Debbie Bestwick explains why the term ‘indie’ could hinder your chances of success

The curse of ‘indie’

I find writing this specific column difficult. We soon celebrate our 25th anniversary at Team17 and we will also celebrate our most successful year to date as a business.

I should be happy, but I’m not. I’m concerned for indies.

When I started our third-party label, I wanted to disrupt the traditional ‘publishing model’ our industry had grown used to. It was out of date, it hindered creativity and, truthfully, had left me with my own fair share of horror stories over the years. Now it’s become the very essence of who we are as a company, and hopefully we are helping make the world a better place for our fellow games makers. 

It’s for this very reason, I’ve chosen to focus on an area I strongly believe is now hindering your business if you are an indie today. 

These days, commercially, indie games fall into two areas for me. Those with ‘full priced’ sales below 10,000 units per platform have ‘failed’, whereas titles that have six and seven-figure unit sales per platform are ‘successful’ and, hopefully, sustainable in the long-term.

How many of you have asked yourselves recently why X or Y platform is specifically showing massive sales fatigue, despite a very strong install base? Or why your month one sales are low, despite amazing press awareness, above average Metacritic and high-profile platform/distribution store visibility? Yes, lots of you.

Indie perceptions

We can all blame platform and distribution subscription programmes, Greenlight, triple-A publishers’ digital catalogues, bundles, discoverability, press coverage and a dozen other factors. But could it possibly be that your game just isn’t good enough? Or do gamers see the vast majority of indie games as low worth, low quality or something they will pick up when they’re cheap or free? 

It looks as though we’ve hit a point where the vast majority of gamers see indie as something that’s either cheap, portrays low production costs, doesn’t deliver anything new or that you as a developer are relying on the ‘indie’ tag that, let’s be honest, is over used. 

The next 24 months are going to be worrying for indie games makers – and with them, publishers and games labels – as even past successful teams will struggle to replicate previous success. We’ve already seen numerous examples of this so far this year. Some may say it’s second game syndrome, but let’s look at the bigger picture. 

Just being a good game isn’t enough to succeed today. You should look incredibly closely at the games you are making right now and ask yourself, being brutally honest: why are you making this game? 

This is the time for every games maker to fully understand just what ‘unique selling point’ means. Sorry for sounding like a publisher, but this is important: slightly better graphics, faster frame-rate, more levels, and a better soundtrack than game X doesn’t give your game a USP. 

As a label, we have been planning for a while to ensure that both 2016 and 2017 are equally successful years and, as a result, hard decisions have been made specifically regarding the games that will be released under our banner. It’s been incredibly hard for me both personally and professionally, as I want to help as many developers as possible. PlayStation’s Shahid Ahmad told me at the start of this year that the hardest part of my job would be saying no to developers. He was right: it hurts.

Obviously these tough decisions do not mean gems like The Escapists won’t have a chance to come to market. But they will be supported by strong finances, great marketing and professional development support from our Label team to give them the best chance of success. 

As much as I dislike that ‘P’ word (publisher), the ‘I’ word (indie) is getting very close. In fact, we believe ‘indie’ is hindering our chances of success and so, as of now, Team17 will no longer use the word ‘indie’ directly in any of our sales or marketing activity, unless one of our partners wishes it to be that way on their game.

Our development ethos, however, shall remain as it always has been: indie as in independent.

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