A recent blip on Gamesindustry.biz touched on the decision of Hello Games to release their hot little action game Joe Danger on PSN because they considered XBLA to be “a slaughterhouse” for small developers. This caught my eye on the feed today because I’ve been following Hello since I found their blog some time ago, and especially since they showed up at the IGF this year. They didn’t win the festival but their game is making money, so one out of two ain’t bad. Anyway, the blip reminded me of a talk at the Serious Games Summit at the same GDC, wherein the speaker boldly challenged our faith that digital distribution channels like XBox Live Arcade, Playstation Network, and Steam were going to save the game industry by being the proverbial Green Party to the Triple-A world: the upstarts-fulla-heart that would keep it all honest by being the eternal haven for the underrepresented and niche. The term he used for this phenomenon was “The Indie Paradise,” and according to him, it was a lie. A myth, actually, is the term he used, and the argument he gave was pretty compelling.
Channels like XBLA were heralded as being indie paradises because we believed an impossible dream: that they would be open to all developers big and small, yet somehow controlled so that junk product didn’t make it past the gates to compete with the truly salesworthy selection and dilute customer interest. The inevitable reality was that no channel could hit a true balance between these competing needs. On the one hand we have portals like Kongregate, the iPhone App Store, and Facebook (eventually) that erred on the side of openness. As a result they were flooded with garbage that people very quickly learned to ignore, and in the case of Facebook the platform developers themselves had to step in to groom the product line and restore some credibility before newborn giants like Playfish and Zynga could take their first steps. On the other hand we have channels that clamped down hard to keep quality up. XBLA, for one, quickly realized what chaos would ensue if everyone really did try to start making games for them, and they ensured that their portal would always be curated to present the best of the best. Indie devs became indie in name only as licensing deals for XBLA became necessary to get to the sales front.
The trouble with the former strategy is that competition is oceanic — games only shine and only sell when their production value crosses a certain threshold, one easily identified as “major funding from a publisher.” The trouble with the latter is the same, except in this case games of mediocre polish get shut down by the gatekeepers before they even see the marketplace. In both instances the lesson is the same: digital channels are no friend to the micro-project. Big money goes into these games, money that can mean only one thing: publisher backing. And the bars are getting higher.
Hello Games’ director Sean Murray commented in greater length in the article, giving stats that draw the same conclusion my SGS speaker did. A big one: 17% of titles on XLBA sell more than 200k copies. 43% sell fewer than 25,000. That means at average prices your game better cost less than $250k or you’re not even breaking even. My speaker quotes a stat from Kongregate that the top 1% of their titles get 50% of all playing time on the site. The sad truth is, the world of indie game development that began to escape the need for big budgets and greedy publishers still has not succeeded, at least not yet or in any significant way. Whatever Hello Games needed to get on PSN must have been sweet cause it seems they broke even on the first day. They made a great game, and they deserve it. But if you’re an indie interested in being unconventional, experimental, radical, or in any way not appealing to a traditional publisher, salvation is not at hand. Sorry.