Digital to physical: The evolution of indie gaming

8 Mins read

by Jimmy Ioannou & HW Reynolds


Surprises, disappointments and triumphs – indie gaming has evolved over the years as technology has transitioned into the modern era, allowing easier access to indie games than ever before. Indie games are becoming more popular every year, since the release of Minecraft in 2009. We are now beginning to see these titles receive physical releases by dedicated distributors.

n++ Box Art

n++ Box Art [Super Rare Games]

Artefact contacted video game developers, publishers and distributors to get their views on the current state of the indie gaming industry and the transition from digital to physical releases with specific titles.

Super Rare Games are a publisher and distributor of indie games for the Nintendo Switch. On November 15, they released a new game with Metanet Software titled N++ Ultimate Edition, one of many indie titles physically distributed by the company. George Perkins, the self-described “head of doing stuff” said that they “are the only people who stock our releases” – any physical release from Super Rare Games is only available through them directly, and not through other retailers.

This is a contrast to Dominik Graner and Geraint Evans, the PR Manager and Head of Marketing respectively for PQube, which is a publisher of indie titles with UK offices in Letchworth, Bawtry and Bristol. “The deciding factors here are the quality of the game and the awareness of press and public about the digital release. If a game is of high quality and a lot of people already cared about the digital release, chances are good partners like the idea. The more channels a game is available through, the better and easier it is to find it, and retail is still one of these channels.” PQube is open to working with other retailers in order to further an indie titles exposure to the public.

Physical releases haven’t always been successful in the indie gaming industry, for example Mighty No. 9, which began as a Kickstarter in 2013 and was released in 2016 as a Mega-Man style side-scrolling action platformer. It started as an extremely successful campaign, but soon ended in disappointment.

Inti Creates and Comcept, two developers involved in the project, started the Kickstarter in September 2013; it slowly gained popularity throughout its campaign, but after release, it was met with negative reviews from fans and critics, due to the unsatisfying end product, despite its wide exposure to public audiences.

The campaign came under fire, being labelled as a trick by fans who were left frustrated at both the digital and full physical release. They aimed to raise $900,000 but exceeded these expectations due to mass enthusiasm for the title and its homages to a classic style of gameplay that many gamers loved. This resulted in the campaign finishing its 31-day run raising a total of $4 million. This total was built on them releasing the title on various platforms and also offering physical box releases as bonuses for those who pledged higher amounts.

Mighty No. 9 was met with a lukewarm reception after some Kickstarter backers reportedly receiving broken code and mismatched rewards. Game critics rated the title as mediocre and underwhelming, with IGN stating “Charmless and full of poorly-executed ideas, Mighty No. 9 fails to entertain despite its legendary pedigree.”

Many backers expressed disdain and frustration due to the game’s multiple delays, poor reception and a lack of communication from Comcept. Today the game leaves an unfavourable legacy with gamers who either backed the project or watched the various videos on the subject and avoided it like a digital Kickstarted plague.

[pullquote align=”right”]“You have ‘something real’ in your hand, something that’ll be there and won’t be forgotten.”[/pullquote]”The main risk of publishing a physical product compared to a digital one is the fact that you have to produce a certain amount of stock of it. If you produce too much, you waste money – if you produce too little, you waste potential,” Graner and Evans told us.

Graner also said that while releasing to retailers will bring in additional customers, they have to remember that not everyone will be interested in their title, something common among indie games: “In the end, it comes down to finding the balance in distribution, which requires the experience from seeing a lot of games come and go over the years.”

Perkins, however, argues, “if you do mass market retail, this is a terrible idea. The risks are that the time for the game has already passed and people who have wanted to play it, already have. With our games, we cater mainly for a collecting audience and also for people who loved the game so much that they want to own it. This means we have very little risk.”

Super Rare Games, in particular, have a focus on releasing games for collectors rather than a general audience, so their stance on retail releases are understandable.

Philipp Döschl, the co-founder of FDG Entertainment, a German-based games developer who will soon be releasing a physical/digital release titled Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, agrees there are risks of physical indie releases. “The biggest risk is producing too many units and not being able to sell them. This might eat up all profit the physical release generated, worst case the physical release makes the project not profitable any more or even the whole company gets into financial troubles.”

Monster Boy Promo Image

Monster Boy Promo Image [FDG Entertainment]

Döschl gives an example of this risk using another company: “Some extreme examples are THQ’s uDraw tablet in the early 2010s or E.T. on Atari 2600 in the early 1980s. This is really the worst case scenario, but they clearly show the risk.”

He also discussed the pricing of physical and digital releases and his opinion on the situation, “the digital release should either be cheaper or be the same price as the physical, definitely not more expensive. It’s sort of a disturbing trend that the digital version is more expensive than the physical version. The only explanation I could find up to now is greed.”

The recent situation with Telltale Games, where the company seemingly collapsed overnight, leaving around 250 employees out of work without any sort of compensation, is an example of an indie developer that grew but subsequently suffered the consequences.

They started out successfully with The Walking Dead franchise, a seminal take on the comic book series that quickly gained a following courtesy of YouTube ‘lets Plays’ and exposure. Telltale continued to grow, incorporating titles such as The Wolf Among Us and Minecraft: Story Mode to their repertoire. These games were released physically on multiple consoles by Avanquest Software (now Maximum Games Ltd.)

