Nadav D. Lipkin

Nadav D. Lipkin, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Communication, Media & Technology at La Roche University in Pittsburgh. His research interests include labor in independent media production communities, independent games, creative labor and decision-making within labor networks.

Contact information:
Nadav.Lipkin at

The Indiepocalypse: the Political-Economy of Independent Game Development Labor in Contemporary Indie Markets

by Nadav D. Lipkin


While independent games have become an increasing part of the broader games industry, the political-economic conditions and motivations of the workers creating these games has received insufficient attention. This article examines the contemporary independent game marketplace on PC through what members of the online development community refer to as the Indiepocalypse: a period of economic turmoil presumably caused by overproduction. The study draws comparisons between descriptions of the market and interviews conducted with members of the New York City independent development community. Analysis of the Indiepocalypse reveals significant motivations that drive independent game developers to create games in spite of worsening economic conditions, behavior which further intensifies this effect. The article calls for greater attention to industry-specific worker motivations and incentives in understanding the labor practices of workers in the independent games industry and the economic consequences of those practices. It also emphasizes the importance of examining worker experiences specifically as a means of understanding political economic conditions.

Keywords: Independent games, Indie, Indiepocalypse, political-economy, labor



Independent, or “indie,” games have emerged within the last decade as a powerful force for innovation and a counterbalance to mainstream big-budget Triple-A video games. As Dale North at VentureBeat (2015) suggests, the indie sector is widely characterized as privileged: “Indie outfits can afford to try new, untested approaches to game making as they likely have no one to answer to but themselves.” The emergence and popularity of high-profile titles, especially Minecraft (2011), as well as the acclaimed documentary exploring the lives of a few developers -- Indie Game: The Movie (2012) -- signal a trend towards an explosion of independent titles from all over the world. All of this coincides with a rapid democratization of the tools and knowledge of game production, with major multi-platform professional engines like Unreal and Unity becoming free for many new developers. However, as the independent sector has expanded greatly, the economics and labor conditions of independent game development have often been ignored or inaccurately conflated with conditions of traditional development.

To understand independent labor, its culture, and the market in which it operates requires particular attention to the specific qualities of the games industry beyond characterizing it as just part of the broader “cultural industries.” This article seeks to demonstrate this approach by analyzing a specific cultural moment that concerns the political-economy of the independent games sector. Of interest is what has come to be called the “Indiepocalypse,” an event theorized by members of the development community in reference to a rapidly expanding number of games for sale on PC (the platform Steam specifically) and simultaneously falling profitability circa 2015. Assessments of the Indiepocalypse are compared to a case study of members of the New York City independent development community whose experiences serve to clarify not only the conditions of the Indiepocalypse itself but also some of its causes. What analysis of the Indiepocalypse reveals is the way in which independent labor practices, driven by non-pecuniary motivations in conjunction with technology that facilitates increased commercial development and distribution, help to contribute to the falling financial prospects of many independent workers. Rather than suggest that working conditions for independent workers are driven by exclusively personal attributes (e.g. how good a worker is at making games) or assign blame for conditions exclusively on capital or structure, analysis of the Indiepocalypse calls for a more nuanced approach to understanding labor conditions that recognizes the complex and often contradictory motivations that drive creative workers in the games industry specifically to create in spite of financial counter-incentives.

Methodological considerations

The methodological approach of this article involves combining analysis of a particular community of independent game workers (New York City circa 2015) with analysis of broader public discourse between members of the global game development community online around roughly that time. This serves both to acknowledge the importance of specific local influences on a particular facet of the community but also to contextualize that against the backdrop of a common marketplace for the goods produced under those conditions. It is notable, for example, that while the term “Indiepocalypse” began to emerge online around the time interviews with specific workers were collected, none of the workers used the term or explicitly referenced it as a way of understanding their particular experiences with labor and productivity. Still, the interviews explore experiences and motivations that tie closely to the discourse expressed by members of the broader online community. Thus, the use of a local case study serves to ground theories that are otherwise more ethereal through specific experiences of people in a particular community of independent production.

The case study data for this research consists of interviews with twenty-one members of the New York City independent game development community, including those who self-identify as game developers, designers, and producers for independent games at a professional level. Interviewees were primarily recruited through in-person interaction with the author, though some contacts within the New York City independent game community referred other members as well. Interviews were collected during the spring and summer of 2015, all recorded in-person apart from one recorded over Skype. As of collection, participants all work, or until recently before being interviewed had worked, within New York City. The study involves sixteen men, four women, and one participant who declined to state a gender. They range in age from twenty seven to forty seven and report working in the games industry between one and eighteen years. To maintain confidentiality, references to interviewees are numbered according to when interviews were collected chronologically (from X01 to X21), and any references within the interviews to other workers or local institutions have been changed. Interviewees were asked about their working conditions, such as how many hours they work, how consistently they work, how much they earn from independent games, what programs and programming languages they employ, and why they work under these conditions. In addition, interviewees were asked about their participation in the broader New York City and international game development scene, including what events they participate in, how they find jobs, how they meet others in the community, and what access they have to external funding and grants.

