Saturation Point

With 2015 almost over, time to visit the “Indiepocaypse” and cast some harsh illumination on a much-ignored but important market truth.

This year saw a “near-cataclysmic” event hit the Indie Gaming scene.

Dubbed “The Indiepocalypse”, Indies began to realise that most of them weren’t making enough money to sustain their business budgets. Whilst a few big names rose through the ranks – largely through word of mouth or having tiny budgets that couldn’t help BUT make a profit – the majority of these products began to sell like bottled farts at E3. Which isn’t to say they were all bad games; quality of content isn’t the issue here. If the market lived and died on the quality of its output, then the Nintendo Wii U would be in the possession of everyone and their dear old grandmother. But it isn’t – quality of output is certainly nice and indeed, important for the longevity of your company and its overall reputation. But it alone doesn’t guarantee success – it merely gives you the springboard for success.

The real problem, that many did nail down but only briefly, was the issue of “Saturation”.

Saturation is very easy to describe; imagine, if you will, a simple bathroom sponge. It’s dry and has never been used before. This is your market, ready to absorb your content – which in this analogy, will be jugs of water. Start pouring the water onto the sponge; some spills out but most of the water is absorbed by the sponge, because it was ready to absorb your content. Now chuck another jug of water on, more water spills out and less is absorbed. Continue, until very little of the water is absorbed and most of it just runs off – this is “Saturation Point”. The water running off is games that don’t get the markets attention, and the reason is that there are so many games out there that there isn’t enough space in the market to hold them all. Just like a sponge has a limit to how much water it can absorb, so too do markets have a limit to how much content can be sustainably supported.

The reason, in my view, is there’s an intrinsic myth in the video games industry; to quote the much-abused line from Field of Dreams, “If You Build It, They Will Come”.

The core of this fallacy affects big-brand publishers and developers as much as the lower-level independent developers: that the video game industry is full of millions of people who will buy your game. Of course, this isn’t true – a few select big titles have captured large swathes of the market, making it harder for others to squeeze into the market. Between the amount of spare time a gamer has and the variable amount of disposable income each individual gamer has at their disposal, many will buy one or two games and ignore newer releases because they cannot afford the game – be that financially, or being time-poor.

It ignores the reality that many have to invest heavily just to get in on the video games available; even a Wii U is still £200 today, and it’s quite the investment if all you are after is to play Mario Kart 8, after all. Once that money is spent, the average gamer doesn’t have a lot left over to buy loads of games – and with the likes of PSN, don’t always NEED to buy games. Sony’s insistence on a select band of indie titles being offered for free via it’s online PS Plus service means that many of us haven’t had much need to buy many (if any) indie games on the PS4 at all – The Binding of Isaac was free for a month, as was Apotheon, and so was Spelunky. All superb indie games with tons of content and the potential to annihilate many, many hours of your free time. But they’ve been included in the base price of the PSN Subscription – the only indie game I have bought from the PSN Store was Hand of Fate. The majority of my PS4 Library is full of freebies; Don’t Starve, Fez, Grow Home, Never Alone, Outlast, Stealth Inc. 2, even middle-market Styx: Master of Shadows.

The Wii U enjoyed an explosion of indie support for a while, in part because the retraction of third-party support left the Wii U userbase starved of content for a period of time. But this is no longer the case; there are many indie games on the Nintendo eShop, and many more still on the 3DS eShop. Also, at a time when Nintendo has excelled itself on first-party content with Splatoon, Hyrule Warriors and Xenoblade Chronicles X alongside Smash Bros., Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario Maker, there is competition for the money of gamers from Nintendo’s own stable of talent. On a Nintendo console, fighting a big-name Nintendo release is a battle you can only lose.

In markets where gamers are spoiled for choice, is it any wonder more and more indies are struggling to make ends meet?

Of course, once upon a time, console markets had an advantage for the indie developer; generational cycles. Every few years, the market would be wrung out with the advent of newer hardware, and a newer online store, to begin the cycle anew. But it was only ever a cycle; the mechanics behind the ‘indiepocalypse’ would happen every generation. Indeed, one can argue the lower-market on the PlayStation 2 suffered the same innate problem; at a time it was so cheap to make a game for the console, where some publishers were happy to release the content for small returns and when the market was so large with a hundred million consoles sold, even the budget-market bottomed out with the deluge of content. There was simply far, far too much of it for any one entrant to stand out.

