Indie Game Con
is now in its third year, and is bucking convention (no pun intended) by exhibiting games that people can purchase during the event. Specifically, we are not looking for games that are still in development. This is a huge pivot from the way game expos normally work, and people have understandably asked for an explanation.
Ultimately, this is about helping professional independent developers — people who are trying to make a living making games — reach their business goals. We are looking forward to seeing this conversation continue and grow, so please leave feedback in the comments below.
Indie Game Con exists to help independent developers reach mainstream audiences: people who know about games, but don’t follow news and trends. Originally a one-day event run by unpaid volunteers, it grew from from 18 games and 300 attendees in 2014, to 27 games and 450 attendees in 2015. Both were wonderful to be a part of. The raw, positive energy of unjaded people falling in love with new games they’ve discovered is powerful.
In 2015, I stood back and watched a group of kids play a game for the umpteenth time. Their moms were nearby, and I overheard something that haunted me:
“I want to buy this game, but I don’t know how."
This was both a revelation and a disappointment. We had succeeded in bringing together developers and new fans, but the crucial gulf between “fan” and “customer” had not been bridged. This felt like a failure to me. Any student of sales will tell you those people aren’t likely to come back, which hurts the developer. And those new fans won’t get to enjoy and evangelize the new thing they discovered, which is kind of sad.
Initially, I thought this was due to huge barriers to “casual” sales of digital products. I’ll talk about that in a bit, but after a few months of reflection, I realized the problem was deeper.
WHERE I USE THE WORD “INDIEPOCALYPSE"
Indie games will always be special, but they are no longer rare. The deluge of titles hitting mobile and digital storefronts has made it very difficult for new voices to be heard, even when they have something substantive or novel to say. If you are trying to make a living as a game developer, this is a serious problem. People can’t buy your game if they don’t know about it.
In 2013, I had the opportunity to sit down and show my own game to Jeff Tunnell
. Jeff has a history of being ahead of the curve, and stepping off traditional paths long before others realize it’s going over a cliff. That summer, he had just removed himself from mobile entertainment development. I’ll never forget his reason why:
“The game industry is the music industry. Everybody can make music now. That means a game has about as much chance of success as a talented high school band getting a record deal."
I’ll admit, I didn’t agree with him at the time, but now I do (ding ding ding: indiepocalypse!). Still, it did make me wonder. In the music business, album sales aren’t what keep you going: it’s tours and merchandise. If there was a parallel, “games” are “albums,” but we don’t have tours or merchandise. And when games DO get in front of the public at cons and expos, it’s often in pre-release form. People get excited about a game, but usually can’t buy it: they are given a business card and a request to check back in a few months.
Think about this from a sales perspective: these indie studios are spending hundreds — sometimes thousands — of dollars to put themselves in front of potential new customers. These customers have their wallet out. And then they’re being told to come back later!
In my opinion, that’s bad business. It's a distant echo of the traditional AAA hype cycle, where people are inundated with advertising months before a game is released. But indie games don’t have multi-million dollar marketing budgets, so why are indie teams cribbing from the AAA playbook? It’s time we recognized that these smaller projects fit another business paradigm altogether.
AN OPPORTUNITY APPEARS
Another “geek culture” event made its debut in 2015: Eugene Comic Con
. Their event was more traditional: comic book and toy resellers, an artist alley, famous people giving photos and signatures, cosplay competitions… the whole deal.
And they brought 10,000 people through the door. In a city with 150,000 people. In their first year.
What struck me — apart from the fact that everybody was positive, polite, and friendly, which always shocks people from big cities — was that this was basically a big geek mall. Almost everything was for sale, because one way people revel in geek culture is by buying things. And they were happy about it!
This is a serious point that needs to be underscored. People like to spend money on things a) they identify with b) that support an artist they have met or c) they can share with others. This makes people happy, and it supports artists who are trying to make a living. Everybody wins.
A purchase is a form of expression. It empowers the customer, it supports the creator, and brings both of them joy. We believe indie games don’t encourage this out of a misplaced loyalty to the traditional games marketplace, where sales are anonymous, fueled by focusing on a narrow subset of people who love games in general. It is its own, sinister “purity test” that confines indie games to a niche.