Independent Game Development Literature

Literature on independent game production draws frequently from related discussions of labor in creative and cultural industries. A significant tension exists between works typically associated with neoliberalism like Florida (2012), Pink (2001), and Leadbeater and Oakley (1999), and work derived from the Autonomist tradition like McRobbie (2002), Ross (2013), Terranova (2013), and Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2011) that associate this ideology of labor with exploitation and the collapse of labor power. Broadly speaking, scholarship on independent game development draws from the Autonomist tradition. Taken together, studies of so-called cultural labor find common ground in worker experiences across media industries; as Lipkin (2016) states, “Many studies… establish the prominence of precarity, self-exploitation, self-actualization, blending of work and leisure time, and flexibility in the cultural fields specifically” (p. 41-42). Applying this literature to a particular field of labor, such as independent games, is complicated by particularities of production and labor markets. Bodies of literature related to independent film, music and games exist separately (see Lipkin, 2016), but there has not yet emerged a singular theoretical framework (beyond those concerning cultural labor more broadly) to contextualize “independent” labor outside of its specific medium and labor context. Generally, this has led analysis of independent game labor to be understood as a subcategory of creative or cultural labor inflected by the particular characteristics of the games industry.

In spite of existing scholarship on the political-economy of independent game development, that segment of the games industry is often under-emphasized or undiscussed in favor of analysis of mainstream production labor and systems. Analyses of the games industry in the early to mid-2000’s typically employ the term “independent” inconsistently with how the term is used contemporaneously. Kerr and Flynn (2003), Kerr (2006), Johns (2006), and Martin and Deuze (2009), for instance, employ “independent” as a substitute for what Kerr (2006) defines as “third party” development (p. 64): development companies that produce games without first being commissioned by a publisher or producing for their own platforms. The result is that these “independent” companies include very large and established mainstream firms such as Bungie (Martin and Deuze, 2009) and Electronic Arts (Kerr and Flynn, 2003; see also Guevara-Villalobos, 2011; Whitson, 2013; Ruffino, 2013; and Lipkin, 2013 for further analysis of this complication).

More recent work has begun to investigate independent workers and the independent sector more directly. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2009), for example, refer to independents spun off of large studios that merged in the 2000’s, though the authors predominantly focus on non-commercial work. O’Donnell (2014) presents a more contemporary description of independent workers and studios compared to Kerr (2006) and others, though independents are not a part of O’Donnell’s data set. There have emerged, though, a number of articles focused specifically on independent game development practices, though the focuses of these articles are not often about economic viability. Some concern independent development as a social or subcultural practice (Guevara-Villalobos, 2011; Westecott, 2013; and Parker, 2013) or focus predominantly on creative control rather than economic conditions (Joseph, 2013). Whitson’s (2013) description of independent production shifting from stifling bureaucratic requirements imposed by publishers into more liberated territory on PC and mobile anticipates both financial and creative success, though she does not evaluate how this has played out in practice. This article is an attempt to do so, specifically in regards to the PC market, revisiting market conditions that have emerged as independents shift in large numbers towards Steam and other PC markets for distribution. It is also simultaneously an attempt to reexamine the motivations such workers have for entering these markets and how those motivations relate to market conditions.

What is the Indiepocalypse?

To understand independent game labor at the time of the Indiepocalypse discussion around 2015, it is necessary first to understand the concept as the online development community approached it -- particularly since none of the interviewees in the case study made reference to the concept or the term. While the actual origin of the term “Indiepocalypse” in recent context begins with former Kickstarter CTO Andy Baio and a blog post dated January 31, 2013, its use in the context of games reappears on Twitter in reference to an August 30th, 2015 blog post by Anton Savchenko. In the post, Savchenko refers to graphs posted on Twitter by Steam Spy earlier that week (Steam Spy, 2015b) which point to a historical ramping up of the number of titles released monthly on Steam. Using his own math to smooth out data, he produces a startling (though admittedly exaggerated and unrealistic) graph that approximates, given current trends, how many games per month Steam is on pace to release. He says of his graph, “A time point like this is regarded by some in similar models as the singularity, transcendence with Johnny Depp, or simply that time when shit goes down. I would call it an #indiepocalypse, because I’m a romantic like that” (Savchenko, Aug. 30, 2015). Savchenko specifically cites the high supply of titles on Steam against another Steam Spy chart (2015a) detailing flat total game sales per month and dramatically declining median sales numbers for games released that month. The Indiepocalypse, as Savchenko describes it, defines an event in which game market supply has far exceeded demand and continues to rise, causing profitability to vanish for small producers.

Savchenko points to the upward trend in titles being sold on Steam beginning in 2013 and rising ever since, specifically because of “Kickstarter hype, and the floodgates of [Steam] Greenlight opening.” Kickstarter marks a turning point in the perception of how games could be funded -- in line with the expectation Baio has for the service in 2013. Steam Greenlight opens up the process for having a game sold on Steam, and as interviewee X08 explains, Steam is considered essential to financial success: “It’s just you have to be on Steam. It’s like if it’s not on Steam, it doesn’t count. It’s the bare minimum you have to do.” Previously, the process of getting a game sold on Steam was obscure and inaccessible. Studios submitted games to Steam and they were accepted or not, without any involvement from the Steam user base. Greenlight allowed Steam users to vote for projects they wanted to see sold on Steam. The exact relationship between votes on Greenlight and games being sold remained opaque, but regardless of the actual mechanism, Steam began taking a more hands-off approach to which games would be sold on the platform. The number of games sold on Steam in a given month in 2015 were roughly triple the number from 2013, and 2016 saw sixty six percent more games released compared to the previous year (Steam Spy, 2017). One analyst indicates that more games were released on Steam in 2017, just by September, than were released on the platform from 2006 to 2014 combined (Ahmad, 2017).

