal of its enthusiasm (perhaps rightfully so).

And yet...

There is so much unexplored space in the medium. We might have stripped the surface, but there is gold down there somewhere. :)

I agree. I think one of the worst things to happen to indie devs on mobile was the concept of the App Store(s) itself. When I open the App Store, my brain just...drifts off. Its a bunch of icons with little context. It's like looking at the rack of magazines and trinkets while you checkout at the grocery store.

While Moore's Law marches on, I'm hoping the days of AAA titles for mobile are just around the corner. It's true - I suppose I'm not willing to pay even 0.99 for some generic platformer or cutesy puzzle game. I would be willing, however to pay 20+ dollars if someone could give me something close to say, Fallout 3 for my phone though.

> I would be willing, however to pay 20+ dollars if someone could give me something close to say, Fallout 3 for my phone though.

We're already there. You can play, today, on your iPhone and/or Android device: GTA San Andreas, Bioshock and Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic. These are complete ports that spare no features from the originals.

However, I found that the experience is not what I sought it out to be. I realised that these are games that require focus, since they rely on immersion. The only situation in which I can actually sit down to play them for any meaningful amount of time is when I'm at home on a weekend; in which case, why not just use a console or my computer, with vastly superior input devices and display quality?

I think one of the worst things to happen to indie devs on mobile was the concept of the App Store(s) itself.

I'm old enough to remember mobile dev before the App Store(s). No matter how bad they are, they are thousands or times better than how it used to be.

For example, typical returns to a developer back when you had to sell via a Telco was less than 30% of the price the consumer paid. And you felt lucky to get that 30% - that was a high point of the whole experience.

> There is so much unexplored space in the medium. We might have stripped the surface, but there is gold down there somewhere.

And so the cycle continues :P

:) Yes, pretty much. DotA was created as a small mod, and now look at the commercial explosion it has spawned, with tournaments containing $2+ million in prizes and everyone wanting to make MOBAs.

I think in the past 20 years, we actually have not made as many breakthroughs in game mechanics (of course, this was easier in the early days). Games are still fairly similar to those of the 90s, only technically more complex. I think we are beginning to maybe get a better handle on game design, which I am seeing creep in with more appreciation of more obscure (now less obscure) game types like roguelikes and CCGs. Little known fact is that Plants vs Zombies was largely inspired by deck building mechanics found in Magic the Gathering, so you are beginning to see some more obscure mechanics like that get mainstreamed.

I feel like we are in a golden age of PC gaming right now.

Genres completely abandoned by AAA developers ages ago are seeing a resurgence thanks to crowdsourcing. Space sims have been all but dead since Freelancer in 2003 but now there are several to play and look forward to.

Formerly obscure genres like roguelikes are seeing mainstream success thanks to high quality "roguelike-like" games like FTL.

Hell, even the impenetrable Dwarf Fortress brings in enough money from donations to support future development.

> I feel like we are in a golden age of PC gaming right now.

Not really. Its golden Age was in the late 80s, early 90s, where games were still made by educated people FOR educated people, before the whole thing went mainstream and any sign of complexity went progressively down the drain so that Everyone could start playing games. I miss Falcon's 300 pages manual, or even Colonization's fantastic booklet that went far above describing how to just play the game.

The early 90s were dominated by AAA titles from Origin, pushing both the boundaries of what was technically possible on PC as well as driving genres forward by developing non-linear game structures and exploring 3D environments. Nowadays AAA blockbusters jsut rehash the same formula over and over again (care to take another Assassin's Creed?).

This is a perfectly valid opinion and seems to be downvoted because of disagreement. (albeit you could have clearly stated it's your opinion).

I kind of agree. A lot of AAA games these days are just unoriginal. They follow the genre they exist in without much creativity or original ideas. Perhaps the storyline in the game is what people are after these days, but gameplay-wise, I don't remember when I've seen a big production game that I would have wanted to play.

Not to underestimate the value of nostalgia, of course. Some of the old games have not stood up to the test of time. E.g. I played the original Dungeon Keeper recently and I was a bit underwhelmed because I remember when I played that game when it was new and how great it felt.

Good thing that there are still interesting indie games. Even 15-20 years ago when I played more games, I spent more time playing small indie titles I found from BBS'es and computer magazines than I did playing big titles.

> Some of the old games have not stood up to the test of time. E.g. I played the original Dungeon Keeper recently and I was a bit underwhelmed because I remember when I played that game when it was new and how great it felt.

Certainly, but the opposite is also true. Baldur's Gate 2, Planescape Torment still hold up very well to this day and shame more recent RPGs lacking good stories and good character development, aimed at folks who liked RPGs on pen and paper and who actually liked RPGs before they existed on computers.

Indies are great, but there's a certain lack of ambition and a lot of rehashing there too (shovel knight reproducing 8 bit games, others using pixel art as a form of style instead of using all pixels available on screen to do something gorgeous, many reboots of ancient IPs, etc...). Truly original, innovative games are few because most of the genres have already been established for a long time.

Colonization 1994 manual (135 pages): http://replacementdocs.com/download.php?view.8194

Colonization 2008 manual (38 pages): http://replacementdocs.com/download.php?view.377

Edit: fixed duplicate link, thanks ekianjo.

Np! Otherwise good find, which proves my above point. The first 1994 booklet had a whole essay on the History of the colonization of America, I used to read it several times after playing the game. But this was not just this game, so many others went ahead to provide tons of value besides the game itself (Ultima 7's map printed on a cloth! A classic!). This was just so much more than mere tutorials. They also help create the atmosphere of the game OUTSIDE of the game.

I still have the Ultima 7 map, apart from being beautiful it was fairly useful since it really helped you navigate the world.

The booklets also helped the immersion, things really have changed.

I have played Colonization for countless hours and yet had never seen the manual, thank you very much for pointing it out!

Incidentally, for many years, everything I "knew" about the colonial & revolutionary times in the US, I had learned from Colonization and Day of the Tentacle :)

You just posted the same links I think.

It's hard to make the case for the early 90s being the peak of game quality, use Origin as an example, and completely miss out a reference to Roberts Space Industries and Star Citizen.

The golden age is in the future, and the future is already here (just not evenly distributed).

We'll see if Star Citizen is as good as it promises to be, but until then, the height of Roberts' creative career is in the early 90s for now, before he went into movies with his disastrous Wing Commander film. Plus, he is just directing Star Citizen and not involved in development as he was during the Wing Commander series (where he was a programmer himself at least for the first 2 episodes).

Ah... a couple nitpicks there. First, Roberts did almost all of the initial Star Citizen pitch prototype development himself, with some assistance from CryTek employees. While most of his current time is more on the vision/direction side, I've read a number of discussion posts indicating he's still hands-on in the code when he gets a chance.

Also, he's VERY involved in the design aspects. CIG recently published a breakdown of their ship design and development process. There's three or four major stages, and every one has "approval from Chris Roberts" as a gate at the end.

So, while he's certainly not writing a majority of the code like he might have in the past, I'd definitely disagree with the phrase "not involved in development".

Good points - I had the impression Roberts was not involved in direct development anymore, that is reassuring for Star Citizen I guess.

I think you're looking at a pretty narrow genre (Complex Games) and extrapolating the entire platform's content/potential from it. There are fewer people making as complex games as back then, but saying people are uneducated is a bit silly.

I'm not saying people are uneducated, I'm saying most games are made nowadays for the mainstream and I don't think you can argue gamers back in the mid-80s were more likely to be more of the college types of folks who happened to be early adopters in the days. Nowadays even 10 years old play on PC and that completely skews what games you make for that market.

While his example of the flight sim might be an extreme, I'd agree that many genres have been oversimplified. One incredibly disappointing example that comes to mind is the X-Com series.

I don't think there were many games that matched the complexity of Paradox's grand strategy games in the early 90's, but I'm curious to hear of any examples.

I agree with you, but simulation games were a whole genre back in the early 90s. It has almost completely disappeared. Remember Microprose? Remember Maxis ? Remember Did ? Bullfrog ? They were all huge businesses dedicated to educated/curious gamers back then. Paradox falls into the indies - they clearly do not have much means (while they make great games).

Paradox has transitioned into being a niche publisher, particularly since merging with Slitherine. Also, DiD was, I believe, making simulation software for the RAF.

I do really miss Microprose and Bullfrog. As a wargammer, I would add SSI, SSG, and Three-Sixty to that list as well.

SSI and SSG, good call, I forgot to mention them.

