There Are Too Many Video Games
Let's marinate in some hard truths. Dissect what is in front of our eyes.
Now that my title has savagely baited your click, let's talk about the weirdness of the game industry and the big mess we're all in.
If you don't want to read my words, just look at the chart above. A good long look. Let the absurdity sink in. Make your own conclusions from there.
I've been working continuously making indie video games longer than, let's say, anyone. I was one of the first to correctly describe the indie bubble, writing blog posts that got many views and got me sweet gigs working for free giving talks at conferences. (The GDC free lunch was lousy, but hey, it was free.)
This is only the latest article in my ongoing saga, The State of the Indie Game Industry, and things have gone absurd.
So let's get to it: There are too many indie games. If my country was healthy, stable, and on a sustainable path, most of them would not exist, including mine. That they do exist is a symptom of misplaced priorities, crappy opportunities for ambitious youth, and ongoing damage to our society.
Do I think you should keep writing your dream game? Sure. Why not? I'm not slapping the mouse out of your hand. Let us, however, take a minute to look at the world you are sending your baby into.
Let's Look At The Absurdity
The chart at the top is the number of video games released on Steam each year, the vast majority of them indie. That's over 43000 titles in 5 years. A full 23 a day. (Over 30/day in 2021.)
(And that's just Steam. Add mobile and itch.io and homebrews and so on and the figure gets even crazier.)
If I lose you below, if I seem dumb or confusing, just come back to this figure. It's the North Star.
It's absurd! I keep using that word, but if the shoe fits ...
Want to know what is being written? Here is a great site to see the newest games on Steam. Take a look. A key point: Most of the games you see aren't ripoffs, aren't cheap or thrown together. Most of what you see took real work and investment, even if only in our precious and irreplaceable time.
What does this number imply?
Well, nobody wants this many games. Nobody. We have hard sales figures to prove it.
Almost eight billion humans on this planet, and you can't find anyone who cares. Most of these games sell to the writer's immediate friends, and nobody else.
Maybe you are in this business to make money. Maybe you want to bring people joy. (Cash is not the only measure of value!) By either measure, most of these titles are failures.
If you are happy that only 10 people play your game, fine, I guess. However, you should ask if you can't be bringing more people happiness with your limited time in the one life you get on this Earth.
Let’s Provide An Exit Lane From this Post Now
Actually, I can make one point now and you can just skip the rest of it. These numbers are the key fact about the video game industry. Do you know an ambitious, fresh-faced, hard-working youngster who has a dream of writing the next great computer game?
Take this chart and shove it in the kid's face. A good looooong look. If a kid wants to write games (let alone, God help us, going into debt studying gamedev in college), you have a moral obligation to do this. They might keep at it, but they need to be warned.
That's all I have to say! Goodnight!
Still here? Then let's dive deeper.
This is such a huge amount of product it's really hard to comprehend it. So much effort, so much ambition, most of which will vanish forever into a hole. In a world where human energy and ambition is very finite. (And I'll get back to this.)
Why did this happen? And is it good? Is it even sustainable? (Remember, everything that is not sustainable MUST end.)
It's Not Just Vidya, Of Course
An aside: I am fully aware this phenomenon isn't just video games.
Spotify now gets over 60000 new songs a day. Amazon now has millions of books. My country has over 550 scripted TV shows in production. And then all of the blogs and podcasts and Twitch streams and webcomics and YouTubers and VTubers and on and on and on ...
Yeah, I'm saying there's too many songs. And I know, musicians are the most precious and valuable and significant people there are. I know this because it's what musicians keep telling me. But 60000 a day? Sheesh!
Our children are taught to dream of nothing grander then adding to this indigestible mountainous hoard of distractions. Most created alone. Almost all consumed alone in a room in our atomized society. Seeking wheat in chaff. Mountains of chaff. OCEANS of chaff.
I'm getting ahead of myself. All I want to point out is that if there is a problem here, it's way bigger than video games. But I know video games. So I'll talk about that for now.
Where Is All This Stuff Coming From, Anyway?
Who is making those 30 games a day in 2021? I don't think anyone really knows. Are they young? Old? Where do they live? Are they hobbyists or aspiring professionals? I'm very interested, but I'm mainly focused on one question:
Why make art that nobody wants?
Because one thing I'm sure of about the people who make these games: They aren't dumb. They know how bad the odds are. Even if they dream of breaking out and getting a huge audience with their first game (or book or song), they will be under no such delusions while making their SECOND one.
Why create in the face of such mountains of unwanted content?
And don't give me homilies about "All art is valuable." "All creation is precious." "All babies are beautiful." "All our children are above average." None of these things are true.
