As swathes of new games hit Steam, we ask developers on the frontlines what the future holds and how to survive
The indie boom of the past five years on PC looks to be coming to an end.
As more games then ever flock to digital stores like Steam from small, medium and large triple-A developers, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get noticed.
What’s more, it’s becoming even tougher therefore to find audiences for unique and innovative ideas. And as Valve loosens its grip on curation of its eponymous Steam store, there’s a fear such ideas will be the subject of a myriad of copycats skewing innovation with accusations of game cloning.
Last week, indie developer and Spiderweb Software founder Jeff Vogel claimed the indie bubble on PC was popping and the so-called “easy money” of yester-year was now “off the street”.
But do other developers think the bubble has burst?
“Yes, and about time. It was hugely inflated,” Positech founder and Democracy developer Cliff Harris tells Develop.
“Everyone thought they could make a million dollars by churning out their first unity project with placeholder art. And everyone expected to break even or even make a pile of money with their first game. That was a very short bubble, and if that was your business plan, you are screwed.
“Devs who take the time and care and effort to make interesting and original games and know how to polish them, support them and market them will do fine. The rest, probably not.”
If Steam turns into the App Store, I feel that’s bad for everyone. Somewhere in-between would be lovely.
Dan Marshall, Size Five Games
The assertion the party is over for some indies isn’t shared by everyone though. Size Five Games founder and Gun Monkeys developer Dan Marshall says there’s no such thing as thing as an indie bubble, and believes we’ve entered an era where triple-A, indie and hobbyist games are all on equal footing in terms of distribution thanks to digital download stores.
“This is a brilliant and exciting time; dozens upon dozens of new gaming experiences to cater for every taste,” he says. “Are there too many books? Are there too many movies being released, or do you scroll through Netflix endlessly hoping for something new to have cropped up?”
The issue of curation is a huge problem facing Steam. Valve is no longer trying to act as the gatekeeper, playing an influential role in who succeeds and who fails on PC, but is the alternative sustainable, or even a preferred option?
Marshall continues: “It’s a mixed bag. I think more games is a brilliant thing, because games are fun and exciting, and I can see that there’s only one way for Steam to go, and that’s to open up. The system before was unmanageable.
“That said, I’m a firm believer in curated stores being better for both developers and gamers, and remain hopeful that either the Steam front page remains highly curated, or that someone else of influence steps up and curates as a third-party. If Steam turns into the App Store, I feel that’s bad for everyone. Somewhere in-between would be lovely.”
Harris believes Steam has already passed the point where a new release on Valve’s digital store is a news event, and said it was now incumbent on indies themselves to make sure their games get in front of players' eyes and excite them.
He also adds that he’s Valve’s future plans for Steam, and believes indies should not panic about the recent influx of titles.
“I don't look at new releases any more. Suddenly you have to actually hear about a new game from the mainstream media or through word-of-mouth,” he says.
“I don't think that's bad at all. I met with Valve and talked about their future plans for Steam, and I know that what they are planning will be much better than the current situation, and much better than it ever has been. I know some indie devs are panicking but they shouldn't, things will get way better.”
A red light
One developer that has just released a game on Steam is Utopian World of Sandwiches, which consists of indie duo Sarah and James Woodrow.
Their latest release, multiplayer title Chompy Chomp Chomp is just one of a sea of titles to hit the store, and although they are happy to be on the Store, Sarah believes Valve still needs to tackle the issue of visibility.
Good quality curation can minimise dilution as well, i.e. community curation often means more volume, and more volume often leads to the great being diluted with the not so great.
Mark Simmons, Freejam
“I'm sure that they can do this with recommendations and curated lists. Greenlight never really worked,” she says. “Chompy Chomp Chomp appeals to what equates to a niche market on Steam. Valve is moving into the living room space so they’ll benefit from expanding their appeal. It’s better to have lots of choice available and offer games that are outside what the typical Steam user would want. That's how the industry will expand the games market and create new gamers.”