I don't think Paradox really qualify as indie anymore. They're more on a niche market than anything else.

I wouldn't describe DF as "impenetrable", exactly, but rather as a wormhole that teleports you from Friday evening to Monday morning.

I have noticed an amazing resurrection of the point and click adventure genre. It is my favorite genre and I could never get enough of it when I was younger (Monkey Island, Indiana Jones, pretty much all the Lucasarts games, Phantasmagoria, etc etc). I was very sad when I noticed a total lack of point and click games between the years 2005-2012ish (more or less, obviously). Now, I see a lot more games like this coming out on Steam, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, etc etc and I am super happy.

> Formerly obscure genres like roguelikes are seeing mainstream success thanks to high quality "roguelike-like" games like FTL.

I actually trace this to Diablo II and Torchlight. Yes, they aren't strictly rogue-likes—among other things they're realtime—but they raised excitement for the genre just the same.

I don't think Diablo and Torchlight had any influence at all on the current surge of roguelike-likes ushered in by Spelunky and FTL, though. They basically draw on completely different aspects of the roguelike tradition: the former takes the superficial D&D-esque dungeon crawling, plus lots of high-grade polish and minus the permadeath and much of the variety. The latter instead focuses on a wildly different experience for each runthrough, with permadeath as a matter of course, and can draw the superficial surface from anything (Indiana Jones-esque platformer, top-down crew management sim...)

Roguelikes are defined by permadeath, quick runs and procedural generation.

Diablo 2 and Torchlight have the latter, but they are quite old, and the resurgence of roguelikes is relatively recent.

I believe it's just has to do with it being a very solid (and addictive) gameplay model, and one that fits much better indie games than AAA titles.

I think Diablo and Torchlight were inspired by early roguelikes, but I wouldn't say the current wave of roguelikes were inspired by these games except maybe in terms of style (e.g. Binding of Isaac). FTL and Diablo 2 for example are quite different games.

I think we are headed for the dark ages of PC gaming.

Before, the top AAA studios made games with mods in mind. This allowed massive genres like Dota and Counter-Strike to come into existence.

Nowadays AAA studios see modders as leeches and try to cut them out of the game so they can sell DLC and skins to whales.

You can see this happening everywhere.

- No modding in Blizzard's new games.

- No modding in Dota2.

- CS:GO and TF2: Making 3rd party servers hard to find compared to official ones.

- Minecraft declaring freemium servers to be illegal

The indie games on Steam Greenlight don't make up for this. It is much harder to prove a concept by making a game from scratch. Most of them are quite shoddy and get abandoned after they receive a bunch of money from early access.

> No modding in Blizzard's new games.

What about Starcraft Arcade, which makes use of Blizzard-provided tools to heavily mod the game?


> No modding in Dota2.

Valve announced workshop tools that would allow users "to create, play, and share custom maps and game modes for Dota 2."


> What about Starcraft Arcade, which makes use of Blizzard-provided tools to heavily mod the game?

Starcraft 2 is not recent anymore. Out of WoW, Diablo 3, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch, it is the only one.

> Valve announced workshop tools that would allow users "to create, play, and share custom maps and game modes for Dota 2."

Announced about half a year ago with no apparent progress? And the game has already been out since 2013 with a hefty 1 year "beta" where anyone that wanted an invite could easily get one?

> * Starcraft 2 is not recent anymore. Out of WoW...*

Starcraft 2 is still quite heavily played, and an expansion is still in the works.

I don't see how you can say Starcraft 2 is not recent, and then use WoW to further your point, when that game was released many years prior.

The fact that Dota 2's workshop tools are still in alpha is irrelevant. The fact is, there is a healthy, modding community within Dota 2, and this is being officially supported by Valve. It is also growing all the time, which contradicts your point that we are "headed for the dark ages of PC gaming".

> Announced about half a year ago with no apparent progress? And the game has already been out since 2013 with a hefty 1 year "beta" where anyone that wanted an invite could easily get one?

The valve mod tools are based on source 2 and already work, though they are in an early state. I've played maps made using them - anyone can - they're in the DOTA 2 workshop. Valve has said the dev tools are paused while they port the main DOTA 2 client to source 2 so the client doesn't need to close & boot source 2 to play user-made content. I'm not a game developer, but I'm told the current source 2 map maker is excellent if buggy & poorly documented.

It's possible Valve will release Source 2 for the client and never update the tools, but that seems unlikely. They've made an enormous amount of money off user-created content, and I expect they'll want to continue to add to that revenue stream (as well as it being the cool & decent thing to do).

1. Blizzard only ever had extensive mod tools for their RTS series, not any of their other games, so this is not new.

2. Starcraft 2's mod tools are vastly more powerful than those from Warcraft 3 and especially Starcraft 1 (in some ways this is actually a bad thing).

3. Blizzard implemented a major overhaul of the custom games interface for Starcraft 2's first expansion in 2013, so clearly they still care.

4. Starcraft 2 is still under active development; the latest expansion is expected sometime this year.

I remember Diablo2 being heavily modded though

Right, but they weren't using any mod tools provided by Blizz.

Most of the good mods from the last generation (CS, DoD, TFC, DotA, etc.) were less mods and more total conversions. And you don't need to mod a game to do that these days. The Source engine is free. Unity is free. The Unreal engine is cheap. We have more tools for making fully-fledged games at our disposal than we ever had in the past.

This is false. Nearly 100% of the assets from Dota 1 came from Warcraft 3.

I am not familiar with the other games to know how much original content there was, but I remember that both CS and TFC used a number of assets from the original.

Source is not free. Saying Unity is free and Unreal is cheap completely ignores the cost of modeling.

THIS so much.

One of the more 'interesting' gaming communities is the PAYDAY 2 community. It's a fiercely competitive multiplayer game with lots of levelling up (why does EVERY game want to be an RPG these days.... I digress) yet all the play has been sucked out of the competitive part. There's this massive conflation between 'modding' and 'griefing' where the attitude to people experimenting with the game is openly hostile.

Now admittedly yes, in a multiplayer competitive game it sucks when a cheater enters your game server and griefs your game. Yet I couldn't imagine the kind of open hostility existing in the Doom or Duke Nukem 3D communities of old, where modding was encouraged and celebrated as experimentation and where the games weren't taken so damn seriously.

Uh, there's a difference between modding and cheating in a game. I should know, I used to do both (the days of hooking the DLLs OpenGL calls... though I mainly did it for the technical challenge, it's no fun playing a game where you get to win no matter what); modding and hacking are entirely different. One is building things on top of the engine, the other is exploiting it (and ruining others enjoyment of the game). How you can conflate the two is beyond me.

Some say it is the Golden Age (see MrMember's comment), some say the Dark Age. I say there is a bit of both, but it is getting so crowded with people trying to make a buck, vs. people trying to make good games, that it is easy to be pessimistic (I definitely am in many regards).

There is not enough accountability on Early Access and Kickstarter, and this is magnified by the fact that most people are not good at judging a team's ability early on (see: YogVentures, etc).

Things are still rosy because most players are not tired of the genres (MOBA / CS) that grew from the last generation of being friendly to modders.

It may take a while but I forsee people getting tired of getting milked for DLCs and skins, and the major studios won't have another genre like Dota or CS to copy because they screwed over modders.

> Minecraft declaring freemium servers to be illegal

Yes, the dark ages, where developers look to protect their consumers (which in this case are often children!) from money-sucking leeches.

The Minecraft mod scene is thriving and massive and Mojang hasn't tried to stop it at all.

You know, it costs money to run servers. I'm an adult; I can choose to pay for extra items in a game if I wish to.

Actually, just as Warcraft allowed for modding which led to Dota, Starcraft 2 supports modding. So that spirit is still alive in some form at Blizzard.

Starcraft 2 came out about 4.5 years ago. Hearthstone and Diablo 3 don't support modding, and all indications show that Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch won't either.

After reading some initial reviews of Diablo 3, I just got Torchlight (1 & 2) instead, and haven't really missed D3. They are not a AAA games, but they do have an active modding community.

> Consoles have not generally been indie-friendly

That's the least you can say... you need an official dev kit and those used to cost several thousands of dollars if not more.

> The indie dev scene is thriving on PC.

Back when I was a console developer at EA, the ambient wisdom was that the money was falling out of (non-online) PC games in large part because of piracy.

Is that not the case? Do you happen to have numbers on what the PC game industry is like? How much of this is because of Steam?

When did you work there?