Systemic Oversupply

Savchenko is the earliest to attach this oversupply crisis to the term “Indiepocalypse,” but he is hardly the first to sound alarms about such a crisis in independent games within the developer discourse. Discussions of an “indie bubble” appear prominently beginning in late 2013, driven by an article by Jeff Vogel in which Vogel points out how marketing and public relations feel mandatory -- “But, um, duh, right?,” he wryly comments -- but that this was not always the case: Vogel points out, “A Steam Daily Deal used to mean doing a happy dance and putting on your Super Money Pants. What? That's fading? Uh oh. And this is the beginning of the real story.” Vogel points to the oversupply of games, as Svchenko does later in 2015, calling the situation a bubble which, when it pops, will force a lot of people who cannot weather the storm out of the games industry. A central part of Vogel’s argument, both in this early post and a subsequent one in 2014, is that “Indie gaming started out as games written with passion for people who embraced and loved them. Now too much of it is about churning out giant mounds of decent but undifferentiated product to be bought for pennies by people who don't give a crap either way. It’s not sustainable” (Vogel, 2014). Vogel’s implication is that when the profitability of the industry declines, all of the people making games to “cash in” on the previously lucrative Steam game market will leave.

Even if one assumes the position that overproduction is affecting game values and financial success as Vogel does, not everyone supports the idea that the sky is falling. In a blog post responding to Vogel (2013), Ben Serviss (2013) refutes the implication of an “indie bubble,” that “not only will there be not enough money to go around, but that some deserving games will get lost in the shuffle.” As opposed to the historic games crash in the early 1980’s, Serviss argues that today’s market is overflowing with high quality and that lower game prices only mean that people can afford to spread their dollars to more developers: “Far from this being a destructive trend -- gamers literally have to spread their money around to more developers if they want to play everything worth playing!” He likewise points to emergent or pre-existing events and organizations such as IndieCade, the IGF, and Indie Fund which, Serviss says, would not simply disappear. Serviss does admit that being a developer will get harder -- he directly compares it to attempting to be a professional screenwriter, author, or musician; difficulty aside, he does not discourage people from creating games and improving their skills.

Even in the 2015 Indiepocalypse climate there emerge skeptics. Sam Coster (2015) argues against the existence of an Indiepocalypse, which he describes as the situation in which a low barrier to entry is supersaturating the marketplace and “it is therefore increasingly unlikely for indie developers to find financial success in the industry even if they make a great game… [T]he shares are getting smaller, and soon the market will be untenable for indie studios.” Using statistics on game sales matched against game ratings on Steam, he concludes that while on average games appear to be less successful, when normalized for review scores, the same number of “good” games are released in 2013, 2014 and, assuming the trend continues for the rest of the year, 2015. He concludes that high quality indie games are not competing with low quality ones or triple-A games. Essentially, what appears to be an Indiepocalypse is simply an abundant number of lesser quality games doing badly whereas games that would be otherwise successful have succeeded and will still succeed -- that the abundance of games does not affect sales of better games.

What an analysis of the general discourse on the Indiepocalypse in games circa 2015 reveals is that there are multiple possible scenarios describing the economic environment for indie games and game production circulating in developer discourse online. Firstly, there is the position that the Indiepocalypse is here or fast approaching. This can be described in two scenarios: the first is that all independent developers will see declining market share and many will go out of business before the market re-stabilizes. Secondly, there is the possibility that overabundance of games is crowding out previously successful developers, but that the effect is mitigated by quality and marketing resources. This argument suggests that simply making a good game is insufficient to rise above the rest, and developers unable to market effectively will find otherwise well-made games fail or do worse. Lastly, there is the argument that the Indiepocalypse is not occurring at all -- that is, the same games that would have succeeded prior to 2013 will succeed now and in the future and that what looks like plummeting sales are largely due to the abundance of low quality games that would have done poorly had they been released earlier as well.

Which of these cases happens to be true is meaningful, as it describes the relationship between independent game development (that is, labor) and chances of financial success that enable workers to continue producing games. In the first case, proposed by Vogel (2013), game quality (and, accordingly, worker skill and effort) are relatively unimportant. This case describes games as ordinary commodities; if the game supply within the market for independent games exceeds demand, the values of those products drop until fewer games are produced or demand otherwise increases. The second case, suggested but refuted by Serviss (2013) is similar, though more nuanced. It again imagines success in the market not being differentiated by quality, but instead by visibility. Game quality may play a part in this, but Serviss describes a game’s financial outcome as being only somewhat related to worker efforts on the game itself. More specifically, this case describes game success as being largely connected to marketing and advertising more than game quality. The more visible a game, the higher its probability of success. In contrast, the last case, as proposed by Coster (2015), suggests that a game’s financial outcome is not related to visibility as much as game quality alone. If this case happens to be true, then it describes workers and independent game companies as being in much more control over their financial destinies in comparison to the other two positions. It also, accordingly, suggests a less significant influence of other factors (labor market conditions and distribution platform technology particularly) on game success that are larger parts of both alternative assessments.

