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The Financial Future of Game Developers
by Raph Koster on 05/07/14 04:50:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

I've been thinking a lot lately about the financial future of developers.

The supply chain for creative work

To go back a ways, back in 2006 I suggested that you could look at the winding path a piece of media takes to the public in this way:

086260-rounded-glossy-black-icon-business-dollar-solidA funder of some sort ponies up the money so that a creative can eat while they work. Sometimes this is self-funding, sometimes it's an advance, sometimes it's patronage.
020790-rounded-glossy-black-icon-symbols-shapes-thought-bubble-ps A creator actually makes the artwork.
066167-rounded-glossy-black-icon-people-things-people-securityAn editor serves the role of gatekeeper and quality check, deciding what makes it further up the ladder. They serve in a curatorial role not just for the sake of gatekeeping but also to keep the overall market from being impossible to navigate, and to maximize the revenue from a given work.
033343-rounded-glossy-black-icon-culture-castle-five-towersA publisher disseminates the work to the market under their name. A lot of folks might think this role doesn't matter, but there are huge economies of scale in aggregating work; there's boring tax. legal, and business reasons to do it; it serves brand identity, making the work easier, to market...
002953-rounded-glossy-black-icon-media-loudspeaker1Marketing channels make it possible for the artwork to be seen by the public: reviews, trade magazines, ads. This is how the public finds out something even exists.
040733-rounded-glossy-black-icon-transport-travel-z-truck25 Distributors actually convey the work to the store's hands. This role functions in the background, but it's absolutely critical. There's a lot of infrastructure required.
086385-rounded-glossy-black-icon-business-tagStores then retail the packaged form of the artwork to the end customer. Stores have their own branding task, and likely serve as a curatorial and recommendation engine all over again, this time trying to find the right fit for the customer.
020767-rounded-glossy-black-icon-symbols-shapes-smiley-face1The audience then gets to experience the work.
009311-rounded-glossy-black-icon-arrows-arrow-circle-refreshRe-users then take the creation and restart the process in alternate forms; adaptations to movies, audiobooks, classic game packages, what have you.


At different times, and for different media, different people have held ownership of chunks of this pathway. For example, an indie today handles both their self-funding and their creation. There are popular writers, like James Patterson or Robert K. Tanenbaum, who actually outsource the creative part. EA's big business initiative that led them to dominating the game landscape for quite a while was that they decided to build their own distribution network to retail long before anyone else (there used to be independent videogame distribution companies that sat between publishers and retail).

Consolidation strikes

All of these roles still exist, and likely they will always exist. It's just that as the landscape changes, some people start to wear multiple hats, fulfilling more than one role.

Let's take the Apple App Store as an example.

  • You likely fund yourself.
  • You like make the game yourself.
  • The App Store acts as editor, though they have a much lighter hand than traditional editors have had.
  • If you self-release, you're supposedly the publisher, but really, it's more like Apple is.
  • Apple also controls the most important marketing channel, which is Apple's own front page, charts, and features.
  • Apple is the distributor, as is the case with all App Stores.
  • Apple is the storefront.
  • The player is the player, hurray!
  • Alas, the re-user is often a cloner.

One consequence of the changes in the industry has been to consolidate more and more roles into the hands of fewer organizations. There are less publishers. Less distributors. Less marketing channels. Less stores. About the only thing there are more of is consoles, and that's because what we call "a console" isn't:

  • Playstation 4 & Vita
  • XBox One
  • WiiU
  • Nintendo 3DS
  • Ouya
  • Amazon Fire TV
  • iOS App Store
  • Google Play
  • Facebook
  • Steam.

These are all functionally the same, as far as a game developer is concerned. Today, a console is really just a hardware front end to a digital publisher/distribution network/storefront. Call it a "metaconsole." Even with this proliferation of ecosystems, we have a net loss in diversity and complexity of the overall landscape.

Less, generally speaking, is bad. It means fewer outlets for a creative, and fewer choices for a consumer. It's great if you are one of the few. But in practice, market dynamics tend to clean up this sort of messy proliferation over time.

Money wins out

While the landscape is wild and crazy, creativity reigns. Wacky ideas get tried. Some of them hit. Genres are created.

whatmobilepubs

So what happens when markets mature? Well, whoever had the largest piles of money tends to start swallowing up more roles. And they get entrenched, and they stay entrenched until there's a massive enough shift. In those mature markets, creators have to compete on money. Not creativity. Not innovation. Money. Money in the form of marketing spend, in the form of glossy production values, in the form of distribution reach.