What you heard at EA applies to AAA console devs. If you're gambling everything on a blockbuster game with an enormous budget, it's true, I don't think it would be smart to make a PC exclusive today. That has everything to do with the crazy budget management, retail relationships, unsatisfiable consumer expectations, and unsustainable nature of the western AAAs, though. When a game like Bioshock Infinite can sell over six million copies and the developer still goes out of business, there is something deeply wrong with your business model.

If you are an indie, it's totally different. You can do everything on a very small budget with a very small team, perhaps even by yourself. You can plan to break even in the thousands or tens of thousands of copies sold, not millions. You can target the long tail instead of making or breaking your company on the first week of sales. You can have a direct relationship with your fans. Piracy changes from a death sentence to free marketing.

So for indies, PC is a clear win, because:

It's where most of the people that like indie games are.

The dev tools are free and available this second. You don't need to pay or sign an NDA and go through an approval process for dev kits, you don't need to pay for QA, you don't need to go through another QA process to push updates, you don't need a publisher. Just go and make your game.

There is no single gatekeeper. You always have the option to pick another digital distribution store or sell the game yourself. Even if you plan to rely completely on Steam, this fact makes Valve much more lenient and easier to deal with than Sony or Microsoft.

Most importantly, you can give people your game in a zip file. Free betas are awesome, especially for unproven developers. You get free word of mouth marketing, free playtesting, often great advice in early stages of development before it's "too late" to change things, and the peace of mind that people actually like your game and will buy it when you're finished. Do not underestimate the power of the free beta, it is easily the greatest benefit of the PC platform, and has singlehandedly made countless indie devs, even back before they called them that.

Bioshock Infinite's developer did not go out of business at all.

It was deliberately shut down.


EA is chasing a very different segment of the market than indie developers. Fancy graphics and gigantic projects that need to sell millions to break even. At that scale (and aiming at the lowest common denominator of consumers) maybe piracy is a big deal, but there are indie games that seem to do ok.

Their problem isn't piracy so much as getting noticed with a marketing budget orders of magnitude smaller than most AAA games'. And to be honest, I suspect EA just likes using piracy as a boogeyman to blame their problems on and to rationalize the Origin service.

I don't know that overall numbers on the PC industry would shed much light on the indie dev scene since they're still a small fraction, but I've played a lot of great games in the last few years. On mobile I basically stopped bothering, with Monument Valley being the one recent exception.

I think you've hit it right on this. I'd also add that the cost variations probably do play a big factor into what piracy does exist. I'm a lot more likely to take a shot in the dark on a $7 indie game or even a $30 indie "blockbuster" than I am a $60 AAA game (where half the cost is marketing anyway). Piracy probably just appeals more at the higher price points.

I'm not sure how much of the success it attributable to Steam, and how much of it is just a consequence of the times - lots of cheap tech, lots of people using cheap tech, and most importantly, video games being something everyone does. In the 80s and 90s, video games were for geeks. Ha, in my freshman year of college in 2001, my roommates were baffled that I would put on a headset and seemingly talk to my computer while playing a game on it?

Anyway, I will say the Steam Early Access program is amazing. It basically lets developers develop games in a Lean-Startup style, by releasing an MVP and then iterating on it, and it lets customers buy the game at any point to fund the development.

I've been playing Kerbal Space Program (highly recommended if you're interested at all in spaceflight, orbital mechanics or rocketry) on the Early Release Program, and it's just awesome. The developers are cool and are pretty at-large in the community on reddit.

Early Access is a crapshoot though, and I'm glad Valve is taking steps to rein it in a bit. Too many developers start with basically a POC, sell it at normal release price points, and then development peters out after that. Godus and DF-9 are good examples of this.

Strangely, it seems that you should avoid Early Access when it's for games by [i]established[/i] developers (Peter Molyneux and Tim Schafer are behind Godus and DF-9, respectively). Meanwhile KSP was made by a bunch of (former) nobodies, who actually made a game that delivers everything they've ever promised.

Too many developers start with basically a POC, sell it at normal release price points, and then development peters out after that.

It seemed like this happened with Minecraft, it was just popular enough that the POC was good enough.

Surely you're joking--Notch gave away the POC for free, and started charging for the beta somewhere before 2011 (when I started playing). Since then, new features and bug fixes have been essentially non-stop.

I picked it up after a long hiatus and found new terrain types, new monsters, new neutral creatures, an enchanting system, a brewing system, an entirely new dimension ("The End"), and several types of abandoned structures.

Minecraft's price has increased slowly as the game got more and more stuff, and the pace of improvements and additions has increased significantly over time.

Minecraft today is $27 (and totally worth every penny and then some), but this is very much not what Minecraft cost 2 years ago. The alpha version was €9.95 and the beta was €14.95.

So no this is not at all what happened with Minecraft.

Yeah, this is the way to do it, and I hope it starts to get more common on Steam and other platforms.

Charging full price for alpha versions of your game, then putting it on sale once it's done, is a slap in the face to your biggest fans - and the people who will most likely help you succeed via word of mouth.

> The indie dev scene is thriving on PC

Arguably this market is becoming over-saturated as well.


I think you're right. I know I've lost faith in mobile gaming because for every fun game I've played I've deleted 20. I'm sure there are good games out there, but how can you find them in a sea of garbage and flappy clones? On the other hand, Steam has plenty of great Indie games (selling for more than one dollar!) with plenty of reviews around so you know what's good.

Sites like http://toucharcade.com/ used to be good for discovery, although I'm finding them less useful as time goes by. There really should be a weekly or monthly publication where only the most interesting and gripping mobile games are covered.. preferably ones without ridiculous ads, nickel and diming, and all the rest.

On PC it is also "gold rush over", although we see a bunch of successful indie devs, the amount of failed ones is much, much larger.

I guess the percentage of successful devs on PC is probably on a historically low point.

On Reddit there was comments from one guy that gives from 10 to 100k to indie devs, he get 9 thousand applications per month.

Personally, I'd like to think that the good games will still rise to the top. Monument Valley wasn't a fluke; it's a game based entirely about the art and the content, rather than stale one-off game mechanics that could be cloned in an afternoon. It got noticed because it was deep and unique. (Did they even do any marketing?) I've rarely found a game with that same level of quality that got no attention[1].

Most of the time, whenever somebody complains about their games getting no sales and I look at the stuff they've made, I see games that are fun and clever, but very one-note. Like, you can already see how the rest of the game is going to go just by looking at a screenshot. That's not a bad thing, but I don't think it's the kind of stuff that sells anymore. (With obvious viral exceptions that occur unpredictably every so often.) Whereas with a game like Monument Valley, you want to get in and explore it because every single level is unique.

Several years back, the developers of Sword and Sworcery talked about how their business model was entirely about chasing the long tail rather than aiming for the mass market. It paid off wonderfully for them, and I think — I hope! — it still makes sense.

[1]: Hey! If you liked Monument Valley, you should totally check out Windowsill. Short but gorgeous. Listed as an inspiration by MV's developers. Demo in browser: http://windosill.com

Monument Valley is visually gorgeous, and I like a lot about it. However it has zero depth as a game- you can easily move through it by tapping randomly on the screen.

Also it's built by ustwo, and while they're lovely people, they're far from a small one man shop (they have hundreds of employees in several offices worldwide and know what they're doing when it comes to marketing). I don't think Monument Valley is a strong case for your argument (Sword and Sorcery is a better one, but they rode on the original iPad announcement, which is a strategy you can only use once a decade)

It's a puzzle-box/adventure-game-type experience — mostly a beautiful and interesting toy to fiddle with in your hands. Some people enjoy that, others don't. I personally love it, and I can see that a lot of App Store gamers do too. In that particular genre, it's a gem!

From what I've read in interviews, the team was comprised of about 6 people, and they didn't do any marketing or advertising.

Another recent example of a pay-up-front game hitting it "big" is Wayward Souls by Rocketcat Games (almost $10!!), though they have more of a pedigree.

Were you on Twitter in the weeks before the game released? They did tons of promotion. It's not billboards on 280, but that's not how advertising is in the App Store world.

As far as the game experience, it's far from being in the best of its genre (and I know many game designers who agree on that point). People like it because it's artsy and lends itself nicely to casual play, which is fine. But whatever, that's besides the point- which is that it's far from a one man indie success.

> from being in the best of its genre

I loved Monument Valley and would be delighted to find more games in that vein. What do you have in mind?

Also not OP, but I'll second archagon's list.