Falling Profits: Being a Needle in a Haystack

To begin evaluating these claims in depth, it is important to understand that this idea of the Indiepocalypse relates only to income earned from indie games, rather than those that are merely independent games. As addressed in Lipkin (2013), one can consider “independent” as a marker of production regardless of content whereas “indie” connotes a genre or market of a game without consideration for its production practices. In that way, a developer can be hired to produce a game as an advertisement for Pepsi and still be independent, while a well-funded corporation like EA can publish an indie game without being politically-economically independent. In discussing the Indiepocalypse, this distinction is important because most of the people interviewed in the case study report minimal income from indie titles -- games they make and design independently and sell on marketplaces like Steam or mobile -- while most of their income from games derives from making games for hire that might not get sold through expected independent game channels. As X01 reports, “I wanted to be working on my own stuff, but I needed some income;” sometimes, the division between working on his own projects versus a client project broke down 50/50, “but,” he says, “it’s more like this month it’s 100 percent and 0 and next is 0 and 100 or so.” When I ask X05 about why he does work for hire, he likewise explains, “Because otherwise, there’d be no money. If I had to rely on my earnings from [my own] games, it would be pretty minimal… I feel like I have to pay the rent.” Given that the Indiepocalypse specifically concerns games sold on more traditional marketplaces and incomes from consumer sales or in-app purchases, this article focuses on games made for sale through traditional consumer markets.

To that end, it is worth noting that of the twenty-one people interviewed in this study, only four people reported sales from their indie games of $1000 or more. Of those four people, only three either could have or did live off of that income for any period of time. Four people does not make a statistically meaningful sample size, but their reported experiences do elucidate the relationship between workers and economic consequences of their labor that are central to the Indiepocalypse discussion. Add to this the people who earn wages through salaried, contract or freelance work on indie games and the number of people rises to thirteen of twenty-one. In some of their experiences, changes in the industry affected their job prospects as well.

The Halcyon Days: Indie Development Prior to 2013

The argument in favor of the Indiepocalypse depends on the notion that success was more achievable and dramatic prior to 2013, before the number of games released on Steam begins to expand, compared to afterwards. On that front, interviews with members of the New York City independent community suggest far more people entering the production field relatively recently. Of twenty-one interviews conducted in 2015, the median number of years people report working as “professional” independents is three years. Of the participants, only seven of the twenty-one claim to have been working longer than 5 years -- and this does not necessarily mean that their first games were published prior to 2013. This small sample size makes arguments about profitability prior to 2013 difficult, but the abundance of newer people entering the field supports claims by Indiepocalypse supporters Vogel and Savchenko about increasing competition following the popularization of independent games marked roughly around the arrival of Indie Game: The Movie in 2012.

Interviewees who were working prior to 2013 did clearly have some degree of success in that time period (though it is important to point out that, naturally, unsuccessful developers over that time may have dropped out prior to my investigation; it would be incorrect to imply that simply being a developer prior to 2013 meant immediate success). X03 explains that his first game, a niche education game released on the iTunes store in 2011, earned around $14,000 in sales over the course of around three years. He associates this success specifically with its being featured on the store: “I was making $100 a day then, which was nice, but that dropped off immediately after it wasn’t featured.” X05 began a studio in the 2000’s and sustained himself and a full-time staff through primarily contract work to produce rich media or small games for online platforms. X01 similarly sustained himself on contract and freelance work through this period at roughly $50,000 a year on average. Another six interviewees sustained themselves working as salaried or freelance employees for similar companies prior to 2013 as well.

Perhaps the most detailed account of this time comes from X08 who has created his own games and published other titles for eight years. While he sold titles through casual portal Big Fish to great success as well, he particularly notes the importance of Steam in 2012:

Before 2012, I would have said that being on Steam helped you considerably because you would get on the Steam page and you would have visibility for a week, you’d be on that front page. It was a license to print money. If I could go back to any time in my life it would be 2012 because we were just earning more money than we could ever spend -- it was ridiculous.

X08 has had a part-time public relations representative since 2010, but he openly admits to relying mostly on Twitter and email for driving engagement with his titles, having only tested the waters in 2015 with a $100 investment in Twitter advertising. What is most notable about X08’s account is how insignificant any specific investment in enhancing visibility appeared to be in relation to the success of titles in 2012 and earlier. Simply being on Steam gave at least a week of visibility and, accordingly, dramatic sales numbers (much like Vogel, 2013, suggests). He also notes the importance of Big Fish’s promotional strategy at the time which was designed to drive power users of the service towards new games: the portal offered users the opportunity to purchase games at a discount provided the user purchased at least 12 games a month. X08 says, “People were probably buying your game for less, but more people were buying games and there was a greater chance they would buy yours, so that worked out well for us. So suddenly, it’s, like, look at all this money.” Even with Big Fish’s 70 percent cut of the sales, this was still a profitable sales strategy for X08. Again, no real investment into visibility was required because the system itself so strongly supported the games being sold by offering prolonged exposure or encouraging bulk sales.

