25 April, 2016
My good friend Dave Toulouse suggested a topic on Twitter:
@Psychochild There's something to be said about how many indie successes pretty much has to go through Steam and Steam only… thoughts?
— Dave Toulouse (@Over00) April 23, 2016
So, time to look at what it takes to succeed as an indie game developer.
The success-making machine
Back in the day, getting your game on steam was the golden ticket to success. Once Steam demonstrated it was a viable distribution platform, everyone wanted to be on it. But, steam was judicious about what games they allowed on the platform and which they didn’t. It tended to be an opaque process, but those who got a game on Steam tended to see success.
This made more people want more fervently to get on Steam. The acceptance process became an obstacle that caused people to get upset. As indie game developers saw getting on Steam as being the golden ticket, they were upset that their games were rejected with no explanation given.
Then game Greenlight, and there were maybe a few problems with it. But, it opened up the platform, made the process seem a bit less opaque, and gave us more games. But, as more games got onto the platform, the value of the platform diminished. No longer were you competing against a few new games each week, you had to compete with a flood of new games released continuously.
Same as it ever was
This process was not unique to Steam. Every new platform works this way. Remember the gold rush with the iPhone, where the tech press was breathlessly writing articles about how some kid in their bedroom were becoming millionaires by writing some game? We saw the same thing with Facebook games, where a few games had initial success, and even created some massive tech successes in Silicon Valley. Some of you might even remember Tringo, a game in Second Life that gained some attention outside of that platform.
Every once in a while, some new platform comes along and opens up new opportunities for games, particularly for small, independent game developers. But, eventually those platforms start to become staid. It might be because established game companies come along and pour a lot of resources into dominating the new medium. It could be because one runaway successful company dominates the entire channel so completely. Or, it could be that nobody ends up caring about the platform after a bit.
Of course, we’re seeing the same things happen in VR now. A few games are getting a lot of attention because they’re one of the few available on a platform some people are super-excited about.
So, why do those early games see success?
Attention is the currency of the future
That header is “Dr. Cat’s Theorem” from The Laws of Online World Design.
Because it’s easier to get attention on a suddenly popular platform just starting out. If you’re one of the first games out of the gate and you don’t suck too bad, chances are you will see some success.
In the case of Steam, games saw success because it was easy to get attention. Especially when only a few games were released at one time, an indie game appearing in the new releases list would get a lot of attention from people who liked Steam as a platform. Thus, those games would get a lot more attention, and thus more sales.
We can see this with other platforms as well. The reason why free-to-play games took root in mobile so readily is because the best way to get attention was to be on the best seller’s in the App Store. Best way to stay on the best seller’s list was to price your game cheaply so that people would keep buying it on impulse. Best way to make money after someone bought your game for only 99 cents was to put in-app purchases. Once free-to-play became the standard, people looked to other ways to maintain themselves in the best sellers’ lists, including registering fake installs to boost apparent popularity.
But, once Steam opened the floodgates with Greenlight and started releasing more games, suddenly getting on Steam was no longer the golden ticket to riches.
Distribution vs. marketing
When Steam was new and shiny, getting on the new releases list was a form of marketing. This put your game in front of people and got them to buy it, and you might stay there for a little while. But, times change and now Steam is solidly a distribution platform. You no longer get easy coverage, although you can get some, but you do get a platform that will sell your game, let people install it painlessly, and allow players to keep your game patched up. Treat Steam like a distribution platform, not your marketing platform.
What does this mean to indie game developers? They can no longer rely on steam for marketing; marketing is something they have to handle themselves. And, unfortunately, marketing is one of those things that’s really hard to do well on an indie budget.
So, how does one market a game? The basic answer is getting information about the game out in front of other people. In the olden days, that meant getting coverage in a magazine. Then it meant getting coverage in an online site, but they often post so much news that it was hard to get noticed.
These days? Streamers seem to be the way to go. Streamers live or die by their ability to provide content to their audience, and new games are a great way to get new content. And, a streamer playing your game is a great way for people to see your game in action, something that traditional reviews in text sometimes fail to convey properly.
But, of course, Streamers are not an infinite resource. Popular streamers will have larger demands on their time and may not have the time or inclination to play your game. Small-time streamers might not have the critical mass to really pitch your game properly to their audience. Eventually, something will probably replace streamers.
The lesson here? Don’t ignore marketing. Yeah, it’s hard, but that’s how you find success. So, you either need to develop for a new-yet-popular platform, or find the most efficient way to get your word out there.