In a different talk back in 2011, I doomcast indies. Basically, these trends were plenty visible then, and I said that I was very worried about indies because as costs rose, they wouldn't be able to compete in terms of marketing dollars and glossiness. They might still make great games, but they would rapidly end up beholden to The Man again, as the need for deep pockets rose. It's a recipe for hollowing out the middle, you see. Midsized devs have to either become big ones, be subsumed by big ones, or slip down to become small ones, who probably don't make a living (but might get a stroke of luck and win the visibility lottery, as viral hits do). Those who have the money become more and more predatory, as in this parodic conversation between a dev and a mobile game publisher that was making the rounds yesterday.

In the long run, though, this is bad for the ecosystem owners. Right now, as it always is in mature markets, the conventional business wisdom is to move to a blockbuster mentality. Place few bets, spend like utter mad against them (500m for Destiny, is the current news item, but in the past we have seen the same story for GTA, SWTOR, WoW, Final Fantasy, and Sims Online. Even for Cityville). The risk, of course, is that by reducing the portfolio diversity to that degree, a few failed blockbusters in a row topple the whole organization. Any structure that depends solely on blockbusters is not long for this world, because there is a significant component of luck in what drives popularity, so every release is literally a gamble.

So a wise org is always trying to keep the fringe alive through good curation and hedging bets.

Unfortunately, in these self-publishing days, where all the risk has been offloaded as much as possible to the creator who self-funds, I think there are some new dynamics at play.

Some dev makes a game and puts it up on the store. Its mere existence provides real, tangible financial value to Apple -- after all, the ads for iPads are all about the apps, and even adding one more useless one to the 7000 that appear each day is putting another brick in a large edifice, giving Apple another number to trumpet.

But the median game uploaded to the App Store makes zero dollars.

It certainly doesn't cover its costs. If it was wildly profitable it probably became so with big financial backing because the market is more hit-driven. So the value goes to the company that owns the game, not down to the individual developer, except in rare cases like a Flappy Bird. And that rare case is what the vertically integrated "consoles" count on -- because it instills dreams and hopes that you, too, could make that happen. And you could, just like you could go to Vegas and win ten million bucks on a single quarter.

Basically, at the bottom end of the market you have devs who get to be creative but not eat. At the top end you get devs who get to eat but not be creative. And there is no middle.

The old solution?

In 2006, my prediction was today's world, and I offered up as solutions the following:

  • build direct relationships with your audience
  • celebritize yourself
  • create games that are services, to lock in that audience
  • develop alternate revenue streams, by creating games that are IPs that support downstream uses of the IP
  • Get someone else to fund, but make yourself the creator, the editor, the distributor, the re-user.

This is all perfectly good advice. Excellent, even, considering it was given in 2006. But here's the rub.

Some people aren't good at all these roles. And even if they are, the more they have to pay attention to the non-creative aspects, the more it is likely to affect their creativity. They start not pursuing a wild idea because they see no market for it. They start changing their game design to make the game be a service even though it's working against the grain of the game. And lastly, it means being a business entity, to a much larger degree -- which almost certainly means that someday you will lose control of it.

The fact is that the old solution does work. But it also returns us to the cycle, to a world where the massive indie explosion we saw doesn't exist.

And don't go thinking that "Oh, but Sony is good this generation!" or "Steam is on the developers' side!" The fact of the matter is that the role molds the organization. The more Steam becomes a metaconsole, the more it acts like one.

A modest proposal

Couldn't we take a cue from music?

Some external organization should exist that provides credit validation. Today, practices like "oh, she left early, so we'll just list her in Special Thanks" and "he was Lead, but only for the first half, so we'll list him under Additional Programming" are not just rampant but culturally accepted practices. Fellow devs will argue that staying to finish a title is the most important thing, which is ludicrous.

Just run some thought experiments; if one person made a whole game for a year, except for the last five minutes, whereupon someone else took over, would you say that they should get credited as "additional"? OK, what if it's a week? A month? What if they were only there for the first month, which means "all" they did was "just" the game design, architecture, core engine, and art direction? At what point does their contribution become ancillary?

