Why indiedevs shouldn’t fear being cancelled

I’ve seen a fair number of small indiedevs say they’re afraid of expressing their opinions online due to fear of being cancelled. Overall I think this is a pretty unwarranted fear and in this post I’ll explain why.

When to speak

The first thing to note is that there absolutely are people out there going out of their way to cancel other indiedevs due to all sorts of supposed transgressions and differences of opinion. I could spend this post listing examples of this happening but that would be boring.

Accepting that that’s the case, the question then becomes: how do you shield yourself from such attempts? The first thing people jump to is simply not expressing their most contentious opinions. And depending on the kind of person you are this actually works.

If you don’t really have that many contentious opinions in the first place (which is the case for most people), there’s very little harm in just not really mentioning the few that you do. Why be a difficult person instead of just being nice and getting along with everyone, right?

But I personally value being able to speak freely about contentious subjects and opinions, so being quiet doesn’t really work for me. I have an inherent need to speak without fearing being heard.

The next thing people try is the opposite, which is to be purposefully contentious and edgy, and it actually works too. When people know you’re that kind of person, whenever you say anything upsetting it’s only to be expected and it’s not a surprise, so it works as a shield.

But for me, personally, this also doesn’t work. Even though I’m kind of edgy I’m really not that much of an edgelord, I just like going on tangents that might seem impolite or incorrect sometimes.

So then, what to do? The answer I’ve found is that you want to position yourself such that people who would want to cancel you have no power over you. And due to the way the internet works, this is actually possible!

The internet and your customers

Before the internet existed you needed intermediaries to reach customers. If you were a musician you needed a label. If you were a writer or an indiedev you needed a publisher. If you were an artist you needed to get your work out on a magazine. You get the idea.

These intermediaries represented a chain that connected you to a platform that then distributed your work to customers. Each link in the chain was a company and you were likely represented by an individual in that company. A real person with a career and a family to look after.

The problem with this setup was that if you made a particularly bad public comment, this real person representing you would want to look after their own interests - their career and family - and distance themselves from you. And suddenly the chain was broken.

This is why in the past it was also very possible for companies to get cancelled” when the stars aligned. There were many examples of companies just straight up dying due to a single bad comment made by their CEO. The present, though, is different. Today we have the internet, and with the internet we don’t need intermediaries. With platforms such as Steam, Spotify, Amazon, YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, etc, we can all reach customers directly, with intermediaries being completely optional.


And with indie game development in particular, the platform that won out was Steam. Valve is interesting because they’re a company that inhabits their position in the environment as a platform perfectly.

One of the most striking things to me about releasing my first game on Steam was that I didn’t have to interact with a single human being at Valve. As far as I noticed, everything was done automatically by some system that didn’t give me any trouble.

On top of this being fairly convenient, it has a way more important property: there’s no human being at Valve that has anything to lose by my game being there or by me making a bad public comment. This single fact makes Steam a truly internet based platform.

One of the best examples of this to me is a game called Hentai Nazi. This is a game released early this year that doesn’t really betray its name. It’s a simple game about anime girls and nazis.

edit from the future: Hentai Nazi did end up getting removed from Steam but not because of its content, but because its developer abused the store’s review system, as the ban happened along with other devs who got caught doing the same thing. Another current example that serves the same purpose for this post is TYRONE vs COPS.

It’s a good example not because it’s about hentai or about nazis, but because these are both contentious subjects, and yet because no one at Valve has anything to lose from it being there, it’s simply allowed to be there. And surprisingly, it ended up doing fairly well too!

This is EXACTLY the kind of freedom that people hoped the internet would bring, and in my opinion Valve is one of the most progressive platforms in the world in these terms, and we’re lucky that they happened to be in our field.

The way this helps you shield yourself from cancellings should be obvious by now. In general, you want to avoid intermediaries that have a human connection between you and getting to what the intermediary offers (which is generally broader access to customers).

Why publishers are generally bad

Let’s say Devolver contacted me and they wanted to publish one of my games. I would immediately say no. Why? Because Devolver has something to lose. If I got published by a company like that I’d be assigned an individual in it.

That individual has his career and family to look after, so the moment I made a particularly bad comment or my game had particularly contentious content one of the following things would happen:

  1. I’d be asked to apologize, and I’d never do that.
  2. I’d be asked to change content in my game, and I’d also never do that.
  3. I’d be asked to stop talking about whatever I was talking about because it’s bad PR, and I wouldn’t do that either.

Finally, after all this would fail, they would either decide to drop my game, or they would still publish it but they’d do a poor job at it, simply because the individual responsible for representing me wouldn’t want to tie himself further with my game.

Why go through all that unnecessary suffering? For this reason, publishers in general are very much something you’d want to avoid. And the same exact argument applies to YouTubers/streamers/influencers, consoles, and hand-curated stores. All of those places are places acting as intermediaries between you and customers using human beings as their intermediation tools, and as already explained, that’s usually a bad idea.

Social media controversy and sales

Now, given that your game can’t truly be cancelled because it’s not going to be removed from Steam and because you have direct access to customers via social media, one thing people worry about is: with all the controversy surrounding your game, won’t your sales drop a lot?

The answer to that is a resounding NO. Social media dramas and controversies generally have absolutely no negative effect on sales, and they might even have a positive one. But in general you can completely ignore them and nothing will happen.

The reason for this is that your social media reach is minimal in comparison to what Steam generates on its own. Your whole goal as an indiedev is to generate enough attention on your game so that Steam’s algorithm picks it up from there and propels it upwards.

Once that happens, whatever reach you have in social media, however large you think it was, becomes very small. And this same smallness applies to your attackers. The majority of people playing your game will end up being people who simply don’t use social media.

Another thing people fear is that review bombs are a thing. Even though people online would have no ability to truly cancel you, they can still ruin your game’s reputation. And there are basically 2 answers to that.

The first answer is that by the time people are attacking your game with negative reviews, you got enough eyes on it that they don’t matter. Most of the effect of negative reviews happens early on, and it’s unlikely people will attack a small indie game right as its released.

The second thing is that Valve has a button that helps you fight review bombs such that the effectiveness of this kind of attack can be largely diminished:

All in all, worrying about social media public opinion” or reviews is not really correct because the actual effect of those on the outcomes you care about tends to be minimal.


So, to summarize: you don’t have to worry about being cancelled as long as you use automated platforms that have no human beings linking you to customers. Steam and social media = good. Publishers, influencers, consoles, manual stores = bad.

Social media being on the good” side of this can be questioned by some. I would say that some sites are way more ban happy than others so you have to know the rules and act accordingly. In general, even if the content of your game is extremely contentious, as long as you’re acting reasonably, not insulting people directly, not getting into huge arguments all the time, etc, you likely won’t get banned from any of these huge social media sites like twitter, YouTube, reddit, and so on. Just follow each site’s rules!

This gets into another argument that I’ll probably write about in the future, but in general you want to look at all these places as having power over you, and ideally you’d want that to not be the case, but because they’re huge platforms it’s basically impossible for that to be so. So you don’t want to fight them head on, you want to treat them as one would treat the politics of a foreign country you’re spending a 2 weeks vacation on.

Do you care about the fact that you don’t have a say in their political discussions? No. Will you follow all their local laws so you don’t get arrested? Yes! You should have that same mentality towards all these sites. Follow their rules and you’ll more likely than not be fine.

For the cases where you do have more power and you can make a choice, like with publishers, influencers, etc, then it’s obvious that you should choose the choice that empowers you over them. I think one of the aims of being an indie developer is to be independent, and you can’t be truly independent if other people have power over you.

2021-02-02 12:00