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An interview with Dan Adelman

An interview with Dan Adelman

Written by Charles Husemann on 10/9/2014 for 360   PC   PS3  
More On: EIC Ramblings

For better or worse Dan Adelman is currently known as "that guy who tried to get Nintendo to buy in on indie games and digitally distributed games".  However he's hoping to change that title as he has left the company and has started his own marketing and business development company for indie game developers.  His first client is a game is called Axiom Verge. We lucked out as Dan was able to take some time to answer a few questions about his take on the current stake of the indie video game scene.

What is your definition of an "indie game"?
The trick with coming up with a definition is that there are so many exceptions. Either a definition will be too broad, so pretty much anything can be called an indie game, or it’s too narrow, and something that is clearly an indie game doesn’t qualify. So I’m sure people will be able to find all kinds of holes in this, but just for the sake of the mental exercise, I’ll assert that most indie games have the following characteristics:

  • It’s trying to break new ground from a game design perspective. It could be new mechanics that we haven’t really seen before, like Johann Sebastian Joust. Or it could be a new way of telling a story, like Extrasolar.
  • It has some personal connection to the developer – or at least the developer’s personality shows through. A great example of this is Neverending Nightmares, which is Matt Gilgenbach’s way of talking about his struggles with depression. This personal perspective can even be seen in passion projects based on the designer’s favorite games of their childhood.
  • They’re respectful of the player. They’re not trying to manipulate the player into spending more than they would normally want to, they try not to waste people’s time, and they don’t try to distract players with eye candy at the expense of gameplay.

In some ways, it may be easier to define what an indie game is by what it is not. In my mind the following characteristics make something not an indie game:

  • It’s made by a large company. EA’s not indie. That doesn’t mean that large companies aren’t allowed to make great games, though!
  • Any game that is essentially cloning the main idea of another game. It drives me nuts when I see someone on Reddit or some other forum saying, “Hey everyone! Check out my new indie game!” and it’s just a rip-off of Threes!.

Ultimately, the definition is arbitrary and may not even be useful. I’ll just stir up some controversy and point out that not all indie games are good, and not all good games are indie. But the best games are indie!


What is the role of indie games in the game industry and how does that compare to the role of "AAA" games?
I think one of the reasons everyone, including me, struggles to define what is or isn’t indie is that in reality, it’s really a spectrum from indie on one side to AAA on the other. Take Klei Entertainment for example. Don’t Starve is clearly indie. The art style, gameplay, the bizarre list of characters all point to something that is indie by pretty much anyone’s definition. Mark of the Ninja, on the other hand, is somewhat closer to the AAA side of the spectrum. It’s pretty easily categorized as a 2D stealth game. There are some really interesting innovations in terms of being able to visualize how far sounds will travel, and how you can aim at multiple targets at once, but the core mechanic has been well-explored. (And in case anyone thinks any of this is a dig at Klei or Mark of the Ninja, I’ll point out that it’s probably one of the top 10 games I’ve played in the last couple years. I specifically am choosing this as an example of a game that may not fit the definition of indie despite being a great game by a developer of indie games.) So from one studio, you can have games that span from very indie to kinda indie. Getting closer to the AAA part of the spectrum might be Double Fine. Then Telltale Games, and so on.

Certain games need a certain scale to them. GTA V and Skyrim wouldn’t be the same experience if you didn’t feel like you had a massive living world to explore. And it takes a large group of people to come together to make such a massive world. That, in my opinion, is what AAA games are good for – games that just have an innate need to be big.


What is your take on the current state of the indie game scene? Do you think we've hit a "peak indie" point or is there still a lot of growth in the industry?
It’s amazing how the quality of indie games keeps getting higher and higher. Some of the top indie games of 5 years ago may not have qualified for the IGF if they were submitted today. With tools becoming easier to use, I think it’s more and more possible for small teams to polish their games to a point that would have required a huge budget just a few years ago.

That said, the lack of any barriers to entry is both a good and a bad thing. 10 years ago, the barriers were all but impossible to overcome, so indie games were extremely rare and obscure. Maybe 5 or 6 years ago was the sweet spot when barriers were low enough that anyone who was serious enough about making a game could get it out there, but it still wasn’t easy. The problem with that, though, was that developers were wasting untold hours overcoming barriers that shouldn’t have been in their way. And now that there are almost no barriers, we’re seeing a flood of new entrants into the space. It’s great that there are so many new people making games, but there are a few things that concern me about the trend.

