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Alternative to "Steam's monopoly"? Less talk and more action helps...
by Sergio Rosa on 09/18/12 12:43:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This blog post was also posted on my personal blog.

Last time I shared my thoughts on Steam Greenlight, but left something out because I wanted to mention it on a different blog post. When Valve shared the news that they’d require a $100 fee to post a game on Greenlight, there were different reactions, but basically we have the ones that say $100 is too steep, those saying the fee is an excuse for lazy gate keeping, as well as the “elite” that states “any serious indie can afford that fee,” and of course the ones that say “you don’t really need Steam anyway” (many of these are also part of the “elite” I just mentioned).

And yes, I’ve read the comments that go “if you can’t afford it then pitch me your game and I may give you the $100.” Don’t even get me started…

On my previous post I also discussed my position on that fee, so I’m not going to touch that subject again. I will touch the “we don’t need Steam” part. First of all I have to say something: I am so (not) surprised to see such sense of elitisms sometimes in the “indie scene.” How else can you explain so many comments among the lines of “oh, $100 are nothing, man. They should even charge more,” and “if your game is worth its salt, you can self-publish and earn those $100 in no time.”

Now, in case you’re wondering if that second paragraph is there just because I want to rant, let’s take the last line and move on to the subject: “you can self-publish.” My short answer would be: “if you build it, they may not come, this ain’t the field of dreams.”

Many of us have heard tons of stories about how getting Steam distribution can make a difference. Many of us have had people in forums telling us “your game looks really cool! let me know when it’s available on Steam so I can buy it and tell my friends about it.” Simply put, Steam is like “the king of the hill,” because it’s the first place gamers go get their games. I’m not saying that Steam distribution is the key to success, but that “sorta-monopoly” does make a difference. I don’t like this any more than many of you, because I don’t think one single store should dominate digital distribution of indie games (specially when that store is a closed platform). There are other alternatives, but players have made Steam the largest community because it’s “better”.

Based on my experience, self-publishing a game brings a whole new set of complications to the table. For starters, I don’t have access to any established community so I have to build one, and that’s a big problem because the majority of people don’t know who the hell I am (I’m not prominently featured in a lot of gaming sites, and I’ve never been to a gaming event because I can’t afford to go). Since many don’t know who the hell I am, it’s hard to get press coverage (although I’m happy that slowly more and more people are learning about Enola, so it’s getting a little bit more coverage than before). You can let people buy the game on your website, but it seems players seem to like the convenience of getting the games somewhere else (Enola is available on different places, but the one where it’s sold the least is my website).

Someone on Twitter told me once there are some indie games portals (like Desura), and those could be good alternatives, and that’s right. Desura also has an approval process, but I think that, because they are pro-indie, they are more open to all kinds of games. Besides, since they are linked to IndieDB, a site where you can actually build a community around your game, it makes interaction a lot easier (on a side note, there’s a lot that Greenlight could learn from IndieDB). Desura is not the place with higher number of sold copies of Enola, though. Enola is also available on Gamersgate, and there it’s sold twice as many copies.

Just to clarify, I have not sold thousands of copies. I am far from making a profit, but the game is still under development and it’s being alpha-funded with those sales.

I’m sure everybody’s heard of Indie City. That site aimed to be the “Steam killer” and I wish them all the luck in the world, but right now they are not even close to reach that goal. The big problem is Indie City is not exactly a very active site. Enola was available on that site as well, but not only it never sold one single copy, it only got 96 page views in 4-5 months (and I’m sure around 10 of those were mine, when I was testing the product page). To put that under perspective, the IndieDB page for Enola has gotten over 43K visits since February, and Enola on Greenlight has gotten over 19K visits in the past 2 weeks.

So, “you can just self-publish,” true, but how about “less talk and more action? How about stop caring just about yourself and the 5 dudes you know because a) you met them at some important gaming event, or b) they are “worth knowing” because they have won whatever award?

I could explain my point but I’m using an example instead, because it’s easier to understand that way: Anyone remember the Because We May sale? The event got a lot of coverage, and allowed us lesser known indies a way to reach the masses. It would be interesting to know what the result would’ve been if I’d organized such event (in all aspects, from submitted games to coverage and resulting sales). Besides the special prices, the Because We May sale was a way to gather a bunch of developers/games, big or small, in one place, making it easy to players to find/buy them. It didn’t require any special e-commerce setup because they were linking to the devs’ websites/distribution platforms. Also, it was an open platform because anyone could submit their games and we didn’t have to worry about meeting some obscure standards (I’m looking at you, Steam!).

