Sometimes being in videogames feels like being a bystander at an apocalypse cult meeting. There’s always some dude with a crate and a hand drawn sign ready to usher in the end of all things. Always some dude yelling that we’re all going to die and you should be afraid.
“We’re heading for another crash”, they’ll cry whilst summoning the spectre of the 1983 North American Videogame Crash without really understanding that the crash was localised to a small portion of the global market (hence its name) and how it takes a curious handful of events all kicking off at the same time, most of them impossible to repeat in the digital age.
“The indie bubble is popping”, they’ll cry at least once a year as they watch the way videogames get sold shift, mutate and change. Weirdly ignorant of the fact that the way videogames get sold, shifts, mutates and changes constantly and that it shifted, mutated and changed before in order for their work to sell so well and it’ll do it again, favouring a different set of people.
“It’s a slaughtering grounds out there”, they’ll suggest. Walking into selling videogames now is something to be fearful of, to be afraid of, to be scared about. “Look, I have these numbers, I have these graphs, I have seen it. I can see it, I show it to you and I tell you, we are all going to die!”
And you look at the graphs and the graphs will show you that very few people are becoming rich from selling videogames compared to the amount of people selling videogames. The numbers will show how disproportionate the divide between made it and haven’t made it is. And it will show you that year on year, as more games hit the market, this divide remains.
Of course they will. They’re not showing a shocking, new recent phenomena in games. They’re showing what it’s like to sell videogames. This isn’t the end of the world as we know it, it’s not an indicator of how very hard it is to make a living in games now and how it will only get harder and you should be so scared now.
It’s showing normal life in videogames, as it always was and seemingly always will be.
Just for a while, some folks bought into a whole bunch of stories that there are no cats in America and look where we are now. Folks studying graphs, studying stats and numbers, folks feeling the Earth move under their feet, change happening and change is bad and we will all die.
Over the past 15 years I've seen so many variations on these figures and graphs, year in, year out. Variations on the same story. We're still here, mind.
All of the doomsday prophecies have their roots in one thing. The invoking of the videogame crash, the popping of the indie bubble, the oh so scary state of Steam and selling videogames in the year of our Molyneux 2015 all see people gaze upon this fertile land of videogames, they see more people making and selling videogames year on year and no, they do not like this. This is how we die. By people making small games, selling small games and insert your own doomsday scenario to match.
Videogames, selling videogames, is screwed. This much is true. I cannot think of a time in the past 30 years where trying to make a living from videogames hasn’t been screwed.
We remember the successful software houses of the eighties, the survivors, the money makers. We forget that for every person who went on to fame and fortune there’s someone else trying and failing to sell their games through mail order, struggling to get their games duplicated and in stores, rejected by software houses, selected -- but now, 30 years on, looking back wondering why the cheques never landed or why they were paid fifty quid and patted on the head.
As time moves on, we forget the ones that struggled and sank as team sizes were on the increase. As solo dev became increasingly unworkable in the commercial space as access to hardware became more difficult, as working with the hardware became more difficult, as what people demanded from their videogames became more difficult for just one person to provide.
We talk about the successes of shareware, fond memories of iD or Apogee whilst ignoring the hundreds and thousands of shareware games that existed that never led to fame and fortune.
We don’t even talk about those who ploughed the fields of casual in the early two thousands, the fights between them (they’re just in it for the business) and the proto-new-indie folks (who made real videogames for love). The shakeouts as portals expected high margins for shifting at volume but not everything shifted at volume. Once a major online retailer waltzed in and broke the price lock and walked away, from selling for twenty dollars to much less with the click of a virtual finger. Things changed again.
We don’t talk about the proto-new-Indies following the Pavlina dream of making, selling your game as a route to financial safety and security and how some of them got through and many simply floundered and their career in videogames, their riches from videogames, never came to pass. We remember the survivors, the successes, mind. They remind us they’re there too when a handful of them predict doom. The rest? Who were they again?
And the history of the now, the new Elite Indie Developers. Some from big box who dedicated time and money into successes on consoles and Steam. Some from the battles between proto-new-indie (they’re just in it for the business) and NEW Indie (who made real videogames for love) or those that came after and we forget the ones who fell by the wayside, we forget the ones that just made a good game and the game failed to turn a pretty dollar, we forget the ones who were told to market their game and make a good game who did both and fell by the wayside and we just forget everything, all the time. Every day in videogames is like the slate wiped clean and let’s do this over again.
The history of selling videogames is a history ignored, it’s a story written in the now by those successful in selling videogames.
We’re screwed, sure. That’s not because selling videogames in 2015 is screwed it’s because selling anything in any year is screwed and really hard. Rising above that is hard and always will be because the landscape is always shifting.
We are not doomed. This is our normal.
And when folks take a seat armed with graphs and statistics on how selling videogames is hard now, they ignore this. Of course they do, they’re not casting a wide eye on the changes in and to selling games.
When they look at games selling very little on Steam, they’re not grasping that only a few years ago, these games could not find a place on Steam. They’re not looking at how we shifted and moulded selling videogames in such a way that games outside Steam floundered and failed in the clamour for Steam keys and now, games that two or three years ago could make no money are making some money on Steam and on alternative marketplaces like Itch.io. It’s small progress but it’s progress all the same.
They’re not seeing the time when short experimental work would be resigned to being thrown up into the internet for free with little to no hope of selling anything and now they can sell something.
They’re not looking at more people being able to find out about small works, to buy small works that suits them than ever before.
The world of selling videogames has changed so much in just the past few years. From the days of being told “No, Rob, you can’t sell a small game made in Gamemaker” and me throwing two fingers up and doing just that anyway to prove them wrong, celebrating that first five quid in the bank.
Once upon a time I had to chance my arm to get any press for a small game because indie coverage was as close to non-existent. I’m thankful still to all those who boosted my work and my friends, to Steve Hogarty and all those like him who collated small games and freeware in magazines, to Aleks Krotoski pulling indie into the wider press, to the cheeky folks at Edge who slid in indie games as normal when press rarely featured them. To RPS for their consistent support of the small and curious. To the sites that slowly and surely woke up to us small game makers existing and being part of the creative normal that is the world of videogames.
Things have changed and they’ve changed so that more people have a shot at making something, being somewhere in videogames. We’re still on this course and sure, we’re messing a few things up on the way and some of us will fall foul to things, some of us will struggle more than others and many of the systems we have in place to ride us out in the short-term, damn us in the longer term and the shakeout from that will be brutal but we can stick around if we’re careful, y’know?
These aren’t the end times though. This is not the indie bubble about to pop, it’s not a sign of an oncoming crash, it’s not releasing a game getting harder, scarier, a market becoming crowded.
It’s the world of videogames expanding and all of us muddling through trying to work out how tomorrow can be better and helping make it so in small but substantial ways. And yes, making a living in this new world of videogames is hard. It was hard yesterday, it will be hard tomorrow as the world changes around us again. Sometimes within our control and sometimes outside it. But in so many other uncelebrated ways it’s better, it’s easier and it’s filled with hope, imperfect, imprecise but hope all the same.
But focusing entirely on the idea of an oncoming storm, scaring people into believing we’re all going to die, masks our progress. It makes assessing where we really are and finding out what we need to do to fix it so much more difficult. And in some ways, this benefits some people because some people do OK out of things never-changing. That’s not great. It shouts over the people who are trying to say “hey, we need this to help us do better” in favour of trying to preserve the now. But this is videogames and the now is rarely preserved, the tide comes in all the same and we change.
Doom mongering is crap and we can do so much better.