pulling trolley

In this episode of Dialogue Tree, Eric Brasure interviews game developer Jonas Kyratzes about the reactions surrounding Steam’s Greenlight and what it says about both indie games and videogames in general.


02:10 “I thought this is very peculiar because there’s no real system for checking what people are submitting…”

03:40 “A lot of indies are struggling to make it.”

08:50 “You can say ‘I’m a hippie’ or whatever – then a couple of years later they’ll be selling you little hippie badges…”

10:20 “I think it’s a pretty normal blind spot for people who have money.”

18:30 “It’s impossible to get a $25M movie financed but you can get a $200M movie financed more easily.”

20:00 “It’s not pixel graphics. It’s not 3D graphics. I don’t know what it is, therefore it’s bad.”

21:50 “You’re told this can’t be successful.”

24:00 “I think games… more than any other medium, are obsessed with categorisation to such a degree.”

25:00 “Even a negative review from a major website is more likely to drive traffic to you, and to get you sales, than some small site.”

26:30 “…and to them, the history of indie games begins with Minecraft.”

30:40 “People get very angry when you suggest that maybe something is wrong with the [capitalist] system.”

31:50 “…but the ship is still sinking.”

33:50 “…I don’t see most people claiming that the greatest work of literature in human history is Twilight.”

37:00 “In general, we see [games] more like something which is ‘used up’…”

38:30 “The mainstream gaming industry is so obsessed with realism that their games look like shit after ten years.”

44:10 “But people are starting to think… why am I working myself to death for, you know, a few cents?”

49:50 “…while the systemic process that creates a million poor African children goes on unchecked.”

51:40 “That’s pretty much human history right there – unlikely, but not impossible.”

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28 thoughts on “Dialogue Tree: Struggling to Make It

  1. I think this is one of the best Dialogue Trees – another best one is the replay next week. I have so many thoughts on this one – I think, Eric, we should talk about it. Yes, let’s do that. Loved your nod to Fifty Shades of Grey being the actual pinnacle of literature. I just realised Jonas should be a Cart Life character. He’s a great fit.

    The comment about small sites not providing traffic made me sad. I mean, I knew that anyway and it pains me whenever I try to raise awareness for a game like qrth-phyl, The 4th Wall, etc. etc. But I think having *lots* of small sites talk about a certain game will be a catalyst for sales – help raise buzz.

  2. Oh, we’ll talk about it all right, Joel. We’ll talk about it.


    If there’s ever a Developer’s Edition of Cart Life, I hope that Jonas gets in there as a playable character. Hofmeier! Make this happen.

  3. Regarding small sites raising awareness – I think it *can* happen, and your efforts certainly had a major impact on Cart Life. But in my personal experience, the numbers just don’t match up. Even a rave review (and TSWCE has gotten quite a few) produces only one or two sales for me. I got more sales from Terry announcing the cancellation of Nexus City than from several amazingly positive reviews together.

  4. @Jonas: Wondering if you think that’s singular to games or internet in general. Like, do rave reviews of indie movies only generate one or two sales? Gut says no, but I have nothing to back that up.

    Raises the question–is there something wrong with how we’re all approaching this?

  5. I don’t think there’s something wrong – it’s just a law of numbers.

    Say you have 500 followers. That’s my current aggregated estimate for Electron Dance across e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and RSS.

    If you write about something, you might be lucky to get around 25% to read it – some find the title/précis attractive enough having noticed you’ve posted something. Write something special then it might go viral although, typically, when I write about some off-the-beaten-track indie game, traffic and retweets are lower. When I wrote about Dishonored last year, traffic was high, but Zaga-33 and qrth-phyl generally didn’t get read that much despite some friendly retweets.

    Of that 25%, perhaps only 1-5% may actually go out and download a demo or buy the game. There are so many games to choose from and I couldn’t be hyperbolic *MUST HAVE* about every game I talk about, because pretty soon everyone would get bored with me. You can’t force people to spend money.

    And who ends up retweeting great articles about indie games? Inevitably the developers themselves which is helpful for the small site but less so for the developers’ sales (preaching to the converted).

    From what I’ve gathered, what helps indie developers more are co-ordinated strikes across multiple sites which is why PR likes to get reviews or previews done in short periods. It creates the illusion that everyone is talking about this great game so it must be good. Whereas a single point of well-written positive light in an ocean of dark just comes off as “one blogger’s opinion”.

