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Where Is Our Pitchfork?

What indie games can learn from indie rock.

There are some obvious parallels between the indie games scene and the indie rock scene.  Proponents of both will argue: that you need to make what you love, not what you think will sell; that  innovation and being "different" are critical; that being apart from the major label/publisher system allows for a degree of creativity that is essential for smaller productions to break through.  I've even heard it said on a number of occasions that indie games needs a "punk" scene to mirror that of rock and roll.

This article is not an attempt to decide whether any of those sentiments are true or whether there is a consistent ethos across different "indie" movements.  What this article is about is the lessons that the indie development community as a whole can learn from the business side of the indie rock community.

While I think there are many possible lessons that could be learned, I'm going to focus on three that I think are among the most important: the importance of taste-makers, the importance of recognisable labels/publishers, and the importance of alternate revenue streams.

The Importance Of Taste-Makers
Mentioning the name Pitchfork in indie rock circles can result in a wide variety of reactions.  Many people follow Pitchfork's music reviews closely and pick up albums based largely on their recommendations.  Other people shudder at the name, finding it synonomous with pretension and ego.  But regardless of someone's particular views on the site, there is one important factor that would be difficult to argue - virtually everyone who listens to indie music not only knows about the site, but has a pretty good idea what its place in the indie music community is.

Now, I'm not going to suggest that the indie games community needs a publication as divisive as Pitchfork.  But I do strongly believe that we need something which mirrors its function, which is to be a widely known and recognisable source of news and reviews of indie games both large and small.  There are any number of sites covering independent gaming right now, such as The Indie Games blog and TIGSource.  But while both of these sites are fairly well known, they do not publish daily reviews, news, interviews, etc.
in a format which is easily navigable, clear, and consistent, and neither does any other site of which I am aware.

The very idea of taste-makers is objectionable to some, if not most people.  But the role that they have is undeniable, no matter how distasteful it may seem.  The massive success that the Arcade Fire have found (for a band on an independent label, at any rate) can probably be linked pretty directly to the 9.7/10 review full of glowing praise that Pitchfork gave their debut album, Funeral.  Around the time the album came out in late 2004, I saw them play at a club with about 200 people in the crowd; by the summer 0f 2005 they were headlining outdoor concerts without any support from commercial rock radio and while signed to a label whose previous best-selling album was the brilliant but fairly obscure In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.  Virtually no one had heard of the band prior to their review in Pitchfork.  Afterward, everyone had.

We need voices in the indie games community that can bring this kind of attention to fantastic games that simply don't have any marketing muscle behind them.  And while I've focussed on Pitchfork here, I could easily name another half dozen slightly less well-known publications that serve similar roles for independent music.  And yet, despite the fact that gaming is my primary hobby, I can't even name one publication that serves the same purpose for games.

While it's a popular past-time to criticise reviews and claim that they're not important, I believe that they are often extremely important, especially for lesser-known, less visible works that are never going to get by on marketing muscle alone.

The Importance Of Recognisable Publishers/Labels

I've already stated that part of the idea of being an indie is often to go it on your own in order to maintain creative control, so why am I saying now that publishers are actually important?  Because they provide a couple of important things that are much more difficult for individuals or small teams to do on their own.

The first is marketing/publicity.  Some indie developers really are talented not just at making games, but making sure others know about them too.  But there are also some great games that never find an audience because the people making them are programmers and artists who just don't know how to do marketing.  This is where a publisher/label is key, because they are in the business of knowing how to distribute goods and how to get people to know about them. 

This is one area where I think the indie rock community has a lot to teach the indie games community.  In the indie rock community, record labels typically serve a few important functions.  One of them is marketing, obviously, but another one is a pooling of talents, resources, and knowledge, which is extremely useful when you're working from a pretty small resource base to begin with.

Here's an example of how that could work - right now, if you're a developer and you want to get your game onto a digital delivery service like Steam or Impulse (let's not even get into brick and mortar stores) you have to do the negotiating with each service on your own, and you have to convince them that your project is really worth their time.  And that's assuming they'll answer your requests at all!

But what if you were signed to a label that already had an existing business relationship with all of these services?  Both sides would be eager to keep up good relations, and both sides would already be familiar with the way each other operated.  Perhaps more importantly, digital delivery services would know from experience that Label ABC had a good eye for talent and would be much more easily convinced to take on your work.

One other important function of labels is that they're readily recognisable.  For example, I know that I personally try to check out most of the new releases by record labels Constellation and Kranky.  The reason for this is pretty simple - I know that the people running those labels are good judges of talent.  I also know that they deal in particular kinds of music that I find appealing. 

This is part of how labels could help indie developers find a larger audience.  Trust is important.  Word of mouth is important, obviously, but there things that operate on essentially the same level, like a record label that consistently puts out music by bands you love.  Indie developers could definitely use that kind of support.

The Importance Of Alternate Revenue Streams
Most indie rockers do not make a living selling CDs.  The main way that they make money is through touring.  They also have additional revenue sources, like t-shirt sales (though seminal punk band Fugazi never sold merchandise at their shows, claiming it cut down on overhead to not have to pay someone to staff the merch booth).

Making sound recordings, like making video games, is a very expensive activity if you're trying to do it professionally at a high level.  There are all sorts of expenses in both fields to take into account.  For recording, the main expense is studio time.  For games, the main expense is either salaries (if you're a large enough indie to have a staff) or living expenses (if you're a small team or you're going it solo).

The truth is that even games of a very high quality will often not make back the money it cost to produce them, just like it can be difficult for bands to recoup the cost of studio time.  Games and albums are both high expense, high risk activities.  To offset that, you need a (comparatively) low risk, low expense activity.  For bands, that activity is touring; the expense involved will depend on things like how wide a geographic area the tour covers, if road crew are required, etc., but in most cases it will be a far lower risk activity than producing records.

So what should indie developers use as their low risk activity?  I'm unfortunately not much help there.  This is an issue that I've been thinking about for a while, but I still don't have a very good answer.  I do think, though, that whoever is able to find that answer (and I believe someone will) is going to help out the indie games community a great deal.  Selling individual copies of games at $15 and up simply isn't going to provide enough income to support a large network of indie developers.

A lot of this might not matter to you if you're a hobbyist and never intend on making much money or supporting yourself through game development.  But I think for the health of our industry, for the benefit of players, and for us as developers, finding ways to foster more indie developers who are able to do game development as a serious, somewhat permanent career is very important.

Creating great games is an important part of the picture, but it's not the only important thing.  Creating strong networks to distribute, discuss, and communicate about these great games is also vital.

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