‘Death Occurs in the Dark’: Indie Video Game Devs Are Struggling to Survive

Deliver Us Mars developer Keoken Interactive laid off its entire team after its founders were unable to find funding or work at this year’s Game Developers Conference; Eggnut, Galvanic, and Paladin Studios also cited lack of work and funding as they closed their doors. Others, like League of Geeks, are currently on “hiatus” with no word on when they might return, or are relying on “skeleton crews” like Lightforge Games.

Countless more are currently in panic states, scrambling to make games while the clock ticks and funds run low. Some may find themselves forced to release a game before it’s truly ready. Sheffield says it’s hard not to feel guilty when other studios go under, even as his own struggles. “We’re all kind of fighting for a tiny slice of the same pie,” he says. “I do look forward to a day when I’m not always scrambling looking for money, because I came into this to theoretically be a creative person. I want to give things space to breathe. I want to come up with interesting game systems.”

A handful of public announcements does not—and will not—account for the number of indie developers that have vanished or will vanish. Nor can they capture video games’ brain drain. “When an indie doesn’t get funding for its game, you just quietly never see their work again,” says Nelson. “The horrifying nature of indies is that death occurs in the dark. We’re very much seeing this happen now.”

Nelson would know; he has worked on dozens of indies and AAA titles over the past eight years. The problems facing the indie space now, he says, are systemic—products of decisions that have been made over the past five to 10 years. That’s why he’s skeptical the industry could recover in just one. The entire system, he says, “must be altered in order for the industry to be in a recoverable state where we are consistently making projects and taking care of people who serve players in the first place.”

When indies disappear, players are losing more than they know. With fewer smaller, creative teams to make experimental games, players will have fewer choices—or chances—to find games that speak to them or surprise them.

Among Us developer Innersloth recently launched its own funding efforts to help a handful of small developers get their projects out the door. Like Nelson, Innersloth community director Victoria Tran isn’t optimistic about the “survive till ’25” outlook. Aside from the sheer loss of talent the industry is facing, she says, developers learn from making games. “I think most of the time, an indie’s first game is a complete flop,” Tran says. “That’s not an insult.” There are exceptions to that rule, she adds, but realistically developers need time to explore ideas and iterate, even learn how to manage relationships or marketing or QA.

“There’s a lot you learn from making indie games, and losing that knowledge is pretty big,” Tran says. “The games industry itself already has an issue where we don’t have a lot of people who you would describe as veterans. They burn out, or they leave the industry for whatever reason.”

Disappearing talent doesn’t stop with layoffs, either. It’s also a morale issue. It’s “potentially scaring new talent away, because indie development seems so scary and difficult,” Tran says. “You lose out on all the ideas that they had. It makes the industry less colorful and vibrant as a whole.”

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