The Because We May sale, to me, is a perfect example of well known developers setting up a system that, among other things, brought more attention to lesser known devs/games, and it did it without some fancy portal with some top of the line back end, download client, e-commerce solution and what not.

Will I set that system up? My answer to that is “would anyone even notice? It’s not like my tweets make it to Kotaku all the time” (no pun intended).

So, if you ask me, a Steam alternative could be a very good thing, but reading a bunch of dudes talk about “how bad this is” on Twitter is completely useless if, at the end of the day, that doesn’t translate into a “real and palpable” alternative (after all, isn’t the “indie community” supposed to be “helpful and supportive”?).

If not, just keep all your useless “Steam is bad” propaganda to yourselves. If I wanted to hear shallow words, I’d watch politicians on the TV.


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Comments


TC Weidner
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do you learn to play guitar to become a millionaire or for the love of music? For me its the same with gaming, you do it for the creation and the art itself. That is your payoff. If you make games to make money, my god there are a million much easier ways to make money than game creation.

My grandmother made the best freakin pies we ever had, she never worried about selling them, she enjoyed making them and seeing her immediate family enjoy them. My point is simple, making games that you are proud to share is in itself the payoff. I mean sure, if you wish to distribute it, go for it, but distribution channels do not dictate whether a game is a nice creation and a success or not.

Sergio Rosa
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I know that but I wrote the entire post around a simple idea: you make games from sunrise to sundown and money doesn't fall from the sky. This post is not intended to those who go to a full time job (like designing power plants) and then make games during their spare time. This blog post is not aimed to those who simply wanna make games and put them out there, regardless of how many people play them (for whatever reason related to personal satisfaction to lack of need of money).

It's not about the quality of a game either, nor about those wanting to become rich.

The post is, however, clearly aimed to those who love make games, don't want to get that "real job" because it takes away time they can use to make games, and don't happen to have a rich uncle that can provide them enough money to sustain themselves (and a family, if they have one) for the 50-60 years of life they have left. This "ooooh this is my art" idea is pretty nice but I don't think people can go to an electric company and say "hey, don't charge for the electricit I'm using at home, because I'm making my art." We live in a material world after all, and money is not "a luxury" but something we need even for simple basic things as getting food.

Also, remember that "success" can be simply defined as "making enough money to make the next game," and to some that can mean making as little as 20K. That's hardly "making games to make money."

And I'm pretty sure your grandmother didn't worry about selling the pies because she had sources of income, including but not limited to: a job, a husband. I know a woman who was very good at cooking and cooked only for her family because she had a husband with a job so they didn't worry about money, but then her husband died and she became a widow with 7 little children. So her love for cooking became a "cooking for a living."

Lance Douglas
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Sergio, I completely agree. These people who say that artists should just do it for the fun and not care if they make any money certainly aren't worried about paying their bills. It's like they live in a world of unicorn farts and rainbow enemas, where everything is free and nothing ever costs money.

TC Weidner
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It's not a world of rainbows, its called a world of reality where people do one thing which allows then freedom to do other things, often which they enjoy. But hey good luck at creating your own little game studio and making a living from it with no outside revenue sources. If only life ws like that.

Lance Douglas
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Boy, that's a huge assumption you got going on there. Quite a few actually. The fact is any business has to make a profit in order for its employees to get paid, and to cover the many expenses of running the business. It's simple arithmetic. No profit means no business. It may only be a hobby to you, but for real developers it's a business.

k s
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The monopoly issues with steam are one Reason I'm very interested in the Ouya, plus it's built around a gamepad instead of mouse and keyboard or worse touch screen. I've never attempted to submit to steam because I know they have really vague requirements and green light isn't close to working yet (if ever).

