This is a doctoral thesis sort of topic. The short answer is that everything is changing, all the time. There is no stasis, period.
The simplest way to look at this is hardware and tooling. In the past, you could code your own engine and that wasn’t an insane thing to do. Now it is. There are too many good free-or-cheap engines available for indies, particularly with options that only kick in with costs if you actually succeed. But even a game engine that is huge is not complete without a lot of other middleware, and that will vary from project to project in terms of what you need. This goes for AAA and indie games. To pick one random example: very few AAA companies are hand-modeling all the trees in their game world now. They’re using SpeedTree or another middleware tool to get the results they need and move on. The old joke about lots of artists just sitting around modeling rocks? Nobody is actually doing that, unless the rocks are really specific and impactful for some reason. People are using middleware like Megascans or Quixel to get actual high-resolution scans of physical rocks, and then the environment artists are doing scene composition with those. Some artists are of course doing their own photogrammetry to bring in custom things, but in the general sense why would you pay someone to do that when there is middleware that is cheaper? Have your artists work on something more unique and impactful than the literal rocks.
In the past, there were many limitations with RAM and available CPU and GPU processing. There still are limitations, of course, but it’s on a whole different level now. You can go for something vaguely photorealistic on pretty low-end hardware now, or there’s a thousand ways you can go for a stylized effect. Again, middleware is often really helpful in finding a stylized effect that you want. You need artists to have an eye for this and not just slap a filter on with no sense of design, but the analogy I would give is that there is a supply chain, now. In other words, metaphorically speaking, ten years ago if you wanted someone to “paint your house,” you would hire someone to come out, look at your house, and sit right there and then find just the right pigments and create paint on the spot, then paint your house with that paint, using brushes and rollers they carved themselves. As you can imagine, this is a silly amount of expense. Brushes and rollers are mass-produced and cheap to buy. There are stores where you can get any color mixed with ease. So instead you pay the painter to go buy those supplies and then just paint your house, and the whole process is bother higher quality and cheaper. To torture this analogy a bit, now the painters are going to be doing much more complex paint jobs, though, rather than just picking a couple of colors and applying those. If you look at this and can see why it’s acceptable to have a supply chain that leads up to physical art (who makes their own paint or brushes by hand, and why would we expect them to?), then the same should be true of the virtual supply chain and the endless, endless middleware out there. Someone else already did a lot of the things that you need, probably better than you can, so just license that. But that doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly qualified to just throw things together and expect a good result. Artists are needed now as much as ever, but they are able to focus now on the actual art.
Programming and every other sub-discipline is the same. Are you going to spend two years with your programmers making a general engine that will be outdated by the time it’s finished? That’s foolish. You’re going to license another engine. This isn’t cheating, this is more mature ecosystem. In film, do you expect the director to construct her own cameras and dollys? Of course not. She buys or rents those. She may or may not have a custom costume department, or might contract with a company that does nothing but specialize in costume design.
Anyone that is a “one person show” is still standing on the shoulders of giants even if they try to do all the things themselves. So trying to do absolutely everything yourself is a backwards way of thinking in my opinion, and a bit of a masochistic way to work. You can be an auteur and still use middleware. If anything, that can give you more chances to be involved in all the possible parts of the process.
All of that was internally-focused. Focused on how games are made, not how they are sold. When it comes to those external factors, of how games get sold and what the market is, that is no less dynamic. Every year the market is a bit different, and things move more and more digital. The competition from other companies small and large is more and more fierce, because there are more people trying their hand at this. A lot of them are terrible at it, but there are still an ever-increasing number of people who do a very excellent job. Some of these people you will never be able to compete with because they are a team of talented young folks living in their parents’ basements, working 90 hour weeks for 5 years, to put out a work of utter majesty before disappearing forever because the business was not sustainable. Other companies you can’t compete with because they create unsustainable conditions for their workers, and rely on them burning out before their 30s but just hiring new talent out of school. There is an endless supply of of excited new talent, so a company can freely burn out their staff and have turnover without losing their ability to output amazing work.
We tend to focus on the creative leads, who also work long hours but stick around longer because their life is not quite so grueling. But under them is an ever-churning mass of people with hopes of one day getting that sort of job, only to have those hopes dashed when they realize there are only so many openings. My advice is to not work for a company like this. And if you are trying to create something on your own, then be sure that you consider what your lifestyle is like for yourself and those who work for you. Do you want to have a company culture that allows people to have families, and take vacations? Then you need to budget for that. And you probably need to accept the fact that this will make you slower, and have a lower-production-values end product than your less-ethical counterparts.
Then again, if you can carve a niche for yourself and connect with people, and find whatever balance works for you, this is how you can still be around a decade or three later, when everyone else burned out long before. I love my job and still intend to be doing this 30 years from now. I definitely don’t have everything all figured out, but I have learned that I should not try to chase certain dreams if I want to keep any of my values. Maybe someday I’ll have infinite money for some magical reason, and then I can chase those dream projects. Then again, maybe all I need to do is wait for middleware to mature even more, and no magic will be required. For now, I do what you should do: try to pick something with a scope that you can hit, with production values that are pleasing but not going to bankrupt you financially or morally, and then see what happens. If you truly plan on making this a career, then whatever you’re working on right now is not your last game. Don’t feel in a hurry to “do it all now.”
Try to keep your project times to just a couple of years if you can, so that not all your eggs are in one basket and so that the market doesn’t move on while you’re building your game. And above all, only do this if you actually love the process itself. If you don’t actually enjoy this sort of work, then being able to weather the ups and downs is going to be next to impossible. Games are fun to play, but making them is a serious and difficult discipline even in an ethical company. If you don’t actually love the art and science of it, you’re going to have a very bad time indeed. There are much easier industries to get a steady paycheck from if you are a programmer in particular, if the game development process doesn’t speak to you on a level beyond just money.
The future of indie games looks bright to me, but it’s also a bit of a maelstrom. If that sounds good to you, then come on on!