When we meet Jason Della Rocca at this year’s Megamigs, it’s in the wake of some grim gaming headlines, one of the first waves of negative financial news since the start of the pandemic.
Google had formally given up on StadiaMicrosoft had just announced hundreds of jobs cutand we called for calm an editorial about the downward turn that had been taken recently.
But much of the concern has centered on the larger part of the industry, the AAA market and the huge companies doing business there. So when we speak to Della Rocca, the former executive director of the International Game Developers Association and co-founder of Execution Labs, we ask for an indie perspective on the industry and whether he’s been optimistic or pessimistic lately.
“Success is possible, but I think the chance of success is much smaller than it used to be, just because of saturation and the flow of things”
“I’m generally an optimistic person, and I think you make good decisions, work hard, have talent, all that stuff, and success can be had,” says Della Rocca. “There’s a lot of failure. There’s a lot more games being made, a lot of indies trying to launch games, and a lot of them failing. But we’re also seeing great successes come out of nowhere… Success is possible, but I think the chance of success is much lower than it used to be just because of saturation and the way things are going.”
Della Rocca says much of the work he does these days is helping developers approach their business like a real business, from selecting commercially viable genres to engaging the community and influencers.
“A lot of developers take the time to do competitive analysis, market research, community engagement, streamer outreach, and all those things way too late, or they don’t bother at all,” says Della Rocca. “But I think developers are realizing that if they want to make a career out of it and build a viable business and be professional, it’s a lot more work than they hoped for when they were maybe young and dreaming.”
In recent years there has been a wave of indie publishers setting up shops to cater to the demands of such developers, operations that advertise themselves as if they let developers worry about development while they handle everything else from marketing to management from social media to platform relationships with ports.
Della Rocca doesn’t want to speak badly of those companies, but he points to a shift in the perceived value of developers who self-publish and “own” their audience with as direct a relationship as possible to the fans.
“Even a publisher who has the fairest deal, the best intentions and the hardest workers [is] is still a bit in the way [the creator-player] relation…”
“We often see that as one of the multiplier effects on the chance of success, when the creator interacts directly with the audience, runs the Discord, has an active newsletter, is active on social media, attracts influencers, all those kinds of things ,” says Della Rocca.
“What we’re seeing more and more is that a publisher mediating that relationship doesn’t always work. Not because the publisher is bad, not because the publisher isn’t working hard, but they’re doing the marketing. They’re not.” not the artist, they’re not the designer, they’re not the storyteller. And I think even a publisher who has the fairest deal, the best intentions and the hardest workers still kind of gets in the way of that relationship, unintentionally, but it’s just the way it works.
“The fans want to interact with the designer, not a junior marketing executive from publisher XYZ. No offense to that junior marketing executive. They’re probably a really nice person with good marketing skills, but they’re not the designer, not the programmer , not the artist, not the makers.”
Della Rocca says an emerging trend to address that concern is what he calls “publishing-as-a-service” companies. They provide publisher-like services – QA, porting, localization, and so on – but the developer remains the publisher of the game, staying front and center and directly connected to the fans in question.
The mobile opportunity
India has found spaces to thrive on PC and on consoles, but the mobile market is another matter. While it was once considered a friendlier market thanks to more permissive policies for platform holders, low budgets and the potential for mass breakout hits, Della Rocca says the market there for India is now “almost zero.”
There’s an opportunity for a team of two or three people in the hypercasual market to make some money releasing quickly assembled prototypes and building on prototypes that happen to stick around, but Della Rocca says it’s almost like gambling, and warns that “the house always wins.”
“It’s so hard to build a random cube or bouncing ball thing that’s really going to hit and make money,” he says. “You can do that, but I think it’s really, really hard.
And that, in his eyes, is the friendliest part of the mobile market.
“The mainstream app store market as indie? Oh man, it’s almost impossible”
“The mainstream app store market as an indie? Oh man, it’s almost impossible,” says Della Rocca. “Even though it’s mobile and you think, ‘Oh, mobile is smaller and easier to make’, the complexities around the economics, design balancing, progression systems, retention mechanisms… Never mind all the user acquisition and ad monetization concerns and things like that. Three kids, a programmer, an artist and a designer? They don’t know anything about that.”
An exception to all this is the mobile premium market, or at least a specific part of it.
“Mobile premium in the wild has no viability,” says Della Rocca. “Mobile premium if you’re in Apple Arcade or Netflix? That’s another story. They’re walled gardens, but if you can get one of those rare Apple Arcade deals, it’s usually a good deal. They’re pretty generous with it make sure your development costs are covered, etc.”
However, there are still a few drawbacks to that scheme. While the deals limit the potential downsides of a worst-case scenario to the game, they also limit the benefits of a best-case scenario.
“Even though there’s some profit pool action, if you make the next Clash of Clans or Angry Birds, you can’t really participate in that success because you’re inherently paid to produce a game and create that content,” says Della Rocca.
On top of that, there’s also the non-trivial problem that the companies that make these premium games viable have to choose your project.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Della Rocca. “On the one hand, it allows my premium mobile game to find a home and actually live on a mobile device. But on the other, it means I’m at the mercy of the whims of the people who [platform]and they have to let me in.”
Della Rocca mentions that a developer he worked with had a game in the first round of Apple Arcade games. It was a good deal that worked for them so they thought they would give it another try.
“They offered a second game and Apple turned it down,” said Della Rocca. “They planned that and had to rush to recover from that.”
The subscription service trend
That same situation is by no means limited to the mobile market, and Della Rocca is clearly uncomfortable with the idea of a developer planning to depend entirely on the benevolence of a subscription service to keep their business afloat.
“If you say, ‘I’m just going to wait for my next Game Pass deal,’ and they say, ‘We don’t want that,’ it’s like, oh crap, my whole business model was focused on that approach,” he says .
While he’s shy about guessing whether subscriptions could lead to a Spotify-esque developer scenario where creators are paid insultingly little for their work, Della Rocca expects the deals being offered to developers to get worse as subscription programs become established.
“The more you want to be in the subscription, the less they have to incentivize you to be there”
“The more you want to be in the subscription, the less they have to incentivize you to be there,” he says.
It doesn’t even have to be a subscription service. Della Rocca points to the Epic Game Store and its “intensely aggressive” pursuit of developers in the early days, offering “great” deals to creators to include their titles in the week’s free game giveaways. However, he says the deals have become less generous as Epic has built momentum.
“That’s normal for any platform,” says Della Rocca. “In the beginning you incentivize, you charge it, and that brings the install base. And when the install base is there, we’re naturally motivated to be on the platform, so the incentives disappear or diminish.”
In addition, he goes back to his earlier comments about the importance of engaging directly with one’s own fanbase and “taking ownership” of that relationship.
“Subscription models change that in their own way too, so I’m a little concerned about that,” says Della Rocca. “And I’m just worried about being on that treadmill where as long as the master of the platform keeps saying yes, I can keep running on that treadmill. But as soon as they say ‘no thanks’ then I’ll get thrown off the treadmill and then what do I do and where do I go? I have to scramble. So I never liked the idea of getting on a treadmill.”