The Myth of The Indie Game Success Story Needs to Stop and Here’s Why

The high visibility of indie success stories creates the illusion that commercial success is accessible and achievable by all, disregarding the challenges most indie developers face.

by Veve Jaffa on April 27th, 2016

From "Fez": Gomez, the main character, has on sunglasses and a gold dollar sign around his neck, and leaps from a pixelated, grassy ground towards dollar signs in a starry sky.

Indie Fez: Screenshot from Fez with additional art by the author

Mainstream (AAA) games have been a billion dollar industry for over a decade, with widely recognized titles like the Call of Duty and GTA franchises setting the bar for commercial success. But in the last decade, indie games have steadily garnered attention and success, and contrary to industry standards, they often do not include gratuitous violence or harmful depictions of marginalized people, instead offering portrayals of underrepresented perspectives, normalization of marginalized identities, and narratives that explore complex and challenging topics.

As encouraging as the growing interest is, with increased awareness has come a great deal of misunderstanding. For every massive indie success like Braid, Limbo, and Fez (all of which grossed multi-million cross-platform sales) there are countless developers working in obscurity without financial support or recognition. This has nothing to do with a lack of brilliance or talent; the majority of systems and markets in place to facilitate and sell independent games are simply not equipped to handle diverse content, and meet developer’s needs. The high visibility of indie success stories creates the illusion that commercial success is accessible and achievable by all, disregarding the challenges most indie developers face. Here’s why the mythology around indie success is so harmful:

It Assumes We All  Start From A Place Of Privilege

Indie games have become synonymous with commercial success, yet that outcome is considerably rare and requires substantial economic privilege to begin with. Making games requires an exclusive set of skills and resources like access to hardware, game making and design tools, and either an education or background in programming. Overwhelming research and statistics show racial and gender minorities face systemic barriers gaining access to educational and professional opportunities in technical fields, leaving many with less training and job opportunities than our white male counterparts. This affects professional trajectories leading from programming degrees to employment with AAA games companies, which has proven a crucial starting point for many successful indie developers. Further, even with an increase of technical degrees held by people of colour and gender minorities, they do not always lead to escape from generational poverty or improve the odds of achieving financial stability needed to finance our own creative projects.

And that’s just tools needed to make your game. Game development, even games outside of massive AAA scale, need a budget to cover production costs and a solid marketing plan to handle release. Developers producing diverse or niche content need substantial support to insure their games find an audience, yet are overlooked in favour of less daring work with more guaranteed commercial success. That leaves many marginalized developers handling what are meant to be full-time positions: marketing and managing social media on top of all the creative and technical roles required to complete development. Without publisher or investor support, development comes down to either having the economic privilege to finance yourself, belonging to a privileged network (like supportive family) who can house you and alleviate living costs while you pursue development full-time, or take on the suboptimal and draining task of working full-time to stay afloat while you simultaneously develop your game.

What is rarely acknowledged is how many of the developers behind commercially successful indie games have financed their games after working for AAA companies, building industry knowledge and accumulating savings to put towards their independent projects. Creators of indie hit Gone Home worked on titles like Bioshock 2 before founding The Fullbright Company, supporting themselves for a year and a half on savings while they developed the game. Jonathan Blow, another successful indie developer who got his start working in tech, released his massive success, Braid in 2008 after three years of production and 200k of his own investment to cover development costs and living expenses. Needless to say, both of these games relied on substantial self-financing that many marginalized developers could not dream to afford.

From "Braid": The protagonist stands on a bridge over a chasm; the bridge has a large gap in it separating the character from a door with a large padlock on it. The scenery is lush, green and rich.: plants, trees and flowers.

Screenshot of Braid by Jonathan Blow: Developed for 200k and grossed over 4 million

It Erases The Toxic Environment Many Developers Face Working In The Games Industry

Even while indie games have proven there is a positive reception and eager audience awaiting games with diverse content, marginalized developers are still forced to work in toxic and oppressive environments, ones who lack institutional policies and support that prioritize their safety. Stories of overnight success omit the resulting harassment many developers face, especially when they’re marginalized, or exploring content outside of dominant, mainstream narratives. Far too often, the cost of trying to make a living as a marginalized developer is constant harassment and abuse.

After all, indie games were the point of origin for the longstanding conservative campaign of harassment directed at marginalized people working in games, (most recently and prominently, Gamergate), and our communities continue to serve as a breeding ground for hoards of obsessive bigots bent on ridding games of marginalized developers who threaten the white cis male status quo. Simply existing as a marginalized developer is perceived as a threat to games that happily cater to that status quo, despite the fact that we make a tiny minority of released games. The majority of marketplaces refusing to acknowledge or intervene in cases of large-scale, directed harassment means limited options for sales and severely reduced revenue, forcing marginalized developers to choose between their personal safety and ability to support themselves financially.

