EGX thoughts continued : Steam and indie games
If you’re a PC or Mac gamer, chances are you know about Steam. Steam is the biggest digital distribution service for PC games and software, with over 3,700 games on the service at the time of writing, over 100 million accounts registered, and often hits over 7 million users online daily. Steam even has an Early Access section, where interested gamers can pay for promising looking, but unfinished, games to help fund their development and get a playable Alpha or Beta demo in return. So that probably explains why a large amount of indie game developers releasing their games for PC consider it the go to platform of choice. I didn’t have to look for long around the Rezzed section at EGX to find a game for the PC platform that was either on Steam or aiming to be on Steam at some point.
Those who are not yet on Steam are undoubtedly going through a process called Greenlight in order to get their game onto the Steam store. Games can be submitted to Greenlight from pretty much anyone, and Steam users can vote on whatever games they find interesting, wether they like them, if they want to follow them for updates, and if they would buy the game at the marked sell price if it was on Steam. Once every few months, Valve selects the most interesting games (which are not always the games with the most ‘buy’ votes) to get ‘Greenlit’, which basically gives the game the opportunity to be published on Steam. It all sounds good on paper, but the reality is slightly different. You see, for indie developers trying to break into the industry, promoting your game is the hardest part, and Greenlight may give you a platform, but in regards making your game visible it doesn’t help very much at all. Nor does getting Greenlit mean you’re guaranteed success and sales.
As I mentioned in my previous article, chatting to the makers of the games on show, some felt that Steam was their salvation while others felt it did surprisingly little for them considering the amount of effort taken to get onto the service. Opinions and results varied, from some games almost immediately making it through the Greenlight process to get a large wave of sales, to games who made it through Greenlight quickly, but never really got a good boost in sales, to others who have been on Greenlight for over a year and a half, with barely a reaction from the voting masses or Valve themselves. The major problem always seems to be visibility and promotion. With so many titles on Steam, and only so much front page space on the store available, how do these indie developers get their games seen in the first place? Smaller devs have long cried out for better use of Steams reach to help them out, and Valve hadn’t yet delivered anything. Until recently. Step forward, Steam’s Discovery Update.
The discovery update is a recent update to Steam that added better tag use, a good chunk of customisation options, a discovery queue for each user to browse that will attempt to help them to find titles they will like, and Curators, groups or individuals that people can follow to see what games they recommend. Its a step in the right direction. If only a step. As this update released before EGX, I was able to ask around for some opinions on it. Some developers bemoan the fact that customisation is required to see some of the more niche games or genres and that only people who are already interested in these games and genres will put the effort in to customise their Steam store pages, go through their Discovery Queue or search for games on Greenlight. The new Curators section has mostly been met with a warm reception, but again, the average user is only likely to see the most popular Curators and follow them, which doesn’t really help. In regards numbers, devs reported that store page views for smaller games had increased, but sales haven’t necessarily increased with it. Getting an interesting game to be more visible to new customers and more ‘average users’ is still a big problem. There are also other issues affecting indie game developers, like how the prevalence of big sales and bundles has driven down the selling price of games and made developers need to sell that many more copies before they actually start making money and stop losing it.
So what’s the solution? Most developers agree the answer might not be as clear cut as it might first seem, although the general consensus is that Valve can still do more. There are other services for distribution on PC, like GoG, itch.io, Desura, and brilliantly there has even been an indie bundle called Not on Steam. Some groups have found decent success with these alternatives, but none of them are quite as wide ranging as Valves behemoth, which comes with its own issues. Advertising yourself way before you release a game seems to be the biggest clue for success, but just like in everything, there’s no ‘one weird trick’ that will get your game seen and sales made. As with a lot of things, the ‘secret formula’ seems to be a hell of a lot of hard work, dedication, and doing the right things at the right time, mixed in with a sprinkling of luck.