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How the surge of Steam releases will affect game developers Exclusive
How the surge of Steam releases will affect game developers
May 15, 2014 | By Mike Rose

May 15, 2014 | By Mike Rose
Comments
    34 comments
More: Console/PC, Indie, Business/Marketing, Exclusive



Lately, you've probably noticed a steady ramp-up in the frequency and amount of games released on Steam. Here's the extent to which that's happening -- and it's a real eye-opener.

After some quick calculations, we found that less than five months into 2014, more new games have now launched on Steam than during the whole of 2013. At the current rate, over 2,000 games will release on Steam this year, compared to just over 600 in 2013.

And the current rate doesn't take into consideration a further opening-up of distribution on Steam, which platform owner Valve Software has said it intends to do. Competition is already intense -- when you launch your game on Steam, you're launching alongside around nine or 10 other games that day alone.

This influx of Steam games has big implications for new games launching on the popular PC games platform. A Steam launch cannot guarantee you success anymore because, well, everyone's doing it now.

But is it really as bad a situation as it sounds? And what can you do to help turn the tide in your favor, beyond typical marketing efforts?

Tom Ohle is director at Evolve PR, and recently founded indie publisher Nkidu Games. He's had a hand in dozens of games being published on Steam over the years, and he's definitely noticed the impact of Steam's rapid release of games.


"I think that the glut of games launching on Steam comes with pros and cons," he tells me. "On the plus side, it's easier for developers to get their games out there; and having watched a lot of developers struggle to get their titles on the platform in recent years, that's a good thing."

But, he adds, "it's so much harder for developers to actually succeed on the platform. With increased competition, it's becoming increasingly important to stand out from the crowd."

Standing out from the crowd is a topic that Gamasutra has covered extensively. On Steam, that's now more important than ever.

"To some extent this limitation is a good thing, in that it raises the quality bar," Ohle adds. "But it's bound to also leave a lot of developers wondering what they need to do to get some attention."

From Ohle's perspective, the kinds of games that end up doing well on Steam these days are typically high-profile triple-A games, titles from big-name indie developers, games with emergent gameplay, and "batshit insane stuff" (e.g. Goat Simulator, which also happens to have emergent gameplay).

Having a decently-rated game that doesn't have emergent gameplay or a fun, touching development story behind it simply won't get you noticed anymore, he reasons. "You need a lot of people talking about a game before you can really make an impact."


"I feel like we're already approaching iOS App Store-like saturation on Steam."
So what will happen if and when Steam opens up completely? For Ohle, given the huge influx of titles launched on Steam right now, it already feels like this is the case.

"You have a lot of games hitting the store that are... meh," he answers. "They may have been greenlit, but that doesn't mean they'll be any good or that they'll actually succeed when people are asked to pony up $10-30 for it."

"I feel like we're already approaching iOS App Store-like saturation on Steam," he adds. "Sure, it's not quite as bad, but it's heading in that direction, and we're also starting to see some of the issues that mobile devs and marketers face, like low pricing, difficulty standing out, etc."

Curation is often said to be the key to keeping an open platform well-organized, but as Ohle notes, it's inevitable that the developers and publishers with lots of cash to throw around will end up getting the top featured slots, thanks to big-budget marketing and advertising.


So that's the perspective of someone who helps to launch games via Steam on a weekly basis, but what about the developers themselves? Joseph Mirabello launched the popular Tower of Guns via Steam in March, and he says that's he's noticed big differences in just the last couple of months alone.

"While I like seeing new and exciting games coming out, there are a lot of games that are either rush ports or re-released older titles that dilute attention away from other new releases," he notes.

"I feel extremely fortunate with Tower of Guns," he continues. "If I'd released only a few weeks later I would have only received a fraction of the attention I did. Tower of Guns launched well enough that I can't complain personally, but I see how my colleagues' games have fared in more recent weeks and it's alarming how quickly the release landscape has shifted."

And with this potentially opening of the Steam market in the works, Mirabello worries that it can only get worse.

"I like the concept of an open platform, but an open platform and an equal-opportunity platform are two different things," he notes.