This organization then can maintain the accurate, comprehensive database of all game credits. This will be incredibly useful for other purposes (game resumes are routinely falsified, for example). Further, it can do things like recognize ports and sequels and the like, so that say, Dona Bailey still gets credited on every derivative of Centipede. But our main purpose is this:

All game outlets -- App Stores, social networks, what is today the plumbing of our lives -- contribute into this org's bank account, right off the top, out of their 30% cuts. Facebook alone made over a billion dollars in game revenue every quarter last year. Add in Google, Sony, Microsoft, Apple... they really don't need to skim much off the top to put into this org's coffers.

Why is it that these folks do it? Because they are also in the position to know what gets played.

And then this credits organization, acting much like a Performing Rights Organization, distributes almost all of that money back to everyone in their database.It's effectively royalties for every play. Dona Bailey would get a check for people who play some Centipede derivative today.

Oh, and you don't distribute this evenly. Not fairly, no: unfairly. Tilted so that those who earned the least get a disproportionate payment. After all, if you got lucky in the popularity lottery, you are already earning your capitalistic reward right now. No, this is more for when you are old and gray and haven't been at that company for ten years, but your game is still making them money.

Why this construct? Because game creators

  • work for hire
  • don't have moral rights in the US
  • don't have the sort of IP protection that other media do

Games are the worst protected creative job there is. And given the libertarian politics that are common currency in the industry, they are also the creative group least likely to organize.

How feasible is the above? I don't know. But I do know that if every developer who put a game up on the App Store knew that they weren't just going to lose their time and money on it or get screwed over by faceless moneygrubbing gladhanders, we'd see more diversity, more creativity, and plain old more apps.

And if that happened, the ecosystems could a) be a little less worried about solving a probably unsolvable discovery problem b) trumpet ever growing numbers c) likely grow their audiences as diverse creators lead to diverse customers d) hedge the blockbuster problem that is stalking them and will someday hunt them down and kill them.

Ah, I'm probably nuts. I'm sure my suggestion is buggy as hell. But it's the best I've got at the moment.

-----------------------

As you might guess, Greg Costikyan and I had some conversations during GDC.

(Crossposted from my blog at http://www.raphkoster.com/2014/05/07/the-financial-future-of-game-developers/)


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Comments


Kim Pallister
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Cool idea. Yes, flawed, but cool.

One nit: Of the roles you risk for publisher, you don't call out the kind of 'meta role' they play: They aggregate to distribute/dilute risk. I say this because when you point out that a business dependent on blockbusters isn't long for the world, I disagree. It's exactly what necessitates publishers.

Also, to take an even more grim look at other areas - blockbuster models work for things like musicians & athletes (in the sense that the vast majority of anyone setting out to make a lucrative living in either of those will fail, but are motivated by the disproportionate payout of those that do. No, they aren't investing $10M in a game title, but they are investing years of their lives.

Raph Koster
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When I say a business dependent on blockbusters, I don't mean the business as a whole, I meant any given one company. The closer they skate to the line, they more likely they are to fall over it and vanish. It happened to quite a lot of Hollywood studios, and quite a lot of game publishers, big ones even.

I very much agree on the role for publishers. I think the stuff I did call out also mostly falls under risk mitigation...

Film avoids the blockbuster trap in large part thanks to the re-use cycle -- international, DVD, streaming, cable, pay per view, etc etc; and the fact that revenues flow correctly back up the chain. But re-use in our industry doesn't flow back; contracts just aren't sophisticated enough, and everything is work-for-hire. So whereas an actor or screenwriter might well get a residual slice off of a 2am showing on TMC, not only do we barely have anything like TMC, but we also don't have any standing to claim revenues from it.

Jay Anne
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@Raph
But isn't Hollywood having trouble with the blockbuster trap today? Also, do any key grips or makeup artists get residuals?

Raph Koster
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Yes, Hollywood is having trouble with it. They're just having less trouble with it than they would if they lacked additional sources of revenue. :)

Key grips and makeup artists don't get residuals. But they are strongly unionized, so there's a different safety net mechanism in place for them.

Jay Anne
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@Raph
True. It doesn't sound like there are any structural changes happening in Hollywood to combat this problem either? Mainly focusing on grabbing more of the international market?

Raph Koster
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Well, there are other structural things that they are adapting to. The rise of streaming revenue, for example, means renewable sources of income, whereas before it was one-time sales. For content owners and providers, streaming vs sales means lots of reselling. I don't know whether that is working out as a net win or not.

