[Article] The Missing Middle

I thought this article was interesting, but I don’t agree with all of it. I think the strategy of releasing iterative games and building up your skills and tech is a good one (it’s what I was trying to do before Unity cut my legs out from under me). It seems that oftentimes indies take huge risks, biting off way more than they can chew, and end up crashing and burning. I feel bad when I hear stories of developers who quit their jobs to pursue game dev full time and end up not making it, but I wouldn’t generally encourage someone to take such a big risk.

I’ve also remarked before that the media and consumers seem to increasingly define “indie” by its most glitzy and expensive outliers. The hobbyists and bedroom coders making more humble games are virtually defined out of existence unless they make a viral hit, because it’s not profitable to talk about those developers.

But it’s not 1990 anymore, when we bought games from the few dozen options in shareware catalogues and bookstores. The author seems to take for granted that it’s not that hard to make $5-10,000 from a small game, when you’d probably be lucky to make 10% of that. I’m not sure if the author is angling this towards a small team working full-time, or a hobbyist working off-hours; that kind of money won’t go very far even for one full-time person, but for a hobbyist, it’s probably tough to make anything salable in just a few months in the first place.

Tower of Metal took me about two months to make at a pretty hectic pace, and that is a fairly rough game that can be finished in a couple of sittings. Maybe I should have done another iteration on the framework before I took on Minerva Labyrinth, but ML was supposed to be that next iteration. It wasn’t supposed to take as long as it has, although part of that is because life keeps getting in the way.

I definitely do advocate personally for smaller, months or <1year projects, but the reasoning for doing so stated in this article is a super nostalgia/rose-tinted. I sincerely doubt John Romero would advocate for the same development strategies he used back in the 90s. I think a lot of the stuff from the other thread in this board applies well to this too: Reusable game systems + Iterating on a "base"

The problem with mid-sized games isn’t really anything to do with the development cycle or length. Since it’s already assuming you are working out of your own pocket the timeframe technically can be unlimited. I think it would be a way better definition to think about ‘middle games’ as being something suited specifically to the audience or reach you know you already have. I mean generally I think people should just make the kinds of games they want to, even if it does take years. If you can only expect maybe 100-200 people will play your game, there are only so many concepts that really match that group - but worrying about that or not are both valid choices in terms of pursuing art. but if someone’s goal is to work towards doing it sustainably:

You should basically work with an expectation that any ‘release’ increases your player base maybe 20-30% from where you began last game, to be safe-ish about it. Things like sales numbers typically just scale proportionately to the point you started at, in terms of marketing. You can’t really bet on going viral. There is a kind of scary gray area where folks with small followings technically do have better freedom to do/make what they want, since there aren’t any general guidelines they’ve learned as to what would work well for their crowd. I think this is good, because you get a lot of interesting ideas out of just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, but it is what draws a lot of newer devs to overscope. A lot of the longstanding names in games start out a lot more experimental and end up reigning things in over time, instead only focusing on maybe a few key ideas per game.

Aside from this I actually also think that games do not take less time to make these days, despite any advances in making the tech better or more accessible. This is because producing a working game, and actually releasing something are two totally different things. The process of actually announcing it, navigating sales platforms, and social media etc. cut a lot into development and these are simply not problems that existed in the same way a decade ago. I mean sure you can spit out pong in 30 minutes, or maybe a platformer in a weekend with modern tools, which probably wasn’t true for the 90s devs, but are those games even worthwhile to put up anywhere?

There are some things from the ‘indie world’ I do miss - XBLA definitely is a pretty fond memory for most devs in terms of how well it went for anyone that could get in, and they actually got a LOT of support from MS at the time too. Derek Yu’s book on spelunky has a ton of firsthand accounts of what that was actually like at the time and it does sound pretty ideal. That being said all we really got out of it were the handful of games featured in Indie Game the Movie, and like, castleminer Z. there are so many tiny itchio games I’m way more fond of than Braid ahahaha.

Another sort of “golden” era this article skips on mentioning was Steam’s Greenlight. Looking back on it most people seem to agree now that it was kind of weird to gatekeep like that, plus in theory making it competitive could have ended up pretty toxic. it’s prooobably for the best that the process of getting onto steam is so much smoother now. BUT the concept of having to do a little campaign and get all your friends and other developers to support you on your path to steam I think had tremendous impact back then, and most games that got through the early days kind of did well by default. It basically forced you to take a primer on marketing and learn as you go, without a whole ton of upfront risk. Now steam is dealing with the oversaturation that every other marketplace has - I’m kind of undecided on what I prefer more overall.


Here are two things I think we really need for this concept of “middle games” to actually make sense (in terms of like, feeding and housing fellow game developers). I think both of these things could totally divulge into their own discussions later on:

  • more arts grants for game developers. I don’t mean this to sound bitter or anything, but I think there are a lot of success stories out there that most people don’t realize have at least part to do with arts funding, mostly outside of the US. I’m pretty sure at least one of the devs listed as success stories in this article even was at least initially supported that way.
  • there should be publisher options that allow developers to directly sell finished games, IP, source code, assets and all, to publishers or perhaps “the highest bidder”. The developer gets paid up front, and after that it’s up to the publisher to determine how to make money off it. We essentially lost out on this type of deal after Flash died and nothing similar has come back to replace it. This idea kind of sucks because obviously we always want to have control over our creations, and not have them turn into F2P freemium games or whatever. But if you want to pay rent while you work towards your actual dream game, something like that would be really useful. I also think it would do a good job at weeding out which publishers out there are actually worthwhile to work with. If a publisher is too chicken to set something up like this, it kind of shows they never knew what they were doing when it comes to selling games, instead just piggybacking off of actual talented developers simply because they got venture capital, and the devs have… rent.
    • tangentially, I think there should be more things like superhot presents where you can just get loose change basically in exchange for just throwing an extra logo in your game’s intro reel. This seems pretty ideal for situations where the dev is working out of pocket, but maybe needs a few thousand dollars so they can commission a friend to make art/music, translate the game, or other work which typically ends up getting done pro-bono. The problem I see with what’s currently out there, is that it’s very subject to sensationalism. Basically none of the games on superhot presents page scream to me like they would have been unsuccesful without whatever money they got from this. most are from already big names (for indie), so what was even the point?

I think # of sittings is actually a really good metric or indicator for thinking about scale that we don’t bring up enough. In the world of itch.io we are still undervaluing the impact that single-sitting games can make, ESPECIALLY ones you can play in a browser. Honestly if someone’s goal is to advance and sort of build up a following so that they can have a good foundation to start working on a longterm commercial game, they should probably just do nothing but single-sitting browser games. On itch people are like, magnitudes more likely to actually play a game if they can try it without the whole commitment of downloading, unzipping etc. It’s a little unfortunate but it makes sense in the end…

I’m not sure if I’d be able to do something like that myself, especially over multiple projects - I almost never come up with things that are at that scale which end up sounding like something satisfying to actually spend the time making. I’m sure there is a right balance for that though