The Future of IndieDev: What lessons can be learned from the music industry?

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Games, art and music have never been more popular than they are today, with artists and consumers both enjoying unprecedented access to new and exciting media. Yet with all this art out there to enjoy, the billions of dollars being generated are being earned by fewer and fewer people. The way we spend money is changing, fast. Indie games developers may spend hundreds of hours crafting an experience for others to enjoy, only to find that the majority of people playing it haven’t paid a single penny. What can the games industry and computer games developers do to help earn money from their hard work?

According to games industry analysts Newzoo’s Global Games Market Report, $99.6 billion in revenue will be generated globally by gamers in 2016. This is over double what the music industry is expected to make in the same period. Clearly there is cash to be made yet why are so many developers struggling to make ends meet? A boom market right now is mobile gaming, which generates 33% of total games revenue per platform, the second highest after PC/Web games which generate 37%. Whatever your views on platform loyalty may be, and they are likely to be strong, it is undeniable that mobile games developers must be doing something right.  So how exactly are mobile games making all that cash?

To put it bluntly, most aren’t. The vast bulk of that money is being made by games such as Clash of Clans and Candy Crush, with innumerable titles sinking quietly down to the depths of the app store. What is it then that makes these leviathan titles so lucrative? Unlike market leaders on traditional platforms such as Call of Duty, Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto, (which tend to retail for around $50) the highest earning mobile games are free to download and play. So how then can these free games gross more money than big name purchases? Our good old friend the microtransaction.

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  Microtransactions, also sometimes known as ‘Freemium’ gaming, are the practice of selling items in-game either directly or through in-game currency which can also be bought for cash. Freemium gaming is extremely divisive and some of that division may be part of which platform you prefer to game on. People who spent a day’s wages on a console game, just to hit a pay wall preventing them from accessing content, or to be frustrated by players effectively paying to win competitive games will look upon microtransactions as a devil-spawned pox blighting their chosen pastime. I don’t believe I’m going out on a limb when I say Electronic Arts are known for aggressively pushing this model.

However there are many fantastic free-to-play (F2P) mobile games which could not survive without microtransactions. As well as the above mentioned mobile gaming stalwarts you also have games such as the fantastic One Piece: Treasure Cruise and Clash Royale, which are F2P but have some form of cap on how many times you can play within a certain space of time. Paying for in-game currency can allow you to extend this time limit or can give you more opportunities to gamble on drawing special items of units from a type of lucky draw. In both cases F2P players can still access this but pay-to-play gamers (P2P) will have more chances to do so.

This brings me nicely to ‘Gacha’. I may have portrayed microtransactions as being a problem affecting console and PC gamers more than mobile. ‘Gacha’ helps level that playing field. A Japanese onomatopoeia which can be understood as the noise made when turning the dial on a gumball machine, Gacha is the practice of creating special items for a game which can only be obtained through ‘lucky draws’. This often requires the player to collect and combine whole sets of these exclusive items in order to receive the one they originally wanted. Effectively gambling, this monetisation technique was banned in Japan in 2012.

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  Many people may see microtransactions as underhand or encouraging pay walls, but a study done by SWRVE in 2016 showed that 48% of all mobile in-game spending comes from only 0.19% of players. This means a tiny fraction of players, sometimes referred to as ‘whales’, are going a long way to supporting the industry. A further implication is that microtransactions are not deterring mobile gamers but that they are instead just ignoring them and enjoying the free game within the limits set.

One of the most common ways to monetise a game remains running adverts in-game. Flash gaming benefited from pre-roll and interim ads, which is a tradition many mobile games are continuing. If the ads are too obtrusive then the user becomes frustrated but this annoyance can be used to provoke them in to then buying an ad-free version. Many of the indie developers I spoke to cited ad revenue as their main source of income.