Sjors Jansen
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Great post, it's a good read and I've been worried about some of the same issues. But mostly with an eye to crowdfunding as it's a very direct connection between audience and creators.

I like your suggestion. And I know about missing credits well :)
However a weakpoint is that it puts a lot of power in one place. The sole performing rights organization in the Netherlands for instance turned out to be extremely corrupt. There was a big hassle and then things continued as they've always been, because well.. they have the money and the connections. The managers in these organisations live off a nifty paycheck.
So if such a thing were to exist I'd hope it would be completely transparent, the entire money flow including salaries displayed for all to see. Perhaps then it might be solid enough?

Greg Costikyan
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The closest things to what you're talking about are statutory mechanicals for music, and residuals for TV. The first came about because sheet music publishers (who were once a substantial business) lobbied Congress; that's not going to work for us, because developers are the financially weakest part of the value chain, and money talks when it comes to lobbying. The second came about because of strong unions, and... game developers are never, unfortunately, going to unionize.

One thing I've been thinking about, but don't know how to pull off, is a Rochdale-style cooperative (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rochdale_Principles) of indies; that is, an organization they collectively own to supply the business-side services that none of them particularly want to perform individually, and that can likely be better performed on a larger scale than smaller indies can easily sustain.

Eric Harris
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They can Unionize, but unions will not save it. Games has become a big media industry just like cinema and television. The value from developers is their IP. Too many developers do not consider the value of their IPs. Just like authors who sell their stories and characters to publishers, the value is in the IP not just the created work. Then they can do things like book and movie deals.

Raph Koster
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This is very much inspired by statutory mechanicals and by PROs, yes.

I think something like the Rochdale cooperative was the original chatter behind Gathering of Developers, if anyone remembers that. It pretty quickly degenerated into not that. :)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gathering_of_Developers

Ryan Sumo
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It would seem that the issue is that they were bought out by 2k and the economics changed everything. Has there been any in depth reporting on the rise and fall of GoD(heh.)?

Ryan Sumo
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Have you written about this before Greg? I would very much like to know what the structure of a Rochdale coop for indies would be.

Greg Costikyan
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I haven't, no. And it's still a vague notion. But Manifesto Games convinced me that it doesn't make sense to try to make this work as a conventional venture-funded enterprise; it has to be structured to benefit the developers themselves, and directly. And a cooperative structure is the closest thing we have to a commonly accepted form of business organization that can work.

Note that: Cooperatives can be profit-making, but since they are owned by their members, the members decide what to do with those profits. So it's not a charity; it's a mutual organization.

Also, while cooperatives are far from the dominant form of business organization in the west, it is an established business form. Land o'Lakes butter is a cooperative; so is Ace Hardware. So is Mondragon, one of the largest companies in Spain. So, for that matter, is the Park Slope Food Cooperative, one of the largest supermarkets in Brooklyn (I'm a former member).

Keith Nemitz
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I'll throw out Devolver Digital as one potential, but I haven't worked with them.

Alex Covic
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Maybe it's my still imperfect English (only the 5th language of several more I failed to manage), or it's because it's past 1:00 AM here in my part of Europe, and I am tired, but did I just read a plea for a video game version of the MPAA or RIAA? Paying the 'performers'?

Gods help us all. I reside in Germany, where the Gestapo-like GEMA is collecting fees from Kindergarden teachers, if they allow their children to sing together (I am not kidding). And if they don't pay, they will get sued.

The radio is full of 'artists' who make a living from their 40 year old 'artistic' work, still in heavy rotation, because they know the 'right people' and understand the politics of 'being creative'... as in making a living, gaming the system.

This system would create another layer of laywers, who would have no other job, but to track who owns the rights to what part of which work for their 'clients' (as in devs, as in artists) which is re-published by xyz, who may or may not have the rights to this abandonware, after company xyz disolved, etc, etc... and they WOULD do the work (the lawyers) because, their whole existence is to make money off this way?

Please, ignore my belch. It is probably my bad English which made me read things into the text above. Sorry, Raph.

Eric Harris
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Your English is fine and probably better than mine. Yes but don't think the MPAA was designed to do what it does. It is fundamentally flawed and comes from the industry that abused the workers. Just wiki "Hays Code". I think Ralph discussed the reasons why games are probably coming to the end of their golden age.

