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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
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    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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