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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The sobering reminder that not all indies succeed

- Article by Andrew M.

Nintendo and Sony love indies, we're told. Developers such as Jonathan Blow the folks at Image & Form enjoy wild success on consoles, and we love to report on these heroes who are living our their creative dreams somewhat free of the constraints of commercial reality. After all, we're told, making a good game is enough to guarantee enough sales to remain in business as an indie.

And then of course there is Kickstarter, which to hear the advocates speak is the great equaliser in terms of gaining funding to make the kinds of games that an indie could never fund by themselves.

Problem is, the life of the indie is still a great risk and not everyone succeeds.

Launching last December, Fuel Overdose is quite possibly on track for a new global sales record. Despite some critical success, Fuel Overdose has sold a massive 600 units worldwide in nine months. That’s right, 600.

Now, we're not claiming that Fuel Overdose is some kind of classic game. In fact, we panned it in our own review of it. Our review aside, though, Fuel Overdose did hit a note with some other critics, and so it may seem a little strange that a game with some decent press could perform so poorly. It asks plenty of questions about how many other indie game developers are suffering the same fate.

Skander Djerbi, executive producer of Fuel Overdose and founder of indie publishing house I-Friqiya is incredulous about the lack of attention his game received. This experience may have even forced him out of the indie market and has left him somewhat bitter about the whole experience.

“That few sales does not even cover the localisation costs... and we are talking about a combat racing game here. I don't think that there will be a second indie production by I-Friqiya,” Djerbi said. “But let's say that we could produce a second game. I think that we would try to be backed by a publisher, which means we have to abandon the idea of being an independent production.”

We hear about so many success stories in the Wild West of digital publishing, but we rarely hear about the flops from start up indie companies, which are still more numerous than the successes. There's still no precise formula that can determine which side of the boat you'll fall in as an indie; Djerbi still cannot pin down a reason for his own sales disaster.

“The game definitely has flaws but that cannot explain such poor sales,” Djerbi said. “The reviews were mixed-up, some said that the game was a piece of crap, but many rated the game as good (7/10) or excellent (9/10), which means that there was a potential audience for our game. In average the game got around 6.5/10. So why did only 600 gamers decide to pay the $10 for Fuel Overdose?”

Still, Djerbi has a couple of ideas. “I think the main reason is because there are too many games on the market," he said. "I, myself, don't have the time to play with all the games that are on my to do list. I see many people saying 'Fuel Overdose, I have never heard of this game'...and that's the other issue: it's becoming extremely difficult to get some visibility in the media.”

“When I started the production of Fuel Overdose, I was naive to believe that as a PS3 game, the media would cover our announcements, but that was not the case. Truth is that, whether you like it or not, very few games and publishers other than the large guys get the visibility they need in the video game media.”

Djerbi also has an idea that will help the small indies find more reliable success in the market. He is calling for other publishers to publish their sales as well to show the true nature of the digital download market and allow other indies to better prepare for what to expect. Until then, Djerbi said, it's going to be possible to tell for sure whether the digital distribution marketplaces are really the lucrative opportunity that many claim them to be.

“Maybe Fuel Overdose is an exception and that's why I encourage publishers and devs to unveil their sales figures,” he said. “But I cannot help but notice one thing: there are very few indie devs that manage to produce a second game, maybe because they cannot afford to. Of course, when people hear ‘indie games’, they think of Hotline Miami and Super Meat Boy, but these are exceptions, and if things don't change it's going to be worse in the coming years.”

With so many titles in so many markets, it makes it hard to stand out. While some titles will always make it and some will fail, Djerbi argues that there are two things the indie market needs in order to thrive:

1) “Media visibility. I really insist on this. If the media, especially those that have a large audience, keep on focusing on a limited number of publishers, I don't see how gamers could take the risk of playing something different from time to time.”

2) “First parties and digital stores must give a real space to the indie scene. Braid on the Xbox Live Arcade made me realise that you can reach a global audience even if you're indie. But that was five years ago and now the digital stores are filled with remakes, sequels and DLC. So now not only do you have to compete against other indie games, but also against the 10th multiplayer map of the latest Call of Duty. And with the multimedia functions on these consoles you're also now competing with Spielberg films, Justin Bieber and Rihanna.”

- Andrew M.
Contributor
The sobering reminder that not all indies succeed
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