Raph Koster
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It's more like ASCAP than the MPAA. MPAA is an organization that exists for the studios (e.g., in this model, the publisher/distributors). RIAA is the same. We already have orgs that represent pubs and studios. :)

This would be an organization that exists for the individual developers. So more like a PRO (as linked in the article) or in some ways, like the various unions, guilds, and whatnot that exist as counterbalance to the MPAA and their ilk: DGA, SAG, Actors' Equity, etc. IGDA is the closest we have, but it does not serve this function.

Eric Harris
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Right but those unions don't change the industry and sometimes get infiltrated by the industry supporters. So the Union then becomes weak and unable to perform its original mission.

David Paris
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GEMA is a pretty terrible example though, since it strikes me as both fundamentally corrupt and state-supported. The reason GEMA is such a powerhouse, is because the legal burden of proof is not on them to prove they own the rights to something, but on everyone else to prove that they do not.

Raph Koster
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People are weak. Orgs are made of people. Therefore ogrs are often weak. :) I am unsure what to do about that beyond not have people! Seems like an inadequate solution.

I can definitely say that unions changed virtually industry they took root in, to a very large and significant degree. In net, to the benefit of workers. That doesn't mean they aren't ALSO capable of being corrupt or ineffective in a multitude of ways.

Eric Harris
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People have to become more media literate before things get better. Right now those channels work because people do not have a strong personal locus, a strong knowledge base, and skills to understand the messages in the media content. Most people don't understand why AAA titles have the similar themes beyond "because it sells". So yeah "People" are part of the problem.


Robert Schmidt
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Wait! There's a financial future for devs in the game industry!? Who knew?

Jeremy Alessi
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Have you read Slicing Pie?

Raph Koster
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I have not!

Jeremy Alessi
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What you started to get into at the end sounded a bit like Slicing Pie, but on a larger scale. I love the idea and have some technical paths in mind that might enable what you started poking at there.

Daniel Pang
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It's not merely the result of the market becoming bottom/top heavy with the middle hollowed out. I think it's also largely a result of the games industry's inherent inferiority complex and the inability of those who fund AAA games development to understand games. They've looked to other mediums and applied business knowledge common in those areas to games. Which is only working to an extent. Hell, companies have only cottoned onto the realities of digital distribution in the last few years, making a slow shift away from the DRM-focused thinking that clearly comes from the packaged goods business (every copy = lost sale) mentality.

I honestly think it's because games industry wants to be the movie industry, and I don't mean in the sense that they want to become all cinematics-and-special-effects laden extravaganzas. I mean in the sense that the way hollywood studios work; having large media conglomerates jointly fund a project and then getting individual teams to work on it for the duration of the project, while the company gets to retain control and ownership of the intellectual property. The aim of Hollywood - or the companies that comprise the film industry - is to continue making money long after the talent has been hired, fired, and booted out the door for the next project. Look at how much money Casablanca made and continues to make long after pretty much everyone involved with the project died of natural or non causes. And then they could remake or reboot the IP for a new generation with a completely different set of talent involved and still see at least some repeat business.

It sounds familiar, because that's almost exactly to a T what the games industry is trying to leverage itself into. Sooner or later, if the money keeps flowing and the AAA games industry remains financially solvent, every games developer who wants to work on an AAA project will be working on an on-contract basis and maybe see a tiny completion bonus, leaving the publisher free to rake in potentially massive amounts of profit without having to pay the developers a single dime as they're no longer employed by the company.

People who work in video games are only just recently realizing that the realities of the digital distribution age means that these people are no longer gatekeepers, which is why we've seen an explosion in indie talent and exposure these last few years.

Raph Koster
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Daniel, in practical terms, that's already how AAA works and has worked for years.

My point is that we've just swapped gatekeepers.

Jay Anne
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> "Any structure that depends solely on blockbusters is not long for this world."

Aren't modern megahit video games are really just "social networks built around a gaming activity"? If so, then we shouldn't view them the same way as "blockbusters" in the media sense. Instead, they're more like communication mediums and communications networks, so Metcalfe's Law and things like that will mean these games calcify and stick around for a long time? It feels like this article really was written with indie games in mind, where they are mainly going to be small temporary novelties. Of course the point is to find the gems within that list that can grow into the Minecrafts and the Dotas, but it feels like that grows much less likely with time.

