Monday, 28 September 2015

The future of indie is amateur

The number of indie games being released on Steam and consoles has sky-rocketed this last year. At the same time, the amount of money being spent on indie games doesn't really seem to increase. In other words: the average indie game is making much less money! SteamSpy recently released some graphs that show that while total sales for all games together are pretty stable, median sales per game have dropped enormously. You only need to open Steam's list of new releases to see why: so many new games launching every day! Five years ago only a couple of games launched on Steam per week. Now there are dozens launching daily, and they're all competing for the same players. The average income of a new indie game has dropped so far that some even call this current trend the 'indiepocalypse'.

There are several reasons we're seeing this now. The most obvious reason is that marketplaces like Steam have made worldwide distribution easy. They have become more and more open to release games, and not just the cream of the crop. Five years ago, if a hobbyist made a game he put it on Newgrounds and didn't expect to make any money. In contrast, professionally made indie games released as paid products on other platforms and thus competed with hobby developers in a less direct manner, and often in different genres. Today many smaller games can also release on Steam. If Steam keeps going in its current direction, then soon everyone will release their games there. The same goes for other platforms: ID@Xbox isn't anywhere near the speed of Steam yet, but with 21 indie games released in August alone they too are stepping up the pace enormously.

Another important factor is that tools like Unity, GameMaker and Unreal make game development much easier and cheaper than it ever was. Previously many developers were confined to 2D browser games because 3D was technically too complex, as were mobile and console. Licensing a decent game engine that handled this was very expensive. Five years ago only teams with significant technical skill could make such games, yet now these engines don't require much more than the click of a button to reach most platforms.

The final drop is that game dev courses are abundant now. For example, here in the Netherlands we used to have only a few schools teaching game development. Today there are dozens. I'm seeing this same kind of educational expansion everywhere in Europe. More graduates means more people to make games and many of those are starting indie companies straight out of school.

Together these three factors have caused an enormous influx of people all trying to make a living making indie games. Their number is growing much faster than the market, so the average sales of indie games are dwindling. Many indie games that release today won't make much more than a few thousand dollars, far from enough to make a living as a full-time game developer.

What does this mean for indie studios? I recently met a young dev who had started a company with friends and spent a lot of time making their first game. When it launched it literally sold only a few hundred copies. His conclusion? He was going to look for a job and continue making his own indie games – in his spare time, as a hobby.

I think we are going to see this pattern for a lot of start-ups. There are so many games that only a few actually make a decent buck. The rest won't make enough money to sustain the company, causing those indies to bail out of trying to make a living as an indie developer. Many will become amateur indie developers instead.

I don't think this dire financial situation will stop people from making games. Development is just too much fun and that small chance at success just too awesome. What if your game becomes the next Braid or Minecraft? If you can't do it professionally, I'm sure many people will just build those games as a hobbyist instead.

Talented amateurs won't be able to make AAA games like the next Grand Theft Auto, but they will be able to make games similar to what indie teams of only a few people can make. A bunch of highly talented hobbyists working on a game in their spare time for a few years might be able to make the next Banished or Nuclear Throne. This is great of course, but they will be competing for the exact same audience as those trying to make a living as an indie.

Full-time indies competing directly with hobbyist developers will cause the chances of indie games being a financial success to plummet even further than they already have. As the chances decrease, it will become highly infeasible to start a company and 'go pro'. Heck, it probably already has! In the long term people will realise this beforehand and most won't even try to make a living making indie games anymore. I expect they'll just get a job somewhere (hopefully still as game devs!) and keep doing their own projects on the side.

Of course, some will become a hit and be able to make a living. Some others already have an audience and are really good at what they do, so those too will stick around. But in general, the vast majority of future smaller indie games will be amateur games.

Is this bad? No: 'amateur' and 'hobbyist' aren't negative words. They just indicate someone who does something without making money from it. This doesn't mean they can't be good at what they do: just like there are tons of hobby musicians who are actually amazingly good, we will be seeing more and more fantastic games by talented hobby game developers. As well as a lot of bad ones of course, which is fine as long as they too are having fun making games. I expect there will also be a lot of indie games from people who have a regular job as a game developer or freelancer and make their indie games as hobby projects on the side.

I've heard the current trend described as the 'indiepocalypse'. I don't think that word makes sense: this isn't an apocalypse as it isn't the end of indie. Instead it's a shift from professional indie to hobbyist indie. We'll keep seeing awesome indie games and some of those will break through to huge success.