    The likelihood of readers even clicking an article about an unknown game drops like a stone, so there’s a sense where indie game bloggers should co-ordinate their articles to boost traffic. Every site that managed to drive sales – Rock Paper Shotgun, Total Biscuit, Yahtzee – have an enormous base of readers. If you want the power to help indies, you need to have the audience first.

  6. I forgot to say that my made-up estimates means an Electron Dance article might currently lead to 1-5 sales.

    Cart Life was a special case because I was enlisting others: I went after RPS was probably the breakthrough moment although it did go back to sleep for rest of the year.

  7. I don’t know. I’ve been thinking that “serious games” might be a VERY niche interest, like opera, or classical music, and we’re all waiting for a breakthrough that is never going to come. I hope I’m wrong, but…

  8. This was a really great interview – good work by both Jonas and Eric. Impressive.

    Depressing about numbers, though, ugh. I’ll end up running the “will anyone buy a thing I made” test at some point this year I think. I get pretty good numbers for my games while they’re free, and coverage makes a huge difference (though yeah, not so much through the “small” blogs) to how many people take a look. There’s also a big difference maker over time of just how many links are out there floating around – you end up with that kind of stable flow of people meandering into the site. Don’t know what kinds of buying decisions people like that are making though. It’s all an absolutely mystery to me.

  9. Pippin, same thing here – tend to get people wandering into Electron Dance from links around the web all the time. Marvel Brothel still feeds my traffic, although sex game hunters are less likely to hang around.

    Several retweets from “influential” people are what boosts the scores on the doors, or a link from the right place. The Sunday Papers is variable, Critical Distance only tends to do good business if you’re at the top of the list.

    Look forward to your pay experiment. =)

  10. Yeah, influential tweeters are big news for traffic for sure. I don’t know, again, about connections to money. I assume you just divide traffic by like 100,000 and you get the number of people who’ll bother to buy something you made!

  11. A really interesting interview that I think I will listen to again soon. It’s made me realise I need to update my RSS portfolio. I need more of these discussions around intersectionality in my videogames. Yes, please.

  12. @Pippin The thing about traffic of course is that it’s free to click. It’s like sending a bunch of people to a newsstand to gawk at the paper. Maybe we need a “you read, you buy” policy for the web?

    @ShaunCG I don’t know what “insectionanality in my videogames” means but it sounds smart and I like being thought of as smart so I’ll go with it.

  13. I dunno man, intersectionanality sounds pretty fun too.

    It was in reference to Jonas factoring in discussion of his politics along with his games development; his opinions around social change, business practices, critiques of other sites or devs or people. Maybe I’m just looking in the wrong place but I’m not too used to seeing openly socialist developers (or critics!) in videogames. And yet so relevant.

    Traditionally I’ve seen the term in reference to political activism, e.g. calls for feminist or socialist or anti-racist activists to form alliances with one another. Find the points of confluence where their critiques and causes overlap. It’s a term in increasingly common parlance these days, which makes me happy. I might even tie this comment back to another recent ED post by observing that intersectionality is really just an understanding of broader context. 😉

  14. @Eric Yeah, who knows really. I always secretly hope that old school patronage will come back somehow, particularly for people like Jonas who need that kind of support. Probably not a going concern though, really.

  15. @ShaunCG Doesn’t it, though?

    I agree with you that this is unusual for videogames. I strongly believe it would be beneficial to have more of it, though. It’s hard to find strong political statements in games, and games have the power to not show us, but have us identity with, what it’s like to be someone else.

    @Pippin Patronage would be a solution for some people, but it’s not an institutional one. I keep thinking about Jonas’s point that charity isn’t a solution for systemic problems.

  16. This was a pretty good interview, though marred by his total lack of economic understanding.

  17. Jonas. It’s kind of a big topic to get into here, but basically, he blames capitalism for his lack of success, claiming that not enough people buy his games because they don’t “get it” or the media doesn’t get it, while ignoring the obvious, which is that his games don’t have a wide appeal. They might be different, artsy, and unique, but the monetary value of anything is only reliant on the value that others give it. If the market is saying “Jonas, your games aren’t what we want,” how can he blame anyone other than himself? Either he is trying to make unique niche art and accepting the fact that doing so limits his target audience, or he is trying to make money.