Why create just for the sake of creation? Let’s discuss.
Creation Gives Life Meaning and Satisfies the Drive to Improve the World
I have enormous sympathy for young people and the world they face. I got kids, and I'm old enough to remember when things were (a little) better.
There are many people who are built with talent, drive, and energy. With a desire to make, to build, to change the world, a passion for positive power that will not be quenched. It's a beautiful trait of humanity. When you see it in a kid, it's amazing.
Making art satisfies those urges. The world gives increasingly fewer ways to do so.
(Everything from here on will be focused on my country, the United States, but I bet people everywhere will find some of it familiar.)
If a young person is driven to improve the world, what outlets do they have? Social atomization (with an assist from Covid) has drained charities, social groups, and fraternal organizations. Church has been forgotten. Charity has been ineptly taken over by governments. An increasing number of jobs are simply meaningless. Politics is venal and controlled by the oligarchy, determined to crush any spirited opposition.
The passion to build and create, if given no proper outlet, will curdle into bitterness. It will drive you mad.
Thus, many create art. A thousand novels, a million songs, all heaped upon the compost pile. It keeps the suicide rate down.
Let me make one thing clear: If you need to make art, do it. If you want to put a game on Steam, do it. I'm not a bully. I'm more on your side than you could ever imagine.
But at some point, you have to stop and see what is in front of your eyes.
Time and Energy Is Finite, and Things Ain't Lookin' Good
If a society produces nothing but dysfunction and art, it has a problem.
If my Empire wants to go full Bread and Circuses, that is fine. However, you DO have to make sure you can provide the bread before you get to make the circuses.
This is a whole another blog post, so I'll paint with broad strokes for now. My city, Seattle, is crumbling. We don't have the energy to maintain the roads, and our bridges are literally falling apart. We can't even maintain what our grandparents built, let alone make any grand new projects.
The days of the Moon Landing and building the Interstate Highway System are behind us. All our dreams now are small. The glorious projects that could feed the ambitions of the young just aren't happening.
Plus, my city of Seattle doesn't have a road without a big pothole in it. Fixing potholes is actual work. It's tiring, and it's dirty, and how could doing something that actually benefits people ever compete with Living! A! Life! In! Art! (tm)
If you want a job with actual meaning, that ACTUALLY makes peoples lives better, there is plenty that needs doing. The problem, of course, is that jobs that actually have meaning involve actual work and thus SUCK.
I Don't Know How To Fix a Pothole. Do YOU!?
Time is a zero sum game. If a bunch of people expend their energy making games, and a larger group of people waste their time playing them, and nobody steps up to do the things that need doing, well, that's bad right?
(Note: If you want people to do these jobs, you do need to pay a living wage with benefits. Otherwise, you just get more video games.)
Writing a game nobody plays discharges your energy and creates the feeling of achievement, but it's all empty calories and then your car falls into a sinkhole. If your game succeeds, it’s even worse. Your customers are now also expending all of their energy too, playing your game alone in a room. Meanwhile, sinkholes.
THAT is why I say there are too many indie games. They aren't sustainable. There is too much time wasted, and that will be true until time is applied to making the world work and bridges not fall down and food be in stores. Probably your time.
Hell, forget full-time jobs. If you volunteered at a food bank for one afternoon, you would do more good than spending 20 years writing games nobody plays. And I bet you'd feel more satisfaction too. And you'd get out of the house and maybe even make a friend.
Yes, you can call me an old Boomer and be angry at me for observing all this, if it makes you feel better. No, it will not make it less true.
Fortunately, This Doesn't Apply To You
Sure, indulging ourselves in endless creation while the world crumbles is bad. Fortunately, that doesn't apply to your game. Your game is great! (And so is mine.) Your blog post is fine! (And so is mine.) Don't worry. The problem will always be the other guy's fault.
Still, I can't tell you to not make games. I can't say, "Give up your dreams of the easy life sitting and making art indoors." Sure, at some point, we will need more people doing work that it isn't getting done. Yet, I have a POWERFUL mental block that keeps me from saying you or I should do it.
Art is what we teach our kids is the most valuable thing. The Disney movie Coco is about a boy from a family of shoemakers who wants to blow them off and be a musician. Disney will never, ever make a movie about a musician who dreams of making shoes. Even though, well, try going a week without music and then a week without shoes and see which is more necessary.
And All This Applies To Me As Well
You are entirely entitled to ask why I keep writing video games. (And blog posts.) It's fair. Am I part of the problem? Yes. Of course. This is the sort of problem that makes us all complicit.
I'm more than happy to tell another guy to fill potholes. Everybody wants to go to Heaven, nobody wants to die.
Fortunately, there is good news for us all.