In the midst of releasing the final season for The Walking Dead, the gaming world was rocked when Telltale unexpectedly announced a majority studio closure with a statement from CEO Pete Hawley: “We released some of our best content this year and received a tremendous amount of positive feedback, but ultimately, that did not translate to sales.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“Compare your life to mine and then kill yourself.”[/pullquote]An example of a larger company having success in publishing indie titles physically is Maximum Games Ltd, who have recently released physical editions for We Happy Few and Bendy and the Ink Machine.

Head of Product Acquisition Simon Reynolds told us: “I chose these titles based on their quality. Their aesthetics had a unique appeal and when I saw the opportunity to acquire them for physical distribution in the UK in WHF’s case and Europe and Australia for Bendy I pushed for them.”

Since this interview, Bendy and the Ink Machine has seen it’s physical release and has sold well in its first week. “It made the Top 30 all formats chart. Given it was Black Friday week, and all the other AAA releases around, we’re well chuffed,” Reynolds said.

The topic of risk and reward also came up in a discussion: “There’s always a chance that distributors will only want a certain amount of units at first unless of course, they see an indication of strong pre-orders. However, when we started selling WHF to UK retailers, the distribution of units amongst retailers was larger than usual. We always expected big things from it and it has continued to be successful, and as for bendy it has re-ordered extremely well and releases soon so we’ll have to see if the pattern continues,” Reynolds told us.

Artefact asked these companies how they chose which games to physically release. George Perkins from Super Rare Games enthusiastically said: “We choose the game that we love! It’s important that we are passionate about each release we work on. We also get a lot of feedback from our fans who are always giving us suggestions. Listening to fans is very important within the industry, as you are building a product that these consumers need to enjoy and be willing to spend money on, Super Rare Games takes this in their stride.”

Philipp Döschl Co-Founder of FDG Entertainment

Philipp Döschl Co-Founder of FDG Entertainment [Philipp Döschl]

FDG Entertainment’s Philipp Döschl says that the company has had physical releases on their mind since “day one”. He explains FDG’s passion for indie gaming and their thought processes and decision making, “Since at FDG we’re all (old school) gamers, we love physical releases and being able to do so nowadays is a childhood dream come true. This is something very important to us and is part of our current company strategy. Then it’s also about finding the right way to release a physical game. Not every game is made for brick and mortar stores, some games will do a lot better if they’re sold through the internet. It’s not rocket science, it’s more about careful analysis, curation, etc.”

PQube Games focuses more on performance and affordability: “There are multiple factors to this of course, but the most import ones are: Was the digital version successful and did it sell enough as well as how big is the data size of the game. The bigger a game data-wise, the more expensive it is to port it,” Graner and Evans said.

Other games didn’t get a chance to be released physically. One of those games was Fez II, a sequel to popular indie game Fez, which was cancelled before its release. The rise and fall of Phil Fish and the subsequent cancellation of Fez II that followed wasn’t all that unexpected in certain circles. Phil Fish was an indie game developer who published games through his company, Polytron Corporation, and was the Creator of Fez.

The first Fez game was an indie puzzle-platformer that back in 2012/2013 took gaming by storm, selling 20,000 copies on its first day and received mass critical praise for its design and gameplay. It’s sequel Fez II was announced as “one more thing” at the end of the June 2013 Horizon Indie Game Press Conference and enthusiasm seemed high.

What followed was a surprise to Fish’s company, as he found himself in a Twitter feud with a video game journalist Marcus Beer, who had made comments on the GameTrailers show Invisible Walls criticising Fish’s response to questions about Microsoft’s Xbox One self-publishing policy change. During the feud, Fish condemned the industry’s negativity and directed insults and remarks towards Beer, in one of them he declared “Compare your life to mine and then kill yourself.”

In a final tweet, he announced both Fez II’s cancellation and his exit from the industry. He subsequently posted a statement on Polytron’s site, his development company, declaring: “Fez II is cancelled. I am done. I take the money and I run. This is as much as I can stomach. This isn’t the result of any one thing, but the end of a long, bloody campaign. You win.”

Phil Fish Tweet

Phil Fish’s response to Marcus Beer [Twitter]

Fish once said in Indie Game: The Movie, a film about the development of Fez that “there’s always a threat of the whole thing just falling apart any day now.” In this context, Fish was talking about Fez and the issues that Microsoft was giving them at the time, but the quote seemed to be a peculiar omen for what followed.Today, Fish is working on different projects, following several more instances of Twitter tirades and being hacked. The fate of Fez II hangs in the air, but how quickly it crashed and burn because of personal attacks against its creator suggest a flaw in the Indie process, one that goes beyond the risk of physical copies selling well.It may be fair to say that indie gaming is rising in popularity, with physical indie games becoming a normal occurrence now. Döschl concludes: “Physical releases can serve as a birthday present for a friend, as a collection item and also it gives the possibility to archive video games.

“There are more and more associations, museums and even governmental agencies archiving games since they’re considered a form of art in many countries nowadays, just as music and literature. You have ‘something real’ in your hand, something that’ll be there and won’t be forgotten.”





Featured Image from Maximum Games

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