Dear Indie Developers: Help Us to Help You


(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

At a recent GDC talk,  Terry Cavanagh lambasted the gaming press for its failure to cover interesting indie games, especially games not made primarily by straight white guys. Claiming we need curators, not journalists, Cavanagh questioned whether such outlets as the very one you’re reading now should be considered the “curators” of videogame content, given their failure to cover certain types of games.

“We need curators,” he said. According to him, those curators need to be fellow game developers. Another member of the panel — Free Indie Games writer Porpentine — added, “I’d say that it isn’t that women and queers and people of color aren’t making games. It is that they are not being covered sufficiently.”

Fair enough. I’ve gotten to cover very few games by those named demographics in my years on the job. In fact, I can recall off the top of my head writing about Anna Anthropy’s Lesbian Spider Queen From Mars and … and I think that’s it. However, here’s the thing — I knew Lesbian Spider Queens From Mars existed. I was aware of Anthropy’s corporeal presence on this planet. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the many, many indie developers who toil in the shadows, release their game, then do very little to let the world know it’s out there.

Personally, I’d love to cover more indie games. I’ve gotten so sick of big publishers and the retail console market of late that I’m turning more and more to indie development to give me some faith in the medium. In fact, most outlets, contrary to accusations from the likes of Jonathan Blow, cover indie games with excitement — the ones they know exist. It always strikes me as odd that the gaming press is accused of ignoring indies at the same time games like FEZ, Braid, Castle Crashers, Retro City Rampage, and Limbo are fawned over and showered with accolades by reviewers and news writers alike. The difference between those games and the tons of games that go ignored isn’t some sort of bias or agenda, nor is it an “anti-indie attitude” (some devs believe that’s the reason), it’s simply that they know the games are there. The indie games that get famous weren’t picked out of a hat — they were loud enough to be heard and good enough to stay the distance.

Here’s the thing — there are THOUSANDS of indie videogames launching all the time. It’s harder to keep track of that market than it is to keep track of the so-called “AAA” market space. I’m struggling just to ensure a fraction of Steam’s Greenlight successes get reviewed on top of everything else, and even then, half the Greenlight games I’ve picked out, I’ve never seen anybody talk about. They simply got lucky enough to catch my eye among the many items on display. I’ve never seen an email from a developer, or an interview with someone. Their makers may be doing that, but clearly not enough to where I’ve encountered anything. The old “If you build it, they will come” attitude is bullshit. If you build it, and decide to let the game do all the talking, guess what? Nobody will hear it.

At the GDC talk, it was suggested ”journalists are interested in an interesting story more than an interesting work.” This is a contradiction — interesting works are interesting stories. We want them. We’re starved for them. It’s hardly surprising that, once one person spotted Surgeon Simulator 2013, it resonated throughout the usual blogs in a day. That’s one hell of an interesting game, and thus the interesting story writes itself. If you have a unique game that will befuddle, intrigue, compel and strike debate among our readers, of course we want to cover them. We’d be fools not to.

It’s all very well to sit there and blame the press for not supporting you, for not being “sufficient” for your needs, but you’ve got to meet us half way. If you don’t want to work with the press, if you truly believe only game developers should be curating and talking about your games, then fine. Do that, and leave us out of it. Given my experience, though, game developers haven’t been doing that hot a job of talking about their own work. You can certainly enter a gated echo chamber and talk to each other about your games, but that’s not going to be much different than what’s happening now, so don’t expect a surge of success by going down that route.

When I see a game I like the look of, I’ll be behind it every step of the way. Games like Owl Boy, Awakened, Among the Sleep, these games speak to me and I want to speak about them, even if an article on them won’t get a fraction of the traffic of some Battlefield 4 trailer. People often forget that games media writers are gamers too, and there are many of them with many different tastes. Finding the right outlet that’ll be excited for your project is important. The bigger companies do that, and in an online age where promotion can cost very little and even amount to just sending emails, there’s no reason indie developers can’t be doing that too.

It’s not like everybody couldn’t do more, or course. We in the press can always do more. In lieu of indie devs promoting their games, we need to keep our ears closer to the ground and seek out these unsung games that have all the potential, but none of the advertising. There are outlets that do a great job already (Rock, Paper, Shotgun springs to mind) and everybody could stand to follow their lead. Those of us that care about the indie scene have to pay more heed to the indie scene, to dedicate some time to actively scouting out these games. If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, and all that.