Jane Castle
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Can you explain how Steam has a monopoly when there are other forms of digital distribution out there? Sure Steam is the dominant digital distribution platform but I would hardly say they have a monopoly....

james sadler
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Forgive me if this comes off rant-ish, but I get tired of people complaining about how Steam isn't an "open" platform and how their game isn't on there. A lot of this comes even after Greenlight announced their first approved titles. We all as game developers would love to have access to Steam's customer base and community. That'd be great and for the most part getting onto that platform would mean making some serious money, but we have to understand why that platform is so popular and why getting onto it means making serious money. It is a curated platform. Its that simple. There's no elitism there, just the fact that they select what they are willing to put in front of their client base and say "we've approved this." The sheer fact that Steam allows only a select few onto the platform acts as an incentive to their clients that when they put their money down what they will get is a good game. To define what is good they look at what their customer base is buying as well as the quality of the presented game. If it isn't something similar to what their customers are buying (not to say a clone, but more along the genre lines) but the quality is spectacular there is a possibility of them letting a game in. If the quality is crap then they'll just ignore you until it is up to their standards.
We can all talk about how we don't do this for the money but for the art, but guess what, Steam is in it for the money. They run a business and need to pay their employees. If we take a platform with a strong customer base and then flood it with mediocre (at best) titles, that customer base loses confidence in that platform. We've successfully taken a platform where a few Indie's use to make a lot of money from to a platform where no Indie's make any real money.
If you want an "open" platform look to the App Store since that is as close as one can get. Once there, good luck making any real money or even getting any serious plays out of it. Because it is open the client base is a lot more apprehensive towards the games out there because anyone can put their crap on it. For every high quality game there are a thousand pieces of shovelware.
It also comes down to just the desires of the targeted customer base. Steam customers are more into the FPS style games than they are into 8-bit puzzlers. These customers are more "hardcore" type customers and are willing to drop money of games that are in their style. Can the same be said for those that are really into 8-bit Puzzlers? Its kind of like trying to sell a new Hip-Hop album at a Country Music concert. Sure you might sell a couple, but the masses will ignore you (at best).

That was more of an abstract to this article, but I'll address a couple of things actually mentioned here. First off the $100 fee is not a big deal. There's no elitism there, just that if you really believe in your game you should be able to make others believe in it as well. Friends and family should be more than happy to help come up with that kind of money if its really that hard. If even after releasing the game to other distribution platforms and that $100 is still hard to come up with maybe it is time to think about whether or not Steam is even the right platform for said game. This is the business side of gaming and it sucks most of the time.
If you have friends, or even some potential customers, who says they'll buy it only after it gets onto steam don't expect them to ultimately do so. If they really liked it that much they'd pay for it right then and there. Saying they'll wait for Steam is more in the way of saying "I'm not 100% sold on this game. If Steam approves it I may buy it."

Greenlight and Steam isn't some magic wand that will take a game that has flaws into something that makes the developer millions of dollars. Greenlight really is an open way to show the public what they did internally for years. All those nasty things people say on a Greenlight page were probably said by Valve employees behind closed doors. If a page isn't getting the "thumb's up" that one hoped its time to look at it and see why that might be. Popularity and an existing fan base is one thing, but that can only go so far. Each game has to win over people that may never have heard of the game before (I never heard of Routine before, but I voted for it, and I'm not an FPS fan). Even then, once a game makes it onto Steam it doesn't automatically mean people will start forking over money and downloads. It just means its in front of them. If the trailer and even synopsis are crap then only a few will try it. If it is just complete crap or buggy they'll ask for refunds.

I say all of this as someone who has held back on putting a Greenlight page up but is planning to once our game is ready for it. We have almost no fan base and no previous game dev. experience.

Sergio Rosa
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I'd just like to clarify that I never complained about my game not being on Steam, mainly because it's not even finished, and even if it was "greenlit" it wouldn't hit the store for many months. I have submitted games before and they were rejected, but I have no problem with that other than they not providing any useful input.

I am not a fan of "open platforms" for the exact reason you mentioned. That's one of the reasons why I don't believe in the OUYA right now (and actually I have a blog post about that here on Gamasutra).

I'd also like to point out I never said the Steam guys were elitists. I was talking about "high profile indies."

I am aware those $100 can be obtained, but in some situations the only viable solution is to get those sales elsewhere, meaning the game is already either finished, or being alpha funded. This means no "work in progress" games on Steam, but finished games that have raised money in other platforms (or maybe Kickstarted games). Asking family or friends for those $100 may be a viable solution for you but not for people living in poor countries where the people a dev can ask for help barely break even each month due to low salaries (my country being the perfect example; I know a lot of people that make between $300 and $500 a month).