Given all that, I would love to live in a world where the system described in the article actually existed and thrived.

Raph Koster
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Well, making a game that is a service actually is a huge barrier right off the bat, and closes a lot of doors. It takes a decent-sized team to do it well.

There's also the fact that it cuts off many many avenues of game design.

Yes, services tend to calcify, and that's also an issue, it acts to cap total growth of a market. See my old 2003 talk on "Small Worlds" for the math on that.

Mike Tuori
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Great post! One of the biggest problems I see in the system is in the marketing channels. The big marketing companies are sucking out most of the value that's created. I see it as a problem with the app stores mostly. They need to be revamped (or someone else needs to enter) to better segment users and make it easier for the right games to reach the right users. This will benefit developers, customers, and creativity -- as developers won't be as apt to shy away from making more niche titles in favor of trend-of-the-day mass market casual games. The studio I work with has an advantage being in a low-cost country, but our development costs are irrelevant compared to the huge amounts we have to spend with every title buying downloads hoping for even a chance at hitting the ranking. I'm sure it's the same thing for a lot of indies and it's hurting the industry. As a developer I shouldn't have to spend tens-to-hundreds of thousands of dollars each month hoping our game will be noticed, and as a user I shouldn't have to spend hours sifting through thousands of apps I could care less about hoping I'll find one or two of interest to me.

Zachary Strebeck
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Great article. Some of the ideas drawn from other industries are pretty interesting, and could potentially work. Particularly the PRO-type service.

I, too, have been left out of credits (though I wouldn't exactly be proud to say I worked on those games).

I also agree that a better way to reinvigorate income streams after the initial release would be beneficial. I wonder if something could be built into the design process from the beginning to prepare for something like that. Sort of how MMOs transition from a subscriber to a F2P model. So beyond the initial release, maybe there's a way to split up the product, license parts of it, reuse assets, etc. Not sure if it's viable, but definitely worth thinking about. Right now, it seems the Humble Bundles and Steam sales are filling this role to some extent.

Eric Harris
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I agree with you both Ralph and Daniel, but I think the internet aspect allows for some ability for games to remain more competitive than movies. Consoles and their license requirements might have more power than the developers themselves, and this causes a bottleneck in the tools that must be used. Ralph mentioned the cost for indies and it will go up as long as consoles require expensive tools that only publishers can afford. This has pretty much already happened though.

andreas grontved
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great idea, lets do this.

Phil Maxey
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The dev-publisher conversion made me laugh, although it was more a sardonic laugh than anything else as it's totally bang on true.

As I've said a number of times on here the publishers of old have gone, at least they have for non-AAA titles. What "publishers" are now, are actually PR companies. I.e they have little or nothing to do with the actual making of the game, and they want zero risk. This is regardless of quality because quality has nothing to do with whether you will succeed on the App stores or not. What matters is trends. Is your game like the others that are currently making money?

Game publishing has always been a hit driven industry but in the past because of the higher levels of technical expertise needed to make games, most publishers were willing to cough up some funds to help facilitate the development process, now anyone can make a game (I'm not saying it's easy to have a successful game, I'm saying anyone can at least make a game now) which means publishers want to see the finished article before they are even willing to put any time or money into something.

Regarding your old list. You mention do "games as a service", even though I agree most games these days need to be a service because most need to rely upon updating and a server for whatever reason, games as a service are actually the most expensive games to make because they need to be maintained. So even though games which act like a service are definitely what everyone is playing, they are a bad option for indies.

You mention the discovery problem. I think that is actually solvable by user curated lists. The problem with the app stores is that even with all their features they are still a very narrow window for all the users, that go through them, the charts are very very broad even with the categories. What's needed is an approach like what Netflix does, but I would say it needs to go further and the app stores need to allow players to get recommendations based upon the popular (or curated) choices of other players who play similar games. This would require some work on the part of the platform holders and the question is whether they are willing to do it or not.

Lastly your accreditation idea. I'm not sure it would really work out in reality. I think the better analogy would be how actors moved out of the studio system to the star system in the 1930s-60s, but games are a much more nebulous quantity than movies or even music, which is why there is so much plagiarism.

