Minis, Steam or App Store: which to choose?

Minis, Steam or App Store: which to choose?

By Nicholas Lovell

September 8th 2010 at 2:58PM

Distribution is the third pillar of self-publishing. In this week's column, Lovell looks at how the role of distribution has changed from the days of warehouse, vans and men with barrows.

Traditional role: Distribution, sometimes known as "pick, pack and ship" involves the physical shipping of boxed products from publishers to retail stores. This has always been the least attractive part of the games value chain. It is a low-margin business that requires high volumes to be successful, and the demise in 2008 of both EUK and Pinnacle shows that it is a tough business. In fact, many publishers have chosen not to do it themselves and instead outsource to third parties.

New role: Distribution is a key skill in the new world of digital. It is also potentially one of the easiest elements to master.

Console distribution

For an independent developer that wishes to create a game on XBLA, PSN or WiiWare, all that they have to do is submit their game to the appropriate platform holder (Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo respectively) and they are in the process of securing distribution.

Of course, to get a game onto these platforms, the developer has to ensure that they have fulfilled the technical terms, which is no trivial task, but for any developer migrating from AAA console development to self-publishing, this is part of the development cycle that will be entirely familiar.

The different platform holders have very different attitudes to self-publishing.

Of the three console platform holders, Sony is the keenest to encourage self-publishing developers.

For PSN, it has launched the Pub Fund, an initiative designed to help developers make the transition to self-publishing. It is not a source of financing for development - developers won't see money until after the game is released - but it can help with cash flow after launch. Cash flow that can be used for the all important marketing.

For developers who haven't worked with Sony before, and even those who have, PSP Minis are a potentially interesting platform. Sony's Mini guidelines make it clear that the company is keen to consider new development teams, although some experience of development seems to be required.

Who can make Minis?

According to Sony, anyone. "SCEE is committed to creating opportunities for existing developers and publishers whilst also welcoming new publishers into the family.

  • There is no requirement for content approval
  • SCEE is 'open for business' and looking for Minis developers right now
  • Non-registered developers should sign up at www.tpr.scee.net"

Minis are still quite new. On the one hand, that means the platform isn't crowded and "discoverability" is not the huge problem it is on, say, the iPhone platform. It also means that we have little sales data to see how well Minis are performing, and it's not yet clear if they offer a viable financial model for independent developers.

Microsoft and Nintendo are less supportive of self-publishing developers. Microsoft seems to require that you use a traditional publisher to launch your game on XBLA, although not on Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG), their indie service. According to Indievision, Nintendo will not pay you royalties until you reach Performance Thresholds of either 3,000 units or 6,000 units (depending on your region). For self-publishing independents, this can be a big cash flow challenge, and one that suggests that Nintendo has no desire to encourage independent self-publishing on its platform.

In short, if you don't already have substantial experience on consoles, self-publishing on a console is a tough business. If you are an experienced console developer, Sony seems likely to give you more support than either of the other platform holders. And if you are determined to give it a go even if you have little prior knowledge of developing for a console, XBLIG and PlayStation Minis offer a potential route.

PC distribution

For developers that are self-publishing downloadable games on PC, the list of distribution partners is longer, but still manageable. It includes destinations such as Steam, Metaboli, Direct2Drive, GamersGate and others. Securing relationships with these portals is key.

For many of these portals, it is not worth their while working with developers who only have a single title or a limited release schedule. It takes nearly as much as work to close a deal with a major publisher that brings 50 titles to a portal as it does to sign a contract with a developer with only one game to offer. For this reason, it can be difficult to persuade portals to give independent developers any priority - or any attention at all, for that matter. (Blitz Games Studios' 1UP, allowing small indies to use Blitz's relationships with a number of distribution portals as a route to market, is one solution to this issue.)

There is one ugly truth about the "open" platform of PC distribution. If you are selling GaaPy PC games, there is only one distribution partner that matters: Valve's Steam. As far as I can tell, Steam is often outselling, by a factor of 10 or more, all the other distribution channels put together. Thatís a scary amount of monopoly power in Valveís hands. (See Five reasons why Steam will destroy the PC games industry.)

Unfortunately, for a time-strapped developer, it may well mean that the most sensible distribution strategy is to focus entirely on Steam. If you have a hit on Steam, then consider getting it out onto the other platforms to maximise revenues. But for any product-based PC developer, building a great relationship with Valve is a critical objective.

There are of course other routes, such as portals aimed at independent developers (Garage Games, Kongregate) and casual gamers (Big Fish, Real Arcade, Reflexive). Many of the same issues of size affect these portals, and independent developers still face the hurdle of how to make their games stand out from the morass of other games that are released every month.

Finally, you should sell the game from your own website. At the very least, you should have links from your website to all the places where you have secured distribution. Introversion has built a successful business based on the combination of third-party distribution (particularly Steam) and their own website and you would be well-advised to consider doing the same.

Web-based distribution

For games that are more web-centric, such as browser-based MMOs or games developed for social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, distribution is a very different beast. In many cases, the game cannot be distributed on third-party portals, and the developer has to focus on generating traffic to its website. On the web, traffic and distribution are essentially the same thing, such that the line between distribution and marketing becomes very blurred.

Securing distribution can be very expensive: leading games portal Miniclip, frustrated that it was a major distributor of games such Club Penguin and RuneScape but didnít benefit when they were acquired or raised money from outside investors, is rumoured to be seeking equity stakes in developers in return for distributing their web games.

Smartphone distribution

The smartphone market is nascent and rapidly evolving. It still shows the hallmarks of a classic battle between "open" and "closed" platforms, although compared to the previous behaviour by the mobile phone operators, even Appleís "closed" platform looks like a paragon of openness and accessibility.

Apple is dependent on the independent eco-system to drive usage of the iPhone and iPad, so has a relatively open policy for Apps. Broadly speaking, anyone can publish a game on Appleís platforms (although they have to adhere to Appleís rules, which change frequently.)

Googleís Android is extremely open, but that also means that there is no standardisation of operating system or form factor. This may explain why Android has yet to catch the imagination of the public or developers in the way that the iPhone has. It is, however, easy to publish a game on the Android platform.

There are many other platforms (handset manufacturer App Stores, operator App Stores, Palm and Windows Mobile OS App Stores). Anything I write here is likely to be out of date by the time you read it. If you are interested in publishing on multiple smartphone platforms, you will need to do a lot of research.

I suggest focusing on iPhone and perhaps Android while you learn the ropes, and consider other platforms over time.

Distribution Conclusion

For a developer which is only targeting XBLA, PSN or WiiWare, distribution is simple. For anyone else, whether their market is smartphones (with a rapid proliferation of handsets such as iPhone, Android and Palm Pre and new proprietary application stores being launched on a weekly basis by handset manufacturers and operators), PC downloadable (with Steam, a dozen or more potential other partners and the need to consider an ecommerce website ) or browser-based (with the need to build traffic in a highly competitive environment), distribution is one of the more complex areas of self-publishing.

Nicholas Lovell writes a blog on the business of games at www.gamesbrief.com.

He is the author of How to Publish a Game and teaches masterclasses on making social games.You can download the first two chapters of How to Pubish a Game for free at www.gamesbrief.com/htpagfree.