Things are pretty tough in the mid-tier, as an indie game developer. I see a huge disparity between those devs that have been called ‘triple I’ indies (sorry paul!) and new entrants making their first game in unity. I also see a big gap between those III indies and the AAA developers. It seems game development is collecting into several bands, and I suspect a lot of it is PR related.
At the bottom (financially speaking) you have those indies making their first game, and selling a few hundred, maybe a thousand copies. They have zero PR budget and Zero marketing. They probably have coder art, and are doing literally everything themselves. They make up the majority of games still stuck in steams Greenlight pages, or have an app on the app store. A lot of them may be working on their games part-time, or are students, or very young. their living costs are young, they are idealistic, and presume their game is about to take off and make money. Statistically speaking, they probably wont, but a combination of youthful optimism and relentless confirmation bias means they are still working at it and are still assuming they will stay in the industry. The only PR they do is on twitter and reddit personally, trying to get people to play their game. The ROI is zero. These people lose money.
In the middle (again, only speaking financially) are the established ‘III’ indies with a few titles under their belts, or the ones who had a proper art and PR budget. They are probably migrants from Triple-A studios, with years of coding experience. They are aged 25+. They may have a small team, be working full-time, and are probably self-funded. They have some actual advertising budget, might hire a PR agency now and then, they attend trade shows with proper booths (not a laptop and a self-printed poster stuck to the wall), and have professional looking trailers. Their games sell 20-200,000 copies. Some of them are millionaires. A lot of them make a pretty decent living, and are likely to weather any coming game-crash or storms. They use google ads, reddit/twitter/facebook promotions etc. The ROI is pretty good, 200-300%? My company is in this tier.
At the top (purely financially :D) are the AAA developers. Their games cost millions to make, and sell millions of copies. They have full-time PR companies, with print-media ads, huge booths with people dressed up as game characters. They have massive site-takeover ads and streaming video ads. They have billboards in the streets, on buses, ads on TV, and their PR people guarantee these are the games that get written about in national newspapers and magazines. They get mentioned on TV in geeky segments in the news. The owners are multimillionaires. The staff are paid whatever they can get away with. The ROI is very good here, maybe 400%? Activision is in this tier.
Ok, so what’s my point?
My point is that it’s getting hard to move from one to the other. Yeah, minecraft is the mega-exception that proves the rule. I know a lot of people in the middle tier, and I’ve yet to see any of them break out of it in a big way. The gap between them and the AAA is huge. Maybe it’s just that the sheer money involved requires a different mindset? Rather than spend $100-200,000 on a game (I’m calling that mid-tier) then you have to spend $2,000,000, and the likelihood is you don’t have that cash sat there (some do…). That means borrowing, which means proper big investors, VCs, people wearing suits… proper accountancy rules & board meetings blah blah. Maybe it’s too much hassle, or not what those devs want to do.
The good news is that going from bottom to middle isn’t as hard. I think it can be done by angel-investor style funding, or the real plucky confident people who remortgage their house or sell everything they own. I think you probably need to spend $100-200k to make a game that pushes you to mid tier. That either sounds like a good deal, or terrifying depending on your risk-attitude. The good news is there are some indie devs who can fund games to that level, if you make a very good pitch.
It’s hard but I think middle->top is harder still. I pretty much know why I’m stuck in the middle. it’s manpower. I need to find people I’m prepared to hire full-time, or at least on long term full-time contracts. I haven’t done that. Yet.