There is a big downside though: this is very sad news for those who release their first game now. Many will have started their company when the indie scene was still small enough that all decent games sold at least okay, not just the amazing ones. Many will be disappointed when their game launches and doesn't reach an audience. I can only hope they'll realise how awesome it is to have made their own full game and feel proud of having released it. But it's a bittersweet second prize, when you dreamt of making a living as an indie dev.

What does this all mean for the bigger indie studios, the ones with more than ten people working on a single game? I don't know. They're capable of creating bigger, more polished productions than hobbyist developers, making those bigger games stand out from the crowd. Will this be enough for a good chance to earn back the much bigger investment? Time will tell. One thing I expect is that they will make more business deals with publishers, investors and other partners to decrease their risks and gather the required budgets. This will move those bigger indie studios further away from what is traditionally considered 'indie'.

If an indie studio is successful and grows its team, it is often not considered 'indie' any more. I regularly get the question whether our own studio Ronimo is still indie: “Aren't you too big for that now?” If that's true, then 'success' often means 'not indie anymore', as using that success to grow the studio apparently isn't indie. By that definition the only successful indies are those who not only have a hit but also stay small.

From a gamer's perspective I don't think any of this matters much. My favourite game this year so far is Ori And The Blind Forest. For me as a gamer it offers exactly what I look for in an indie game: it tackles a genre that AAA doesn't do (2D platformer), has a beautifully crafted atmosphere and brings a focussed experience that dares to take risks. Yet I haven't seen this game mentioned as being 'indie' at all. Apparently a type of game that I perceive as typically high-end indie isn't called 'indie' anyway.

An odd part in all of this is the new breed of 'indie publishers'. Now that the overflow of indie games has made reaching a bigger audience so difficult it makes sense to look for a partner to work with: a publisher that specialises in marketing indie games. However, I remember 'indie' was originally mostly defined as 'not working with a publisher or investor'. Doesn't that make the term 'indie publisher' a contradictio in terminis?

The result is that 'indie' is a word with very little meaning today. It's more marketing buzzword than anything real. Even the gigantic company EA has published games that they marketed as 'indie'.

Let's piece all of this together. What do we have? The vast majority of smaller indie games doesn't make money. Hobby devs can use cheap, high quality engines to make bigger games. They can release their games on more open platforms to reach more people. And finally, the bigger games often aren't called indie. Combining this can lead to only one conclusion: in a few years the word 'indie' will mostly be interpreted as 'probably made by hobby developers'. In other words: the future of indie is amateur!

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Designing matchmaking for non-gigantic communities

Most multiplayer games die within a week. Not because the multiplayer doesn't work, but because there aren't enough people playing online. If you look for opponents and don't find any, then the multiplayer mode might just as well not have been made. This is even more of a waste because online multiplayer is so much work to develop, as I recently explained. The vast majority of online multiplayer games ever made isn't playable any more because of this. Partially this is because not all games can be a success, but there is a much more important reason: often the matchmaking is poorly designed for a smaller playerbase. With clever choices multiplayer can flourish even with a tiny community.

For an average indie game that is doing okay but isn't a big hit it is pretty decent to have 40 simultaneous players a few weeks after launch. Our own game Awesomenauts did really well so our daily peak is usually above 1000 players, but expecting such numbers is unrealistic for most games.

Let's consider a four player multiplayer game that has three game modes. We press the quickmatch button and the game starts looking for opponents. If a match takes on average 30 minutes and there are 40 simultaneous players then a player starts looking for a match once every 45 seconds. Since there are three game modes your mode will have one player searching once every 135 seconds. Waiting for a complete match of four players then takes almost 7 minutes.

Seven minutes! Few players are willing to look at a "Searching" screen for that long, so most will just quit and play something else. If a player concludes your game is dead he probably won't try again later and is lost forever. Whatever playerbase you had will quickly disappear. So many multiplayer games die because there aren't enough players for a good experience.

However, with clever design choices this fate can be averted. 40 simultaneous players would have been plenty for a good experience if matchmaking had been designed in a different way.

Reduce game modes

Game modes split the community. If half of your players wants to play Domination while the other half wants to play Deathmatch, then they all have only half as many opponents to play with. In the example above removing two game modes would have reduced the waiting time to 2:15 minutes, which might already have done the trick. Even the gigantonormous League of Legends has removed less popular game modes because there weren't enough players for a good experience.

For exactly this reason Awesomenauts has only one core game mode. There is a custom game option where users can set up all kinds of weird game modes, but these aren't part of the core matchmaking and thus only playable through friend invites. This way there are extra options for players who want them, but there is only one core mode and it has plenty of players to matchmake with. (For a more detailed analysis of player spread, check my blogpost on why good matchmaking requires enormous player counts.)