But there's another thing that maybe you're missing (but I hope you are not). You're paying $100 to make a profile page where you can show your game to a lot of people, not to actually publish the game. So, even if the community is larger, you're paying for a profile page that provides one third of the functionality found on IndieDB at this very moment (and IndieDB happens to be free). Personally I hope Greenlight will evolve, and even copy some of the functionality we have on IndieDB, so it becomes more than a page where you post screenshots and videos.

And I'd also like to clarify I never said that Steam is a magic wand that will take a game and turn it into a multimillion money making machine. Success can also mean "making enough money to fund the next game."

Other than that, you missed the important part of the blog post: It's not about raising arms against Steam, it's about "an alternative? less talk and more action, please."

james sadler
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I should apologies first here since I didn't look at your Greenlight page before writing my original post. Based on your post I placed your game in the realm of lower end games who's developers believe they should be on Steam simply because they made a game. For that I am wrong and am sorry, though I still stand by a lot of what I wrote. Monopoly is the wrong word to use since it isn't a monopoly. There are still different avenues and channels to release a game on. Just because those avenues aren't as popular doesn't mean Steam is a monopoly. That was probably the first thing that put me in this mindset.

I too don't believe in the OUYA system for a lot of reasons. The reason I mentioned "open platforms" in my response was because you compared it to other open submission platforms/sales. If you meant that their submission policies be more open then some clarification might be warranted in your post.

I can see your point about $100 seeming like a lot. I work a normal 9-5 job outside of development so that kind of money isn't a big thing. As an alternative to the things I suggested it might be smart to go to one of the Kickstarter like pages to start up a fund for this exact thing, or even host a similar page on your own website. Its amazing what people will donate money to (just look at OUYA). I understand their choice in the $100 and don't have a problem with it since it helps filter out a lot of the shovelware that already popped up on Greenlight. There are a lot of very well intentioned people out there that are willing to front the money, though I haven't really researched the conditions they might apply.

Yes $100 is a bit extreme to host a site in the hopes that it will maybe someday get the game onto Steam. Personally I'd rather them hold that money so that in the event of acceptance onto Steam that money would be refunded, or if you decide to shut down your page it is returned to you. Its a really simple thing. Put all that money into a decently yielding savings account, or similar, and use the interest (or all as an option afterward) to donate to that charity. I agree that it is a little bizarre to pay them $100 for site space and then turn around and give that money to someone else, albeit a good charity.

The bit about the magic wand was more of a general sense a lot of people have towards Steam, and not you directly. This is where a lot of the complaining comes from with a lot of Indie's. I can't even count how many articles, posts and comments I've read from dev's that think just because they finished their Angry Birds clone that they should be on Steam and making millions of dollars.

Ultimately I believe that Greenlight is the best option. Being such a high profile platform Steam just doesn't have the manpower or time to go through each submission and give a good response. At the same time much of the Steam community is pretty anti-Indie games and Greenlight gives them the option to see what is really out there and maybe even sway them a bit. Is it perfect? Hell no. I've been extremely wary of Greenlight since it was announced. They just need more time and data to smooth things out. I doubt it will ever get to the point where a completely unknown dev/game will get through quickly, but it is a start. I just don't realistically see how you can get past the talk and into more constructive advice without an adjustment to the culture of those posting to the page.

Sergio Rosa
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Yeah, monopoly is the wrong word and I tried to imply they don't have an actual monopoly by putting it in quotes. I should've used "dominant position" or something, but it looks less dramatic.

The idea you mention about refunding the fee if the game is greenlit, or if you pull the game is really good. Anything that makes devs don't feel like they are "losing" the money if the game is not accepted. My biggest issue with the fee right now is that we pay for the right to publish screenshots. I seriously, seriously (seriously!) believe they need a lot more functionality there. Something like being able to have small "developer blog" where people can learn more, see the development, ask questions and share comments. The whole idea is about interacting with the community but all you can do is post in the comments area?

This can be a very good platform for unknown devs to get more exposure, but it needs a lot of polishing right now.

