Monthly Archives: May 2014

Does Thomas Piketty explain why there are too many indie games? Maybe…

The Indiesplosion on Steam of 2014 has lead to a big ol’ argument over whether the market’s now crashing, 80s style. There’s an absolute TON of new games on Steam now, many indie, and many transparently terrible. So we get Jeff Vogel saying that there are too many games, there’s only so much money, and discoverability is impossible. “Only ‘x’ number of dollars that can pay for ‘y’ number of games”.  While Robert Fearon says “what, just because there’s a bunch of indies now there’s suddenly too many? Isn’t that conveenient?” in response. 

Okay, fine, that’s not a direct quote. A direct quote of Robert would be something like this:

It didn’t happen during the 16bit years when shareware, the demo scene, Blitz Basic, commercial games got spewed out one after the other! It didn’t happen with DOS despite there being thousands and thousands of games around the place and more being made week in, week out. It didn’t happen with casual, it didn’t happen with windows, it happened now, under our watch. Forty fucking years and that’s our lot, we nuked it in six. 

Uuuggghh…I hate arguments like this. They’re so well-meaning and snarkily uplifting that I feel like a jerk knocking them down. Nevertheless: Robert, the problem is gatekeeping and distribution.The reason why music didn’t die when a million different little grunge bands appeared in the 90s (or punk bands in the 70s) is the same reason why the thousands of DOS games weren’t a problem back then: because we had multiple levels of gatekeeping going on, and distribution was in the hands of those gatekeepers. It didn’t matter how many DOS games you made; they were only going to end up at the local store unless you found some way of distributing them, and the distributors made their literal business out of deciding who was worth it and who wasn’t. 

THAT ISN’T HOW IT WORKS NOW.

Distribution is trivial, especially for an indie game. Distributing something as small as most indie games is so comically cheap you could likely do it with many home connections. The only reason why Steam is so sought-after is because people want Steam’s easy library organization and patching. It’s not really about distribution

Because distribution is trivial, and duplication is free, there are no “local” markets anymore, and nobody playing gatekeeper. (Even Valve’s given it up.) There’s every reason for games to stay in “print” forever and be universally available.  As Vogel said, you aren’t just competing against free games, you’re competing against every game ever made, as well as almost every other piece of created entertainment ever made, not to mention thinly-veiled amusements like Facebook and HuffPo and BuzzFeed and Twitter and whatnot.  

On that I think that Fearon’s wrong, and Vogel’s right. There really are too many products chasing too few dollars, and it is unique, due to distribution. (See Everything That Clay Shirky Has Written Ever.)  

That’s not the important bit, though. The important bit, the one that neither piece talks about, is the economic side of all this. Why is the pool of people willing and able to buy games so limited? Why is Vogel’s “x” variable so small? Because people’s inflation-adjusted wages are stagnant at best. Free-to-play relies on “whales” for the same reason that Thomas Piketty wrote the most important book of our century, and why London, New York, and Vancouver are becoming empty cities of oligarch vacation homes: because the only economic model that works anymore is one that targets the vanishingly-small-but-fabulously-wealthy people at the top of the world’s economy.  

Remember, the concept of “whales” in F2P monetization schemes comes from casino lingo, referring to the people who blow hundreds of thousands of dollars at the tables. It’s all about extracting a majority of cash from a minority of players. The majority don’t have it to begin with.

And why are there so many indie devs? Because people want to be able to make a living actually making something, something that they see as valuable and worthwhile.  Game-making is one of the only places where you could conceivably do that nowaday–most other creative fields are in worse shape than gaming is–but you sure aren’t going to find it in AAA development. (See: any given Gamasutra piece on the industry.) Is it any wonder that people with any sort of skills in the field are piling into indie development? What else are they going to do, devote 90 hours a week to some doomed tech-bubbly SF startup or soul-crushing, economy-wrecking NYC finance gig? Or just resign themselves to a lifetime of poverty?  

So while Vogel’s point is right, but I think Fearon has a legitimate grievance about his tone. People are trying to make it big, yes, but it’s because “doing okay” is no longer an option in an economy divided between the rich and the poor. You need to swing for the fences, because there’s no such thing as a base hit. If indie can make you rich, the modern economy means that you’re compelled to try. That’s not their fault.

This isn’t a problem that can be fixed by the game industry itself. It’s a symptom, not a cause. Vogel’s “x” and “y” are parts of bigger forces, so arguing about whether or not the industry has issues is a completely irrelevant waste of time. Depending on who you talk to, we’re either living through the transition to a new feudalism, or the slow self-destruction of the capitalist system. If you’re going to worry about something…worry about THAT. 

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