At this point, you might be thinking, "Well, if there is a problem, what is the solution? What do we need to change?" What makes you think it'll be your decision? The answer is, if anything changes, it will be because the world changes it for us. Changing this sort of problem is generally forced from outside, and it hurts. The machines we make run until they break.
Will the World Carry Us Forever?
It should be pointed out that being able to create such an absurd amount of art nobody wants comes from great wealth and privilege. These tens of thousands of games are being made, for the most part, by affluent children of Empire. The poor don't have that much time to waste.
Don't blame capitalism for these problems. Capitalism is the instrument that made the surpluses that made it possible for you to write art nobody wants in the first place.
The reason a young, enterprising indie dev can churn out product is because that person is surrounded by cheap products made overseas in punishing conditions by people we never see. These are the delicious fruits of Empire.
Why do they do it? Why do these unseen masses make all my junk for me?
Well, they do it to get dollars. (That our government is devaluing as quickly as it can.) And they do it because we have a powerful military that keeps world order. (Even though we can't keep our carriers from burning down to the water line.)
I'll write all the games I want, while I can. BUT. Suppose the rest of the world starts saying, "Um, actually, we don't want to bust our humps making crap for debt forever. We're tripling our prices." Then my whole world goes to pieces.
I HOPE I'M WRONG. I look at the way things are actually going right now, and I see the end of a lot of stuff we got too used to. Our artist paradise is only one of them. I want to be wrong, very badly. I'm sending kids into this world, and I don't want it to suck for them.
We won't be able to afford spending this much time making things nobody wants. And you know something? We never could afford it.
We don't need to debate if I'm right or not. The world will decide the issue for us. If that day comes, well, all this "Any amount of art is valuable!" nonsense will be the least of the cherished illusions you'll be forced to surrender.
EDIT (2/3/21) - Someone mad. This person commented the n-word on my post like 900 times. I can’t find a Delete All Comments By User command on Substack, and I kind of can’t believe it doesn’t have one. I am forced to leave up those hundreds of comments as a testimonial to why this feature is needed.
EDIT 2 (2/3/21) - The offending comments finally disappeared, though it took some time and I did complain to Substack. Not sure what happened here. Substack’s docs indicate that banning a user doesn’t delete comments. Maybe there is an error there.
EDIT 3 (2/5/21) - This post made someone super mad, and they kept spamming the post with obscene comments. Substack has been removing them manually, but they say this has never happened before, which is why they don’t have proper mod tools. I’m forced to switch my blog to only comments for paid subscribers, which totally sucks, but it necessary.
It’s hard to look back at your life’s work and wonder if you took the wrong path. If you want to explore the fruits of my misspent youth, they are all available on Steam and pretty fun. As always subscribing to my unnecessary blog is free …
So I have always tried not to talk about politics in my public discussion. There's already too much of that. But I'm getting uncomfortably close with all of this. So I am going to try to keep things more abstract and away from concrete political issues.
Also, I don't want to talk too much about "socialism", because everyone uses that word to mean something different these days. My wife grew up behind the Iron Curtain, and in my house, when "socialism" is brought up, it means a very specific thing. We aren't fans.
But you may not use that word to mean total state control of the economy. So it's a discussion unlikely to produce more light.
Anyway, thanks for the great comments! I'm flattered to be worth the time.
EDIT: Someone came in and posted the same comment 1000 times. I banned the user, but I can find no "Remove all comments by user" option. Am I missing something obvious? This is definitely a feature that should be there.
(I wish I could pin comments.)
I understand that this blog post will come to many people as a collection of inconveniences, and so I hope you are not chastised for what I perceive to be a pure intent to internally search for answers and warn people. As for myself, I found this to be an invaluable reminder of the privilege in which I operate.
Over the mid-way of my twenties, still a young man by the account of many, I found most of my life to be empty. The predilection of the people surrounding myself is for unlimited consumption of content, delusion, denial of the essential truth that our lives demand sacrifice, that all time is borrowed. With much struggle I have come to realise that the only moments I feel satisfied are when I am solving a problem that exists outside myself, when I am working in a job which serves others. That I have wasted so much time learning about an increasingly large pile of games or movies, useless trivia mostly, and eschewed meaningful career goals such as being an environmental officer because I neglected to put effort into learning to drive brings me immense guilt.
So, I thank you for your meditations, not because they were directly written to benefit myself, or even that they were intended to depict a reality that others believe, but because you tried to be honest.
And I shall end it on a good note, I find this post to be life affirming. I am about to start working in a career that directly benefits people and have spent an enormous amount of time over the pandemic period to filling the pot holes in my own life - even if that means I end up playing a few less games.
May you have good health.