"I like the concept of an open platform, but an open platform and an equal-opportunity platform are two different things."
"I see a lot of parallels with Amazon's e-book scene, actually, though on a smaller scale. The problems of visibility and discoverability are not unique to games, and there are some existing solutions that can aid the customer in an open environment: better search results, tailored suggestions based on purchases and friends' purchases, customized front pages."

Surely, says the dev, Valve must have enough data by now such the company could provide far more additional curation to the current state of the marketplace -- and this is particularly important for indies.

"This visibility problem will likely mostly affect indies and smaller studios," he says. "The bigger and established companies will likely have routes for ensuring their products are seen, regardless of what the future looks like. This is a problem for us smaller fishes."

Meanwhile, David Galindo is another developer worried about the future of Steam. He released Cook, Serve, Delicious on the platform late last year, and plans to release another unannounced title on Steam early next year -- plus, his game The Oil Blue was just greenlit.

"Given my next game won't make it out till early next year on Steam, there's a real concern with what the market is going to look like by then," he tells me. "Just this last October, I was timing the release of my game Cook, Serve, Delicious to get maximum exposure on the New Releases section of the front page of Steam, where it stayed for several days."

"That kind of exposure is gone," he continues. "Not only are there a mass of games released every day to push your own game off the front page, but the section tabs on Steam default to Top Sellers instead of New Releases, something that I can understand, but goes to show the kind of problems Steam is facing right now."

Galindo can't believe his luck that Cook, Serve, Delicious was greenlit just before the frequency of releases ramped up, and as a result, he was able to build a nice fanbase for his games. He can't imagine this would have happened if his game released today.

"I think it's great that the last big barrier wall for indies on PC is essentially gone," he notes. "Just a few years ago as an indie dev it seemed absolutely hopeless to get anywhere in the PC game space because no one would give you a second look unless you were on Steam. It was a great service for gamers, but absolutely destructive to the indie community; it's kind of easy to forget just how terrible Steam was to indie devs back in the day."


"If Valve decided to just open the floodgates and allow everything? That would be a very dark time for everyone involved."
But now, he adds, although he's happy that Valve is giving indies so many chances, the problem has swung in the other direction.

"I feel that getting rid of Greenlight entirely is a big mistake, dependent on how they handle opening the Steam platform to devs," the dev says. "If, say, developers can use a 'Steam widget' to sell their game on their website, but have to go through an approval process for getting onto the Steam Marketplace, then that could be a very good move, much like how Humble has separated their Bundles, Store and Widget offerings."

Valve boss Gabe Newell has hinted at one unique way to curate Steam games, by essentially crowdsourcing curation -- that is, allowing Steam users (and developers) to create their own web-based storefronts that people can buy games through. That system has yet to launch.

But what if Valve decides to simply open the floodgates and allow everyone game developer on board, even if there is some kind of attempt at a form of curation?

"That would be a very dark time for everyone involved," Galindo answers. "I can't think of a single person that would benefit, aside from the first time game dev that thinks their first Unity game is ready to sell after a few weeks of hard work. There has got to be some kind of curation process, on not only Steam but consoles as well, and I feel like that curation is slipping further and further with each new Greenlight approval batch."

With Steam in its current state, another question arises. Many developers have found that mobile is too crowded, and thus moved back to PC where the competition isn't so fierce -- so by that logic, is it worth PC game developers moving to other platforms outside of Steam, where the user numbers are lower, but the competition isn't so ridiculous?

I spoke with GOG.com's managing director Guillaume Rambourg, to find out whether his company views Steam's current situation as a gap in the market for his.

"While we understand the need for Steam to make their platform more accessible for game developers, I think there is a risk for them to end up with a 'bermuda-triangle' kind of platform, with 99 percent of the content being fairly invisible to the majority of gamers, and a handful of titles actually benefiting from maximum exposure," he answers.

Just look at the App Store, he says -- if you're not featured on the front page, it's unlikely that you'll generate satisfactory sales for your mobile game. Now it looks like Steam is going the same way, and if your game is only going to be on the front page for a day at most, what are you chances of success?

