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The evolving coverage of indie games
by Robert Fearon on 03/26/13 09:52:00 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.


It seems to me we’re in a weird position right now with indie games and the press.

It’s never been easier for more people to get their work on a site somewhere. It’s never been easier to get your five minutes of the day as the top post on a site somewhere.

This is a tremendously good thing.

There’s a few non-indie specific sites that really help get games out there to the mainstream, stand up RockPaperShotgun, stand up Eurogamer, stand up Edge, all of whom have widened the net even more so that games can be exposed to all manner of people.

This is a tremendously good thing.

I like that Indie Statik, Free Indie Games, Venus Patrol and many many more all exist.

This is a tremendously good thing.

The press has, generally speaking, never been more accessible to indie devs. More open to talking to them and in a perverse sort of way, never more eager to get news from their loud mouths.

This is a tremendously good thing also.

WIth all that said, I'm concerned that somewhere, we're losing something in the more mainstream indie friendly press. Something not quite so obvious.

Terminally Rubbish

In 2008, I sent a terminally rubbish one joke game to RPS and got coverage on the back of it. Thanks to that coverage (thanks Mr Gillen!), that terminally rubbish one joke game eventually found its way to the Eurogamer Expo. Before it got to the Expo, I managed to make it a not terminally rubbish one joke game. It felt like I had to do that, it had to be the best game it could be. Still a silly one joke game but a good silly one joke game.

Entirely thanks to that coverage a chain of weird events unfolded that still leaves me sitting here, in my pants, looking ever so slightly but also happily confused. I'd been making stuff for 6 years before, I'd had press before (In print mainly! Anyone remember print?) but that was for stuff that wasn't explicitly mine.

This was mine.

One post. That’s all it took. One post to set me on a new path.

I don’t think today I’d be able to get that post anywhere, not like that. Not so easily.

In 2006, the now retired (and infamous in certain indie circles due to his seemingly superhuman ability to post all the games) Tim of and its precurser wrote about a game called Retro II by a complete unknown. 

Both myself and Tim had stumbled across his work whilst browsing for games to post about from Gamemaker forums, both of us found ourselves enamoured with what he was putting out there and Tim proceeded to post more of his work.

These games, they weren’t the greatest games ever but there was something there, something a little bit magical about them, that sort of "yes, there's a talent here, it's just not ready yet"

We chatted a bit about the games and both agreed they were neat, rough stuff certainly, weird stuff too and most definitely the kind of things no-one in their right mind would contact the press with and no-one in their right mind would expect press from.

A year later, that dev won a competition on TIGSource and a lot of people played that game.

Last year, he released Hotline Miami.

I don’t think he’d be able to get those early posts today, not like that. Not so easily.

I don't think for a second Cactus would not have gone on to make great things regardless, that much was becoming clear with each new game. But I think now in 2013, it’d be the great game that would be the first you’d know about and I’m not sure that doesn’t lose something somewhere, something more valuable than we often give credit to.

Bring out your dead.

I brought this up on Twitter earlier to a near uniform point missing. “If a dev is good, the game will get picked up”. “Show us the games that are good that don’t get picked up”. “If it’s good, it’ll be found on Twitter or the dev will email in”.

The thing is, when Tim was first writing about Cactus, his games weren’t that good. They had a spark and oh, it was a great spark but they weren't amazing games at first. That’s the point. They were games people generally wouldn’t write about. They were games no-one would ever mail to a site. They were games so many people would have missed playing because unlike the music industry, we don't really do back catalogues, do we?

When Gillen wrote about me, my game that wasn't great either. And look at me now, typing blog posts on Gamasutra and no-one can stop me. Hang on... let me rethink that bit. Let's get back to everyone else.

If Tim always waited for the dev to mail in, if he'd have waited for the one good game to pass under his nose,  a lot of people would never have the pleasure of those amazing sketches, these fun shorts, these worrying things from Cactus and that’d be a sadder world. Like with Jwaap’s pre-Vlambeer stuff, y’know? I’m glad I had that stuff exposed to me. They inspired me to become better, to make better games.

For a good few years, this was the beating heart of indie coverage. All manner of devs got their break with sketches, ideas, germs of ideas and they got discovered. Many you'd never hear of again but many you would. Between Tim and TIGS, many an upcoming dev got their break. Between Tim and TIGS, coverage would spread from there out to the wider world.

