Monday, July 9, 2012

The End of Indie Game Development on Android

I got back from San Francisco and the Google I/O developer conference there last week. Google was yet again gracious with the hardware giveaways, giving out Nexus 7 tablets, Galaxy Nexus phones, a Nexus Q, and a Chromebox.

 But the real takeaway for me was what I had seen happening to my indie business over the past year, and that's that indie game development for Android is pretty much dying. The main reasons are competition and discovery. Now that Android is a hugely successful platform, the major game developers have entered the market. Smaller devs simply cannot compete for visibility with limited or nonexistent marketing budgets. Coupled with the removal of the only free visibility channel (the Just In category), and new indie titles that weren't already hits on another platform are dead in the water. But this isn't just me whining in the wind.

I spoke to two different Google employees, one of which gave a talk on game development at I/O and who has served on the editorial team responsible for picking featured apps and games. I didn't want to sound like I was just bitching and moaning, so I asked him an actionable question: In his talk, he mentioned several things NOT to do as a game developer. If he were an indie developer like me, who had been successful the past three years but was now dying in the market, what would be his game plan?

 His answer was telling: Try to publish through one of the big game publishers.

 In other words, you can't make it as an indie anymore. He said in the past couple of years that developers had "been given a bit of a free ride." I'm aware of the realities of the market, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to do this for a decade or more, but I tried to make the point that there might be a middle ground, assuming that Google cares, which I think they should.

 Chris Anderson's The Long Tail is an excellent treatise on the revolution of digital marketplaces. He points out that nearly all markets have a long tail distribution, meaning there are a small number of products in a given market that are hits, a middle ground of moderately successful products, and a "long tail" of products that only sell a small number of units each. Because media was traditionally only sold in brick and mortar stores, where shelf space is limited, if you were a music seller in the 80's, would you rather fill your shelf space with the latest Michael Jackson album, or a plethora of obscure indie titles? The answer is obvious. But with digital distribution, shelf space is no longer an issue. Since inventory space is virtually unlimited in a digital marketplace, you can now offer all the obscure stuff you want. The issue then becomes discovery. If it's relatively easy for fans of obscure titles to find them, what will happen is that you'll still sell the mega-hits, but that long tail will get fatter, since you'll sell non-significant numbers of the obscure titles as well, increasing the overall area under your sales curve. In other words, purely hit-driven markets generally make less money than those with a fat, healthy long tail.

In the past year, Google Play has shifted into a more hit-driven market. By doing away with the only channel that would facilitate discovery of indie titles (other than the golden ticket of being featured), they've flattened out their long tail. People are not going to search for games or apps that they don't know exist. They will simply default to known quantities, such as Angry Birds or the latest Zynga or Gameloft game. Every single digital game store that I know of has a "What's New" channel, except for Google Play. Excluding that, I suggested to the Googler that they might add a channel for indie games, which the Xbox market has. He said he'd take that back to the team. And lest you think I'm alone, here's a bit from the Android Fireside Chat at I/O this year:
Q: For my new app I got 30 downloads on Android, 4,000 downloads on iOS. Probably because What's new section was removed from the Play Store. I understand you were getting a lot of spam but are there any plans to bring it back? 
A: Looking at it. We care about app discoverability. Launched recommendations, that should help.
Peer-to-peer recommendations can't hurt, but how are you supposed to get the ball rolling? I can get my family and friends to download and recommend my new game, but their social network will likely be very cannibalistic. And if I'd like people in Europe or Asia to see my game, recommendations aren't going to do squat.

 Killing visibility for new apps is making Google Play a more top-heavy market, hurting existing indie developers, alienating devs, making it much riskier to launch a new indie title on the market, and ironically, probably hurting the overall profitability of the market by thinning out the long tail. I'll be all right, even if my business doesn't survive another year. But I couldn't in good conscience recommend Google Play as a viable market to a new indie developer. As much as I dislike Apple, if I were recommending a mobile gaming platform for a new dev, I'd tell them they should focus on iOS first. And if one of Android's most successful indie devs is recommending a competing platform, you know things are really screwed up.


  1. I feel your pain, Derek. This just totally sucks. I thought Google was supposed to be more democratic than this, but then, oh well. Glad you have made a career of this for several years. That's truly cool. Hope everything else is good with you.

  2. That's disappointing, both for you and other developers personally, and for the platform.

  3. I agree with you Derek. I should start developing for IOS.
    Great to know you got Nexus tablet. I am planning to buy it. Let me know how it is .

  4. Naturally, each developer has a perfect reason for coming to the platform, so I asked the panel of indie developers how and why they got started.

  5. 1. We are oh-so-open
    2. omg there is spam flooding through this open door
    3. let's close the door completely because we can't admit we made a mistake and start curating the spam

  6. Not only that, but if you add that Android has the biggest piracy problem in the mobile market (even for the most obscure apps), indie devs and small studios just don't see the point in spending resources and efforts to promote their apps.

    Don't know about you, but it happened to me.

  7. I can only confirm what you say based on my (little compared to yours) experience. My recently released game sold poorly overall but still roughly 40 times better on iOS than on Google Play. I put up more detailed analysis of my Android sales on my blog at:

  8. What do you think of indie developers banding together and publishing games under a common network ? What would the difficulties be in getting indies to use such a network ?