"I wouldn't like to draw a stereotypical picture here," he adds, "but game devs often face a situation where their title either sells very well, or it makes almost no cash at all. Spending cash wisely on PR and marketing activities, along with discounting your title very heavily from time to time, has become the main way to give visibility to your product among a flow of hundreds of regular releases."


"I think there is a risk for them to end up with a 'bermuda-triangle' kind of platform, with 99 percent of the content being fairly invisible to the majority of gamers."
In comparison, GOG.com has a very different approach. The company is not at all interested in flooding its store with games -- instead, the website tries not to add more than five games per week to its platform, with the idea being that consumers will be able to pick from the week's selection, and finish that game before the next batch comes out.

"We are taking a sustainable approach to digital distribution because we believe it keeps the market healthy," Rambourg adds. "If gamers buy games they really like and finish them, then they are likely to remain faithful to their hobby in the long run."

That being said, Rambourg can relate to Valve's problem, as it is beginning to see an increasing amount of interest from developers who want to distribute games through GOG.com.

"We often have internal debates about how to make ourselves more accessible to game developers," Rambourg notes. "It's all a question of scale at the end of the day. We perfectly understand the situation of Steam and are very self-conscious about it, but so far, we've always managed to find workarounds as to not to end up with too many releases or promos during the week."

Galindo believes there's definitely an opportunity for another games platform to become the "official curator" for PC games if Steam continues down this path, and provide a place for more experience devs to experiment.

"I don't really see any other service or site that will come close to matching the enormity of Steam though," he adds. Steam has over 75 million users. "Despite all the growing problems going on right now, I'm expecting to launch Steam-only with my next game for the first several months in large part due to the great handling of APIs, patching and community it's brought to gamers."

"I know the long tail that Cook, Serve, Delivious has had in sales is due in very large part to the community features within Steam," the dev continues. "The word-of-mouth drive on Steam is insane. Completely unmatched. Despite what's going on with the front page that will affect first day and week sales for new releases, it's the months following that are the most important to me. And despite the glut of releases, my own game still maintains a solid weekly income since its release on Steam, and that's pretty amazing."

Tower of Guns' Mirabello isn't so sure about the rise of other PC platforms either.

"I think it stands to reason that being on a service with more curation like GOG.com or Humble will become important," he notes, "but I worry things will actually get worse for indies: There's no question that people tend to isolate their buying to fewer platforms and accounts, and I fear an open Steam platform might encourage folks to simply wait 'until it's on Steam' to pick up a game, since there would be no question about 'if.'"

"I really am concerned there, since I like the experience of working with platforms like GoG.com, Indie Game Stand and the Humble Store," the dev says. "With these kinds of platforms you get the sense that your contacts are really advocates on your behalf, while Steam has grown at such a pace that that sort of interaction is simply logistically impossible."

We've reached out to Valve on this topic, but have yet to hear back.

Data for the graphs above was collected from steampowered.com's "new releases" section.


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Comments


Dare Man
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Good article. It really gets to the point on what's happening around Steam and PC gaming industry today. With huge supply of games, discovery and visibility problems are getting more severe. Although I'm trying to get my game greenlit, I see that getting it onto Steam is not going to automatically solve my problems.

Self-publishing at the end of a day is about marketing, entertaining and performing, having a decent game is only a part of selling your product. Maybe Steam should give indies a performance stage where we can directly entertain audience. Seems like currently a trendy subject is "I've unemployed for the last X years to make this game happen..." - myself included, :)

Dave Hoskins
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The number of downloadable DEMOs for all those games remains very small.
Make demos for your games.

Charles Cresswell
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probably because its proven that releasing a demo can reduce sales of a game as people react with 'well the first level was good enough for me. time to try something else'

Alan Barton
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So 2000 new games this year (and how many other thousands of games already available to play?).

Also currently 37 percent of bought Steam games have never been played, so how many new games is an over supply of new games? Its a disturbing trend and the barrier to entry is getting ever lower, so even more games will be added. Hmmm.

Garry Grossmann
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The games that have never been played are a result of various bundles - the trend is to mix a few good games with a bunch of less-than-good games.