If you're specifically looking for something that fits this thread's constraint of visually stunning, one-man indie dev Escher-style puzzle game, I feel an obligation to point you at Antichamber [0].

It's got some of Echochrome's starkness to it, but with some very nice writing/dialog(?) bits that play off the game's puzzles well. Most people will find something delightful about it, though be ready for a slower paced, introspective game. It knows you know it's a puzzle game, and will punish you for it :)

(I should note that Antichamber seems to have been in development before Echochrome or Fez, and as such likely deserves the originality that has been showered on it.)

[0] http://www.antichamber-game.com

I suggest http://wiki.xxiivv.com/Oquonie ... Strange noneuclidian maps and very distinct art style - takes a while to understand the logic behind it.

Not OP, but you should totally try Windowsill, Botanicula, and EYEZMAZE's series of GROW Flash games. :)

Oh, and Fez, of course.

I was super excited about Fez because I loved the art style. But after twenty minutes of playing, I gave up, totally disoriented. I have a terrible sense of direction in general and that game was just me wandering around lost and miserable. :(

For me it was the first puzzle. The mechanics weren't clear and I had several glitches. The rest of the game was alright, but quite overhyped. I liked The Floor is Jelly a lot more, but it didn't get as much attention. Sometimes it pays to be a drama queen.

You can't reasonably make the claim that Fez became popular because Fish was a drama queen! It got excellent reviews and won many awards and contests. Personally, I think the attention was warranted.

I was probably not completely fair. But I really don't think Fez would've gotten the attention it got without Fish, and a bug ridden game like Fez makes me question the reviews. The gap between press reviews and user reviews on Metacritic seems to confirm my point.

Well, as a long-time gamer who loves these sorts of toy-box games, I'd say it's one of the very best. So THERE! :)

For more modest success by an actual one-man developer, you can look at Michael Brough's games. I think he makes a living off of them now, even though they're very niche.

>> the team was comprised of about 6 people

Did you count in the failures and almost-failures for the rest of the company on their way to discovering this ?

"you can easily move through it by tapping randomly on the screen"

This is technically true, but if you want to finish the game, you'll need to solve some puzzles.

(And for the record, you can easily play a game like Super Smash Brothers by hitting random buttons, but that game has depth for miles. "Tapping randomly" isn't an indicator of a game's depth, merely its accessibility.)

One note about Monument Valley though: When they added new levels and charged for it, there was a big backlash at first. Luckily there was a counter backlash but it still shows the expectations of most gamers in the apps store. Especially on Android.

There's a huge sense of entitlement with respect to iOS and Android apps. People want the world for free, and $1 means they OWN you.

The race to the bottom with free being the default has spawned this attitude. And the economics work out so that an indie developer can't really break even on free; you need 10s of millions of users to produce a reasonable income from ads. You can be a critically acclaimed indie game and only have a few million users.

Sure you can create a "fremium" game that sucks either time or money from users (where you basically charge people so that they can play the game less; addiction is a terrible thing). But if you don't want to be making freemium games (there's a formula you typically need to follow for them to be successful), you're stuck charging.

Here's the worst part: If you decide to make a "demo" for your game so that people can try before they buy, then when they reach the end of the demo, MANY people will end up leaving a 1-star review "SUX costs money!!!!!". Ratings are life in the app store: If someone sees an app with less than 3 stars, they're far less likely to grab it.

So because of poor user behavior, now you're stuck NOT offering a demo for people to play -- or you have to release your game as "fremium" even if it's not designed to suck people's wallets dry, which (as I've experienced firsthand) is a recipe for failure. At least my game has 4+ stars; not that it helps.

> There's a huge sense of entitlement with respect to iOS and Android apps. People want the world for free...

Available substitutes affect the price of goods, and the internet has brought us endless hours of free distraction. (Also, prices can trend towards the marginal cost of production over time.)

Supply and demand determine pricing, not the amount of labor that goes into production.

The labor theory of value is tempting, but flawed. Suppose I pedal a bicycle all day to generate electricity. Then say I demand you buy my day's single kilowatt at a price that provides me a living wage. Keep in mind that I live in California, a mecca for startup bicyclists, and support a family of four. So I'll be asking $177 per kilowatt. You decline, noting that you can usually buy a kilowatt for around 16 cents. Is it fair for me to call you "entitled" because you expect energy at market prices?

If game developers demand that consumers pretend other ways to spend time don't exist, or claim immunity to fundamental laws of economics, then they're the ones acting entitled, not their users.

[1] http://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/bicyclepower.html [2] http://livingwage.mit.edu/states/06 [3] https://www.pacificpower.net/about/rr/rpc.html

Pedantry Corner: The labour theory of value[0] does not claim anything of the sort. It is not about the amount of labour time actually invested, in reality, in creating a commodity ("concrete labour") but the amount of labour necessary to expend, given the level of technical development in the given society, to create that commodity ("socially necessary labour time", "abstract labour").

Price, of course, is a different thing from value, but that's another matter entirely with a vast literature, pro- and anti-LTV.

The LTV is a reasonably good predictor of the behaviour of markets in commodity goods, with some exceptions (the rent-economy around oil is a good example). My feeling is that with indie games, niche music and so on, there's a problem in that some people will make them for the sheer joy of it, which means wider movement in these small sub-economies do not track things so closely.

[0] Using Marx's version here, not so well read on Smith, Ricardo and so forth.

That's a valuable refinement, thanks.

So when someone claims "These people should get paid more because they worked hard," they're making claims that not even Marx would endorse.

Depends on the meaning of "should" there - if you mean according to the laws of capitalist society, then no, they shouldn't: they should be paid what it costs to feed and clothe them in all cases, and the rest (surplus value) should be used to expand production through capital investment (including productivity-enhancing machinery etc) or hiring on more people. (Skills and so on complicate the picture.)

If "should" means "in an ideal world", however, Marx and his followers would argue that the whole point is to enable people not to work so bloody hard anyway, so the question does not arise.

You're putting up a strawman; I'm not claiming I'm "owed" their money, nor am I asking for users to spend money on something that they don't consider to be worth it.

What I'm saying is that people should rate an app based on its quality, and not give 1 star as a result of their anger that they aren't getting tons more for free. Ratings should be about the quality of the game or app, not the price. If they hated the app, then fine, slam it in the ratings. But if they LOVED it and are just pissed they can't play more? Then they're jerks if they put a 1 star review up out of spite.

Just as the person asking $177 per kilowatt is delusional, so is the person who is demanding that I create games for them for free. I'm not acting entitled, I'm just trying to make games that people like enough to spend enough money on them that I can keep making games that they like.

I'm perfectly fine with the fundamental laws of economics, and I'm not asking for a special exemption. There were thousands of people who were willing to spend the $2 on my game before I switched to a "fremium" model (where the ratings ended up higher, but the income lower).

Aside: I'm not going to create another game like the one I mentioned above. Not enough demand and it didn't distinguish itself. I have no illusions there. People DID like it (I still, years after release, get fan mail), but I was paid a pittance for working on it.

I do have an idea for a game with a better supply and demand equation, and I have thoughts on how to monetize it, which involves payment for the game instead of ad support. And I would love to offer that game to users to test for free before they buy. But because of the quantity of jerks who feel entitled to get everything for free, and who will wreck the ratings of my game, I may not even offer a demo. [1] Which may itself kill the game. Time will tell.

[1] Just to be clear: Until you've installed a game you can't rate it. So if it's a free-but-limited demo they can rate it after they download it, but if it's a paid app they have to buy it to rate it.

Sure, but as I think was discussed on the ATP podcast, it was probably a marketing gaffe more than anything. If they had called it "Monument Valley 2" and charged the same, people probably wouldn't have complained too much, as that sort of branding is more in line with App Store expectations. (Maybe not, though.)

In any case, whining aside, I doubt their sales suffered too much! And I'm glad we're getting more high profile pay-up-front games like MV to reset buyers' expectations.

Which is a bit of a shame. The add-on pack is slightly shorter but of a much higher quality than the original! So for half the cost, you get a few more levels that are much more clever and visually interesting.

Frankly, if they released another pack at full price, I'd be thrilled. Forgotten Shores started with the same slow pace, but by the end the levels were truly lovely works of Escher art. The final level harkened right to some brilliant bits in Fez, which is a far larger and complex game.

Deep and unique?

It’s like a mashup of Naya’s Quest [1] and Fez [2] (or Crush or Super Paper Mario).