Subscription services such as Sony’s PSN can allow gamers to access discounted and free indie games, as well as providing a vital platform for games which otherwise may have gone unnoticed. Lessons could be learned from this and from Spotify, which gives listeners the option to pay to remove adverts from the songs. A similar service for mobile gaming might allow gamers to access a curated selection of free/discounted games, while the developer and distribution platform can guarantee a basic revenue for their work. Customers will benefit from knowing these games are free of ads and aggressive microtransactions, as well as feeling like they are helping to support developers they like.

For all the accusations of entitlement, platforms such as Kickstarter, Patreon and Pledge show that people are happy to support projects of all types and that people will invest if they feel some connection with the creator. The saturation and homogenisation of art devalues what is created, obscures quality output and encourages people to seek free alternatives.

Live music offers a paradigm which fits well with gaming. Either you charge admission at the door, guaranteeing some revenue from each customer, or you can risk allowing people in for free and try to promote merchandising and drinks deals more heavily. A balance must be struck between earning money and attracting new fans.

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  It isn’t hard to find articles on the web citing the dire state of mobile gaming (the creators of Battlestation: Harbinger are responsible for some) yet there is clearly good money to made. Perhaps there is an unrealistic expectation of free, quality games which makes it much harder to earn money as an indiedev, but satisfied gamers can end up being hugely loyal ‘whales’. The previously-mentioned One Piece: Treasure Cruise is F2P with no ads yet there are many people who spend hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars on the game during promotional events. Had the game cost money to download or included ads, then such loyalty may have been absent.

Many developers complain of an oversaturation in the mobile market, which is hard to argue with. There are just so many titles out there that it is extremely hard to stand out. Source code stores such as Chupamobile mean that almost anyone can just buy premade code and lay a new skin on top of it. Is this a problem or is it just the result of a democratisation of the industry?

Much like music, it has never been easier to create or enjoy computer games yet the industry is in a state of flux. What people want and expect is changing and it is the responsibility of businesses and creators to adapt or die. Distribution platforms are opening the doors to developers who don’t yet have big names backing them and facilitating career development which was just not possible before. If I look at the last $100 I spent on music it is clear that those bands would never have seen my money were it not for platforms such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud and of course the almighty YouTube.

There is a cultural shift underway and it requires both developers and users to take some considered action. If, as consumers, we are less willing to pay for the media we enjoy then we must accept some responsibility for increase in franchising and holistic monetisation. Indie programmers may be more able to break from tradition due to much lower production cost

This becomes a bit of a catch-22 situation for developers however, as they are encouraged to milk any profitable franchise for all it’s worth as a result of people’s general reticence to buy a creative product. The rising popularity of the medium also makes riding the hype train a more dangerous journey to undertake. No Man’s Sky is a good example of what can happen when a developer does take risks. Excitement levels skyrocket and as time progresses, changes or omissions in the final game leave players feeling frustrated and let down.

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  Ultimately these are minor hurdles to overcome in the face of such unparalleled access for consumers and developers. For those of us brought up with games as a physical artefact we had to go find and pay 1 or 2 days wages for, it feels a bit cheeky complaining about spending a few dollars to improve your experience of a free game. I love having so much free music, film and gaming in my pocket and the way monetizing is changing means that I can support the artist more directly that before.

Art in all its forms is being democratised by mass distribution platforms. More people are able to learn how to create and are given the means to share their creations. The time of the elite few is coming to an end, leaving the old captains of industry scratching their heads in confusion. This confusion is also shared by some of the new creators coming through, who have been taught to rely on the old ways of selling their art. It is time to take risks, to try new ideas and to support those creating a culture we want to be part of.

We are seeing a huge boom in what used to be a very niche pursuit. The stereotype of gamers as basement-dwelling neckbeards is no longer holding true. The huge success of the PlayStation and X-Box, the mass proliferation of smartphones and the emerging markets of live-streaming and e-sports have brought all kinds of new people in to the club. Rather than bemoan gaming being brought out in to the light, we can benefit from the fresh energy that comes with it. You get the culture you support. All we have to do is buy some gems!