When we meet with Jason Della Rocca at this year’s Megamigs, it is in the context of very serious headlines about the business of gaming, one of the first such waves of negative financial news since the start of the pandemic.
Google had officially given up on Stadia, Microsoft had just announced hundreds of job cuts, and we were calling for calm in an editorial about the downward turn we’ve taken of late.
But most of the concern was focused on the big end of the industry, the AAA market and the big companies that do their business there. So when we talk to Della Rocca, former executive director of the International Game Developers Association and co-founder of Execution Labs, we ask for an indie perspective on the industry, and whether he considers himself an optimist or a pessimist.
“Success is possible, but I think the likelihood of success is much lower than it used to be, just because of saturation and the way things are going.”
“I’m generally an optimistic person, and I think you can make good decisions, work hard, have talent, all kinds of stuff, and success can be found,” Della Rocca says. “There are a lot of failures. There are a lot of games being made, a lot of indies trying to launch games, and a lot of them failing. But we’re seeing amazing successes coming out of nowhere… Success is possible, but I think chance. Success is much less than it used to be, just because of saturation and the way things are going.”
Della Rocca says a lot of her work today is about helping developers see their business as a real business, from choosing commercially viable genres to engaging communities and influencers.
“A lot of developers don’t take the time to do competitive analysis, market research, community engagement, streamer outreach and all that kind of stuff until it’s too late, or they don’t bother at all,” says Della Rocca. “But I think developers are realizing that if they want to make a career out of it and build a viable business and become a professional, it’s a lot more work than they expected when they were just young and dreaming.”
In recent years, indie publishers have increasingly set up shop to meet the demands of such developers, from marketing to social media management to platform advertising tasks that let developers worry about development. Relations with the port.
Della Rocca doesn’t want to talk bad about those companies, but he points to a shift in the perceived value of “ownership” with developers self-publishing and connecting their audience as directly with fans as possible.
“Also the publisher with the fairest deals, best intentions and hardest workers [is] Still to get on the way [the creator-player] relationship…”
“We often see one of the multiplier effects on the potential for success, when the creator is directly engaging with the audience, managing Discord, has an active newsletter, is active on social media, influencers are involved, all that kind of stuff.” Della Rocca says.
“What we’re seeing is that the publisher mediating that relationship doesn’t always work. Not because the publisher is bad, not because the publisher isn’t working hard, but because they’re marketing. As artists, they’re not designers, they’re not storytellers. And I think the most fair Even publishers with contracts, the best intentions and the hardest workers, are still getting in the way. Of that relationship, unintentionally, but that’s just the way it works.
“Fans want to connect with a designer, not a junior marketing associate at publisher XYZ. No offense to a junior marketing associate. They’re probably a nice person with good marketing skills, but they’re not a designer, not a programmer, not an artist, not a creator.”
Della Rocca says one emerging trend that addresses that concern is what he calls “publishing-as-a-service” businesses. They offer publisher-like services – QA, porting, localization, and so on – but the developer remains the publisher of the game, staying upfront and directly connected to the fans in question.
Indies have found places to thrive on PC and consoles, but the mobile market is another matter. While it was once considered a friendly market thanks to more permissive platform holder policies, low budgets, and the potential for big breakout hits, Della Rocca says the market for indies there is now “almost nil.”
In the hypercasual market there is an opportunity for teams of two or three people to make some money by building quickly assembled prototypes and anything that sticks, but Della Rocca says it’s almost like gambling, and warns that “the house always wins.”
“It’s very hard to make some random cube or bouncy ball thing that’s actually going to hit and make money,” he says. “You can Do that, but I think it’s really, really hard.”
And that’s the friendliest part of the mobile market in his eyes.
“Regular app store market as an indie? Oh man, that’s next to impossible”
“A regular App Store market as an indie? Oh, that’s next to impossible,” says Della Rocca. “Even though it’s mobile and you think, ‘Oh, mobile is small and easy to build,’ don’t worry about the complexity around economy, design balance, progression systems, retention mechanics… all the user acquisition and ad monetization and all that kind of stuff. . Three kids, a programmer, artist, and designer? They don’t know anything about it.”
One exception to all of this is the mobile premium market, or at least a specific segment of it.
“Mobile premium in the wild has zero viability,” says Della Rocca. “Mobile Premium if you’re on Apple Arcade or Netflix? That’s another story. They’re walled gardens, but if you can get one of those rare Apple Arcade deals, it’s usually a good deal. They’re very generous in making it. Sure. Make sure your development costs are covered, etc.
However, there are still a couple of downsides to that plan. While contracts limit the potential downsides of the worst case scenario for the game, they also limit the upsides of the best case scenario.
“Even if some profit pool works, if you make the next Class of Clans or Angry Birds, you don’t really share in that success because you’re inherently paid to produce the game and create the content.” Della Rocca says.
On top of that, there is also the non-trivial issue that the companies that make these premium games viable should choose your project.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Della Rocca says. “On the one hand, it allows my premium mobile game to find a home and actually live on a mobile device. But on the other hand, it means I’m at the mercy of the will of the controlling people. [platform]And they let me in.”
Della Rocca mentioned that a developer he worked with had a game in the early stages of Apple Arcade Games. It was a good deal that worked for them, so they thought they’d give it a try.
“They offered a second game and Apple turned it down,” Della Rocca said. “They planned on it and had to scramble to recover from it.”
Subscription service trends
That same situation is by no means limited to the mobile market, and Della Rocca is clearly uncomfortable with plans for any developer to be entirely dependent on the good graces of a subscription services organization to keep their business going.
“If you’re like, ‘I’m just waiting for my next Game Pass deal,’ and they say, ‘We don’t want that,’ then it’s like, oh shit, my whole business model was centered around that approach,” he says.
While he won’t speculate on whether subscriptions could lead to a Spotify-like scenario for developers where creators are paid outrageously little for their work, Della Rocca expects the deals offered to developers to get worse once subscription programs establish themselves.
“The more you want to be in the membership, the less they have to encourage you to be there”
“The more you want to be in the membership, the more they have to incentivize you to be there,” he says.
It doesn’t even have to be a subscription service. Della Rocca points to the Epic Game Store and the “intensely aggressive” pursuit of developers in the early days, offering creators “awesome” deals to include their titles in free games of the week. However, he says the deals have become less generous as Epic accelerates.
“It’s natural for any platform,” Della Rocca says. “Initially, you make the incentive, you load it, and that brings in the install base. And when the install base is there, we’re naturally motivated to be on the platform, so the incentives go away or decrease.”
On top of that, he goes back to his earlier comments about the importance of directly engaging with his fanbase and “owning” that relationship.
“Subscription models also change this in their own way, so I have a little bit of concern there,” says Della Rocca. “And I have this concern about sitting on that treadmill, as long as the platform master keeps saying yes, then I can run on that treadmill. But when they say, ‘No thanks,’ I’m thrown off the treadmill and then what do I do and where do I go? I kneel down. That’s why I never liked the idea of getting on a treadmill.”