The free to play model, or perhaps more accurately the freemium model, has come to game tools. Tools like Unity, Epic's Unreal Engine, CryEngine, have free versions, and many middleware companies such as Havok offer their product for free, but with license fees or tiers past which you must pay.
The big thing I've heard coming from game developers is that while this is intended to allow indie developers to afford more expensive tools, it doesn't really allow them to make that much money either. When you've got Apple or Google's app stores taking 30%, and Unity, or Unreal, or any of your back-end middleware taking up some more, there's very little left for the developer.
It will be very interesting to see how this model works in the future, as it seems to cater more toward teams with a small amount of funding, versus pure indies. While this sort of thing has gotten many indies to try out middleware they would never otherwise have gotten to touch, it's also pushed many indies to look more at free tools. In doing so, they have collectively made those free tools even better. While there's no direct support for those tools of course, there are strong communities for them, and this has caused speculation about the future of licensed middleware.
Social and mobile trends
Social and mobile games had a lot of momentum over the last few years, as developers figured out what to do in these new spaces. Though some of the giants, like Zynga, may be slowing down, there's still a lot of opportunity for small teams in the mobile space, and social to some extent as well. The following are just a few things I've noticed in those industries in the last year or so.
The "mid-core" social user. Developers have been talking about this for ages, trying to find some sort of hybrid between the hardcore game player and the casual player. Why would they want to do this, you might wonder? This is because casual players tend to be pretty apathetic toward the games they play. They will play whatever comes along, but they don't really consider themselves dedicated, and are not about to start a Zynga fansite. Hardcore players on the other hand, will buy every game in a series, or follow its developers no matter what they make. Social game developers want to get that sort of fanaticism for player retention and discoverability through word of mouth. So far, not many companies have been successful at this. One wonders how possible it might be, but any company that can really do it well might get some extreme benefits.
Layoffs. You've certainly seen the big layoffs at Zynga recently, and all the studio closures. Zynga's stocks are only around 22-25% of their initial public offering, and we are seeing a lot of studio contraction. Venture capital and investment is also slowing, and player retention is getting more expensive. All this has led many to say that the social game bubble has burst. That's not to say the industry is over, not by a long shot. It just means that now the best will truly rise to the top.
Post-release marketing. One trend I've seen that hasn't quite caught on yet is post-release marketing in mobile. Right now, many companies are treating their mobile games like traditional game releases, and advertising them beforehand, or showing early trailers. But this can sometimes work against them, because most game sites will only talk about a mobile game once, if they talk about it at all. And if the game isn't out when you talk about it, people will forget it exists. Companies like Rovio, on the other hand, have done a great job of making sure updates are constant, and very obvious, and that word of mouth is spread by post-release marketing, not trying to treat the launch of a 99 cent iOS game as though it were Halo 4.
I happen to think indie developers are great, but I'm just a bit biased since I dabble in that field myself. But you've no doubt noticed that indies are gaining in status, with developers like Notch, who made Minecraft, John Blow, maker of Braid, and many others having massive success while big companies are trying to figure out how to make ends meet. Indies are taking much bigger risks, and when they fail nobody notices -- but when they make it big, it makes the big companies wonder how they can emulate this success.
A lot of new game developers are skipping the traditional game industry entirely, nowadays, and going straight into making indie games, either by starting a company, joining a team, or doing it themselves. The path into the game industry has gotten much easier, it seems, or at least there are more ways to do it.
Game Jams have also proven to be a big driver of success and creativity. If you've never been to one, a jam is basically where a bunch of developers get together and make games in an incredibly short period of time (often 48 hours) with some sort of guidelines. A lot of full games have grown out of these jams, including a funded game that I'm making right now.
Game bundles are another huge development for indies. Bundles like the Humble Indie Bundle and Indie Royale take several games that are newly launching, or even games that were already out, and give them new life by selling them as one package and letting people pay whatever they think it's worth. These bundles have made upward of 4 million dollars with just 5 or so developers in each bundle.
By way of stats, from our salary survey we found that Indie games made more money in 2011 than they did in 2010. 48% of independent developers made less than $500 from the sale of their game, down from 55% in 2010, which means fewer people are making less. 16% of independent developers made over $60,000 from the sale of their game in 2011, compared to 8% in 2010, which means more people are making more! Individual independent developers averaged $23,500 (way up from $11,000 in 2010), and members of independent developer teams averaged just over $38,000 (up from nearly $27,000 in 2010).