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The future of indie games

Games are a fast-paced creative sector: tastes, trends and markets shift rapidly. At the same time, there are fundamental qualities that players look for and which can help guide your development decisions.

When thinking about the future, it’s important to consider the past in the correct context. Some analysts still point to the “video game crash” of the early 1980’s as an indicator that the game market is inherently cyclical, consisting of a series of escalating fads which cause oversaturation. Similarly, the recent discussion of an “indiepocalypse” has dominated headlines in the last few years, with many creators despairing over a lack of discoverability on storefronts.

However, just as the famous “crash” was short-lived, modern reports of gaming’s death are greatly exaggerated. Valve recently reported that more games are finding success on Steam than ever before, emerging areas such as VR continue to grow, and moves such as Epic’s entry into the digital distribution space are making waves that indie developers can ride to financial and creative success.

As well as being a perennial commercial force, games continue to evolve in their cultural role and public perception. Increasingly, games are recognised as part of our cultural heritage and celebrated alongside other forms of creative media: this will inevitably increase in the future leading to further opportunities for non-commercial games to make an impact. The rising popularity of esports and transmedia ventures (such as Netflix’s The Witcher series) also will provide ample opportunity for gaming to increase its reach.

So how can you think about the future in a productive and relevant way? Here are some approaches you could take:

First mover

When a new platform or technology emerges, there can be an opportunity to get a great deal of attention (and often upfront funding) by producing early titles for it. You will need to position yourself with great platform holder relationships and the technical expertise to take advantage of these opportunities, and there are obvious risks involved (the platform could flop, for example), but if you get it right this can be a strong move.

Fast follower

A highly original hit title in a new area often creates significant demand for subtle variation on a theme: players want a different flavour of the same experience. If you love a certain game and are deeply immersed within its community, using your intimate understanding of it to bring value to those players can be a great strategy.

True depth

Irrespective of secondary market factors, there will always be space for games which have real integrity and reward significant time investment. What could you do to create something that people want to have in their lives for a meaningful amount of time?

Building the catalogue

If you manage your business correctly and are willing to play the long game, you can do a lot to offset the inevitable ups and downs of the games market. Take a look at developer Jake Birkett’s talk How to Survive in Gamedev for Eleven Years Without a Hit - developing (and, most importantly, completing) quality projects within a sustainable framework could be a lot wiser than chasing trends.

The future of games will be shaped by those developers and distributors who are willing to take risks, often with new technology, but also with the content they produce and the audiences they address. Here are some points to ponder:

  • Are there emerging technologies which might shape the future of gaming? Think of micro evolutions, such as better haptics in VR, or macro shifts (like a viable direct brain interface)
  • Are there audiences or demographics which are largely underrepresented or underserved by current games? How could you bring them value and reach them?
  • What is something that a gaming audience will always enjoy, irrespective of the state of technology?
  • Take an existing genre that you love - what’s missing from it? What do players of those games want to do that they currently can’t?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introduction to Indie Games

UAL Creative Computing Institute