Colm Larkin
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Good roundup Mike. It's going to be an interesting time for devs on Steam alright, but one thing hasn't changed: you need to market your game to players yourself; you need to build your own audience. This hasn't changed in the last 10 years, and I think will remain the #1 differentiator in the next 10 years.

Start finding ways to get players excited about your game now. Steam is just a (big) storefront. YOU are more interesting.

Dare Man
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The most positive words I've heard in a long time, regarding selling your game, "...This hasn't changed in the last 10 years..." That cheers me up!

Alan Barton
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@Colm Larkin. I've been thinking the same thing about Steam. With the increasing numbers of games appearing on Steam, discoverability is becoming ever harder ... The irony is Steam was seen as the great discoverability opportunity for success. Getting a game green lit was seen as a huge step up, but now with so much competition, what does the loss of 30% of income buy us from using Steam?

It looks like we would be better off going back to handling our own payments (so we can earn 30% more per sale) which is especially important now as its getting so much harder to see a profit with so much competition.

Ian Morrison
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You'd need to be really good at handling your own sales. Leaving aside that many gamers just won't buy it if it isn't on steam (heck, I lean that way myself) Steam is still a substantial multiplier on your sales, even as it becomes crowded. If, in the long term that becomes less true, so be it, but they'd need to lose a LOT more effectiveness for that 30% to be a deal breaker.

Benjamin McCallister
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"I feel like we're already approaching iOS App Store-like saturation on Steam."

There are about 200,000 games on IOS. Isn't 2,000 (possibly, by end of the year) a pretty silly comparison?

The other problem I have with this, is everyone wants their cake and wants to eat it to. Every single dev seems to think that THEY have a good game, so they only want curation until it comes to their own game. Devs still complain its too hard to get greenlit, and consumers complain its filled with too much trash.

The elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about is that, as before, the thing that will set you apart, is marketing your OWN game. But Steam Greenlight has, for the last 2 years, represented a portal for you to get your game in front of people, without having to do any real marketing yourself. Well that system has come back to bite us collectively, now hasn't it?

Vasily Yourchenko
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I think the endgame is an extra layer of curation. Big name reviewers like John Bain (AKA TotalBiscuit) will create their own storefronts inside Steam and populate them with games that they deem to be of high quality. In return they will receive a small cut from every sale that goes through their page. This model gives the reviewers an incentive to comb through newly released games in order to find quality titles, review them and then resell them, essentially freeing developers from the need to advertise their work.

Sean Kiley
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I think porting is going to have to be in the budget so that you can get on as many platforms and stores as possible to achieve a cumulative effect. Also, translating your game to be available in different regions is going to be more important as accessibility grows.

Nicholas Lovell
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I think that the one thing that developers without a USP can compete on is price. Which is why I think prices on Steam are trending to zero.

Daniel Gutierrez
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Did anyone else notice that the Steam storefront now defaults to "Top Sellers" instead of the "New Releases" tab? It seems like a small thing... but coming from marketing, that ends up making a huge difference in the number of people who will even bother seeing games that get pushed out.

Mike Rose
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Hey Daniel,

indeed we did! In fact, it's mentioned in the article :)

Cheers
Mike

Adam Bishop
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Lots of people think it was important for the government to allow *their* generation of immigrants into the country, but not this new generation. Lots of people think it was important for access to university to be made more widely available for *their* generation, but not this new generation. Lots of people think it was important for Steam to open up its submission process for *their* generation of games, but not for this new generation.

Kyle Redd
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The subsequent floods of new immigrants and college undergrads didn't result in a massive drop in the overall quality of each "product."

Adam Bishop
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"The subsequent floods of new immigrants and college undergrads didn't result in a massive drop in the overall quality of each 'product.'"

That's *exactly* the argument that people make against allowing more immigrants or increasing access to college. "If everyone gets a college degree it won't have any value!" etc.

Kef Schecter
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This generation's immigrants are just like the last generation's. They're all hard-working people looking for freedom or work.

This generation's games are not like the last generation's -- not in terms of what's commercially available, anyway. It used to be that Steam didn't allow garbage like Towns. Now it's flooded with it, and it's hard for the non-garbage games to get noticed.

