When Audiosurf creator Dylan Fitterer took the chair at Valve's recent Bellevue, Washington press event attended by Gamasutra, the presence of an actual third-party developer (even one using Steam's tools) confirmed the affair as one of Valve's most expansive - aimed at holistically legitimizing the PC as a game system.
More importantly, however, it spoke to Valve's unique position in the industry. Still an independent studio, the company is blurring the lines between developer and publisher within the context of digital distribution.
Even while it sells its own games, the Half-Life creator maintains what has become one of the de facto online methods for buying other companies' games, especially among the hardcore PC set.
With the release of the Independent Games Festival 'Best Audio'-winning Audiosurf, which he calls an "adaptive music game," Fitterer became something of an indie darling of the gaming world - and that's saying something when it comes to games, which have nothing so pervasive as a Pitchfork Media to knight hipsters weekly.
Rather than speaking about specific development issues, Fitterer's postmortem of Audiosurf decided to address why he stuck with the PC platform rather than try to jump over to a console-based download service, and how Steam helped him make the game financially viable.
No Barrier To Entry
Audiosurf is handily described by Wikipedia as "an IGF Award-winning puzzle/rhythm hybrid game created by Invisible Handlebar. Its track-like stages visually mimic the music the player chooses, while the player races across several lanes collecting colored blocks that appear in sync with the music."
The game was released in February of this year, becoming the most successful Steam title of the month both by units and, more impressively given its $10 price tag, by revenue. The title, which was the first to use Valve's Steamworks community/networking suite, continues to be a strong seller.
"I made it basically by myself, I released it on Steam, and it's changed my life," said Fitterer. "It's been a really big success, way beyond my expectations."
So firstly, why did Fitterer create the title on PC? He stressed his relief at not having to deal with approval or certification once the game was ready to deliver.
"I just kept working on it, and eventually I had Audiosurf," he recounted. "I didn't have to ask anyone to release it, except for Elizabeth, my wife. Nobody could turn it down."
Bringing the game to closed platforms, he said, would have required even more development time, not to mention the issues involved with getting a publishing deal in the first place.
Like many indie developers, part of Fitterer's PC allegiance is out of practicality. "I built this game without any financial backing," he explained, "so, dev kits, that's just not a hurdle I want to be facing."
Post-release, he pointed to the open network architecture available on PC as a strength. "On the consoles, there are limitations," he said. "On the PC, I can do whatever I want."
Fitterer uses that openness to not only host leaderboards for all included Audiosurf tracks, but to automatically create leaderboards for every custom track a user plays.
"On the PC, I have an open dialogue with the customers, a real direct line," he explained. "On the internet, it's emails, it's chats, forums, and social networks. Consoles, to me, are kind of across the wall from all that. There are over 10,000 YouTube videos of Audiosurf. I love that stuff."
The designer then gave a direct example of how both the direct communication as well as the lack of development restrictions resulted in a major new feature for the game's community.
"One of the things I noticed," Fitterer recalled, "is that a lot of Audiosurf players were into this site called Last.fm. It's a social network for music fans; it tracks what you're playing and correlates it with other people, so you can discover new bands. I just integrated it into Audiosurf, so whenever you play a song there, it updates your stats.
"It didn't take long to roll it out. No certification. Boom, it's out, everybody has it, everybody's happy," he said. "Good stuff."
No Barrier Between Customers
Part of Audiosurf's success was due not just to Fitterer himself having easy access to his customers, but also due to potential customers having open communication between themselves.
The game's design, he argues, lends itself very much to viral marketing, something Steam facilitates. For example, he saw users linking one another to the Audiosurf Steam page, which contains a convenient purchase link. Some evangelists went as far as purchasing the game for their friends with Steam's gift function.
On the development side, he implemented a simple feature that encouraged competition between users, as well as providing automatic, but personal, encouragment keep coming back to the game.
"Dethroned" emails are sent to users when they are knocked off a song's leaderboard, informing them of their defeat.
Unlike most online games, where top leaderboard slots are the domain of only the most hardcore addicts, Audiosurf generates a unique leaderboard for any song a user chooses to play.
Thus, users are far more likely to end up vying for the top of one of their favorite tracks - and, thus, likely to be chastised and reminded by an automated email.
"For example, if I were to take the top slot on a Madonna song, Jason is going to be dethroned," Fitterer concluded cheekily, looking pointedly at Valve business director Jason Holtman and rousing up some laughter amongst the small audience.
Grumbled Holtman in response, "Sure, pick on the business guy."