[1]: http://terrycavanaghgames.com/nayasquest/ [2]: http://fezgame.com

Have you played it? It's like watching an animated movie. There is negligible repeated content, at least as far as the art and levels are concerned. Unlike 99% of iOS games, I felt as satisfied in level 1 as I did in 10. (And in fact, some of the best content is in the last few levels.) Everything feels alive and dynamic, from the crows to your friendly neighborhood totem. I even felt feelings. In an iOS game. Can you believe that?!

I have. It is like an animated movie. Very pretty, but while the mechanics could be deep, I felt that the levels themselves were not. Unlike for example Braid or recently The Swapper, there were no epiphanies, just “rotate all the things and try to tap on the correct tile”.

Maybe I shouldn’t have expected a puzzle game, but this sort of space bending would really lend itself to more interesting problems to solve.

People spent A LOT of time on "animated movies" like Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, Monument Valley is better I guess :)


Mobile Phone games are suited for that kind of gameplay (and Dragon's Lair has been re-released for iOS I read), everything old is new again I guess :)

I don't have much to add here except that Braid and The Swapper are both excellent, excellent games.

They don't overstay their welcome and both have very refined game mechanics while also telling an interesting story.

fwiw the expansion is IMO a much better set of levels. longer, deeper, more bendy. especially after replaying it, the original set isn't as compelling (though still introduces the concepts very well). it is still pretty far down the "not much thinking required, just keep poking" side of gaming though, sadly.

I hear the DLC and RED expansion (not for sale anymore?!?) expanded on the mechanics quite a bit.

If you're going to complain about originality, you really should be pointing at Echochrome. The Fez stuff doesn't really kick in until the MV DLC Forgotten Shores. That said, Monument Valley is a phenomenal improvement on Echochrome in style and art direction (though I really do appreciate the stark black and white style of Echochrome).

But it's easy to forget just how unusual those games are. There's a dearth of well made Escher games. I can only think of half a dozen off the top of my head, and perhaps none that are simple enough to be on the iPhone (4S in my case). Now, we can argue about what counts as well-made, as there are a few that were acclaimed that I didn't really like (I'm looking at you, The Bridge). But MV really is a fairly unique take on the idea, and about half-way through Forgotten Shores really begins to wake up into its own.

I'm a huge fan of Fez, and picked up Monument Valley for Android. It was fun, but extremely easy and super short. I decided to pass on the DLC, figuring it'd be more of the same. Does Forgotten Shores step the game up to the next level? Worth buying?

Unexpectedly, yes. I think it's better in just about every way, and it becomes excellent in a few. My only complaint is that it feels like a third installment would be the real game; I got the feeling at the end of FS that everything preceding was just training (like how a large portion of Portal is slowly and carefully acclimating the player to the mechanics before giving them a gun).

I consider $2 impulse-buy money, so I got the DLC. It starts off the similarly, but about half-way through ustwo seems to hit their stride. The last level has some flat-out brilliant Fez effects, and a few of the levels really play proper homage to the Escher design. My math says you get 2/3rds the game at about 50% more quality (integrated over the whole run) at half the price, so that's like twice the value. Compound levels are used more, so the game pleasantly drags on a bit. Just don't expect to be confused or stuck on any puzzles.

I won't lie: it's still short, and it's still easy. But it's also two bucks, which is slightly more than a candy bar and a bit less than a load of laundry. And I tend to enjoy the game art for its own sake.

So I think the game is still mostly an art project and it stands on its own in that respect. While FS doesn't expound on the plot much, I don't think anyone will mind too terribly. But there is some thread to follow, and for a game without much of a plot there are certainly twists.

Cool, thanks!

Not to mention that the "gimmick" is taken from a couple of M.C. Escher prints.

Gamers are easy to impress, I suppose.

With all the crap in the app store, if someone wants to base a game on Escher prints, that's a big improvement. I'll take it.

> I've rarely found a game with that same level of quality that got no attention

If such a game got no attention... how would you find it?

I have made games for almost twenty years and only one thing has been a constant: People always say it is a terrible time to make games, and a terrible time start a game company. I'm not saying it isn't hard now, or the odds are aren't against you. But its easy to look back on past successes of twenty years ago and forget that most people were failing then too.

Retro is where it's at for lone developers.

Systems are small, expectations low, challenges firm.

I very seriously enjoy the retro scene today. It's possible for ordinary people to participate, even make games others will play and pay for. Homebrew.

Completing that experience was one of those life checklist things. I had a great time and have learned a lot and was able to explore games on a technical level in an achievable way.

Personally, I see this being cyclic. The big names and players will always be there. But little scenes pop up regularly, and those are a treat for those who go looking.

Are there good sites for discovering these sorts of games? In the category of retro-style games for mobile platforms, it's an enormous chore to find anything good by just paging through the app stores.

You can find a lot of retro-style PC indie games on http://itch.io/, regarding mobile it's probably best to check out the forums or categories on mobile game review sites like http://toucharcade.com/ .


I personally prefer retro on the older machines. One can play and code via emulation, which is quite good these days, or get some older gear and go that route.

Both work for me. I enjoy the real gear for those machines I am familiar with and own. (Apple ][, Atari 8 bit, CoCo) Emulation is great for others.

Emulation is good for coding either way. We get modern tools. There is a fun experience to be had working right on the hardware, but it's hard to put in the time. Emulation helps a lot with that.

Good recommendation below.

The other path is to visit sites and forums that focus on older hardware. New productions are frequent, emulation good, help at the ready.

I had a long stint with game development. Started contributing to MUD codebases as a teenager, later invested a lot of time in XNA and web games, although none of that work was particularly successful.

As satisfying as that work was, I get as much satisfaction from writing Enterprise/B2B apps. The thing about game development is that, when you're years into it, it's just another app. Video game lovers especially start out thinking they want to do game dev and game dev only, but a great many of them would benefit from exploring what are thought of as "boring" areas of development. It's only boring if you don't like making software.

>It's only boring if you don't like making software

I think that's at least somewhat dependent on personality, and at least as much dependent on what sort of enterprise apps you're writing.

Personally, there's only so much enjoyment I can extract from writing CRUD code at work, especially when I'm literally handed a multi-page document detailing exactly how the program is going to work, right down to pseudocode.

I think a better comparison would be programming as a hobby versus job. I'm sure many game developers working at development houses like EA get burned out just like the guy working in the salt mines grinding out CRUD code. In both scenarios they lack a vested interest because creativity, in various amounts, is not allowed. Compare that to somebody writing 'boring' apps as a hobby where they have complete creative control.

For me, programming is an art. It's a creative exercise. I'm much more vested when I'm allowed to flex that creative muscle. The kind of application doesn't matter as much as the amount of creativity I'm allowed. Your mileage my indeed vary though.

Fair points, I'm used to having some flexibility in my day to day. If you're being handed strict requirements that include implementation details, that could be a grind.

My greater point would be that there's a lot of creativity that goes into developing good UIs, even for non-entertainment applications.

this 1000 times.. started out wanting to make games, ended up just building everyday apps. I now work on an app used by hundreds of companies and some very big ones. It gives me great satisfaction although I'd still love to build the game I always dreamed of if I found the right group of people to do it with.

The Fantasy Sandbox MMO market is begging for some love. Nothing great since UO or SWG:Pre-CU... Everything after WoW has been just flat out terrible attempts at stealing wow and its really hurt the market.

The whole game development now is just about profit and not about creating original, amazing works of art like the early guys.

Good Article. I'm actively trying to move out of the industry (or into a company that has more opportunity connected with non-games) now after almost 10 years in.

I'm fortunate that my skills are way more transferable than the majority of game developers (I build and lead SaaS teams), but it can be a bit of a slog to actually shift gears.

Games are a place to be if you're really passionate about it or you feel like there's another hill to take. In general tho, there are much more meaningful things you can do with your life (like raise kids). So I'm on the hunt for a job that lets me continue to build awesome products while have the ability to see my kid on a regular basis (not just 6 months out of the year).

I've done what you're attempting to do, and your instincts are right: there are much more interesting and worthwhile things outside of the game industry, including kids. It might be arrogant to say, but game developers are ninjas compared to the rest of the dev world. Doing complex AI/graphics/networking at 60fps is a hell of a lot harder than a typical CRUD app.

I'm glad for my time in the game industry because it sharpened my skills and made the rest of my life a cake walk. But, I wouldn't want to go back due to the exploitation I see in it.

"For the lone game programmer that day has already arrived.