Struggles in the Middle Class

Recent years, however, have seen consolidation, downsizing, and refocusing of previously modestly successful New York City independent studios. X05, faced with the high cost of maintaining full-time staff and bookkeeping, fired most of the staff. Faced with competition for contact work, X01 and X05 merged and turned to freelancers to reduce overhead. X03, following the marginal success of his first title, took a brief hiatus from his full time job to work on a subsequent title -- which he claims was “an epic failure” in regards to getting the word out and earning anything. He soon found another full-time job outside of games and proceeds to work on assets and independent games in his spare time, earning less from them than he did on the first title. X12, after years of scraping by on freelance work on indie games and insufficient independent game sales, opted to take a salaried job at a mainstream mobile development studio. X19 notes that after the early success of her company’s game projects, by 2013, management was moving away from producing games and apps. She subsequently left for a different studio with an emphasis on rich media advertising and occasional branded adver-games. X08, who speaks longingly about Steam in 2012 and Big Fish, likewise changed approaches afterwards. Big Fish abandoned its sales policy that enforced a 12 game per month minimum for lower sale prices; sales figures for a subsequent game dropped precipitously (in spite of a high Metacritic score). As for Steam, he says, “[W]hen Steam opened up the floodgate with Greenlight and everything, things changed. Now you are on the front page for an hour. Steam is just the bare minimum of what you have to do.” His business has shifted towards in-house producing and away from publishing 3rd party titles in order to maintain intellectual property rights and the full revenue from completed games.

This pattern of success prior to 2013 and a slow shifting decline or consolidation -- and the fact that none of the interviewees in this study who began releasing games after 2013 have earned more than a few hundred dollars for any of their independent titles -- supports the position that indeed the Indiepocalypse is occurring and began with the arrival of Steam Greenlight around 2013. At such a time, the number of games and potential projects began to negatively affect sales for some of the games from companies that had been more successful previously.

Re-evaluating the Theories

The New York City case study appears to clash directly with Coster’s (2015) data which, he argues, indicate that what appears to be falling profitability for independents is a statistical misunderstanding, caused by averaging a large number of games that are lower quality into the data set. There are, however, two key problems with Coster’s data that undermine his position and suggest a less significant correlation between worker effort and profitability. Firstly, Coster attempts to determine the relationship, if any, between a game’s success and the number of other games being released. He admits that, absent the financial data to determine how much a game earns, he must instead use the metric of users per game. The issue of the Indiepocalypse, however, is less with popularity than profitability; therefore, Coster’s data does not properly measure the key metric. Even if games maintain the same number of users based on ratings year after year, this data does not relate how much each game charges for sale or earns from in -- game purchases. If games are popular but must charge less and less over time because of downward price pressure from increased competition and relative ambivalence towards perceived game quality, then popularity is not an effective metric of profitability.

The second issue pertains to the games Coster excludes from analysis. Coster ignores games priced below US$3 on the basis that “free-to-play and super-cheap games undoubtedly have different markets than premium games.” The validity of this assumption requires significant support which is not provided, making this particular cost cut-off seemingly arbitrary. In analyzing only games above US$3, Coster does not plot any pattern in game pricing. This decision to exclude cheaper games also dismisses what might be a constituency of game developers releasing games at a loss intentionally; as X07, X17, and X18 explain, there are reasons to release games without monetization or at very low cost as a means of building a portfolio. This is not a recent practice either (see Kerr, 2006, and Lessard, 2013). More significantly than excluding low-cost games, Coster also notes that when games are plotted according to ratings and popularity, “games that aren’t in the ‘good’ category are not necessarily bad.” Instead, he notes, “Most of them are unrated, meaning they have so few ratings that the average is statistically meaningless.” What Coster is excluding is far from meaningless -- it is the very heart of the Indiepocalypse question. Coster’s proposition that game success is proportional to game ratings (as a substitute measurement of game quality and the combination of the creator’s luck and skill) loses validity by excluding games that may be high quality but are not rated. While Coster proposes that popularity of these games is the consequence of ratings, these unrated or minimally rated games demonstrate the reverse -- that only when something is highly rated will it be more successful. What then of games that no one ever plays? Lack of ratings may not be a measure of quality, as Coster proposes, but an indication of oversupply to the point where otherwise quality games and hard work can be lost and ignored. This ironically supports the suggestion of the Indiepocalypse after all while suggesting the broader state of the marketplace for indie games is more significant than a game’s quality or the producer’s labor in understanding the probability that a game will be financial lucrative.

What then of Vogel’s (2013) position that declining sales driven by oversupply lead to fewer games and an eventual return to equilibrium? This would be the opposite case compared to Coster’s, in that the primary consideration affecting the financial prospects of independent game workers is not the qualities of the individual games themselves but the mechanisms and logics of the games marketplace. Vogel suggests that profit-seeking is a primary motivation for developing new games, and when profitability drops because of rising supply, workers will leave the market and it will restabilize. The case study suggests some of this behavior, but not very much. X03 and X04 stopped producing indie games full-time and moved to jobs either working on independent games outside traditional marketplaces or they are working in their off-hours, producing more slowly. On the other hand, in spite of sales so low they might not even get reported as income, many of the interviewees that began working on games between 2010 and 2015 (such as X10, X11, X14, X15, X16, X17, and X21) continue working on games and releasing them anyway.