Now, of course, Nintendo is promising the NX Platform has better (“proper”) backwards compatibility: meaning that Nintendo’s next console – and likely all consoles that release after the NX – will remove even this small crumb of comfort for smaller developers.

Simply put, it’s harder to be an indie developer now than at any point in the markets history. There are far too many games and the market, for all the pomp and ceremony that the gaming press spouts, isn’t enjoying a sales resurgence. It’s experiencing a sales slow-down; a cooling period after the excessive boom years of Generation 7, where the Nintendo Wii enjoyed a hundred million unit sales, and Sony’s PS3 and Microsoft’s XBox 360 enjoyed just shy of 80 million units each as well. We don’t have the same sized market that we had five years ago, and that’s meant that Saturation Point was inevitably going to hit sooner. Smaller sponges, after all, absorb less water.

The “Indiepocalypse” isn’t anything new. It’s an age-old concept that the video games industry largely keeps considering itself immune to, right before it trips up on it all over again. This happens towards the end of every console generation: who can forget Square-Enix’s famous shock and horror when the 2012 Tomb Raider reboot sold three million units in its first month, and was considered a failure – because Square-Enix had assumed the size of the PS3 and XBox 360 markets would naturally net them SIX million units in the first month? By the tail end of a generation, there’s a wealth of content – past and present – available for purchase, and people are not always going to rush out and buy the latest video game. There simply comes a point where a market has too much content to support everyone. That is largely what has helped generational transitions, and what happens when the console market adopts a more PC-centric model is yet to be seen.

But my overriding complaint is with the very term; “Indiepocalypse”. It signals an end; the destruction of the market.

This is , of course, hyperbole. Whilst it’s true that many will suffer for their own ignorance of basic market mechanics, it won’t signal the end of ALL indie gaming. Rather, one would expect that many who see this as a commercial endeavour will simply gravitate towards another end of the software spectrum. Video games are not the only format by which talent can be shown off, after all – there are other markets to explore. And of course, any market which becomes over-populated with talent will naturally need a managed cull every so often; to keep a healthy population from devouring themselves to the point of sickness. Such things are necessary when everyone and anyone can get the tools needed to make a video game relatively inexpensively.

There will be those who fight against it, of course, but they’ll be fighting a losing battle. There is an inevitability in the Saturation Point; yes, the larger a market or indeed, a potential market is, the more talent it can support. But resources provided by gamers – time and money – are finite. There is only so much they can give; and if you give them more than they can digest, then they’ll stop consuming in order to digest what they already have. After all, how big is YOUR Steam List Of Shame? (That is, games you haven’t installed or played – we’ve all done it…)

Indie developers will probably need to consider their long-term futures. But it’s not the fault of “gamers”; never has been and never will be. If you cannot grasp the fundamentals of an entertainment industry awash with low-cost content, then you should never have gotten in on the market in the first place. And sure, your game maybe good. Really good, even. But then, take a look around. As I said, if quality was the only requirement, surely Nintendo would be at fifty million sales by now and hammering the competition! Why are they NOT leading the charge? Because they made mistakes, stifled their market and have to endure a lower market share as a consequence of their own hubris. Their qualitative output is a victim of their mistakes; it’s not the solution to them, and sadly for Nintendo, the only real solution they seem to have available to them now is to burn the Wii U to the ground early and rebuild with a new piece of hardware.

Success is partially the quality of your product – but, alas, more and more the reliance is down to luck and simple good fortune. Being in the right place at the right time with the right product has never been more important. It also helps to know who to turn to to support your product and give it exposure; the likes of TotalBiscuit (John Bain) are proven to help, whilst the likes of… ugh, let’s do this. The likes of Anita Sarkeesian are proven to have a negligible effect. But even here, these people – PewDiePie and Jim Sterling too – have finite time and resources. Same with the gaming press. There are only so many sympathetic ears.

The gravy train is coming in to its final stop. And the road ahead is paved with uncertainty. Fortune favours the brave; but it neglects to remind you that for every one success, there will be dozens of failures. If you still believe you can survive in such a competitive, saturated market – then more power to you. And I, with all available sincerity available to me, wish you the very best.

However, ignorance of basic market principles is not going to make you immune to them. Call it what you will – the market always corrects itself in the end.

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