If one sees 'the art of lone game programming' as a genre then this might be true. One successful lonely game programmer leads to a gold rush of many lonely game programmers digging the iKlondike for gold.

But I am pretty sure that there is always room for the brilliant idea that no one can grasp when you pitch it. I personally would have talked Notch out of the idea for Minecraft with the usual arguments (blocky graphics, not state-of-the-art, there's no real goal, etc pp). And when I played it, I was like - omg, I could have done that.

There always will be a lonely (game) programmer doing something extraordinary that you didn't think of in the first place or even despised. And then there is the next Notch, and I will again say - omg, not again.

And some of us have big ideas and don't dare to join the art of lonely game programming.

Except that the myth of the one-idea-making-a-fortune is mostly that. A myth. Minecraft, as incredible as it was, wasn't the only game of its kind. People routinely underestimate the role of luck in these things.

There is room for the one great idea. But the point is that the minimum production values on the platforms that sell that idea has risen beyond one person now. As it did in the 16-bit era in the late 80s and early 90s. I thought it was interesting that Monument Valley made it into the list at the end. Made by a graphic design agency, not a bedroom coder.

I disagree. There are no "minimum production values" if your game is good enough. A ton of popular indie games today (Hotline Miami, Risk of Rain, Gunpoint, Valdis Story, Terraria, many of Vlambeer's games...) are still made with pixel art using GameMaker, for example.

Minecraft succeeded not because it was one out of a hundred block-based games that got lucky, but because it had a perfect mix of simplicity (slick interface and controls), immediacy (play in your browser), wonder (explore forever in any direction), and persistance. I guess you could point to Infiniminer before it, but if you've ever played it, you'll know that it was slow and clunky in a 90's sim-game kind of way.

> There are no "minimum production values" if your game is good enough.

Which is just a tautology.

Hotline Miami - 2 core devs + 2 others; Risk of Rain - 2 core devs + others; Gunpoint - 1 dev (Tom Francis FTW, yay!) Valdis Story - Dunno, but website says "we" and mentions a few different people in blogs; Terraria - 2 core devs + others; Vlambeer - 2 core devs + others.

It is very difficult, almost impossible for a single developer to make a competitive game now. Not actually impossible, but the dev needs to be almost preternaturally productive. It is much more common to find programmer + artist + others teams, as it became after the transition to 16-bit. Very common to have programmer + artist for pre-alpha prototyping, contracting additional programmers + additional artists + sound guys (as for several of the games you cite) + platform conversion teams + music, etc.

> pixel art using GameMaker, for example.

Pixel art can have high production values. Pixel art was still the main requirement for 16-bit games, well after the demise of the bedroom coder.

If you think that, say, Risk of Rain doesn't have many person years of production input, you're deluding yourself. Try making something equivalent yourself this year.

Yeah, if you're looking specifically for 1-person developers, it's hard to find them. But I think that's because most people aren't comfortable making the art or music for their own games. (Or choose not to out of time pressure.) If Derek Yu had chosen to sell the original Spelunky, I think it would have done well. I think Towerfall might count, since I know Matt Thorson has done the art and music for most of his games. Nidhogg has been pretty successful lately, as well as Samurai Gunn.

For the record, I don't think pixel art has to be particularly high quality for the game to be successful. Right now I'm playing an alpha of Vagante and having a ton of fun. It's looking like it's gonna be a hit. The graphics are muddy and kind of NES-looking with lots of cheap rotations — and that's OK.

> Try making something equivalent yourself this year.

I'm actually planning to do just that. So I guess we'll have to see!

> I think that's because most people aren't comfortable making the art or music for their own games.

Right, them's the 'production values'. They aren't comfortable because the quality bar is pretty high, even on pixel art, high enough that you really need an artist to do it, not a lone coder.

I think the situation isn't quite as bleak as he says in the OP anyway. The age of the lone coder is gone, I think. The few exceptions are exceptions. But the age of the prototype-in-a-game-jam-get-crowd-funded-and-build-a-product-with-a-small-team isn't over, though the bubble has definitely burst from when every kickstartered game seemed to reach its goal. So while I think he's right that the market has eliminated the lone-coder approach to game development, the ability to bring a good small game to market is as good as it has ever been.

As you said further up, it is PC that is the heartbeat of that.

Good luck on your game.

Another great one-man-team is Lucas Pope, creator of Papers Please and (currently in development, but the demo has already seen great reception) The Curse of The Obra dinn, as well as a few Ludum Dare games.

Yup. The first person that came to mind for me was Terry Cavanagh. Also a one-man phenomenon.

I don't think he does the music for most of his games, though.

Have you played any of the similar pre-Minecraft games? They are all almost universally completely different from Minecraft - interacting with the voxel environment is not the main point of the game.

Minecraft drew heavily from other games, yes, but it was also revolutionary and one of the first games to have such an open development cycle. There is a reason that such a poorly designed and buggy game is arguably the biggest indie franchise of all time.

Yes. They are not 'almost universally completely different'. There are elements in Minecraft (which didn't originate those elements) which are not in them, certainly. Minecraft brought a bunch of cool things together, I agree. And it was compelling enough to go places. But the idea that this was a thunderbolt of inspiration that hit notch with the best idea ever that then changed the world is just fantasy.

Post-hoc rationalization is humanity's only superpower.

I don't know if anyone with any knowledge would argue that. Minecraft Alpha was decidedly dull. I think, more than anything else, the public development cycle was a huge part of Minecraft's success.

I also wonder how much piracy contributed. I know I pirated the game before I bought it.

>> But the idea that this was a thunderbolt of inspiration that hit notch with the best idea ever that then changed the world is just fantasy.

It was a series of thunderbolts and Notch and the whole Mojang gang are freaking geniuses in my opinion.

But I am pretty sure that there is always room for the brilliant idea that no one can grasp when you pitch it.

You're right, but I don't think the author would claim otherwise.

The article is not about the possibility of breakout success, but about lone, reasonably skilled game developers being able to make a consistent living. Not the same thing.

I see, and I agree, you have a point.

I still stand to what I wrote , because I think it is important to stress that it is important to follow your ideas, even if their odds might be low. Being downvoted is somewhat ironical on a meta level.

Maybe I am being a bit naive, but I don't think many of those games in the good old days were made with the intention of making huge profits. Most of the people were hobbyists who just had an itch to create the game they wanted to play - and they lucked out that a lot of other people wanted to play their game too.

I think the state of the game market is good -- let the hobbyists of today create the game they want to play - and maybe it will make them a boat load of money. Or maybe they will be happy because they had their vision come true.

Now the big corporations -- well they will just push whatever makes them money.

> Maybe I am being a bit naive, but I don't think many of those games in the good old days were made with the intention of making huge profits.

They weren't -- but the dream people had was that their games would generate enough profit that they could make a living making them.

I read the post's message as being that they did, for a while, but those days have receded due to the collapse in what people are willing to pay for games. In a world where $0.99 for a game is considered expensive, it's hard to make a living making games unless you come up with some way to consistently make absolutely massive hits -- and that's a nut that nobody has ever cracked.

Yea, I will second that. I knew a bunch of young guy's in the 90's who loved playing games. One of the father's of one of the guys wanted to help out his kid and set them up in an office and set up the corporation. These guy put out sone good games, and loved their jobs. Along with not wearing ties, free food and sodas. They loved going to work. That was until EA bought the company, and shut them down. I think they each got 500k? I used to wonder why he didn't include me(we were all lost in the career market) in the company? He knew I was floundering, but I don't hold it against him--I really didn't like playing games. I still wonder why he didn't include me though. I included him in every money making thing I was in? Anyways, it's history, but don't overlook your true friends when starting a company--especially if they were always taking money/drinks/etc. from you? It hurts!

> but the dream people had was that their games would generate enough profit that they could make a living making them.

Yep. And anyone who likes a game enough to think they'd enjoy something else the developer might make should hope the dev could make a living off it too.

Otherwise, the dev will have to go back to the corporate IT salt mines, and you'll get whatever relative crumbs get produced in what we call "spare time," if that... and certainly not whatever their greatest work might have been.

(Hope we're all paying for what we like!)

Some devs of the community around Photonstorm/Phaser seem to make a living with games.

But it seems a different story. Most of them do mobile-mini-games they sell to sponsors and game-hubs, or they do some promotion games for companies.