The primary misunderstanding of Vogel’s position is the assumption that game production is primarily driven by response to demand -- that if games are plentiful and it is unprofitable to produce them, that people will not do so. This may be true for people who depend on indie sales and require capital to stay in operation, but most independent developers -- at least those interviewed in New York City -- do not report making any significant part of their income from their personal indie games, with the possible exception of only one interviewee project. Rather, the community depends heavily on support from freelance and contract work for independent games outside the marketplace (reported by nine of twenty one interviewees), full time work outside of indie games (reported by eight of twenty one), and accumulated savings from said work and spousal support to periodically subsidize development before returning to work (reported by three interviewees). What this demonstrates is that while naturally everyone wants their games to be financially successful, a very small number actually depend on sales of their indie games. Rather, interviewees report being motivated by the love of making games (X08, X09, X10, X11, X13, X18), creative satisfaction (X08, X09, X10), building a portfolio or reputation (X01, X15, X17) and because it’s fun (X03, X06, X08, X16, X18). As X11 exuberantly puts it, when asked about why he decided to get a masters in game design, “[I]t’s games and I just love games. I love games! I would do them for free. I do! I do do them for free sometimes. So I loved playing them, I love them. I just love games. Whatever it was, I just knew I wanted to work in games[.]” It is this excitement that discredits the market mechanism Vogel suggests will recalibrate the market: people are willing to -- and do -- make games for nothing, and, even if they cannot do so forever, there is no indication that new developers will not take their places when they leave.

The Indiepocalypse, Labor, and Desirable Work

A key component to understanding the Indiepocalypse, and thus the labor conditions of non-mainstream commercial game development and distribution, is this seemingly counterintuitive impulse expressed by members of the New York City development community to work without emphasizing financial compensation. For instance, X11 produces games because he “just loves games,” X09 works extensive hours because she learned, “I was not a person who could not work,” and X10 explains, “I find satisfaction in doing creative works in general.” Literature addresses this impulse in two capacities. Firstly, scholarship addresses non-pecuniary incentives to work in general, and within cultural industries or creative occupations in particular. This is commonly referenced in policy literature concerning workers in the creative industries which Peck (2005) suggests “work quietly with the grain of extant ‘neoliberal’ development agendas” (p. 740). Florida (2012) cites workers’ desires for “challenge or enjoyment, to do good, to make a contribution, and to learn” (p. 83). Pink (2001) likewise cites workers’ motivation not to simply earn money but to “make meaning” (p. 53), Inglehart (2000) suggests workers are increasingly motivated by self-expression (p. 223), and Dervojeda et al. (2013) point to an inherent preference within certain workers for risk-taking (p. 54). Dervojeda et al. (ibid), along with Csikszentmihalyi (2013) and Menger (1999), also suggest an inherent predisposition towards creative expression that may attract people to creative professions in spite of weak economic prospects.

Similar motivations are discussed by scholars in autonomist Marxian thought as well, though they are often highly critical of these preferences and often consider them self-exploitative. Terranova (2013) identifies a swath of people who engage in “free labor” for “the excitement and the dubious promises of digital work” (p. 50). Banks and Hesmondhalgh (2009) highlight how workers in creative occupations are described as having “good work,” which is “self-expressive, autonomous and individualized,” further stating, “[T]he sublime taste of freedom can be most deliciously savoured” (p. 417). Ross (2013) notes that one of the reasons working for free has become normative is that “it is not experienced as exploitation” (p. 17). This poses a complex depiction of the creative worker, as Gill and Pratt (2008) explain: while long hours and harsh working conditions “may be dictated by punishing schedules and oppressive deadlines,” they may also result from “passionate engagement, creativity and self-expression,” and socialization opportunities (p. 18). Whether or not one chooses to see this internal passion as a form of self-exploitation, as Ross (2013) does explicitly, is not at issue in this analysis; what is relevant is that the comments by members of the New York City independent games community and the Indiepocalypse phenomenon as a whole reflect this passion that Gill and Pratt indicate contribute to working for little or nothing.

At the same time as there may be a passion for work that replace pecuniary incentives for workers in the short term, working for less or nothing can be a deliberate strategy for long-term monetary success as well. Ross (2013) notes that some perceive that “the value of free promotion on a wide platform outweighs any benefits to be gotten from the surety of a professional pay scale” (p. 14). McRobbie (2002) indicates that, for independents particularly, self-directed uncompensated networking can be a critical component of professional success (p. 520; see also Gill and Pratt, 2008; Hracs and Leslie, 2013; and Andrejevic, 2013 for similar analyses). Florida (2012) also suggests that workers may engage in a strategy of “front loading,” “working excruciatingly long and hard at the outset of their professional lives in the hope that it will pay off in greater income, marketability, and mobility later” (p. 129). This concept mirrors the practice, especially in cultural industries, where initial work for free serves to build a portfolio of work that a worker can leverage to procure paying work later -- an experience that X18, X07 and X04 describe (see also Hartley, 2005 on this practice in creative industries and Postigo, 2010; O’Donnell, 2014; Kerr, 2006; and Deuze, 2007 on this practice in the games industry specifically). All of this serves to indicate a wide range of both psychological and financial components that drive workers generally into financially non-optimal labor arrangements, such as exhibited by members of the New York City independent games community.

