Wednesday, April 5, 2017

What Steam Direct Means For Indies

As many of you no doubt know, Steam is undergoing some pretty drastic changes very soon. Greenlight is nixed and replaced with a per game fee, no voting process. Unpopular games are going to be buried away, with the intent being to have fewer shit games visible to the average user. Users can sign up to be explorers, giving them special privileges in exchange for trudging through shit games to find the diamonds in the rough. All games are going to show public sales records and other statistics. Curators are going to have more power over games popularity.

So, what does all that mean for independent developers? Was Greenlight trash or misunderstood? Is direct better, worse or just different? As two solo developers, with Greenlit games on Steam, we are going to discuss how we think these changes impact the indie community.

Well, I'm highly skeptical.  It seems to me that Steam Direct wants to ensure that the majority of buyers never see any content that is outside of their pre-established comfort zone. With users needing to opt-in to see all content equally, the vast majority of users who don't understand what's going on in Steam or immediately close Steam's notifications of how new systems work will never see games that an algorithm hasn't deemed will be suitable for them.

But people don't work like that.  People gain insight, their tastes change, they get sick of seeing samey stuff all of the time, and they try new things to earn new favorites in their libraries.  A coddling system like this will prevent people from growing as gamers or learning new perspectives on the art, which will horrendously stunt the market and indie studios' ability to experiment.

I think presentation is going to be everything. Curators are going to be the new sought after treasure for indies. You're right the people need to see games outside of their comfort zone but, if Valve presents curators as a fundamental part of having a Steam account, the problem will solve itself. Like Rock Paper Shotgun? Follow them as a curator and see their recommendations and dislikes on your front page, regardless of what you normally play. If people get bored with their monochrome store page, they should immediately know that curators are the solution. If someone isn't willing to look far enough to find that info, either Valve is failing or the user doesn't really care.

I think Indies will have higher stakes, if you fail you're going to fail hard. But, if you succeed, people who like games specifically like yours will have way less junk on their front page hiding your title. You, as a developer, will have easier access to your Fanbase. Further, it's your job, as a developer, to effectively access the curator world and thus further your reach.

That's the problem right there: "If someone isn't willing to look far enough to find that info, either Valve is failing or the user doesn't really care."

The vast majority are going to be the user that doesn't really care. The bulk of consumers don't opt into anything and do buy things that look good at first glance of an ad banner and a couple screenshots. If they're being spoon fed games that they think look good, then the system is already discouraging exploration or caring about curators. 

 And how is Steam going to fix this without their popup features window that users close without looking at? Or text on the store page that people will ignore like they've ignored ratings plastered all over games (which has been part of the impetus for replacing GreenLight with Steam Direct). Or the fact that the curator system has always been in place and ignored? Or the fact that people have never had to take issue with experiencing a crappy game because Steam has had a refund function for two years but ignore it?

The users are mostly going to ignore any system Steam puts in place unless the system they put in place is intrusive enough that people will actively hate its inclusion.

Gabe: When a developer releases a game on Steam, they have a finite number of front page views before their game is no longer displayed on the front page. If their game sells well enough it spends more time on the front page after their views run out. Launch day and the days that follow are when devs make the majority of their money, so you better believe I want every single view to be a buyer. Maybe at launch, my platformer isn't seen by users who mainly play first person shooters. Good, don't waste my views. If it is seen by people who love games like mine and thus sells better, I then have an opportunity to reach a wider audience by leveraging my popularity. Maybe that means press contacts, maybe is means curators. The end result is that I make more money, which means I make more indie games.

If your game is experimental, it doesn't mean it won't be seen by anyone, it means it will be seen by people who like experimental games. You'll have the same number of clicks at launch as everyone else. Experimental games may have an even better shot at profit due to the fact that only a select few users will see them. Users who really love that sort of thing.

Experimental games, by definition, don't all appeal to the same crowd.  That's a silly notion.  Experimental games all appeal to very different people for very different and unique reasons that can't really be curated together as just "experimental".  People who might like arcade games might like No Thing, but No Thing isn't an arcade game and is wholly an experimental game.  But people who like No Thing might not like Gish, which is a wholly experimental game that may be enjoyed by people who love platformers, despite that it would fall more under an experimental puzzle game and doesn't really include much platforming.  The more experimental a game is, the less it's going to relate to other games and, thus, the less people it will see.

I also don't see that a very flawed system for advertising a game on release should be the defense of an overhaul that pigeon holes users' interests.  Perhaps it makes sense that you should be able to curate who those advertisements get directed to (similarly to how Facebook ads work) but that doesn't mean that the entire store page should prevent casual users from discovering new things.

William and Gabe then went on to argue for an hour on skype. Here is the result.

Gabe: I think experimental games are hard to sell no matter what. They don't fit within pre-established tags, so it's always hard to reach their audience. If they get the same number of front page views before they are taken off the front page, as every other game, may as well push them to people with interests somewhere near the game.

I think that more specific sorting isn't the problem, but more prohibitive listing is.  It's already been explained that games will be straight up invisible to a large portion of the market depending on who they are aimed at; that is a net loss to both consumers expanding their horizons and devs reaching wider markets that I don't personally think is made up for by making store browsing a simple and automated dating app style compatibility test.

Gabe: I don't entirely disagree with you, but I don't agree with you. Still friends?

William: Totally!

Tell us what you think! We really want more opinions on this so please share yours in the comments.

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1 comment:

  1. Friends goes through a lot of thick and thin, but that is a part of friendship. But we all get over it, and friendship gets stronger.