If you really want to have more game modes, you can also choose to force players to play whatever is available. Maybe players can select a preferred game mode and the matchmaker looks at all the preferences and tries to find the best match-up. If there aren't enough players in your favourite game mode, then you just play a different game mode. The downside of this approach is that players would probably complain a lot that they aren't put in their favourite game mode. Not having an option at all might in some cases feel better than having an option that you can't actually play...

Allow solo play while waiting

The above approach tries to reduce the waiting times. An alternative is to make waiting more fun so that players are willing to wait longer. In our 2010 game Swords & Soldiers we allow players to play all single player content while waiting for an opponent. If you start the matchmaker a little icon appears in a corner of the screen and you can just play some skirmish against the computer until another human becomes available to play with. This works wonders: players are willing to wait much longer, increasing the chance they actually find an opponent.

This can be improved further by having content that is fun to play repeatedly. A story campaign isn't so much fun to play every time while waiting, but a highscore mode is. In Swords & Soldiers I usually played the endless Survival mode while waiting. Of course it sucks to be thrown out of your highscore run because an opponent is found, so our solution was to auto-save the solo match when starting a multiplayer match. You can continue your single player challenge after the multiplayer has ended.

A while ago a colleague of mine tried playing Swords & Soldiers online. Even though the Steam version of the game is almost five years old now and there are only a few people playing, he got three different opponents in just an hour. There were never more than four people playing Swords & Soldiers simultaneously that evening, so he got a surprisingly good multiplayer experience with such a microscopic community. Amazing!

Playing against bots

For Awesomenauts we chose a different approach. Here we let the match start even if there aren't enough players for a full 3vs3 match. The missing spots are filled with bots until more players are found. The result is that even if there are very few players online, you never have to wait long and can always start playing.

Initially Awesomenauts just started a match right away regardless of how many players were found, removing waiting times altogether. The big downside of this is that it doesn't work well with a competitive mentality: it feels unfair if bots already lost a tower before you even joined. For this reason we later added waiting time, but with a countdown timer that shows the maximum waiting time left. Since Awesomenauts has plenty of players most of the time the match will be full well before the timer runs out, so you rarely start with bots.

This drop-in aspect of the game is a constant source of complaints from our userbase, but players often don't realise that without it, Awesomenauts might not have survived its first months. It took nearly half a year before our playerbase reached a constant good amount on PC and even with those smaller numbers there were never long loading times.

Adding more players

So far I have focussed on making the most out of a your existing players. Another important approach is to maximise the numbers of players. This can be done in various ways. Many multiplayer games are free-to-play, increasing the size of the playerbase (although there are also plenty of free-to-play games that don't actually manage to gather a significant playerbase).

The developers of Verdun chose a hybrid approach: at some point their game had a free browser version and a paid Steam version and they all played together online. The free players didn't bring in a lot of money directly, but they made the game more fun for the Steam players, increasing sales there.

Even when not going free-to-play it is a good idea to not make a game too expensive. The average indie game seems to have recently gone up in price, but I would heavily advice against pricing a multiplayer-only game above $15: this will decrease the size of the playerbase. Selling more copies is more important for the long term income of a multiplayer game than the short term income of a higher price. Awesomenauts is $10 and we often drop its price heavily during sales, by as much as 90%. This boosts the playerbase enormously, more than making up for the low price.

Extreme measures

If you want to make a multiplayer game playable with below 10 simultaneous online players you might have to resort to extreme measures to keep something going. Several devs told me they promoted a specific moment, like one specific evening every week, as multiplayer evening. This way everyone comes online at the same moment, creating a somewhat lively community once per week. One dev even went as far as taking the multiplayer functionality offline altogether during weekdays, only allowing multiplayer during weekends.

I can imagine other, more subtle ways to get players online at the some moment. Like allowing players to send a challenge to other players who are near them in the leaderboards. The game then sets up a time for them to play against each other, giving them a good reason to come online at one particular time. Asynchronous multiplayer is also a good way to do this, but this only works with certain types of games. For highscore based games asynchronous multiplayer can be an excellent way of boosting the competition within the community.

There are many other ways to make the most out of a small community. For example, things like clever lobbies, a rematch option and showing the expected waiting time per game mode. Key is to consider matchmaking a real part of game design, something to brainstorm about and come up with creative solutions. If you just make something then you might end up killing your community much quicker than needed. If you aren't Blizzard or Riot then thinking about how to make the most out of a smaller online community is crucial to the success of your multiplayer game.