I agree with your general sentiment that the future financial situation for most games developers is pretty dire. The days where game devs could get some financial help from publishers has gone. There is crowdfunding, but that's pretty much only good if you already have a string of hits behind you (you're a well known game dev in other-words) or you have lots of money to promote your campaign in which case you don't need the crowdfunding money anyway.

The games industry is becoming more and more locked down, with more and more developers being locked out. There are "gatekeepers" at every turn. The platforms of course, but also the games press itself. So it's ironic that it's never been easier to actually create a game, but equally it's never been harder to actually make any money out of them. And the reason for this? Money. It's that simple, the games market has always been large, but with the advent of mobile the market is now so big, with so much money at stake that there is fierce competition at every stage.

A point I will end on is that I think more game devs need to start working together. The whole lone developer working alone in his/her room is just not something which today will likely lead to financial success. Collaboration I think is something which there needs to be far more of.

Greg Scheel
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With UE4 at $20 bux a month, competing tools at nearly the same price, the proliferation and continuing development of open source art production tools, and youtube how to vids, almost anyone with a vision and the will can create a game, and for a few thousand of investment at that. Furthermore, with the rise of 'youtubers', the app stores and Steam have no lock on discovery, any game dev can target a few youtubers for free advertising. A website and a torrent can handle distribution.

There is no lock, there are no real gates, and therefore no gatekeepers.

As far as I can see, and what I am experiencing, is that the only barrier I face is my lack of skill at every last aspect of game creation, and being stuck in the boondocks, instead of the city where I could network to get access to the skills I do not personally excel at.

Having to wear all the hats is a classic problem of new business creation, and the solution is always the same, to learn how to delegate, and as you say, to collaborate.

Lars Kroll Kristensen
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"any game dev can target a few youtubers for free advertising."
Yep. And every gamedev and his dog does that. Appstore releases on average 125 games PER DAY (!). Of these, I'm sure most don't do much marketing, but even if only 10% actually do all the right things (And I think it's more) thats still 10-12 new games for all youtubers to play and make a video about EVERY DAY !

Discovery is a HUGE issue.

Raph Koster
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It currently costs $4 to acquire a single mobile user.

That's a gate.

"Any game dev can target a few YouTubers" is a pipe dream. There aren't enough YouTubers to go around. Currently, that goes towards the folks who have connections or a marketing story to tell.

The fact is that we have managed to open the doors to all kinds of new creative voices, and most of them won't be able to make a living.

Phil Maxey
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@Greg Scheel

I wish you all the best, but I think you are underestimating just how hard it is these days to make money from making and launching a game yourself. Work for hire there's plenty of money in, but trying to make decent income from your own self-published game is nigh on impossible.

You use Youtubers as an example of how your game can be discovered. The YouTubers that matter in the sense of helping your sales (the million subscriber ones) must get swamped with requests to review games, and if you do get reviewed by them it's just sheer luck. So I think your example actually makes my point, these YT's are just another gate.

Regardings skills. Short of an all singing 3D game, I can create pretty much any game I want to put my time into, that's not the problem. The problem is that there are 10000s of game developers all working on similar games, all hoping they will be a hit, and especially on mobile the window onto those games is tiny. Let me just re-iterate, making the game is not the issue, the game itself is not the issue, making money from your game is the issue :)

As long as you have net access, you can learn pretty much any game making skill, being far from the main cities doesn't mean anything.

I suggest if you want to get into game development, you try to join up with others who share your vision and make a game together, shared reward, but also shared risk.

Joe Program
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Interesting. I have two questions:

1. You said with the "proliferation of ecosystems, we have a net loss in diversity and complexity of the overall landscape." What's an example of a time when we had more diversity and complexity when choosing a platform?

2. "The median game uploaded to the App Store makes zero dollars." I'm curious - does the median game spend zero dollars on advertising and zero time on marketing? It seems likely.

Raph Koster
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1. In the 90s there used to be far more portals and publishers capable of getting you a living.

2. Almost certainly. The median developer has close to zero dollars to spend on it, probably. :)

Koen Deetman
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Nice article Ralph!

The old solution:
"Some people aren't good at all these roles. And even if they are, the more they have to pay attention to the non-creative aspects, the more it is likely to affect their creativity. "

I can really identify myself as you describe in this sentence. As an indie I am educating myself 70% of the time on being a businessman and fulfilling all these roles. Recently I became aware it was destroying my creativity and brought down all these roles to the essentials and created 'time' to get back in the creative process. It definitely made me a happier person, without losing the importance of these roles. * EDIT It also helped the games become far more remarkable than before.