The battle’s a harder one now.

It’s harder for the kids to get noticed now without the full good game. It feels like all the advantages Cactus had in '06 to shape himself in the public eye, all the advantages I had in '08 to do the same have slipped away quietly. The way games get covered has changed. The chances of getting a rough sketch, a germ of an idea posted about are slender. The chances of getting a series of rough sketches and germs of ideas posted successively are slim to zero unless you're a known quantity.

The route to success, the route to being known has changed. Shout louder than the rest, don't just be.

Bulging Box

There's good reasons for the change and they're many. I’ve seen my own mailbox, it bulges and I barely write about games these days. A day doesn't go by without a Kickstarter, an Indiegogo, a Greenlight project and more making the familiar plopping noise into my virtual lap. I've been doing this lark since 2002 and I've never known such a volume of mail, never known such a volume of games to trawl through.

In many ways this too is tremendously good. But it's wearing, it's hard to be excited about games when you can't help but feel you're only being contacted as a conduit for more money or to be used and abused for upvotes on a store. It's hard to get excited by the 50th pixel platformer that passes your way.  Volume forces change.

Having developers coming to you, filling your inbox for you changes the rules. It's different to finding someone, to going out there and it being your discovery. Who has the time to go and do that discovery thing though when you're so busy running through your mailbox or monitoring twitter or maybe these games won't pay the wage because 2 comments and a freelancer fee just doesn't quite add up.

There's many more subtle changes in how we consume games, how we make games, how and where we sell games, everything moves, everything evolves. Change is inevitible.

Careful Now

For all the tremendously good and wonderful things we have now, I worry we're losing the ability to find and break the next generation of indie developers before they have chance to make that one game, we won't be able to get that early work into the hands of others to be inspired by, it's full game or bust.

With that, maybe we lose the nudges some developers need to find themselves heading towards the one big game.

Sometimes people don’t know they have something worth pushing until someone pushes it for them so if there’s no-one pushing it for them, maybe it just stops there and maybe that's a tiny piece of the future we've just let drift away.

Maybe we continue to be too busy with all the good things that we have to play right now, all the good things from good people that we know is heading our way because we've seen their stuff, played their stuff before. Maybe we continue to be so busy with that and the quality bar now is so high that we forget there's people who don't know they can reach it yet and there'll be no-one there to tell them that maybe they can.

Or maybe I'm just reading the tea leaves wrong and it's all cool.

Either way, it doesn't hurt to ask for more champions for more things videogame and for more people to have a shot at being all that they possibly could be with their games.

And it certainly doesn't hurt to pause and reflect on what we had and what we have and to try and find ways of improving our lot.

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David Maletz
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It's definitely an interesting debacle, having more people able and excited to make games is a great thing (along with all of the engines and technology that has made it so easy to create and distribute games), but at the same time, it is true that the press just can't keep up with the sheer quantity of games being released, making it tough to notice the "gems" and potential in games where the developers don't "shout louder than the rest."

I think the only real solution is that since the whole game development scene has changed, and will continue evolving, the press has to change and evolve with it. I don't have any specific ideas on how, but sifting through thousands of emails and losing the excitement of discovering "gems" doesn't seem like the answer...

Lex Allen
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I think the question now is, "How do I promote myself, when the press is too busy picking through all of the noise?"

It's getting harder and harder to get coverage, even though my games have gotten better, so now I mostly rely on social media and SEO.

In 2008, people were interested in what I was doing, but now it's like, "Yeah, you and everyone else are making games, so who cares."

I've noticed that if people know you personally, it is considerably easier to get an e-mail reply or press coverage.

Andrzej Marczewski
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As a games reviewer for the past 6 years, I can count on one hand the number of times an indie developer has got in touch, with review requests or even news. It is a shame, but most reviewers don't have time to search for good games sadly

Robert Fearon
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Right, do you think there's a reason why they haven't gotten in touch with you?

Gabe McGrath
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Andrzej, I don't know how that's possible.

My own - sadly neglected - blog has a note on the contact email 'Sorry, don't have time to do reviews at the moment' and yet I *still* get plenty of hopeful indies emailing me offering promo copies, asking for a review/tweet/etc.