    He blames the “media” for not appreciating him and “rich people” for being rich(?), and that these two are the sources of all his problems, instead of owning up to his personal decision to make games that don’t sell well.

    This has nothing to do with the quality of his games, but the cultural demographics. It’s unfortunate that the average IQ is about 100 (which means half the population falls below that), and they truly do want the lowest common denominator type media. So many terrible, terrible, terrible movies come out and are box office hits, while many great movies don’t even make it to many theaters. It’s because most people don’t want to see those great movies because they’re, frankly, not smart enough to understand them.

    His solution is a vague “socialist revolution.” He wants society to provide him with food, shelter, clothing, water, and so on by mandatory force, yet there is no mandatory force for him to provide society with anything of value. It’s an unfair distribution of labor and trade.He wants to declare the value of his work. He wants to decide that his work is worth X, regardless of whether or not anyone else values it at that. We’d all love to stay at home, doodling in our coloring books, while everyone else takes care of us. That’s the mentality of a child.

    The mentality of the adult is: I want X, I have to pay for X. If your art isn’t getting you enough to pay for X, then you either make different art you accept what your art buys you. Capitalism is what cuts the cream from the crud. It’s what demands artists to make art that people want, or those artists go with very little – because they’re offering very little. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best painter in the world if your paintings are of children being tortured. If no one wants your art hanging up in their house or their gallery, then why should they have to pay you for it?

    Again: If you’re making stuff people don’t want, why should they pay you for it?

    Why? Because you think you’re a genius? Because you think you have something new for the world and they should appreciate you by default?

    He argues that rich people sit around doing nothing all day, yet very few rich people do that. He should read a book titled The Millionaire Next Door. In it, it shows how most millionaires are average joe types who bust their ass and work day and night on their businesses. And their business is one in which people demand the service or goods of. What they’re offering is what people want. This notion that rich people need to “pay their fair share” is nonsense. They did pay their fair share – it’s how they got rich. They paid in labor, services, and goods. Apple didn’t get rich by doing nothing. They got rich by giving to society in exchange for what society would give to them. That’s capitalism, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

    He even agrees that without Steam’s $100 fee, there was a lot of shit and inappropriate material. That’s his socialist revolution: being drowned out in a sea of garbage no one wants. In what way does that promote quality? It doesn’t. It puts everything on equal ground regardless of merit, quality, or demand. His dream of a ‘new system’ where it doesn’t matter how good your art is or how much people actually want it, yet you still get ‘paid’ to do it is silly. Maybe my art is drinking on the beach: “It’s performance art! Oh whatever, you just don’t get it. It’s a special kind of art. It’s above your head. Now where’s my check?”

    Steam’s solution to an abundance of crap was to put a monetary fee on it. That’s the only motivation for the fee: to cut down on the crap. This is capitalism working. If people dont think their spam is worth wasting $100 on, they wont post it. I personally think the fee is too high (especially since, as i understand it, this is only to submit your game for possible acceptance), and that they should lower the fee. $10 or $20 is a reasonable enough cost to keep the spam and porn out.

    Anyway, I ranted long enough and longer than I intended to. The short of it is that it would do him some good to study up on economic models and the world’s current economics before throwing around words like ‘capitalism’ as if it were a horrible sin and blight on humanity. It only serves to show his economic understanding is purely emotional.

  18. @Garret I don’t want to speak for Kyratzes, so I won’t, but I think you might find his writings on the Greenlight controversy edifying: “The One Hundred Dollar Question” and “Addendum on Classism”. They’re linked in the body of the post.

  19. I don’t want to delve too much into whether capitalism works or not because, as you said, this is a pretty big topic. Jonas has plenty of writings on his own site to address his side of perspective. Even though I work on a trading desk, I also have plenty of issues with the economic structures we toil under that promote rentier capitalism and the like…

    The usual way to make money off niche products in capitalism is to raise your prices. You’re a rarity, so price yourself that way. Vic Davis has done this for Cryptic Comet. But in the age of F2P and discount sales there is such negative sentiment around developers charging higher prices even if it means they have to go hungry. I’ve heard of so many cases over the years I’ve been writing where devs who have written critically acclaimed games are struggling to survive on sales.