That said, indie devs would do well to appreciate what they’re up against. I personally get emails and phone calls from dozens of mobile game developers in any given day. My inbox is swamped with Kickstarter this, and Kickstarter that. One merely has to blink and a new horde of retro-themed puzzle platformers have appeared on PC. There are only so many hours in a day, and writers have to eventually make the call — which games have caught my eye, which games will catch the readers’ eyes, which games are putting themselves out there and getting my attention? It has to be like that. No game is entitled to press just because it’s indie. To cover every indie game launched in a single week would take way more than a week of doing nothing — nothing — but covering those games only.

If that’s not good enough for you, I’m sorry, I truly am. That’s reality, though.

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9 Comments on Dear Indie Developers: Help Us to Help You

Entitled

On April 1, 2013 at 8:33 am

Oh, that changes everything! I’m sure that the only thing holding back indies from promoting their games more, is that they haven’t been told to do so by Jim Sterling.

Jim Sterling

On April 1, 2013 at 8:35 am

Do you need Jim Sterling to tell you how op-eds work?

Michael Hartman

On April 1, 2013 at 1:45 pm

Jim,

For an op-ed that was impressively balanced. You present the point that “indie games should get more coverage” while also explaining why that is challenging from the game journalist’s point of view. Nice work.

To keep this from being simple esoteric, I’ll ask a specific question:

What is the best way for an indie developer to get YOUR attention/interest for covering their game?

Specifically:

1) What method of contact.

2) Do you want a gameplay video, a demo build, or simply a description (with or without screenshots) for starters?

3) How much do you want to know about the company? A little? A lot? Just the interesting parts? Nothing?

I know that one of my personal failings when reaching out to media is I pummel them with too much information. I assume that odds are 99% of my mails will be ignored, so if someone actually reads it I want them to get the WHOLE STORY. I’ve been trying to work on this.

We had a booth at PAX East and met some media who seemed to love our current and soon to be released games. Our sales have been good. We sold out completely at PAX. I feel confident in our games. I just need to figure out how to get our game in the hands of media folks who would take an interest.

Thanks for writing this column,

-Michael Hartman
President & Founder, Frogdice
http://www.frogdice.com
Our Worlds, Your Imagination – Since 1996

Jim Sterling

On April 1, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Michael:

I can only really speak for myself, but I’ll draw from the games that have caught me lately.

I’ve found Twitter ends up being almost easier for me than email, since I get so much work email. As impersonal as it is, Twitter’s so connected to my browsing and general work it’s often the fastest way to get attention.

Compelling key art is usually a big plus. While video obviously does a good job of showing what a game’s all about, if I’m scrolling through a line of games, an initial bit of striking and original art is going to stop the mouse wheel faster than a video still. After that, video is usually the way to go.

Company info usually doesn’t matter so much. Readers wanna know more about the game, unless the studio has a really interesting story in and of itself.

That’s just me. Hopefully that didn’t come off as patronizing or anything.

Cheers,
Jim.

Michael Hartman

On April 1, 2013 at 11:36 pm

Jim,

That was incredibly helpful. Thank you.

Learning what works well for members of the gaming media is very valuable and important.

If I have to start making 3 or 4 different “landing pages” about our games, tailored to different types of preferences, I will do it and consider it more than worth it.

Like many indie devs, I often lament how hard it is to get covered. But I consider it my duty to LEARN how best to communicate with media so I can make their job easier. I feel like if I can do that, I’m a huge step closer to getting our games covered.

Thanks tons for your insights,

winterwolves

On April 1, 2013 at 11:51 pm

Well for example, I tried to find a way to contact you but I failed. How do we (indies) contact you or your website to submit news ?

Jo-Remi Madsen

On April 2, 2013 at 5:20 am

Hi Jim, I read your article and thought I’d put a word in from our personal experience with spreading the word on Owlboy, as I think the point you’re making here is really important for upcoming developers to keep in mind. I put a few word in here: http://dpadstudio.com/joremi/

Ron Whitaker

On April 2, 2013 at 7:17 am

@winterwolves Anyone can submit news to Game Front. Just email tips@gamefront.com.

Josh Dombro

On May 23, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Does this not apply to mobile developers then? “I personally get emails and phone calls from dozens of mobile game developers in any given day” seems to imply that you don’t need any more of this. I know you tend to stay away from mobile, so speaking in general terms, would you say that mobile indy developers are so common that this advice doesn’t apply? Thanks for writing this regardless.