Not long after releasing Tidalis, Arcen Games’ company founder Chris Park went public with extraordinary news in September last year. Sales had deteriorated to the point where Arcen was in danger of running out of cash in two months. This was assumed to be down to a failure to sell Tidalis – something I also believed at the time. But there was a subtext to Park’s pronouncements which was not explored.

“The problem is, the summer doldrums hit… for whatever reason it didn’t happen to us last year. [This year] it’s wounded us pretty badly over the last four months; except now the summer is over and sales have still been slower-than-average by a large, we-can’t-survive-on-this margin.”

Park implied that the situation was unusually bad, that something else was afoot in the market. I got in touch with him to expand on this.

He explains, “October through December are always the best months of the year for both indie and AAA and the indies I’ve spoken to seem to agree that September is the worst month of the year for sales in general. The main thing that was so abnormal was how low and how long the summer slump seemed to be, possibly from June to the start of October depending on who you ask, or at least August and September being abnormally low sales for all those I spoke to.”

But is there any hard evidence to support this? I ask Park if it is possible to measure indie sales and quantify the slump.

“I think that this is a really tricky subject, because nothing is very universal and there’s no real easy way to poll most indies. Even who is considered indie, and thus therefore how you define the market, is tricky. If you count all the tiny little projects that almost no one even hears about, then there are literally thousands of indie games that come out every year and most are lucky to make 10 sales, let alone 100. It’s much the same as the self-publishing book market. If you’re looking at folks like that, then neither self-publishing nor indie game development are ever a ‘healthy’ market and are certainly not a safe bet if you’re looking to make money.

“On the other hand, there’s a much smaller pool of games that get onto any of the digital distribution sites like GamersGate, Impulse, Direct2Drive, or Steam. When AI War got added to these services in 2009, there were only double digits of indie games on most of those platforms. Looking at XBLA, Wiiware, or especially PSN makes the PC digital distributors look like they are chock full of indie games by comparison, even.

“And yet there’s this whole thriving set of games that are indie that are sold direct from the developers without being on any of those ports. Anything by Vic Davis. Jeff Vogel. Jason Rohrer. Markus Persson. Minecraft is ridiculously popular without being on any of the must-be-here portals, oddly.”

But Park goes on to cover the casual segment of the market. “The casual end has a completely different set of portals and must-be-on sites – Flash or otherwise – and there a stellar return is often $30K. A number of those developers that are acquaintances of mine put out something like 6 small casual games a year just to stay afloat in good times.”

With portals unwilling to part with sales figures and the indie market encompassing such a diverse range of projects, we’re left with no statistical evidence. To see the slump, anecdotes are the best we’ve got.

Park’s own Tidalis anecdote is revealing. “When Tidalis came out in July last year, it hit very high on the Indie, Casual, and Family genres on most of the digital distributors that carried it. It was in the top four on all of those for the better part of a week but, despite hitting those levels of success, the sales were ten times lower than when AI War hit similar slots on the same distributors in 2009, and that was with Windows-only sales.

“If Tidalis had just flopped that would have been one thing, but it was a chart-topper for a little while and was still extremely out of bounds on its earnings. This was what got me speaking to other indies. The pervasive ‘this is an unusually bad time for us’ responses were alarming to me when paired with the sales charts anomaly for Tidalis.”

But the good news from Park is that the harsh slump did come to end. “Things turned around in October so apparently it was just a more severe seasonal thing than usual.”

Now whilst Park’s uncommon financial openness is welcome, it once again highlights the lack of hard figures to determine the health of the industry. We’re left to rely on financial statements from public companies which is far from representative of the games industry as it exists today.

And the super-successful outliers like Minecraft, World of Goo and Angry Birds tell us a lot less than we think. These titles have their own momentum and succeed in isolation, markets unto themselves. It’s like looking at the lottery millionaires and somehow deducing that all lottery players are doing well. Minecraft soared while the typical indie suffered last summer.

In the light of such slumps, maybe it’s about time the industry looked at improving transparency in the digital distribution space.

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3 thoughts on “The Summer of Discontent

  1. I’ve wanted very badly to support these guys in the past. I feel like there is so much to like about them. The only problem is that I just didn’t know that I would actually play the games they were making.

    AI War, as cool as it looked, also looked like more than I could handle. And Tidalis, which also looks great, just happens to be a puzzle-style game, a genre I sort of can’t stand. Nothing against it, but it’s just not for me.

    All this changed with the info I recently read at RPS and Kotaku about their latest game, A Valley Without Wind. To say I’m excited about this game would be an understatement. A better way to explain it would be that as I was reading about the game, I thought to myself “I sure hope I don’t die before this game comes out.”

    I know that sounds just plain crazy, but I want to play it so badly that I actually found another reason to keep living (as if I didn’t have enough reasons.) I’m pre-ordering as soon as the option is available just so I can do my part to keep the developer alive as well. At least long enough to release this game!

  2. I see Chris is trying to do a lot better at drumming up public interest in advance of Valley, which he admitted was a problem with Tidalis. Its fun to donate to people we think are making interesting stuff (Increpare’s the most recent example that comes to mind) but I don’t know if I would advocate going out to buy games we don’t actually want to play. I bought Tidalis and AI War because I thought they would be fun as well as wanting to keep Chris stocked up on rice crackers. (Or possibly diapers right now.)

    The thing that was missed last year with the “everybody, let’s save Arcen” was that it wasn’t Arcen’s failing but something else – a deep slump in the indie market, which went completely unnoticed as far as I can tell. Did it kill off other smaller indie startups? Did it push others close to the wall? I wish we knew, I really do.

    Very few indies like to talk money and numbers (there’s no legal requirement, so they don’t need to!) and the portals still don’t share aggregate sales figures – which probably wouldn’t be that useful anyway as we’re only really interested in a certain segment of their sales.

  3. I suppose it could have just been the economy. It was particularly bad during that time, and if I remember, the gaming industry as a whole saw a slump in sales. I could see the indies taking a bigger hit than the big guys.

    A Valley Without Wind is indeed being promoted better. It was covered in both Kotaku and RPS which I’m sure many people saw. I hope they keep up the promotion for it. The more they drum it up now, the better it will do on release I’m sure, and there seems to be a growing interest in this sort of survival game.

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