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.