Garbage games have been made since the beginning of the industry (E.T., for instance), but the high barrier to entry helped stem the tide. Now the floodgates are open.

Kevin Zhang
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I wish Steam could reveal their plans already :(
It's quite annoying to see this happening when we've just released our first commercial game; quite bad timing, really. On the other hand, if this weren't happening, then we would have had a way smaller chance of getting on Steam. At the rate games are being Greenlit, it's looking like we're going to get Greenlit in 1 month at the earliest, and 2 months at the latest. I don't think I could say the same thing if the game came out a year ago.

Ian Morrison
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We ran head first into the glut of games released in April for our game Life Goes On. We did okay, considering, but what we thought was going to be a relatively quiet release window ended up being the most games released on Steam on record, and we didn't stay on the new releases section for very long at all.

On one hand, the old situation indie games had with steam where it was both incredibly difficult to get in and with a make-or-break pressure to do so was not a great state of affairs, and I'm happy to see we're not there anymore. On the other hand, though, "being on Steam" is trending towards meaninglessness as the floodgates open. Where Steam once meant "this game is good", now the really incredible games are releasing right beside back-catalog shovelware that some publisher decided to dump. Visibility and marketing are now harder problems than ever. I'm really hoping that Steam isn't going to end up looking like the App Store market, because everything I've read about that makes it look like a nightmare for developers.

In many ways, the old situation where getting onto steam was an automatic "made it" for an indie developer was a free lunch, and "you have to actually market your game" isn't exactly a miscarriage of justice. It's a fair state of affairs, if massively challenging. Still... kinda wishing we'd been able to release even just a few months ago and avoided this mess.

I wonder if the combined platform accessibility and flourishing of the indie space is going to end up leading to the indie space strangling itself. Everyone and their dog being able to develop a Unity game is great, but if the number of developers continue to grow and compete for the same limited pool of player attention, it's conceivable that making a living as an indie game developer could become nearly impossible without striking it big. That would be a shame, I think.

Emmanuel Henne
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Man, I hate how complicated this stuff has become. Thats not the indie scene I knew and loved.Sudenly You need a wallstreet broker to time Your release, do the PR, do the marketing...

Michael DeSantiago
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LOL, sorry devs who are farting out semi interesting simple games, the jig is up.

This article makes it sound so terrible for everyone involved, but i believe that the GAMER will have everything to benefit. IF ITS A GOOD GAME THEN IT WILL SELL. Visibility or market saturation never is an issue with actual good games, seems to me small devs who are trying to make a quick buck off a remake of tetris are going to have to step up their shit.

Who is buying this crap anyway? Maybe intrigue and a couple hours of fun but i guarantee you that GOAT SIMULATOR is NOT a good game. Don't get confused with what's selling is a good game. Steam will allow the market to correct some of that misconception.

Take the movie frozen, a bunch of fat suits are clinking glasses congratulating themselves on a good job but Frozen is not the Disney movie you think of when people say "What's your favorite/best Disney movie?"

Ian Morrison
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That's just not the case. "If you build it they will come" is a TERRIBLE strategy that almost never works. 90% of the job is making a good game. The other 90% is marketing.

And marketing is HARD, as it happens!

Also, "semi interesting simple games" are not the game that were on Steam before the floodgates opened, they're the games that are flooding in now. The gamer used to have a reasonable expectation that a game on steam has cleared a certain quality benchmark, but the further the floodgates open the less likely that is to be true.

Michael Joseph
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90% of the job being marketing is a problem. Goat Simulator is an example of a game where 90% of it's design is marketing.

Ian Morrison
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I think you missed the joke there. :P

Matthew Schwartz
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If indeed the floodgates open, I predict the imminent arrival of third-party review/curation portals that focus on Steam, a la the places like Touch Arcade that focus on mobile. Steam is smart to anticipate this with the rumored launch of the curated stores-within-a-store, as if it is done right they will keep players inside their ecosystem. It will be fun to see how this plays out.