First is that the audience isn’t growing proportionately with the volume of content. As a result, you’ve got a fairly fixed pie being sliced up by more and more games. Developers really have little choice but to keep slashing their prices to be noticed. That’s great for consumers, but I’m seeing a lot of indie developers questioning whether they can make a decent living. Some are scaling down their projects and trying to churn out lots of little games rather than spending the time to polish their game and make it right. No one wants that, but it’s the result of everyone acting independently in their own best interest. No one person can buck those trends.

Second is that the group of talented people isn’t much larger than it was before all of the barriers went away. So although there is a flood of new games, the number of really good games isn’t growing that quickly, relatively speaking. The problem with this is that bad games poison the well, and players who are new to indie games are much more likely to have a negative experience.

And the final concern I have with the lack of barriers is that there is a real discoverability problem. Even though I consider myself pretty plugged into the indie scene and what’s good and not good, I’ll often find out about an amazing game a year after it launched!

So in sum, we’ve got a slight increase in the number of customers, a ton more content, and not enough tools to figure out what the best games are. We need to fix that as an industry to make sure indie games aren’t a bubble that will eventually burst.

What can first party publishers do to better support the indie developers?
I really wish the first parties would view indie developers not as a crop to harvest but as seeds to sow. Sometimes the platforms will prioritize their desire for bragging rights about exclusivity over a developer’s ability to make a decent living. Or they’ll withhold information about how other comparable games are selling, since if the developer realized how bad their prospects are, they’d be reluctant to bring their games to that platform. I understand the first parties need to make a profit and support their own interests, but I would argue that growing a healthy indie scene is in everyone’s best interest.


What things are holding the indie scene back?
I know it’s an unpopular opinion, certainly among players but also among developers, but I think one of the biggest challenges for indie games is how everyone has been trained to wait for games to be free. They’ll wait for a game to show up for free on PS Plus. Or they’ll wait for a Steam sale when it’s 90% off. Or they’ll wait for it to show up in a bundle. I’m guilty of this myself. My Steam library has hundreds of games I’ve never even tried. Some I don’t even realize I own! I remember one developer was telling me about his game, and it sounded really cool. I went home to buy it only to be told by the Steam UI that I already owned it.

Many developers would argue that it’s a great way to generate sales they otherwise wouldn’t have, but I would argue that that’s a marketing problem. So I recently decided that I’m no longer going to wait for games to go on sale before buying them. If I want a game, I’ll buy it. And if I pay full price, I’m that much more likely to take it seriously and actually play it. Everybody wins.


Are there certain mistakes that you see indie developers doing over and over again?
The biggest mistakes are shipping too early and not taking marketing seriously. Too many developers call their game finished when they run out of money. Developers really need to figure out who will be interested in their game and keep iterating on the game to make sure it’s perfect for those players. And then they need to talk to anyone who will listen about their game so that those people will know about it. It probably takes someone five or ten times to hear about your game before the message finally sinks in, so developers need to be ready for a long haul.


What's your advice to indie game developers who are starting to develop their games now?
This is going to come off as really defeatist, but given the economics of the industry, there is an extremely high probability you won’t make money. So make your game in a way that won’t put your whole life at risk. Start off working evenings and weekends. Find people who are willing to invest in your project, even knowing that it may fail. But if you’re going to make a game, do it right. Even if it takes you years, keep polishing it until it’s the game you want to make.

A lot of people get into indie game development after seeing a few people become multi-millionaires. This is like buying lottery tickets as an investment strategy. Most people don’t make much money at all, so if you’re going to do it, do it for the right reasons.


How have Kickstarter and Early Access changed the game for independent developers? Is there any downside to these?
The Early Access model has been around for a long time but has been made mainstream by Valve. I think the first example I’m aware of is Overgrowth by Wolfire Games in 2008. The most successful example of course is Minecraft. Back before it was made mainstream, selling access to your beta was a daring, innovative move. Only the most dedicated fans who were interested in seeing how the sausage is made were interested, so they could understand when something was buggy or unfinished.

Now that there are dozens of Early Access games on Steam, consumers don’t really get this anymore. People assume that the game is finished and will judge you based on that. And you can’t blame them, since too many developers have abandoned their Early Access games, so players need to assume that what they got is all they’re ever going to get.