Indie Game Con is being hosted by Eugene Comic Con this year. We don’t want to be an expo where people discover things their information-overloaded brains will forget about the next day. We want to be an expo where new digital games are discovered, purchased, and shared with friends and family. Indie Game Con 2016 is going to be about finding new fans... and forging a lasting connection through sales.
WHAT ABOUT EXPOSURE AND FEEDBACK?
We recognize that sales are not the only reason to show an indie game at an event. Expos provide an excellent opportunity for exposure via social media, news articles, and feedback from game players.
However, it’s important to note that we share the same “season” with numerous other events on the west coast, including:
- Penny Arcade Expo
- Seattle Independent Expo
- Portland Retro Games Expo
These take place in major metro areas, and historically have had much greater attendance, meaning the chance of getting media attention has been much higher. We think any indie team serious about media exposure should give these events consideration. We also welcome any journalists who want to visit laid-back Eugene to scoop some great stories and try our world-famous beers!
In terms of feedback, Eugene (through Bitforest
) and Portland (through PIGSquad
) have active developer communities, with multiple events each month. These include “playtest nights” where the public is invited to try out games still in development. More importantly, these informal events help developers connect with each other, and form mutually beneficial relationships that pay off emotionally and professionally. Too many indie devs think it’s great to be a “lone wolf in the wilderness,” when in fact they are starving their creation of much-needed exposure. So if feedback is your goal, it’s imperative to get connected with your local community.
That said, we are not ignoring games still in development. Our plan is to host a side event (and party) for unreleased games, as well as hobbyist and pure art projects. It will be a celebration of indie games and people who are finding their voice in this challenging medium, because it’s always a pleasure to be surrounded by people who “get it” and encourage each other as a tribe.
LOWERING TRANSACTION BARRIERS
It’s important to note that modern game developers have a prickly problem when it comes to selling at a booth: there’s no good way to do it!
The success of IGC16’s pivot towards sales hinges on finding ways to allow mainstream people to hand over money, and get something in return.
Imagine the mom I mentioned earlier. Imagine trying to walk her through:
- explaining what Steam is
- explaining what a digital store is
- explaining that she can’t give you money directly
- waiting for her download the Steam app
- waiting for her to set up a Steam account
- helping her find your game on the store
- waiting for her to make a purchase
- explaining (again) how to download it later
- accepting her request to personally help her via email if she doesn’t get it
And all this during a loud convention with huge crowds and other people clamoring for your attention!
Ideally, a developer could simply accept payment, and hand over a download key with installation instructions. We haven’t found a solution, but if you know of one, please don’t hesitate to share them in the comments. We’ll be trying to get in touch with various digital storefronts in the meantime. (and of course, if you work for a digital store, please get in touch with us)
Modern conventions and expos often have a number of artists who have set up booths to sell their work. They are pushing their work into the public eye so it gets the attention it deserves. They understand, at a fundamental level, that what they do has meaning and is important, but to do it for a living is something you have to fight for.
Like game developers, these independent artists are passionate entrepreneurs. Now that games are an established art form and medium, with low barriers to entry and a huge crowd of people trying to make their mark, we have more in common with traditional artists than ever before. Let’s learn what we can from them, and change our methods to survive in a new world where games can be made by anybody.
Creating games as an independent developer is not just about making a product: it’s about building a business. We hope Indie Game Con’s pivot to a more marketplace-oriented event will help people realize this. And we hope that it pushes people out of the house and into their local dev community, so they can get the feedback and support that is crucial to their success.
Thanks for your time. Please leave your feedback below, and we’ll see you in November.
Indie Game Con 2016 will be hosted at Eugene Comic Con on Veteran’s Day Weekend: November 11, 12, and 13.
Indie Game Con is presented by Bitforest, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization sponsored by Innovate Oregon. It exemplifies the "corporations are people, my friend" paradigm by having its own Twitter account, which you can follow for announcements. @TheIndieGameCon
The author, Ted Brown, is a professional game developer and executive director of Bitforest and Indie Game Con. He's pretty bad at social media, but hit him up anyway via Twitter @Oreganik