A great game developed by a lone programmer I seldom see mentioned is "Haven & Hearth". It's developed by a (faux) company called "Seatribe", which actually consists of two people, but only one of them (Fredrik Tolf AKA loftar) does the programming while Björn Johannessen is responsible for the game assets.

It's pretty cool actually and they'll be releasing a 3D version of it at some point[1]. It's basically a survival MMO with permadeath, and hence a lot of cool stuff has emerged, like world wars and geopolitics, complete with player-run and protected trade hubs and so on. In the game there's no official carebear zones though, but if you kill another player you leave a scent that can be tracked, allowing rangers to exact justice. You also leave scents for vandalizing stuff or stealing things within staked "claims".

No game experience can beat the rush of adrenaline one gets when fighting for one's life in H&H, where you might irrevocably lose a character you've been building for a month or more, and where you get to take away that same thing from the person attacking you. It's amazing.

[1] = http://www.havenandhearth.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=3797...

I'm pretty damn impressed. I clicked that link expecting to see some half assed runescape copy.

That game actually looks like fun, and the graphics are great... !

You know, I really want a good new game that actually captures my interest. I mean they happen, I still love those games, but I feel like we're over supplied with junk, and undersupplied with genuinely interesting games. I'm hungry and there's a mcdonalds on every corner, but I can't find a restaurant with a gourmet chef. I have so many unplayed steam games right now. Tossed some money on a hope, and after a few minutes realized it wasn't going to work out.

I think the thing that bothers me about this sort of "woah is the small guy" viewpoint is it's like "oh no the brilliant little artists got crushed by the corporations and the me-too hacks".

You know what, fuck that bullshit. Most games right now are asinine. And I mean even the indie wunderkids and the pretentious art games.

Here's the problem: nobody knows how to do this shit very well yet. It'll happen, eventually. They're learning, but it's not really very good right now. I mean people try really really hard. They deserve some success. But as far as the results go, most of them aren't that interesting. I want good games.

Remove barriers to creating something and the market tends to devolve towards, well, marketing.

Anyone can write a book now - and get it to market. It's never been easier technically to write anything including games. And app markets take away much, if not all, challenges of go to market.

Such markets are destined to get flooded and to (reliably) get noticed in such a market, you need a marketing budget.

Tell me if I missed it, but the chance to make a living as an independent game has increased, didn't? Companies get as big as their market will allow it. Saying no one can make a living from games anymore because of the big companies is like saying there can be no more start-ups because of Google and Facebook.

The gaming market is big and fast. It's fine if you don't want to run anymore but there are a lot more other people in the race who have a chance of seeing the finishing line.

There is an interesting documentary on Netflix "Indie Game" that chronicles a few indie developers. It does a good job showing the emotional struggles and difficulties in developing and bringing a game to market.

Since the article talks about hobby development, I want to plug Handmade Hero [1], which is a really cool series of youtube videos (still in progress) of a full, production quality game being built from scratch in C by one person. This was my first exposure to game programming and its really fun to watch along with the videos, plus the guy making them is fairly opinionated about best programming practices, so you pick up so more general skills as well.

It's been featured on HN before, so many people have probably seen it, but if you haven't, it is definitely worth checking out.

[1]: http://handmadehero.org/

12 hours until Avernum 2 hits steam.


A remake of a remake; all games made by one man.

The second era of the bedroom coder is far from over and you can still make money from it without resorting to cheap, nasty, free2play tactics.

Jeff Vogel is great, and I've been playing his games for over half my life. But he's written similarly themed blog posts himself: http://jeff-vogel.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/the-indie-bubble-is...

Part of the reason he can still do it is that he's been doing it for so long, and has a loyal long term audience quite happy to buy a new Spiderweb game because it's a new spiderweb game.

Have a look at Steam top 100 and you'll see loads of games made by lone developers. I think it's a great time to be an indie game developer!

It's definitely a great time to be those indie game developers.

I'm not one of them and I'm having a great time.

I think the lone developer, or lone lead developer as it truly is now, is still viable. It is probably better this thinking is out there though. Most games are a small team or require assets of many developers nowadays. The land rush is over but gaming is still the biggest draw.

Most projects we work on are in house or contract and they have a couple or few people on teams. Sponsored games and advergames were also the money makers with flash gaming and will be with WebGL and more. Internal IP or titles also help pad revenues and transitions. Gaming is big in agency promotions. Gaming is bigger still in mobile.

It is very difficult no doubt but even a single developer is more like a team now with things like Unity/Unreal/Cocos2d-x/etc as the engine team, asset stores for many things, contractors for art/audio/design/development and plenty of markets to get into. The age of the from scratch lone developer is over, but there is just as much opportunity as ever for teams of 1-5 or so.

OP mentions the rush of the 48 hour competition, I think OP might also like:


My new years resolution was to participate this year. Naturally, its the 13th and I haven't even started for this month. But I'll try, maybe this weekend.

I'm floored that this post got so few upvotes. It's interesting and beautifully crafted.

I feel that I see these types of posts come up every few months.

Yes the "argument" is not new at all, but the story is well told with good visuals. I just thought it deserved more :)

We're rising again. We're just building VR software instead of mobile games.

One person dev will rise every time there is a new viable games platform. Because such platforms will initially have low market penetration, small customer bases, and be high risk for larger developers. But as soon as those platforms are established, one person teams will be eaten alive by others.

VR is primed to be a game tech. You can maybe do some interesting stuff now, when the only hardware out there is a few hundred thousand dev-kits. But if the Oculus launch goes okay, the production values needed to compete will very quickly take it out of one-person territory.

Of course, there are always new tech. But for every platform that turns into money, there are many that are dead ends. Many single person devs who crash and burn because they are early to a party that never starts. I developed WAP games. I know this :)

Quality 3d assets are very expensive.

I believe that the niche of the lone game developer is in the bleeding edge. The two examples given show this: a mode of computing was created, individuals made games, then were pushed out. The individual proves the viability for the larger groups who do not want to commit the time or treasure to a venture that will not survive.

It is odd to read this just after checking for updates on http://blog.thimbleweedpark.com/.

Otherwise, this is no different than any other medium, is it? Content curation is hard. Pretty much period.

Excellent article! Though I'd say, somewhat, that it's still as difficult to make an engaging game as it's ever been. Just the bar has been lowered so much that poorer games are made by people with less ability. I like that anyone can make games now, some cool stuff has been made because of that...but yeah, as I said it is hard. I'm a pro and I've been made homeless because of lack of work (and a moral stance against predatory IAP's). I'm a damn fine developer, but that don't save you from the bottom line of what makes money.

This reminds me - that developer shortage that the big SF companies keep going on about, needing h1b indentured servants working a third under market value to fill positions - ever consider how there are a billion iOS games made every day in a hugely saturated market? You know, thousands of developers and dev companies not making any money. Probably good at what they do if they are upstarting their own projects like that. Might consider working for you if you aren't fixing wages for a decade.

The lone game developer may or may not be a myth, but like many creative pursuits, over time there might very well be 1,000 little game developers blooming, some of which will be quite lovely and people will appreciate, but most will just be ignored. That's not all bad either. Not everyone should make a AAA game.

Some of my fondest memories of games are of the NES games I played as a child. They are still some of the most basic and fun games to play.

funny i learned to program as a kid in highschool so that I could one day make games. I'm now a full time software developer completely self taught, no overhead of a expensive CS degree i didn't need, and I've never even made pong. The closest I came was building tic tac toe. Somewhere along the lines I got hooked on stealing shit from people on AOL and just got pulled away from the thought of games and never looked back.

Ultima Online in my opinion was the climax of online MMO's. Someone needs to build a true sandbox fantasy MMO. CCP has proven that a sandbox done properly will bring in the crowd and keep the doors open.

Someone do it!!

I've tried multiple times however to build/find a team to work with and the team is never dedicated enough to complete even the most simplest of things.

> Someone needs to build a true sandbox fantasy MMO. CCP has proven that a sandbox done properly will bring in the crowd and keep the doors open.

This is why I had high hopes for World of Darkness.

wasnt that done by funcom though or one of those companies? They've shit the bed with all of their latest MMO's.. Age of Conan was suppose to be amazing too and was a true snooze fest. All these games have become a grind fest.. kill 8 rats, yadda yadda.. i want a real sandbox to build a castle whereever i want..

I had huge expectations for darkfall too, but Aventurine is a joke of a company.

Am I the only one seeing a bit of delusional attitude in this article? Kickstart your ass off with a great game idea and you'll get paid what you deserve while still working by your passion. But wait I am not going to believe the author doesn't know about Kickstarter...