  9. Piracy is a none issue, it's a finger pointing in the wrong direction for a distraction.

    If you are so worried about it, why not put some research on why it's happening, you would be surprised. (its a banking issue)

  10. businesses evolve to compete. Google Play needs quality to compete with the App Store, hence it's being very nice to large game publishers. Indies are left out.

  11. Piracy is a none issue, it's a finger pointing in the wrong direction for a distraction.

    If you are so worried about it, why not put some research on why it's happening, you would be surprised. (its a banking issue)

  12. I work over at Android Police. Send us a tip with your new app and we'll ALWAYS check it out. If it's good, we'll write about it, if it's not, we won't. I'm sure the same goes for other Android sites, and reddit. Don't rely on the Play Store so much.

    A good, polished app or game WILL get written about and between sites like AP and reddit, can easily get a few thousand page views. There's a whole world of internet out there hungry for new apps. Use it.

  13. Sounds like there's an opportunity for indie game developers to work together to promote their applications, either through a indie-centric app store with some quality guards, or through other cross-promotion. The challenge is clear, and it's before you. At least you know you can't count on the Play Store for visibility, so you can take that as a given and start working on other ways to create exposure.

  14. While I will whole-heartedly agree that app discovery sucks in Play (which is weird, considering Google specializes in presenting useful data to people) but to say that indie game development for Android is dying seems a little hyperbolic to me.

  15. hmm, your Google Play market account shows you only publish rubbish and idiotic apps, no wonder you can't make it.

    1. not sure what you're looking at, but the apps published under Polyclef Software seemed to have a healthy number of downloads with overwhelmingly positive reviews. based on those numbers, whether or not they're the types of apps you personally are looking for seems rather irrelevant.

  16. The nice thing about Android is that the Google Play Store isn't your only option. People can download your games or apps from other sources.

    That means there's space for something like Steam on Android that promotes indie games.

    Don't rely on Play store for discovery. Rely on other channels. Rely on the long tail of channels ;)

  17. Also, the thing about the 'long tail' that people miss is that it's difficult to tell in advance which items will actually be the big sellers. If the stuff in the long tail isn't visible, searchable and rankable (i.e. becomes more visible with good user feedback), then you are making the long tail invisible, and limiting your high sellers to the small number of 'preselected' items created by high-profile sellers. If, however, you make the long tail items visible, and able to rise in visibility based on merit, then you will find that many of next years big sellers come from what was previously the long tail. The big publishers won't like this, and will resist it, but it's a great thing for channels like Google Play, for customers, for indie devs, and for the diversity, creativity and economic health of the marketplace as a whole.

  18. Seems like many developers (especially "indie developers") never understand that marketing is essencial. Be it traditional marketing or social network marketing with viral loops etc.
    As a developer I support other developers but the days when launching an app and expecting it to get lots of downloads are over since long. How long ago did you see somebody launch a website and getting lots of traction without doing any sort of marketing or build in some viral feature?

    Maybe Indie devs should get together and figure this out together; create some marketing channels. Or maybe reach out to people and companies who are already experienced in this matter.

  19. Hi ,

    Great blog! Is there an email address I could contact you in private?

  20. Interesting information I haven’t been through such information in a long time.
    android blog

  21. This blog is truly awesome in all aspects.
    a total noob

  22. Android game development is one of the fastest growing trends in the smartphone industry. The flexibility of the platform is powering its popularity. The games developed in Android can be sold through multiple platforms. Thanks a lot.
    Android application

  23. Excellent article and well said Derek. I feel another problem is many developers continue to offer free games. By offering free it also brings the market value down for digital games. Fact is, anything (not only digital games) that is priced at .99 USD should not be hard to sell! So let's at least stay with the minimum of .99 USD and we will all make more profit.

    Also quantity could be a thought and maybe another way to get noticed. One small game may never be seen, 10 games may get a developer more visibility. Problem with this, 10 games can take years to develop and quality could become under par. Plus, spaming the market with below average products could become a problem.

    This said, on other markets with pc platform such as steam, Indie games are moving forward. Indie games are bigger then ever which is why Steam had recently chosen to get into it with the launching of Green Light. Reason being is originality and gameplay. Many gamers are finally getting tired of FPS, Sports and Racing games. These are what big game publishers continue to release and what is making Indie developers on PC comeback.

  24. Hi Derek,

    I am an Indie Developer, launched my game ( ) and feeling the darkness to even exist on Google PlayStore.

    All i am experiencing is PlayStore is becoming Garbage-Store. 80% of apps i see are stupid craps created just to render ads and earn money. Most of Games are nothing but CONSOLE ROMS encapsulated with an Emulator, which is illegal. They are getting loads of reviews and downloads from PlayStore.

    Those who are genuine making original games are dying out of visibility if they don't have funds to promote their app. I have reported many such apps to Google but i don't think there is any serious steps taken by Google.

    Even a simple programmer can do a check of FILE TYPE signature check and block a content. Like blocking NES,SNES,SEGA etc ROMS.

    Moreover PORN is getting so popular in PlayStore that very soon we will call it Google PornStore.

    Looks like dooms day has come for Console gaming. DS, PSP are falling because of Androids/gaming phones. Is new gaming era only Jump & Run games!!! or same repeated themes....

  25. Agreed. We published high quality Software (genuinely) that took 5 months of development. Really is better than the pretty awful offerings out there but getting visibility seems impossible! It really is that bad and makes me think it simply wasn't worth it. Market is full of highly ranked Junk Spam.