The explosion of iOS, Android, Unity, Steam, and the unlocking of previously AAA-only consoles has created so much content that people cannot begin to play all the best games, let alone any old indie game. 15-20 years ago the indie community was seeking mainstream acceptance of smaller titles. It was an amazing time to join the game industry. Then around 2008 things really started to pick up. Not only were indie games accepted, they could actually make money across a wide-range of studios and genres. The starving artists were no longer starving.
Unfortunately, by 2013 the market started to reach a saturation point. The big platform holders stopped giving away free exposure and for the most part, mobile games became a known quantity where innovation started to give-way to the magnitude of execution, similarly to the time-period before it in the AAA console and PC space.
The differences between the indie movement and the technologically focused period before it was primarily that games had gone way-mainstream. By the time that Draw Something hit, everyone became obsessed with having millions of users leveraging ads and free-to-play mechanics. The entire industry shifted from a niche, to something that had to be all-inclusive. Let's just say that the current industry is focused on hyper-inclusive content.
A Call to Action
Today, I beg of you to stop chasing the myth. Do not pay for a scalable cloud infrastructure, it is a racket. If you are an indie, your game will not be played by millions anymore. The kingmakers are done. The Hunger Games are over. Rather, we should focus on making games that are hyper-exclusive instead of hyper-inclusive.
Hyper-exclusive games can be created, played once, broadcasted, and never experienced again. In this way, games become more like concerts, sporting events, political campaigns, or anything else that has a certain place in time and in our hearts that cannot be replicated or replaced. That's right, it's time to apply the Studio 54 mentality to games. No, you can't come in, you're not X, Y, or Z, go play Fortnite with the rest of anybody who's nobody.
It Only Sounds Harsh
The truth is that games are at their best when developers are free to explore a new possibility space. Once the space has been figured out, it becomes pretty boring for both developers and players. It doesn't matter whether we talk about the Apple II, NES, PC, iPhone, or the Switch. Every new form factor opens up a new possibility space to be roamed and enjoyed by developers and players alike. When things are well-balanced there's more diversity and happiness all around.
More People Watch Games
It's been a few years now, but that's right, more people watch games get played, than actually play the games themselves. People are lazy and entertainment is entertainment. For those who suck at games, it's probably much more fun to watch a popular YouTube streamer than attempt the feat of completion, let alone be making jokes and/or be generally entertaining while playing through a game. Just like most mediums before it, games have gone mainstream enough to be consumed passively.
Show Me the Money!
Generally speaking, money is a pretty good indicator that value is being generated. Nearly 10 years ago, I wrote the first feature for Gamasutra about iPhone development. At the time my editors (yeah back then it was a professional thing, got paid and everything) weren't sure if they wanted to publish the article because "iPhone might not be a thing" to paraphrase. Of course we all know how that went. The iPhone game industry became the multi-billion dollar behemoth that ate everyone's lunch and caused the famous "race to the bottom". Games started at $9.99, quickly dropped to $0.99, and within a year of the App Store's launch, F2P was the thing. For indie developers, the $0.99 slot was probably optimal. Once games went F2P it became an arms race of ad dollars in what was no longer a possibility space, but rather a commoditized space. At one point, there was value in going free and giving your game to everyone. That is no longer the case.
Interestingly enough, there was another wave that crashed right behind the indiepocalypse, YouTubers. We've now seen story after story about YouTubers who made it big only to say the wrong thing and lose their monetization. Heck, we've seen all sorts of YouTube personalities have their incomes slashed for a plethora of reasons entirely outside their control. I don't want to cover the details of this all, but let's just agree that indie devs and broadcasters have all been played. The large platform holders own it all and control who sees what and who gets paid. It's awful. Yet, indies and streamers have a symbiotic relationship that often produces brilliant moments and a real living for each other.
Games as Events
Approximately, a decade ago, I was a full-time indie game developer and considered that my career. That skill set proved to be incredibly useful and I've since become an entrepreneur with my fingers in multiple pies. One of them is an event called PixelFest (the next one should be taking place in October of 2018). Running this event has taught me a great deal about well, events. These are valuable rare times. They are unique and cannot ever be recreated. Moments missed, are lost forever, and it hurts.
Certain moments in games sometimes feel like that, but in truth most of those moments are not unique. They are moments planned by a designer in order to give the masses the feeling of being unique. What if we bridged that gap though? What if video games could become unique moments in time that are never accessed the same way twice or ever?
Enter Cloud Rendered Games (again)
There was a lot of hubbub around cloud-rendered games around a decade ago. The idea was to run games on a high-powered computer in a data center and then stream video of the game to a player with a controls-only client. I imagine most of the folks involved probably jumped ship to mobile because no one talks about it anymore. The thing is, there's huge value in the space now when one considers the success of game watching, the incredible indie talent pool, and the desire all people have for unique experiences.
What if that desire for independent breweries, coffee shops, and restaurants can be replicated with games? What if developers could in-fact control the supply and demand of their games? Well, I think they can. And, what's better, just like with food, coffee, and beer; it doesn't matter the degree of magnitude behind the execution. Unique is unique, and there will always be value in that.