I dunno about the fall part. I went into the market headlong with a stripped down concept called Reduce on the Play Store and came out with a job before I could even complete feature additions =D It never fails to pay to build something.

It's hard to get people to give you money for something you are willing to do for free. Enjoyable creative pursuits tend to be like that for those who are not superstars

What do game devs think about gamejolt.com, where ad-revenue is shared amongst the developers ?

What is true is if you chased the mobile game craze there was a small window where little indie games had traction. A well developed indie game (I would call it an exception at this point) can still gain traction in today's app stores but it is rare. It is true that with the increased supply of games three things have happened. First, the amount of terrible games one must slog through to find a gem has increased. Second the number of gems has also increased which in turn keeps raising the bar of what a "gem" is. Third a race to the bottom began and player's expectations changed and what they are willing to pay with it. The real culprit and difference than the days or yore or even just five years ago is exposure and marketing costs.

I run a small indie studio and our game Pit of War[1] is a very niche game (a PvP, character building, gladiatorial strategy game with text and still images. You don't get much more niche than that!) and we've found great success by managing our resources well and not chasing the latest craze be it flash, facebook, mobile, or what have you. We chose to keep the game on the web and keep full control over it instead of having to pass a judgment committee, or handing over 30% of our revenue to some platform. I found a niche that I enjoyed and had little competition and then built a game and a community around it. That last part is critical these days. I'm sure many of you have heard about "A 1000 true fans"[2], and it very much applies here. If you are using a F2P business model it is your bread and butter.

In 2010-2012 everything was awesome and then something happened in late 2012, early 2013. The user acquisition costs skyrocketed. In the last five years I've seen CPA costs increase 300%-600%. I spent time in Japan and knew some people at an ad agency there that mainly caters to mobile game companies and the CPA on those networks was averaging 700-800 yen (about $7-$8), with peak prices hitting 5,000 yen ($50) when Japanese companies paid out the yearly bonuses to their employees. Five years earlier CPAs were around $1.50 and less. The price increases on their networks have mainly been fueled by four or five companies like Supercell, GREE, DeNA etc. This is where the fairytale ended for a lot of indies and small studios hoping to make a living. It is a rare game that can pay those kinds of marketing costs and remain profitable.

My recommendation to anyone looking to get into indie game development would be to find a niche you enjoy and be the best in it. Build a community around it. Learn how to utilize an ethical F2P business model and last but certainly not least, have fun.

[1] If you are curious about what can be accomplished with a web based niche game you can check it out here: http://www.pitofwar.com

[2] http://kk.org/thetechnium/2008/03/1000-true-fans/

I dabbled in shareware games for roughly 20 years. I had high hopes for making a revolutionary game and my ship coming in like Notch, but what I found was that making a game was never the difficult part. It was always about funding - making rent each month, affording food, etc. It was also about telling people no, because the closest people around me were often the most demanding of my time and energy, even going as far as telling me what I should be working on. I failed utterly on both fronts.

I found (and still find) most games deeply underwhelming, especially when they get high praise for their creative gameplay or plot, because those are the easy parts. Very few games also have solid engineering like Minecraft. That solid engineering is so elusive, so expensive, that it’s effectively out of reach on an indie budget. The only thing left is cookie cutter games like Angry Birds, which I categorize as the first thing that would come out of any medium. So if all you have is eggs you make an omelet, if all you have is leaves you rake them, if all you have is a physics engine you throw things. It’s no wonder that the profit for something anyone can make either rapidly approaches zero or goes into the stratosphere on its own fame like Paris Hilton, creating the illusion of value for an industry that would otherwise have none.

Then I watched a talk by (as I recall) Jason Fried of 37 Signals, who made the rather astounding point that the way to earn a profit is to make something people want and sell it for money. This was after the dot bomb when people were still chasing eyeballs, I wish I could find the video. It was one of the prime motivators that got me to quit my soul-sucking job and flip broken computers for a year, and then get into contracting. It finally hit me that people make money doing all kinds of things because people want them, and I didn’t have to suffer the grind in my life any longer, because to work so hard at something people aren’t willing to pay for is the very definition of futile.

Sooo.. I may make another game. I may sell it at the exorbitant price of $5, $10 even $20. I may not even give away a free demo. All of the other free, ad-based, casual, social games of the world can keep playing house, and bless them for doing so. But people will always want the real games, and I know that because I would be willing to pay for one, should one come along. I’m thinking that in this case, if Apple and other companies have really created a race to the bottom economy for games and other apps, then nature will “find a way” and create more of an egalitarian way for developers to earn an income, perhaps from crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, but more likely from guilds, co-ops and to be quite frank a collective approach that takes the enormous wealth produced by the industry and uses it for something more productive than the hypervaluation of startups. As far as I can tell, we’re on the verge of total blah just like in 2000 and if everyone doesn’t wake up, history is about to repeat itself. If we glorify success and ignore wasted potential, the next thing we sell that people are willing to pay for could very well be a side of fries.

I'm currently working on a mobile game all by myself. So this article should worry me. But I share your sentiment. You should create the games you'd want to play yourself. There are many games that were developed with the wrong intentions and so I'm actually glad they fail because it makes the audience seem smarter than they are often depicted.

Every now and then I browse through the app stores for games that didn't get attention and I've never seen a great game among them. I'd like to be proven wrong on this but it hasn't happened yet.

I've also read a couple of postmortems of failed games and I haven't seen a single game that failed despite delivering quality. Most of the times I asked myself how they even thought they'll have success with such a low quality product. One of the best post mortems I've read was this one which emphasizes my point http://gamasutra.com/blogs/DomDrysdale/20150107/233677/Lesso...

>... we were inspired by the success of games like Ski Safari and Jetpack Joyride. These are not good reasons to make a particular type of game

>... I don't think we ever really had the passion for this genre of games to make something truly great.

See, I disagree with your "budget".. all it takes is a computer and a dream to build whatever you want. It doesn't take budgets.. Can you do it in the same time a team with 30 million in funding? Hell no, but with the right group of people and a lot of persistance you can make anything happen.. see SWG Emu http://www.swgemu.com/forums/index.php

it's taken years, and years, but with determination and $0 budget they've pretty much reverse engineered an entire game. It doesn't have to be done today. Start it, don't stop, keep going, and while doing that for fun(because that's why I started and still write code today.. for me its fun as hell.) find something that pays the bills like a day job.

I'm working on a project, all by myself right now.. I put in my day job, and then if I'm up to it, put in a couple hours on my side project. When its done, its done.. or it may never be done, but i make a little progress any chance I get.

Ya what you say is true, it's definitely possible to make a game as a side project while working a day job. The only problem is that it’s difficult to know if/when to throw in the towel. My old partner and I ended up spending 11 years on a game that way. That was before Kickstarter, although I'm not sure anyone would fund the style of game we were making because it was just a 2D platformer sequel.

It’s also true that there are few or no expenses in programming other than labor, but even living a subsistence lifestyle adds up. I think we each averaged over 500 hours per year, call it 10,000 total to be conservative. So we could have made the game over about 2 years if we could have raised $70,000 and paid ourselves minimum wage (which just barely makes ends meet for a single person where we live in Idaho). Instead we worked a bunch of dead end jobs, I ended up moving furniture for 3 years and my partner got sucked into computer repair rather than programming. We would work seasonally and then be on call at home during slow parts of the year and spend what money we’d saved on rent and food while we hacked on the game for days on end. Struggling with burnout and destitution for so many years set our careers and personal lives back so far that we still haven’t started families and we’re pushing 40.

What I learned from all of this is that if you want to raise money, you need to earn an order of magnitude more, somewhere between 2 and 10 times as much as you think, because of life’s expenses (mainly debts in this era). It works just like time where even tripling your estimate is sometimes not enough. As far as I can tell, there is nothing like an artist guild for indie programmers, no support structure to lend any dignity to the lifestyle through grants, commissioned work or the attention of benefactors. There’s just the starving artist mentality, which grows more unpalatable with age. I don’t view this as anything close to sustainable, so it’s no wonder that the overall quality of indie games has fallen to amateur levels (and eventually apps as their prices race to the bottom). It’s going to follow the same trend as books. I’m hopeful though that maybe something like a basic income might come along and rescue art from slow decline. Art is synonymous with culture so I guess that’s why I get so worked up about all of this, because I feel it’s intimately tied to whatever technological future we would like to see for ourselves and future generations.

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