I try to reply with some tips about where else might be more appropriate (& effective) to contact, as I feel "if they've made the effort, I can do the same".

Andrzej, if you are averaging only 1 indie emailing you per year then - as RobF suggests - something else is at play here.

Andrzej Marczewski
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Interestingly, had 2 indie developers email me stuff in the last 24 hours - so some coverage is going up now at least. The site gets decent monthly UV, so it is definitely being seen by people. With luck, this trend will now increase as I love covering the indie stuff - often it is so much more interesting than the "mainstream" stuff!!!

I probably get more than I stated, but it really is a tiny tiny minority of the emails I get in. With luck, and with posts like this getting people talking, that will change (for me at least :) )

Jack Nilssen
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"Press doesn't matter, there are too many videogames, cross your fingers & try to make a great game. Better yet take up a trade that pays (think plumbing/electrical) & do games in your spare time." - my assessment/unasked-for advice after doing this full time for the last 3 years.

Robert Fearon
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Press does matter, no there aren't too many videogames, you don't have to just cross your fingers and making a great game isn't an answer to anything beyond "hmm, what shall I do today?".

And to be honest, I'm not even sure what any of that has to do with my post?

Lex Allen
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I actually agree with this to some extent. There is a degree of luck involved. Press and reviews certainly don't matter as much as they used to especially as content is becoming more niche and markets are more and more fragmented.

I got a ton of press as part of the Kickstarter Indie Bundle, but despite that, we only managed to get about $6,000 across 9 devs. There were a few problems with the project like over-complicated rewards, but for the amount of press that we got, we should have been able to overcome any issues with the project.

Ultimately, people weren't interested in the games, so getting press isn't everything.

I also agree that there are definitely too many games, so the press can't cover everyone.

To say that press doesn't matter is a bit too dismissive, as press certainly could make your game if enough people are behind it.

Robert Fearon
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I think there's often a misconception that press gets you money and sales. That's not really how it works (although it can but that's often a very specific kind of press).

What press achieves for the most part is people hearing about your work, hearing about your opinions and it's a cumulative thing. It's sorta part the reason for Chris Hecker's "get out there and start pushing as soon as you can" stance. It helps build up, for want of a better term even though I hate this, a fanbase. Bursting in out the blue and making it takes a rare and special series of events. Most people will not have this privilege no matter how good their work is. Even Minecraft, as word-of-mouthy as that was had a massive, massive amount of press support from PC Gamer and a few other members of the press at an early stage. PC Gamer pushed it *really* hard though, *really* hard.

It's the difference between obscurity and being known and being known (unless you're known for being a tool) is having your work played. Press is still very very much an integral part of getting known and to a large degree, getting paid.

Like with the bundle mentioned, I wouldn't read it as a straight "people weren't interested in the games" thing. I'm sure you'll have picked up someone, somewhere who took a fancy to what you do/want to do and they wouldn't have arrived there without the press and often, it's not just "not interested in the games", it's "not interested in the games at this time/in this bundle/with this delivery method", it's complicated!

The too many games thing? Well, there's *always* been too many games to be covered but outlets evolve, more outlets open up. Change in that regard doesn't come fast. I heard the same complaints when people were making games for the Speccy in the eighties, I heard them during the first wave of indie at the start of the last decade, I heard them during the second wave around 06/07 and I still hear them now. I heard it from press when they were relegating indie to the back pages. It's always thus.

We all just have to work out what's needed and sometimes it's making enough noise that press and how they deal with their lot evolve or sometimes it's building more niche outlets and spreading the word about those to interested parties. There will always be more games than people have time to check out and as Alec of RPS astutely pointed out to me, it's generally a manpower problem and whilst that might not get fixed in the immediate term, it can and will be fixed in time.

Joe Rheaume
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Perhaps someone takes up the job of posting about weird little game sketches in some kind of regular column. A weekly collection of links and short descriptions of what makes them compelling, and what feels rough.

Robert Fearon
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Yeah, that'd be nice. I don't have time to do this right now for reasons you already know about but if someone else could take up that mantle, it'd be super.

Llaura Mcgee
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I'm surprised no one has mentioned yet. I believe that, whether knowingly, is fulfilling a large chunk of what you're looking for.