Michael Joseph
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Adam Bishop made some good points. I think we are going to see a lot of developers cry foul who's modest strengths lay on the technical side of game development and who's skill sets are being marginalized by tools like Unity and GameMaker. They are going to express fears about flooded markets but their real fear (which they have yet to acknowledge to themselves) is that they cannot compete with those who's strengths lay on the design, art direction, and content creation side of things and who are able to use various game creation tools to realize their vision instead of hiring programmers.

There's definitely a ton of programmers out there lacking design talent making bad games yet still feeling entitled to success. For years we've talked about how game designers should learn to program. Maybe its time to start reminding programmers they should learn to design content. (or join the pioneers along the procedural frontier)

Dane MacMahon
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As a PC only guy I feel like I am drowning in all these new games on Steam AND GOG, and 99% of them are things I would never play. I never even check the Steam new release tab anymore, it's filled with nonsense.

That said it's easy to discover what I actually care about, by visiting sites catering to my niche. Once Steam has that kind of thing built in, which they talk a lot about doing, this problem will solve itself.

Ron Dippold
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I've ramped my overall purchases way back. Between this and all the bundles and early access indie fatigue has set in.

On the other hand, I did pre-order Transistor. Not because it showed up on the Steam page but because I saw elsewhere that it was now available for pre-order. Which echoes what other people have been saying.

Bruno Xavier
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Yesterday my project was greenlit.
All I can say is I'm not really concerned about saturation, I believe I have a good product that is evolving and the iOS ports on Steam doesn't make me fear for a dark future.
The biggest issue I have now is I'm not the greatest game designer out there, but once I develop levels of aggregate value I know I have a perfect product to stabilish myself as fulltime developer thanks to Valve and the Steam community so I can't see what is the problem here.
Yeah if your game is something that can run on a mobile device, yeah you have a problem.

James Podesta
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Open the floodgates and bring on User Curation. it works wonders with Spotify. Let users curate their own storefronts and you'll get small hubs that cater for specific genres. People will be able to find the kind of games they like without gatekeepers that only allow the popular genres to get through.

More games will always mean steeper competition, but at least with user curated storefronts, you should be able to reach your target audience easier as there will be popular storefronts that people will flock to, just like popular youtube channels.

Ryan Christensen
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I don't get the desire to curate at the store level, that is old, top-down/ivory tower thinking. There are too many sites on the internet, someone needs to curate it for me! How silly does that sound? It actually makes for more good content even though there is also more garbage. Eventhough 90% of curated content might be good, it still misses out on gems when you curate at the store level or block the market. The 1% good games of an open market will always beat the best games on a curated console market for instance (see console and PC as a small example).

Curation happens past the market itself in many different ways, the market itself should be open to all games, just like sites on the internet. Discoverability of good games is RARELY on the store itself. Usually people hear about the game on some site or from a friend. Should we curate all the sites on the internet? No of course not, and we don't need gatekeepers for games either. There are and will be plenty of curation fronts that appear on their own in the market to find good games in the larger market.

If competition and the fear of not launching into a controlled market to succeed is a problem then there will be many more problems because that is the new game.

"If Valve decided to just open the floodgates and allow everything? That would be a very dark time for everyone involved." I disagree, it would be a difficult time for subsidized players in a controlled market, not new entrants or players that can manage the type of market it is now.

The internet is an interesting start to all this, open markets. It allows you to compete with the entire globe more than ever, see the true competition and skill level out there, it disrupted tons of industries and mobile/web it has also been impacting games. The companies that used that to their power made it bigger than all time. The game companies that can thrive in a wide open + competitive market like this will be even more robust, game companies requiring a certain store to feature them may not be as robust. Noone should be banking heavily on visibility in the store listings.

John Denny
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Its a jungle out there and so tough to get noticed, as a production artist I have worked on two of my own games but found it was hard as hell to get the game noticed. I just saw a Kickstarter project called Ad Pod Games and liked what they had to offer. They seem to have found a really cool way to expose games to the public in malls and at E3. I figured I'd skip steam and the usual suspects and give these guys a shot, so I backed them, my game now will now to showcased on their touch interactive Ad Pods in 5 of the top US Malls and Joe public can even download my game. At the very least I figure I will get many eyeballs on my game and see what happens from there. They have an E3 package also but it was outside my pay grade.


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