    You’ve misconstrued Jonas’ point on the $100 fee because he saw there was a problem immediately with Greenlight spam (as per the podcast), he just didn’t think the fee was the right solution. (Anyway, this is kind of moot now as Valve have recognised Greenlight is not the right solution to their original problem and are going to shut it down at some future point.)

  20. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve listened to the episode, and my understanding of economic theory is very week, but there are a couple of points in Garrett’s thing that do sound true. In my general reading peoples’ writings, and in talking to people at Indiecade, I noticed a LOT of people who are wondering why the Big Bucks aren’t in their hands. John Sharp’s talk about indie games and punk rock had, as one of its key points, that a lot of niche scenes are made for themselves–that punk, at its roots, wasn’t especially interested in speaking to anyone but the kids in the room. That punk values were able to be understood, commodified, or appropriated by other groups is a side effect of said values resonating with people greater than the intended audience, but there are millions of scenes which legitimately won’t have any resonance to the mainstream community.

    Everyone wants to get their art to a large audience, and everyone wants to be able to live off of their pen, but let’s face it: Making weird personal indie games, writing bizarre videogame crit, all of the things we do and read–it might not make us money. Any time I broached that subject at Indiecade, the immediate response is, “But look at Fez! Look at Super Meat Boy! Look at Braid” It’s true: Some indie games get so popular that Swirsky and Pajot make glitzy 90-minute commercials for them. But that’s like me saying, okay, fun. got super popular. Maybe my band Riot Fox (riotfox.com) will be on MTV.

    It ain’t happening. I see the indie scene–both criticism and games–wanting it both ways. We want to make weird personal games that express ourselves, and we also want mainstream appeal. I dislike the complacency in the “people have an IQ of 100 so you gotta make shitty things”–I think we as artists should be edifying people, but we also have to recognize that the larger world might not be receptive to what we’re making.

    It’s shitty. Everyone should be playing Cart Life and The Sea Will Claim Everything and reading Electron Dance. Most of the art I love will never have a wide audience. The Internet has fucked us–particularly writers and musicians, of which I happen to be both–beyond all understanding. Your art will, most likely, never feed you. The way to deal with that is, I guess, to accept that you’re going to die in obscurity. I don’t see this as a political or an economic issue: I see it as we have six billion humans on this planet, every single one of whom wants to accomplish Something, and most of it is necessarily going to be overlooked. Most likely what you make will be as well. Whether or not you continue to create, having accepted that fact, determines whether or not you’re a Real Artist, I think. Real Artists are not the ones who bravely fight commenters while people whispily praise the dishonest bullshit that they regurgitate. Real Artists are the ones that don’t give a fuck how people receive their work.

    I don’t think I’ve ever met a Real Artist in my life and I don’t ever expect to.

  21. Sorry, Garret, but I think you’re mixing up a variety of things that I’ve said, and your understanding of socialist theory (and critiques of capitalism) is extremely muddled – which is why you fall back on clichés like “he blames capitalism for his lack of success” and “capitalism is what cuts the cream from the crud”.

    (But at the same time, you say that most of what sells is lowest common denominator shit; that unique capitalist combination of sneering at “sheeple” and thinking everything should be a popularity contest at the same time.)

    The points I have made here are actually about specific topics, such as:
    1) the perpetuation of the illusion that “if you make a good game, it will sell”
    2) judging people on the basis of their financial success, when we know so well that good work is often not recognized in its time
    3) the realities of trying to survive as an indie developer
    4) the self-fulfilling prophecies of what makes a successful game

    The last point is particularly relevant, since one of the things I’ve said is not that I have trouble making a living “because capitalism”, but because it is difficult to reach the people who *do* enjoy my games, who happen to be quite a few. Even if I embraced the logic of the free market, the fact that systems of thought are in place that *presuppose* what is successful, thus making it impossible to even allow your product to *compete* in the market, would be something to complain about.

    I’d say more but frankly most of what you wrote is just silly and has absolutely nothing to do with socialism, systemic economic changes, or anything that I actually said.

  22. I really think you should read up on some Austrian Economics. Check out some stuff by Rothbard, Hazlit, and Mises.

  23. I’m reading “The Emperor Of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mulherjee. It’s devastatingly sad and absolutely horrifying and one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a while. I recommend it if you don’t mind reading a comprehensive book about an absolutely awful set of diseases and the goddamn brilliant people.

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