The discussion of the Indiepocalypse does more than simply affirm existing stances on non-monetary incentives to work, though. It further demonstrates the way in which the prominence of these behaviors amongst independents feeds back into the market by lowering the probability of financial success depending on how much that work is preferred over other jobs the worker could do instead. Richard Caves (2002) refers to this idea alongside the art for art’s sake principle, that “artists will choose low-paid creative work over better-paid humdrum [non-artistic, less desirable] labor” (p. 73). He suggests this has two implications. Firstly, “The number of candidate artists greatly exceeds the number who can earn as much as humdrum jobs would pay” (p. 33). In other words, because more people collectively prefer creative work to non-creative work, more people will apply for a creative job over a less-creative job offering the same pay. This means that desirable jobs are scarcer than less desirable but adequately paying jobs. In the games industry context, this is similar to suggesting that there are more people who want to become payed employees at a games studio than want to make business software. This has an effect on wages accordingly: Caves explains, “Given the elastic supply of would-be artists, their competition will depress that average wage earned from creative work below the wage of humdrum labor, by an amount reflecting the strength of their preferences for creative labor” (p. 78). Because workers interested in these jobs desire them more than they care about wages competitive with those from humdrum jobs, workers will accept lower wages for the same work expected in a less desirable setting in accordance with how much they prefer the more desirable labor. This would account for why, for instance, game developers earn an average of around US$20,000 less per year than a generic software developer (Gamasutra, 2014, and Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015).

That does not, of course, account for the Indiepocalypse as a phenomenon because the Indiepocalypse does not concern wages: it concerns sales. There is, however, a second implication of Caves’ position that does connect directly to the Indiepocalypse: systematic oversupply of cultural products. Not only will people take lower pay to do more desirable work (such as make video games), but people will produce cultural products in excess of market capacity, given the skill and technological capacity to do so. Caves describes this as a lottery prize phenomenon (p. 57), wherein people will create cultural works in the hopes of winning the proverbial lottery and having a big hit. This is different from other kinds of material production because what will succeed in cultural marketplaces is more unpredictable (though this is minimized at large scale and mitigated by extensive marketing, as discussed in Elberse, 2013). Because a majority of cultural production does not turn a profit, most workers must create without the guarantee of a payout, so long as they are personally comfortable and financially able. Note that this also addresses why the Indiepocalypse is not emerging as a rapid influx of Triple-A titles -- unlike independents who produce of their own volition, mainstream companies coordinate releases in order to prevent market collapse by overproduction such as occurred in the crash of 1983 (see Montfort and Bogost, 2009, p. 134).

To the extent that, as Caves (2002) suggests, “Fledgling artists… [will] accept near-zero artistic wages as an investment in creative success” (p. 78), this inevitably means more product will be created than can be ensured to profit. This concept finds validity in the case of the Indiepocalypse, given the prominence in the New York City development community of workers who produce without guaranteed advances or wages (a category that includes the majority of the interviews). Coupled with the vast reduction in independent game production costs in the past decade (the opening of digital distribution at no down payment, the reduction or removal of development kit costs, the vast expansion of free or low-cost development engines such as Unity, etc.; see Kerr, 2017), this creates the perfect conditions for the Indiepocalypse. Workers can make more games, easier than ever, for a distribution platform (Steam) that is willing to accommodate increasing numbers of them beyond what the market can even evaluate, and these workers as a bloc are willing to accept little or no wages for much of the production in hopes of hitting it big or, if not, simply building a portfolio and gaining experience to later leverage into paying work for hire.


Examining the Indiepocalypse through the actions and attitudes of the workers affected by it emphasizes the relationship between a broader industry’s political economy and worker practice. While Vogel (2013) suggests in his article that work responds to the market, the data and the perspectives of the members of the New York City independent development community indicate that the Indiepocalypse results from much the opposite. The Indiepocalypse is the result of a predisposition towards creativity matched with technological innovations and structural conditions that make independent commercial game development faster, easier, and more accessible. Given worker preferences for creative expression over considerations for financial compensation, overabundance drives down wages and sales. If creative labor, and game development especially, remain inherently desirable activities, these market conditions and the consequences of those conditions on labor are predictable: lower wages and oversaturated product markets that negatively affect market value and visibility. Examining the Indiepocalypse as it pertains specifically to creative labor thus emphasizes the significance of understanding the personal and cultural motivations for labor practices that appear economically maladaptive at first glance.



Ahmad, D. [ZhugeEX] (2017, September 8). Updated the number of Steam games released per year chart [Tweet]. Retrieved from

Andrejevic, M. (2013). Estranged free labor. In T. Scholz (ed.), Digital labor: The internet as playground and factory (pp. 149-164). New York, NY: Routledge.

Baio, A. (2013, January 31). The Indiepocalypse. Waxy. Retrieved from

Banks, M. and Hesmondhalgh, D. (2009). Looking for work in creative industries policy. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 15(4), 415-430.

Bureau of Labor Statistics (2015). Software developers. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved from

Caves, R. E. (2002). Creative Industries. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cole, D. (2013, November 1). On average, how many video games are released each year, by platform? Quora. Retrieved from

Coster, S. (2015, October 2). Indiepocalypse? More like INDIESCHMOCALYPSE! Gamasutra. Retrieved from

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Creativity: the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Dervojeda, K. Nagtegaal, F., Lengton, M., and Datta, P. (2013). Creative industries: analysis of industry-specific framework conditions relevant for the development of world-class clusters. Brussels: European Union.

