Before I continue, a little disclaimer: this post is about what I think gives indies the best chance at making a reasonable income from their games. If you don't care about that and just want to have fun making games, then none of this applies.
Too small games
Every day dozens of indie games are released. During big game jams this can even be hundreds during a single weekend. To stand out from this crowd more indies should focus on making larger games. If you and your team spend dozens of man-months on a single game, then that game is much bigger than most competing games. This way you aren't being compared to a dozen games per day, but 'only' a few games per week.
Too many gimmick-games
Lots of indie games are based on a super unique idea that is fun... for exactly five minutes. There are tons of games that purely resolve around some weird gimmick. This trend is fuelled by game jams, since it is often impossible to make more than that in just 48 hours. Such gimmicks can be fun and exciting, and can sometimes grow into larger products like the excellent World Of Goo. But too often they don't grow beyond a simple gimmick.
The true skill of the game designer isn't in coming up with something original, but in turning that original idea into a substantial game that is enjoyable for hours. And no, adding a highscore list to your gimmick-game doesn't solve this: very few people will be triggered enough by that to play longer (even if it does work for a few people who might play your game for dozens of hours to get the best score).
Not enough polish, depth and quality
Very few indie games seem to execute on all fronts. Looking at trailers it is rare to see a game that has interesting, original gameplay and a cool visual style and good animation and good audio and etc. A game can't be excellent if not all aspects are at the very least acceptable. Especially animation seems to be something that few indies get right.
Too many bugs
Many indie games launch with a lot of bugs. Early Access seems to have triggered a trend where bug fixing and polish isn't valued as much any more. It seems like many developers think we only need more features and more content. You might want to reply that Minecraft and DayZ were huge successes despite being really buggy, but this isn't the norm and not an example that should be followed. In general, good games sell better than bad games. Don't make a bad game.
Too small teams
All of the points above have one thing in common: you need to spend more time on a game. This is easier said than done of course. What if a lot of indies joined forces and formed larger teams? Ten people all making a game on their own could combine into ten people making one big game together. Not only does this allow making bigger and better games, but it also fixes the problem that one person can't be good at everything. With a larger team it is possible to have specialists on board, instead of only generalists.
We made our first big release Swords & Soldiers 1 with a team of seven people and spent a whole year on it, full-time. Yes, we were lucky that we released that game in a time when there was hardly any indie competition, but that isn't the only factor. With around 100 man-months spent on it (including interns), Swords & Soldiers 1 was much bigger than most indie releases today. So even in today's crowded market it would stand out at least a little.
To avoid confusion: by "bigger teams" I don't mean 50 people. I mean 5 to 15 people who work on a game full-time for something like 1 to 3 years. That is big for an indie studio but still minuscule compared to triple-A.
Too many side-jobs
A lot of the indies I meet make money through work-for-hire and then spend the remaining time on their indie games. I understand the necessity of this of course, but often it doesn't work. If you work on your game part-time, how are you ever going to spend enough time to make a truly polished game? It is possible of course, but not focussing fully on your main game makes it really difficult.
How to fund development then? For me personally the funding was really simple: I kept living with my mom until Ronimo made enough money to live on. This took a whopping four years! I wasn't the only one living cheaply back then: three of the other founders of Ronimo rented a single apartment together. Had we sought a normal job, each of us would have made enough to get a decent apartment of his own right away. If you really really really want to make it as an indie, you have to be willing to make serious personal sacrifices. (Note that my mom is great, so not being able to move out until I was 26 wasn't that bad.)
Too little focus on the craft
Making games is hard. Programming complex systems is hard, drawing anatomy is hard, designing puzzles is hard. To make good games, you need to hone your craft. This seems obvious yet in the indie scene there is very little emphasis on hardcore creation skills. I saw this recently at the Screenshake indie festival in Belgium: hardly any of the talks were about actual development. Of course there should be room for a conference that focusses on other aspects of indie games, but I do think it exemplifies a trend that the only indie conference of Belgium ignores the craft of making games altogether.
Unity and GameMaker are a big part of this: they have made it possible to make games without serious technical skills. This is great but if you don't have those skills then it is also extremely limiting. Many indies wouldn't be able to make tech that isn't available as a standard Unity plug-in. This limits your possibilities and makes it more likely that you will make something similar to what others are making. Our own game Awesomenauts and my hobby project Cello Fortress wouldn't have been possible without serious tech knowledge of respectively multiplayer and sound programming. Having the skills to make whatever you want opens up enormous possibilities to stand out from all of those who are limited by the standard features of Unity and GameMaker.
This point pains me greatly. Five years ago being indie was all about being original, expanding what games can be and delivering unique experiences. Today so many people are making pixel-art rogue-likes, voxel sandbox games and platformers-with-a-twist that it seems like 90% of al indie games fall under one of these very specific categories. Not to mention zombies... I think it is super lame that 'indie' is now often the equivalent of unoriginal me-too games. This also means that you are competing with lots of very similar games, decreasing your chances of success greatly.
Of course not everyone is doing the same thing, but too many indies are. There are opportunities elsewhere. For example, Reus and Banished each brought a unique twist to the god-game/management genre, and both sold really well. For some reason hardly any other indies were doing this genre so Reus and Banished easily stood out.
Stand out from the crowd
Luck is always involved in success, but my impression is that if you want to stand a decent chance, you need to have at least one of these:
- A better game than the competition
- A game that does something truly new
- Appeal to an underserved niche audience
- More marketing budget than the rest (and being pro at using it effectively)
That last one only really applies to big companies with big budgets. I think a company like Supercell simply bought the success of Hay Day and Boom Beach through the massive marketing budget they earned with Clash Of Clans. For an indie, the other three are the reasonable alternatives.
A great example of this is Ori And The Blind Forest, currently a big hit on Steam. Not only is it incredibly polished and beautiful, and thus simply better than most other games, it also serves an underserved niche: big metroidvania 2D platformers are rare. Luck is always involved, but this game had really good chances at becoming the hit it is now.
Don't blindly follow my advice! Instead, figure out your own path and find an original way of doing things. There are a million ways to be an indie and many can work. But please stop all making the exact same games and mistakes, and consider what I have explained here. Some of these things are really difficult to achieve, for reasons of budget, skill or inspiration, but that shouldn't be an excuse to not strive for them!
Special thanks to Ronimo producer Robin Meijer for discussing these topics with me and coming up with most of that list at the end. This is the second part in a short series on the state of indie. The first part was about luck and in a few weeks I will write about why I think indies should care less about financial independence.