I think the biggest downside that a lot of developers don’t recognize is that once you’ve launched your game Early Access, you’ve launched. That’s your big launch day. And if you don’t market your game accordingly, press isn’t going to go back and cover a game that’s already out. No one cares if you arbitrarily change your version number to 1.0. If the game isn’t good at beta, people will dismiss it, give it bad ratings, and never give it the second look it deserves when it’s really done. Even in the best case where people do give you the benefit of the doubt, the people who would be your most ardent supporters will have moved on by the time you finish the game, so you won’t have anyone talking about your game by the time you launch.

In general, Early Access is not appropriate for most games. You need to have very clear goals that really can only be achieved by Early Access.

Kickstarter is a little different. The benefit of Kickstarter in my mind is the ability to start talking to your most interested fans and rally them to support you. After taxes, the costs of all of the rewards, and the time it takes to run and maintain a Kickstarter campaign, I think the best that most people can hope for is to break even if they reach their funding goal, so I encourage developers to think of it as marketing that pays for itself. There are a few games that can fund themselves through Kickstarter, but those are the exception.


You've recently departed Nintendo to start your own business, what kind of games are you looking to work with? Are you leaning more towards mobile/tablet games or PC/consoles games (or both)?
I’m definitely a PC/console kind of person. There are good games on mobile/tablet, to be sure, but most of what’s on those platforms is free-to-play distractions. I intend to work on games that I can personally be passionate about and also early enough that I can have a material impact.


What's your take on the Microsoft purchase of Mojang? If you were Notch what would you do with all of your money?
I have the utmost respect and admiration for Notch’s rationale for selling. Notch is an indie developer through-and-through. Everything Notch has ever said publicly seems to reflect the ethos of the indie community – even when he said he shouldn’t be considered indie anymore because he was so successful! I loved it when he called Microsoft out when they used him as an example of supporting indies, saying that he wasn’t the type of indie that needed Microsoft’s support. It seems like Notch just wants to get his old life back and go back to being a regular indie developer like everyone else, and I hope he gets that.

There’s actually some precedent for that in the indie scene. There are indie meetups all the time and you might expect people to stop showing up once they have a big hit. Or that the other developers might be jealous of the successful ones or somehow treat them differently, but you never see that. You see multi-millionaire developers hanging out with people still struggling to make rent. Everyone’s talking about the game they’re working on and getting feedback on their ideas. I think if there ever was a group that a freshly minted multi-billionaire could return to and be treated the same, it’s indie game developers.


Given that we're near the big release season, would would your advice for indie developers be about when to release their games?  Do you try and run counter-programming to big games like Call of Duty or do you wait for a quieter time to get your game into market?
I actually think that more than the big games like Call of Duty, it’s things like the Steam holiday sale that diverts the attention of a lot of people who might otherwise be interested in buying an indie game at launch. Either way, I do think it’s a good idea for developers to avoid the holidays. Ideally, though, developers should do everything they can to make sure that people who will be interested in their game are really excited for the launch date whenever it is. Fans should be putting your game’s release date in their calendar and make it a priority to buy your game. Developers who are just depending on a quiet time are basically hoping that people are running out of games to play and will just pick something new up on a whim. There may be a few people who still do that, but for the most part I think people have more games than they do time. That raises the bar for developers, since they need  to convince someone not only to play their game before all of the other games in their library, but also to make the active choice to spend money to do that.


Is there anything we missed that you think is important?
You guys were really thorough! I really enjoyed the questions, since you touched on so many areas that are important to the indie developer community. If people want to reach me, they can find my contact information on my website or on Twitter. Thanks!

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

An interview with Dan Adelman An interview with Dan Adelman An interview with Dan Adelman An interview with Dan Adelman An interview with Dan Adelman An interview with Dan Adelman

About Author

Hi, my name is Charles Husemann and I've been gaming for longer than I care to admit. For me it's always been about competing and a burning off stress. It started off simply enough with Choplifter and Lode Runner on the Apple //e, then it was the curse of Tank and Yars Revenge on the 2600. The addiction subsided somewhat until I went to college where dramatic decreases in my GPA could be traced to the release of X:Com and Doom. I was a Microsoft Xbox MVP from 2009 to 2014.  I currently own stock in Microsoft, AMD, and nVidia.

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