Jane Castle
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I am going to be brutally honest here and I mean no disrespect. I looked at your game and it is in the alpha stage as you noted and it is very rough around the edges. That being said, there is a lot of potential with your game but until you have a finished and polished product, you are going to have a tough sell on any platform, whether you are on Steam or anywhere else....

Sergio Rosa
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"I looked at your game and it is in the alpha stage as you noted and it is very rough around the edges"

That's true, and it's being very tricky to alphafund because it's a more "linear" game and not the kind of game where, on each update, you release a new system like "ok, on this update I added the ability to pickup weapons", "on this update you can fight enemies" "now the wall climbing functionality has been added."

Jane Castle
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@Sergio And I feel for you as this is a classic chicken and egg problem. You can't get to a finished and polished the game unless you have funding and in general people won't fund unless they see a "polished vertical slice".....

Ahmad Jadallah
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@ James Sadler,

The main problem is that Greenlight is an alternative to (We reject your game and as per our policy we can't tell you why we rejected it) which this awsome response you get from Steam after going through two months of painful waiting. If the criteria are really clear cut then why don't they share them? Nothing open about this as far as I can tell.

james sadler
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@Ahmad:
They have to walk a fine line here. If they told you why they didn't accept an entry then people would start making games that specifically fit that criteria. Even though they do run a business they also don't want tons of clone-ware (though many will debate that). Greenlight is a better way to go about it politically since it adds an external filter to their submission process and they can say "look the people didn't vote for you so go away." I wouldn't say their criteria is clear cut, but there are obvious things one can do to see if one's game has a shot. Simply look at the games on Steam. There's some weird stuff on there along with the usual FPS games. If the game being submitted isn't close to the quality, graphics, and/or gameplay of those then why would anyone buy it? From what I've read from most people that have submitted their stuff to Steam it all comes down to polish. If a game isn't polished really well they'll just pass on it. If one considers how many entries they use to get, now that the old channel of submissions is supposedly closed, on a daily basis then only looking at the really polished games is worth their time.

As a response to my posting I went and looked at Sergio's Enola on Greenlight. It looks like it will be a pretty interesting game that I will probably try once it is done. My problem is why is there complaining when he clearly says he is in Alpha. There's still a long way to go before its time for Beta (which is where Steam has always said it wants games to be before submission). That might be the reason for a lackluster performance on Greenlight and elsewhere. Alpha is too generic of a term nowadays. It basically can mean anything before a playable version is ready, or Beta, to a lot of people. Showing a game to early can be very damaging as it basically gets people's hopes up for something that can drastically change over time, or they will lose interest over time.

Sergio Rosa
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I have to disagree with the "they have to walk a fine line" argument. I've talked with other platforms in the past (about other projects) and they actually provide useful information. For example, a more "casual games" store once told me "this game wouldn't fit here because our customer base don't look for games where you shoot stuff or kill things, they look for this and that types of games" but you don't see me making this and that types of games because that's not the kind of games "I" like (and the whole point of making a game you like is because you'll enjoy making it. Making a game you don't like turns into a "crap I hate this game, I hate it, but I have to finish it, damn, I hate it, the hell with it, but I have to finish it").

james sadler
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I think you actually made one of my points here Sergio. Some simple research of the games that do appear on the platform will save a lot of grief. If one is submitting a game to a platform the hosts mainly puzzle games, and the game being submitted is a AAA killer FPS, why would that platform carry said game? Just because that platform has a huge player base doesn't mean that they "should" offer it to said game since it doesn't fall into the desires of that player base.

I'll agree that no feedback is worse than bad feedback in a lot of cases but Steam has to be political with the responses they give since they are a hugely powerful company. Try submitting a demo to a record company and you'll bask in even the slight response that Steam would give. I'm not saying their way is right or just, but it is what it is. Thanks to all of the complaints in the past we now have Greenlight which does have the possibility to give more people a chance on releasing to Steam.

Sergio Rosa
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Uhm, "a game about shooting things" is not the same as an AAA FPS. Geometry Wars and Crysis are both games about "shooting things," and one may think Geometry Wars would fit some sort of "casual" market because it's a "non violent fun experience."

james sadler
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I was giving an extreme example but it still holds true. Does games about shooting things appear on that platform? No? Same result. A little research goes a long way.


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