Stolen Pixels #114: So You Want to be an Indie Developer?

By Shamus Posted Friday Aug 7, 2009

Filed under: Column 16 comments

If you’re an aspiring indie game developer, Travis can help fill out the details of your business plan.

I heard about the 120 new iPhone games a day from Jay Barnson. That translates to 840 games a week. If your 40-hour-a-week job required that you sample every single iPhone game, you’d have to play 21 games an hour to keep up. That is, switch games every 2.8 minutes.

I’m guessing that a lot of people suddenly realized at the exact same time that the iPhone was the Next Big Thing, and all of them dove into development. If you read the post I linked above, you can see the long tail is in effect in a big way. A minuscule group of people make a living, and a vast majority get something in the “couple hundred bucks” range. Given the hundreds of hours that go into making even a simple game, this basically boils down to a lot of developers losing their shirts. Hopefully most of them kept their day jobs and made the games in their spare time.

Things might actually get better once the glut is over. A lot of those “120 games a day” are probably coming from people who thought they were taking part in a gold rush. Once a good number of them go back to their day jobs, the marketplace might regain some sanity. Here’s hoping, anyway.


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16 thoughts on “Stolen Pixels #114: So You Want to be an Indie Developer?

  1. Ingvar says:

    120 games per DAY? That’s… not a little. I think I’ll continue with a big, blinnking “HOLD” on any iPhone app plans that come to mind (although, porting my dice roller WOULD be interesting, at least once I’ve fixed-up the parser to deal with a notation for two, yes TWO, variants of open-ended Dx).

    Edit: Suibvert the reigning paradigm!

  2. Mari says:

    You’re pretty much on target with your analysis of what it’s going to take for iPhone apps to be a viable marketplace. Just give it time. There’s always a “next big thing” and when it hits the majority of developers will hop over to it leaving room in the market for those who steadfastly hang in there and those who waited for an opening.

    Look at it this way: 18 years ago raising ostriches and emus was the “next big thing” in commercial cash livestock. Suddenly everyone with an oversized back yard and a lax city council that would hand out permit exemptions was raising ostriches and/or emus. Those eggs went from selling for $2K each to selling for $100 each which didn’t even pay for the bird over its lifetime.

    Enter the llama. Llamas were the “wave of the future” for exotic commercial stock all of a sudden. Same thing happened as with the ostriches. Everybody sold their birds in favor of llamas. Except those 100 folks who held out because they liked their birds. Suddenly their ostrich eggs were worth a couple of grand apiece again while llamas became worthless.

    Luckily llama value soared as alpaca became the livestock d’jour. And so the cycle continues. For the record, I hear that chinchillas and PC development are both making come backs ;-)

  3. JKjoker says:

    well, considering that most big publishers canceled Xmas this year and moved their games away from that date terrified of codmw2 (and they are probably going to delay them again once they realize they are going to release 100 games the same week), i would say there is a pretty nice hole for indies to fill the next few months in all platforms (but the iphone, of course :p)

  4. Tesh says:

    The iPhone isn’t the best platform in the first place, considering the mess that it can be developing for it, and the rather constrained input options and system specs. It’s even a pain in the butt testing on it, which may explain a bit of the “low quality” of the shovelware hitting the system in the marketplace.

  5. Factoid says:

    I bet a lot of those 120 games per day are ports of other games. Still a big investment of time, but not exactly the same as doing a whole new thing from scratch.

  6. Annon says:

    What about releasing the game for WiiWare? That’s how I got World of Goo…

  7. Magnus says:

    How much of those 120 per day are rubbish, and how many are vague clones of other apps?

    Perhaps the better question is, is an iPhone app worth making anyway? the gold rush will only last as long as iphones are the gadget of choice for the wealthy consumer.

    Speaking as someone who doesn’t own an iPhone, and would turn one down even if I was offered it for free.

  8. Rutskarn says:

    Nice barb at how the review industry ignores indie games. It’s true that it’s hard for them to pick out ones worth reviewing from the glut out there, but they could at least put up an effort.

    Maybe if indie games had their own weberzine–reviewing games from the cheaper side of the fence. Hm…actually, you know, that might not be a bad idea in this economy.

  9. Adam says:

    Annon: the WiiWare development kit is $2000. Cheap for an SDK, but still out of the range of “toss out a game and see what happens.”

  10. Jason says:

    It’s not the cost of the dev kit that’s the issue for Wii – many indies can afford it.

    It’s the “You must have a secure office space, etc” thing that does. If you’re a home office or distributed developer, most of the time they won’t give you a dev kit.

    They’ve made lots of noises about changing that, but it hasn’t changed yet as far as I know.

  11. eri says:

    Simply put, everyone thinks they can make it big. There’s been a few pretty decent successes, but that’s not counting the thousands that fail. It’s almost like wanting to win the lottery, and since the best-rated and most-downloaded games tend to show up most often (not to mention word of mouth), there’s probably hundreds of games on the store that haven’t seen even a single sale. This is not a healthy business model for anyone but Apple.

    I’m actually glad for these failures. Why? Almost every single one of those stupid iPhone games is a rip-off of either a classic arcade game or a modern Internet Flash game, but often lacking the depth or replay value.

  12. chabuhi says:

    The Cult of the Amateur.

    We have completely embraced mediocrity in the name of open access.

    Put another (and cliched) way: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

  13. Coyote says:

    Wow – you nailed it on every side. Kudos!

  14. Coyote says:

    Incidentally, Steve just sent me the site where he pulled that stat up. That was for June. We expect that July was even worse, probably peaking at about 150 for original releases.

    iPhone Game Releases Per Day – it peaks at 120 for original releases, and goes well beyond that if you include updates – average 120 releases total several weeks ago.

    And then if you include all apps, not just games, they were at 165 / day way back in MARCH, according to this Wired article based on GDC talks.

    It’s crazy glutted.

  15. Jay says:

    I don’t know if it will pick up.

    A game, once written, lasts until the platform evolves past backward compatibility. In a year or so, most of the developers will have moved on, but the games will still be for sale. Heck, they’ll probably be even cheaper. And if Sturgeon’s law applies, about a tenth of that backlist will actually be pretty good. Even in a couple of years, it will be a very tough market to enter.

    Every industry eventually reaches maturity, where innovation slows down as limits are reached. But software markets may mature a lot harder than tangible goods markets do, just because the old stuff doesn’t go away.

  16. There are other platforms in the telephone business, and they have a lot fewer releases. Seems like they would make good targets.

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