There Are Not Too Many Video Games 📄 posted at 03 February 2022 on new danboland

Congratulations to Jeff Vogel for writing the Worst Post of The Year 2022 (thus far). Once again, there are too many bloody indie games on Steam, the absolute bastards I thought I told them to cut it out – but don’t worry, this isn’t your usual ladder-pulling nonsense, this is apparently some advanced cultural critique.

The post in question is so passive-aggressive that you’d think a bunch of indie devs next door were blasting procedurally-generated drum and bass every night for a year, but here’s a steelman:

There are over 30 games a day released on Steam.1 Most of these games fail to find a large audience. Making games nobody will play constitutes a large waste of time from young, talented, driven people. Such people are drawn to the arts because there are few other ways to improve the world. Society is eroding. There are problems. This is therefore a massive misallocation of resources.

This is an incredibly callous and inhuman way to look at creative works, and appears to view culture itself in deep disdain. But we don’t need to moralise, because this post doesn’t even hold up to its own logic.

The first problem with this post is that Vogel appears to have exactly one type of development in mind – a caricature. A group of promising young pothole-fillers are corrupted down the dark path of the arts and conned into getting $35,000 gamedev degrees, then proceed to work full-time on some sad damp squib of a game for multiple years.

Independent game development is a massive field, and covers modding, mapping, free web games, fan games, FOSS games, game jams, doujin markets, cheeky summer projects between jobs or school. We take it for granted that none of these are a person’s main thing – a fun project, a side thing, something done on your free time. Seems pretty sustainable to me – unless we’re actually at the point of telling folk what they’re entitled to do in their free time. (Fuck it, if you’re a programmer, I hope to god you’re making a game in your spare time – left to your own devices, you’ll go and make Facebook or Ethereum or some nonsense.)

Ah, but the world of Steam is so different, there is a magical wall between all that stuff and games you spend a fiver on in a sale – is it? How do you know? Is there a Steam Career Survey? Even if it were the case that every new game on Steam was the result of a couple of gambled futures, we don’t have to look far for a more sustainable way to do things, and it beats the hell out of suddenly claiming that we’re full up and it’s time to stop producing culture.

Image: A humorous depiction of two men pointing at a graph of Steam games. In the foreground, myself ; brimming with excitement at the expanse of Gaming that the good world has bestowed upon me.

I’m sorry that your city has potholes OP. I truly am. But the problems that befall society are neither the fault of indies, nor within their power to remedy. Take the entire labour force of the 2021 indie scene, force them via gunpoint into construction work, let’s fucking go – give it a year, your city will still look like a fucking dishrag, because the money ain’t there. Public services in your country (and mine) have been systemically and rigorously dismantled for decades, and you’re going to turn around and blame it on indie RPGs about having depression? – this is apparently better than blaming it on the economic and political model of your country because you won’t stop hooting and hollering and pointing at a graph of new Steam games to think about literally anything else.

Are we on the verge of not making it with climate because we don’t have enough climate scientists? No, we have plenty, and they’re all screaming at us and hoping our leaders listen. Our problem with the pandemic is not a lack of brilliant minds working on research and vaccines – our problem is with how those vaccines were inequitably distributed and our leaders’ willingness to let everywhere else become a petri dish. Tell us all to give up the stuff that makes life fun or worth it, and we’re still on a death march, now without marching song.

This struggle that faces us is simply a political struggle, and there’s no way around that. You can’t just put down Unity and go to the Make the World Better Agency for a real job. Political activism to resolve this struggle is not incompatible with making games. Sometimes it coincides, which is nice, but not necessary.

So, we don’t know what the fuck we’re apparently wasting, and we are not directly in control of how it could even be put to use. Leaving us with an old, tired and true point – boy, it sucks that indie games can’t find audiences.

We were having this conversation 8 years ago. So many genres and niches are still going underserved, even though we’re regularly told that there’s too many games now. This has never been a problem of volume of games – it is a deep-rooted problem in how people find and discuss new works. Streamers and Youtubers both want games that suit their platform, which leaves entire genres by the wayside (this is where your battle royales came from). Genre and niche-specific stuff got largely absorbed into social media and Discord because we’re only allowed five websites now2. Traditional games journalism can barely make ends meet covering the ever-expanding minutae of the AAA crowd, what reason do they even have for covering anything but the biggest indies?

Image: Steam recommending the game Palworld - a game about shooting colourful Pokemon-style monsters. I was supposed to roast the Steam algorithm here, but I am actually interested in Palworld. Damn.

Come to think of it, why doesn’t Vogel ask this of AAA games? Are there too many AAA games? To be provocative: if you’re talking sheer fucking amount of talented hours going in to create something ultimately forgettable and disposable, that would seem to cover a lot of that space rather neatly. Such games are increasingly becoming live-service cages for minds, built of compulsion and consumption. They drive an irresponsible, never-satiated hardware race. They consume the humans who work on them through burnout and harassment. They lead the charge towards monopoly, monopoly that shall soon fatten itself on monthly rent from us through subscription platforms. Such games don’t merely prevent good by some bogus calculus, they actively and demonstrably produce harm. But even here, this is still not a problem of quantity. One game that fits the above criteria is too many – is this how Vogel feels about indies?

It is impossible to calculate, or even estimate, what exactly is being “wasted” when the wee folk have the audacity to try to produce culture and art. Looking at our absurd world where homeless people die in the same cities as unoccupied investment properties, where we’re told to reuse our jam jars while governments close nuclear plants, where most of the workforce is doing bullshit that neither feeds, clothes nor shelters anyone – it’s understandable to feel angry at the state of it all. But it takes a strange tunnel vision, probably one built by whatever it means to be a “businessman” in the indie space, to think the folk sat in a corner wanting to lighten the world a little bit have anything to do with it.

  1. Vogel originally claimed that this was over 300 per day. He later revised this to roughly 30 a day, arguments unchanged, which demonstrates that it’s not really about the number of games released and that it’s more or less vibes-based. 

  2. Was there ever, at a point, Too Many Websites? The same logic applies, and you won’t like where it took us.