Deuze, M. (2007). Media work. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Dyer-Witheford, N. and de Peuter, G. (2009). Games of empire. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Elberse, A. (2013). Blockbusters: Hit-making, risk-taking, and the big business of entertainment. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

Florida, R. (2012). The rise of the creative class revisited. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gamasutra. (2014). Gamasutra salary survey 2014. Retrieved from

Gill, R. and Pratt, A. (2008). In the social factory: Immaterial labour, precariousness and cultural work. Theory Culture Society, 25(1), 1-30.

Guevara-Villalobos, O. (2011) Cultures of independent game production: Examining the relationship between community and labour. Proceedings of DiGRA 2011. Retrieved from

Hartley, J. (2005). Creative industries. In J. Hartley (ed.), Creative industries (pp. 1-40). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Hesmondhalgh, D. and Baker, S. (2011). Creative labour: media work in three cultural industries. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hracs, B. and Leslie, D. (2013). Aesthetic labour in creative industries: the case of independent musicians in Toronto, Canada. Area, 46(1), 66-73.

Inglehart, R. (2000). Globalization and postmodern values. The Washington Quarterly, 23(1), 215-228.

Johns, J. (2006). Video game production networks: Value capture, power relations and embeddedness. Journal of Economic Geography, 6, 151-180.

Keogh, B. (2014, March 21). Ric Chivo with his top ten tips for indie developers at Lost Levels 2014. [Video file]. Retrieved from

Kerr, A. (2006). The business and culture of digital games: Gamework/gameplay. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

---- (2017). Global games. New York, NY: Routledge.

---- and Flynn, R. (2003). Revisiting globalization through the movie and digital games industries. Convergence, 9, 91-113.

Leadbeater, C. and Oakley, K. (1999). The independents: Britain’s new cultural entrepreneur. London: Demos.

Lessard, J. (2013). Glutomax: Quebecois proto-indie game development. Loading…, 7(11), 133-138.

Lipkin, N. (2013). Examining Indie’s independence: The meaning of “Indie” games, the politics of production, and mainstream co-optation. Loading… 7(11), 8-24.

Martin, C. B. and Deuze, M. (2009). The independent production of culture: A digital games case study. Games and Culture, 4(3), 276-295.

McRobbie, A. (2002). Clubs to companies: Notes on the decline of political culture in speeded up creative worlds. Cultural Studies, 16(4), pp. 516-531.

Menger, P. (1999). Artistic labor markets and careers. Annual Review of Sociology, 25, 541-574.

Montfort, N. and Bogost, I. (2009). Racing the beam: The Atari Video Computer System. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

North, D. (2015, January 8). The 5 most innovative games of the 2015 Independent Games Festival. VentureBeat. Retrieved from

O’Donnell, C. (2014). Developer’s dilemma: The secret world of videogame creators. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Parker, F. (2013). An art world for artgames. Loading…, 7(11), 41-60.

Peck, J. (2005). Struggling with the creative class. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 29(4), 740-770.

Pink, D. (2001). Free agent nation: The future of working for yourself. New York, NY: Warner.

Postigo, H. (2010). Modding to the big leagues: Exploring the space between modders and the game industry. First Monday, 15(5).

Ross, A. (2013). In search of the lost paycheck. In T. Shultz (Ed.), Digital labor: The internet as playground and factory (pp. 13-32). New York, NY: Routledge.

Ruffino, P. (2013). Narratives of independent production in video game culture. Loading…, 7(11), 106-121.

Savchenko, A. (2015, August 30). Rat race to the Steam store. Retrieved from

Serviss, B. (2013, December 10). The glorious lie of the Indie bubble. Gamasutra. Retrieved from

Steam Spy [Steam_Spy]. (2015a, August 26). This is what I’m talking about. Total sales are stable, median are falling. Note: it uses moving average. [Tweet]. Retrieved from

---- (2015b, August 26). Just to remind you -- a significant jump in number of new games on Steam started in October, 2013. [Tweet]. Retrieved from

---- (2017). Games released in previous months [Data file]. Retrieved from

Terranova, T. (2013). Free labor. In T. Scholz (ed.), Digital labor: The internet as playground and factory (pp. 33-57). New York, NY: Routledge.

Vogel, J. (2013, November 6). Marketing, dumb luck, and the popping of the Indie bubble. Gamasutra. Retrieved from

---- (2014, May 21). The Indie bubble is popping. Retrieved from

Westecott, E. (2013). Independent game development as craft. Loading…, 7(11), 78-91.

Whitson, J. R. (2013). The 'console ship is sinking' and what this means for indies. Loading…, 7(11), 122-129.


Pajot, L. and Swirsky, J. (Directors). (2012). Indie game: the movie [Film]. Winnipeg: BlinkWorks.


Mojang. (2011). Minecraft. [PC]. Sweden: Mojang.

©2001 - 2019 Game Studies Copyright for articles published in this journal is retained by the journal, except for the right to republish in printed paper publications, which belongs to the authors, but with first publication rights granted to the journal. By virtue of their appearance in this open access journal, articles are free to use, with proper attribution, in educational and other non-commercial settings.