Woodrow’s claim that Steam Greenlight never really worked – a community voting platform Valve had hoped would help solve its curation crisis – is somewhat shared by another developer, Freejam’s Mark Simmons.
The indie studio itself breezed through Greenlight with its new game Robocraft, which now boasts 400,000 users, but Simmons admits other developers have not been so lucky.
“Less curation can be a bad thing. Greenlight is community led, so having already amassed a large community in Robocraft we got green lit in record time; but, if you've made a game that is beautiful, but isn't a natural community builder, you're going to have a hard time in Greenlight,” he says.
“In those cases a trusted curator, like Steam, could really help you get noticed. Good quality curation can minimise dilution as well, i.e. community curation often means more volume, and more volume often leads to the great being diluted with the not so great.”
Valve has already stated it intends to abolish Steam Greenlight. So how do indies ensure they get noticed, particularly if the platform becomes more like the App Store, and the benefits and problems it brings with it?
Simmons says it’s been a struggle for Freejam to stand out on PC. To ensure Robocraft gets noticed, with players actually playing the game around the clock, he says the team has had to try all available avenues open to them, including advertising, Twitch streaming, press releases, press kits and expos.
“It's all worked a little, and we've had have to do it all to get to break even,” he states. “I can't say enough to devs that you have to treat PR as importantly as you treat your game dev. It's so hard for indies to think that way, as typically we just want to make great games and don't want to get involved in all that PR nonsense.
“We've been lucky, we've had some coverage from some large YouTubers and that has generated the most installs for us, but there is no easy way of manufacturing coverage.”
The inevitability of discounts is teaching gamers to never buy at full price, and that does worry me.
Cliff Harris, Positech Games
Marshall agrees that promoting your games and building up the hype is critical to get people playing your game. And says that just getting on Steam has never been enough.
“Indies have always had to survive on their own, and that’s the point,” he says.
“The suggestion that ‘being on Steam’ was enough is kind of nonsense. It helped, especially during sales, but it certainly has never been the be-all and end-all. The best indies have made brilliant games, with high Metacritic scores, promoted them, promoted themselves, got the word out, built the hype. Indies who think the job ends with the last line of code are kidding themselves; it’s not down to Steam to promote your game. It’s not down to Steam to get you reviews, or Let’s Plays. You need to do that. You always have.”
One way developers have tried to promote themselves is through sales, as seen daily on Steam and the pay-what-you-like game sales on Humble Bundle.
Harris warns however that constant sales can be bad for indies, and savvy consumers could start waiting for discounts before they consider a purchase.
“It's fine to have sales of games, but people now expect a launch discount, and then a 50 per cent off within a month, and that’s just plain dumb,” he says. “We don't expect that with anything else. The inevitability of discounts is teaching gamers to never buy at full price, and that does worry me.
“I actually think that developers are hugely wrong about the financial impact of sales. There is this mantra that 'all the money comes from deep sales' but whenever I crunch the actual numbers for my games I find it isn't true. Game devs have to learn to develop more interesting hooks to draw attention to their game than just its price.”
Harris says the real trick to standing out and selling your game is to make an interesting game, and one that fills a gap in the market. After all, one of the main attractions to indie games is the developer’s willingness to experiment and innovate.
“There wasn't another Goat Simulator or Surgeon Simulator game, and they got huge attention,” he says. “If the plan is to make another me-too platformer or rogue-like or Minecraft clone and hope it sells, then yes, you are screwed, but frankly you should be. Indies just need to learn to innovate again.”
The notion of the indie bubble appears to be one that believes indies could rock up on Steam or any other store and sell their game without much or any marketing or promotion. Because quality speaks for itself, right? While it may continue to herald success for a special few games, as titles flood Steam, this tactic will no longer work.
As Simmons and Marshall say, developers need to put in the PR work themselves and build up hype for their games.
So has the indie bubble burst? If its definition is to be a success without promoting your game, then yes, it has.
But if it means are there about to be less indies than ever with rare success stories? Then no. Remember, more games than ever are coming to PC. But do developers now have to put in more work to get noticed?