Btw, I also read your 2006 talk/presentation. Compliments on how scary close you are at some of these predictions!

Anyway, thanks for this insight!

Kelvin Bonilla
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I am not as well informed as many of you in regards to business, so I try my hardest to involve myself and learn about these things, because we are playing with our lives here and this particular life, we only get it once.
It is demoralizing for me to know that no matter how hard or smart I work in my creation, I'm not able to afford to do other things in life unless I work outside this industry we are all so passionate about and dedicate this life to.

We will never have all the right answers off the bat, and I think this article is an amazing start of something.
I believe this needs to be considered more seriously and acted upon, rather than just dying as a blog post. (What good was it to spend time writing it then?)
It frustrates me to not know how to contribute and tackle this sort of problem.
What can I do? What can we do?

Is there some sort of way we can actually begin to execute something to tackle this problem, even if the first attempt isn't perfect?

I rally behind this idea, and am always ready to act, but I hate not knowing what to do...

Daniel Pang
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I think you're thinking about this the other way around.

Rather than you not knowing what to do, take comfort in the fact that everyone in the entire system is just as clueless, from the big dogs to the garage developer. Nobody can predict the next big hit or success story. All you can do is do the best you can within whatever limitations are applied and focus on giving the consumer the best product possible.

There is no secret sauce and money is only a superpower for Batman. Even companies who have tried to "brute force" marketability and discoverability through a massive marketing budget don't always come off with the best results, as Microsoft learned with both Surface and the Kinect.

Curtiss Murphy
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Why should I get downstream percentages? Whether I was involved in 1% or 100% of the development of Sims Free Play, it was EA that took the risk and paid the bills. Whether a designer, developer, or artist, I signed up for a work-for-hire situation, and my only risk was working in a volatile industry. Maybe for a solo-artist, or a small team (<10?). Once yer in the dozens, royalties make as much sense for game-devs as it does for developers of the WalMart website.

Somehow, I am reminded of Seth Godin's Linchpin.

Raph Koster
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Because your work is worth more than the WFH.

And even if it wasn't -- because we want game developers to be successful and have good careers and the more we can help that, the more we all benefit?

Lars Kroll Kristensen
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It's a great article, and I hate how right you were, and are again Raph Koster.
Kelvin: I completely share your sentiment: It SUCKS to know enough about the business to realize that all the hard work you put into your game is likely to result in bupkiss in terms of downloads, let alone income.

This is not true everywhere though (I hope...). iOS is F''''ed, but there is still a window of opportunity on Steam, and possibly on PS4 / XBONE, although I'm guessing that window is closing fast. After that, I don't know.

I think that the only thing Indie game devs have as a strength in all this, is numbers. I formulated an idea some time back, that I suggested to the guys at chartboost: That they make an offering, where they offered to loan crosspromotion to new customers, against a x10 repay or something: This would give new games a possibility to rise up and be noticed, maybe a week or so of serious crosspromotion exposure, then if the game took off, they would be obliged to pay the crosspromotion back, with interest. The interest have to be massive, in order for the whole thing to make sense to everyone involved. But basically, the idea is kinda socialist: The richest pay the most back: Along the lines of Raphs idiom that the royalties should not be paid back evenly.

However, I don't think the problem is with big projects not properly crediting all team members. I believe we are moving towards an environment, where lone wolf dev makes a lot of sense. It is indeed possible to make a nice game one (wo)man alone, and that makes sense, because the odds of the game actually making money are very small. I think the problem is, with hundreds, even thousands of game projects clamouring for attention to the same ears, all the voices drowning each other out, and basically being crushed by the few larger projects that have the marketing moolah. What if those thousands of small voices became a choir instead ? What if there was a musketeer oath, or club you could join, where everyone agreed to actively pitch in and HELP promote whomever in the club is releasing today? That coordinated releases, so noone in the club releases at the same time. That helps each other with contacts to relevant press etc. Everybody promotes their own game at any given time, PLUS the "released game of the week" of the club.
I don't know if it would work, but I believe that the only way for indies to have a future, is to cooperate.

Raph Koster
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The crediting piece is only really there so that you can know where to send the checks... the other aspects to it are nice but peripheral.


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