Amy Dentata of Patchwork Games outlines this problem in a recent post about why her new game, Trigger won’t be coming to Steam:

Small developers don’t have the money and resources to constantly fight back against this kind of nonsense. Tiny one-person outfits such as yours truly especially do not have the time and energy to fight this crap. Every single indie developer on Steam is one offended little brat away from being the next target. When larger companies keep silence, as they always do, we all suffer(…)

Until Valve does something about the ongoing problem of harassment on their service, I have no desire to be a part of it. My game has already received ire just from the title alone—yes, the hate mob is that hypersensitive—and I have no interest hanging out in a den of wolves.”

Unchecked, large-scale harassment not only sustains toxic environments but considerably impacts the ability to generate revenue and receive enough profit to support future projects. With limits on education, access to resources and safe environments in which to sell our work, being an indie game developer feels like the furthest thing from a safe financial bet.

An Unrealistic Few Represent the Many:

The way the contemporary history of digital games has been rewritten to posit gender minorities and people of colour as financially successful beyond systemic and social allowance, creates a false image of industry-wide success benefiting all who belong to it regardless of race, class, gender or ability.

Like in the AAA industry, commercial success rules the perceived worth of an indie project, leaving a lot of worthy and brilliant games unrecognized. As persistently capitalistic as its mainstream counterpart, profit is at the root of indie developer support, and just one commercial success can put a developer in the highly coveted position of Successful Indie Game Developer, marking them as an expert on design, mechanics and business, when in reality indie game success functions much more like a lottery than a meritocracy.

Co-founder of Rovio Mobile, the company behind Angry Birds has acknowledged the intangibility of commercial success:We thought we would need to do ten to 15 titles until we got the right one.” Though perceived as an overnight success, the development process that brought them to the billion-dollar idea was five years into founding the company, surviving the wait with pre-established wealth and familial support. The developer probably most ubiquitously associated with the indie game success story is Markus “Notch” Persson, one of the founders of indie game company Mojang, the studio behind the highest grossing indie game, Minecraft. He too spent several years working for games and tech companies until he was able to start his own in 2009.

In the case of both the development teams behind Angry Birds and Minecraft, there were games that sold unremarkably or outright failed as commercial successes, but economic privilege kept those studios from going bankrupt, where a marginalized indie developer would have no chance of bouncing back. The ability to fail, which is the overwhelming outcome for most games, is a luxury only a privileged few developers can afford. Marginalized developers don’t have the capital to gamble with, nor any room to make mistakes – an integral part of the creative process.

From "Lieve Oma": the protagonist searching for mushrooms with their grandmother in an abstract and lovely forest.

Screenshot of Lieve Oma by Florian Veltman: indie success stories often don’t represent amazing games like these

Don’t Just End The Myth, Challenge The Assumptions That Come With It:

Accepting the truth about indie games means acknowledging industry-wide infrastructure that predominantly supports the same white cis men who would easily bank commercial success in mainstream game markets. Recognizing the toxic work environments that marginalized game developers face while believing that indie games are a ticket to easy money and fame, reveals an understanding that privilege enables achieving the kinds of monumental success that is widely and wrongfully characterized as indie games success. It is an admission that successes bred from privilege and scarcity are poised as goalposts for all, even as they rest far outside of attainable range for the majority. Most of all, it means success is still accompanied by an image of a white man, and far too few people care to challenge those ingrained beliefs.

Those with the capital to create change want to be seen supporting marginalized developers, but only with low-cost publicity maneuvers like one-day game jams and hackathons or uncompensated invitations to industry events, which do nothing to support the development or completion of marginalized developers’ work. Crucial financial resources like game accelerator and incubator programs, development financing, and publisher support use the same narrow funding criteria as the AAA industry for their indie game investments, favouring white, cis men making commercially polished games with uncontroversial content. As industry-wide silence has become the overwhelming reaction to vicious hate mobs, the perk of betting on the white guy is his identity likely won’t affect the game’s sales or elicit ire and accusations about any hidden “PC” agendas. The same tired biases continue to determine who receives resources, even though indie game sales have proven impossible to predict.

The mischaracterization of indie game success as universal privilege ultimately harms marginalized developers the most, betraying the spirit of indie games: their ability to find their niche with an underrepresented audience. Remember, Jonathan Blow can proudly declare he makes games for “people who read Gravity’s Rainbow” and be celebrated for seeking diverse and discerning audiences, but let one trans game developer greenlight their game about mental illness and the comments section explodes with accusations of exclusivity.

If you’re a fan of indie games, do yourself and some indie developers a favour and dig deeper. Look for the titles who didn’t get released on Steam or a major console, or whose developers didn’t want to subject themselves to unsafe sales platforms. Find the gems that are hiding beneath all of the white male success stories, waiting to be discovered by their intended, if obscure, audience. If there’s a marginalized indie dev whose work you appreciate, please support it.

Chances are they could really use it.

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