The Jonathan Coultons of Gaming

I’m mostly a casual spectator of the gaming industry, with my experience limited to being a fan, so it’s been a delight to meet the people behind the games I love at GDC. At the same time, I’ve felt a kinship with these indie developers, having worked as a developer (and accidental entrepreneur) in the web industry for the last ten years.

One of the most jarring and frustrating differences I’ve seen between the web and gaming worlds is the dominance of middle-men: publishers and platforms trying to control the distribution of games. In the web industry, there’s nobody controlling distribution and I don’t need anyone’s authorization to launch a new project. But the gaming industry is dominated by gatekeepers. For consoles, you can pay through the nose for the privilege to be on Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network or the upcoming WiiWare, and then wait months to be released into the pipeline. On PCs, there’s no clear monopoly, with distribution fragmented between a handful of game download portals and distribution frameworks like Steam.

Or you can go it alone and sell directly to your fans through your own web presence but, for the moment, this is very rare. Why? There’s no clear answer.

The gaming industry today feels like the music industry of the recent past. Bands were desperate to get signed to a label, and financial success was elusive without a record deal. Record labels provide the funding to record an album, the marketing to promote it, and access into the well-established distribution pipeline of record stores and other retail outlets. In the last five years, these gatekeepers have lost relevance as musicians like Jonathan Coulton, Radiohead, and Trent Reznor have started selling directly to their fans through their own sites, or adding them directly to iTunes or Amazon.

Small indies like Bit Blot (Aquaria), 2D Boy (World of Goo) and Invisible Handlebar’s Audiosurf are like the Jonathan Coultons of gaming — bootstrapping their game development, doing their own promotion, and cutting out every middleman to deliver games directly to their fans. And it seems to be working, at least well enough for them to grow and keep doing what they love.

Clearly, this route doesn’t work for everyone. I talked to Jonatan Söderström of Cactus Soft, one of the most creative and prolific game designers working today. He releases an interesting freeware PC game nearly every month, but is struggling to survive at home in Sweden. In desperation and “on the brink of extinction,” he recently added ads to his site and asked his audience for $1 donations so he could eat. Talking to him, he reminded me of many other brilliant programmers I’ve worked with — motivated and talented, but almost pathologically uninterested (or incapable?) in self-promotion or business.

Bit Blot and 2D Boy both understand that while game design comes first, marketing can’t be ignored. They work with the media, speak at conferences, keep visible blogs, and connect directly to their community online. For example, Bit Blot’s “Seven Days of Aquaria” campaign offered new information and gameplay videos each day until its release. The result? So much anticipation and demand that their servers died on release day. It was a brilliant campaign that cost them nothing but their time.

As an outsider, it seems obvious that the costs (monetary and otherwise) of going down the publisher/platform route are too high. Like a record label, the publishers take a cut and try to own your intellectual property and distribution options. Developing for Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, and Playstation Network all have their associated costs and royalties too. Between 30-50% of revenue goes to the platform and the development costs for localization and testing are much higher. Even if your overall sales are 20% lower by skipping the distribution channels, it seems like you’d still make just as much money, with the benefit of more control and more time to focus on actual game development. (If you’re interested in the topic, Simon Carless wrote an interesting editorial earlier this month that ran some of the numbers.)

Whether you work in music, gaming or web development, the ultimate goal should be to do what you love without compromise, get recognized for your work, and not starve to death in the process. If your primary motivator is fame and getting your game in front of as many people as possible, regardless of the cost, it seems the only option for game developers is going to a major publisher and working with the big platforms. But if you’re happy making a healthy living with a more modest audience, the DIY route is more viable every day.

4 thoughts on “The Jonathan Coultons of Gaming

  1. I don’t think it’s rare for indie devs to try to sell directly to their fans, it’s just rare for them to survive that way. For whatever reason, so few gamers turn up at their sites waving credit cards, no matter how good the games are.

    Even Introversion were in danger of being unable to get by before Steam picked up Darwinia, and they had two brilliant critically acclaimed games under the belt at the time, both of which were sold from their site and had a retail release (without a publisher – they sold directly to the stores).

    Hopefully the market is getting softer for people in that situation, but it’s been absurdly hard to get by like this no matter how good you are, even very recently. The change is going to have to happen among gamers and on the web, rather than in the indie devs themselves.

  2. Hmm. It’s obvious that only a few indie game developers try to create ancillary merchandise such as shirts for an additional revenue stream, but even aside from that unrealized opportunity, it is clear that what musicians have right now that game developers don’t is a revenue stream from in person appearances like concerts.

    Perhaps something like paid participation in LAN parties or gaming tournaments could help?

  3. @ Michael: That is precisely what keeps us from really doing a 1:1 comparison of the average musician and the average game developer. I mean, musicians can do their thing in front of people. Who wants to pay to watch someone write code?

    It seems to me the time is ripe for someone to put together something like Jeff Rowland’s Topato Co. has done for webcomics, but aimed at indie game lovers.

  4. “Who wants to pay to watch someone write code?”

    That misses the point I was trying to make. Who wants to watch musicians compose songs, after all?

    The analogy I was trying to make is that maybe game developers can *play games* in front of (or with) paying audiences.

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