And so another year gets all used up. Which means it’s time to look back on the videogame industry and try to extract some sort of signal from the raging noise.
Outside of videogames, this year sucked. It was ugly and stressful and stupid and I’m basically sick of the hate. I’ve got people I love all over the political spectrum, and so I spent about a year watching all the people I care about vilify each other on social media. Makes me glad I’m part of a hobby so dedicated to escapism.
Last year I noted that there were sort of two themes. On the indie side we had “Games about making games”, while on the AAA side we had bugs and glitches and terrible ports. Of course, the bugs and performance problems were mostly due to the fact that we were still early in the new console generation and so all the graphics engines were in the shake-out period.
A year later, we seem to be lingering in that shake-out period, plus we’re in the uncertainty of a half-step console generation, PLUS we’re in the early speculation phase of another full generation just around the corner. I have a feeling our engine technology is going to be a giant pile of chaos and dysfunction for the next couple of years.
To VR, or Not To VR?
VR seemed to be a huge influence on things this year. Everyone was announcing or releasing VR headsets or related technology. No, we didn’t get any really killer apps for VR. But I think VR is a big part of the reason everyone is abandoning this console generation in its crib and trying to make a new one. 60FPS gaming is now a big deal, VR might suddenly become a big deal, and the nascent consoles are just shy of the power required to do those two things.
I spent the whole year waiting for VR to piss or get off the pot. It needs to either come up with a really must-play experience (or several) to justify the brutal price tag, or it needs to get out of the way and stop distracting developers from making stuff the general public will actually want. The games so far have been just interesting enough to keep a small number of people engaged and talking about it, but not good enough to attract the masses.
You can argue that VR is supposed to be a niche product and we shouldn’t expect it to go mainstream. That’s a reasonable assumption. The problem is that niche markets do not mix well with high budgets. Japanese visual novels are a niche market, but they’re cheap to make and they run on anything. Imagine if consumers needed $700 of gaming hardware to be able to play a visual novel, and they required cutting-edge graphics engines and expensive 3D art assets to produce. If that were true, the genre couldn’t survive as a niche product.
The graphics demands put upward pressure on budgets. Meanwhile, the expensive hardware keeps the audience small, which means you can’t expect to make much, which means you can’t afford to spend much. No matter how excited the press or how novel the experience, if the money to be made selling VR game is less than the money it costs to make them, this genre will die.
The buying public are hedging their bets. Everyone is “curious” about VR, but the headsets haven’t taken off. The publishers are doing likewise. They keep making modest VR experiments, but nobody is investing in it on a huge scale. Everyone is keeping one foot in the door in case it takes off, but they’re putting most of their money on safer investments.
Nobody wants to cash out. Nobody wants to go all-in. This is actually a really mature and forward-thinking approach to new technology, but I don’t know how long we can remain balanced in this state.
The Great Indie Deluge
It’s almost a running joke at this point. I declared 2013 the year of the indies. But then indies were an even bigger deal the next year. In 2015, half of my year-end list was indies. Every year, indies seemed larger, more important, and more numerous than the year before.
It turns out that this was not my imagination. The total number of indie titles has been increasing. The proliferation of titles has been exponential. To give you a sense of how steep the curve is: About 40% of all Steam titles were added to the service in the last 12 months.
Last month I asked people what they were playing, and the responses reflected this more distributed approach to gaming. People are playing tentpole games. They’re playing indies. They’re playing mobile games. They’re playing retro titles. They’re playing through their 2013 Steam backlog.
My prediction is that this indie surge is a bubble that will pop in 2017. It’s the old economics adage: “Anything that can’t go on forever, won’t.” Many indies hoping to make a living by filling niche markets will probably leave the field when their efforts yield such a low return in an oversaturated market.
I’m speaking from experience. I released Good Robot this year. I collaborated with ~4 other people to make that happen. Yet even if those folks did all of their brilliant hard work for free and let me keep all the money, I still don’t think it would have made me enough income to justify the time I put into it. Sure, if I’d managed to make a better game I could have enjoyed more sales, but if we wanted to make enough money to pay the entire team enough to cover the opportunity cost of working on the game, we would have needed to be about an order of magnitude more popular. That’s a nice goal to shoot for, but if your options are:
1) Make a smash hit or…
2) Go broke.
…then your options are a lot like the various development houses at the turn of the century when they all started selling themselves to the big publishers because they couldn’t afford to make a non-hit.
When writing a blog is more profitable than programming, you know the market has gone sideways. I enjoyed making Good Robot, and I think I could make a much better game if I took another crack at it, but the risk / reward tradeoff looks fairly bleak. Even if I made a game that sold four times as much as Good Robot, I still don’t think it would be worth it from a financial sense.
Assuming my experience is typical, that means we will see a drop in output of indies over the next year as small-time developers quit the field or seek safer jobs with larger studios.
Meanwhile, the other problems will continue to get worse. Shady “developers” have been flooding the market with “asset flips”. That’s where you buy cheap pre-made assets, drop them into a pre-made template of a game, and put it up for sale on Steam as “Early Access”. The assets make for a passable trailer and the gameplay makes it look like the game is far along development. For just a few days of work you can make it seem like you’re building a real game. They you soak up the initial burst of sales, abandon the title, and start again. I have no idea how common this practice is, but if legitimate indies abandon Steam’s Greenlight program then the ratio of games to shovelware will only get worse.
This could lead to a nasty glut that would hurt the Steam marketplace. It would be a smaller-scale, more localized version of the 1983 videogame market crash. Consumers – unwilling to face the hassle and risk of a market with so much crap – will take their money elsewhere.
I don’t know if this “crash” will happen in 2017 or 2018, but some sort of drastic change has to take place sooner or later. The big question is how Valve will respond.
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