The dog days are over.
My Steam library is made up of 97% indie games. That’s not surprising; I read and write about indie games every day. What is surprising, however, is the fact that none of my Steam recommended games are suggested to me because of my, very obviously, keen interest in indie games. 97% of the games in my library are stamped with the ‘Indie’ tag, one of them is labelled ‘Strategy’ – guess which one clutters my storefront.
The issue of independent discoverability on Steam has been bubbling away at the surface for at least the last year; this week it spilled over. Just after being felled by disparate revenue cuts between themselves and triple-A devs, indies have also been kicked while they’re down, with reportedly permanent algorithm changes altering the frequency with which their games are recommended to punters compared with that of their mainstream competition. Severe sales drops have followed October’s discoverability issues, with many developers despairing at the platform that was once the saving grace of the independent world. That Steam has fallen so far from its original pedestal of independent creativity isn’t necessarily the end of days many are proclaiming. Instead, it just might be the ticket out of a number of digital distribution headaches.
Taking Business Elsewhere
Steam no longer holds a total monopoly on independent digital distribution. It’s still the prime candidate, but only because it was the first, and remains the largest, database. With such brazen disregard for the developers and players that have made Steam what it is today ( a quick glance at its history shows just how reliant it was on bedroom coders in the beginning), Valve can’t expect us to stick around much longer. Once we do renounce Steam – and when I say we I’m speaking of both players and developers, as an industry shift will not happen with one and not the other – the options open to us will be illuminating. Stockholm Syndrome is a strong way to describe our current relationship with an online storefront, but there are parallels to be parsed.
Steam is putting its mouth where the money is, keeping high profile publishers sweet at the expense of the little guy. We know this already, but what many are not considering in the wake of this week’s news is the unbound potential unlocked by Steam finally cutting ties with the independent community. Of course, it’s difficult, and in a perfect world Steam would remain untouched by the perpetual draw of higher earnings, but alas this world is real and not perfect.
The good news, however, is that we don’t need to take it anymore. In my opinion, this is more than a few algorithm changes, more than a sneaky revenue prioritisation, this is a precursor rumbling of the next era in independent development. In my opinion, this news is a get out of jail free card. We don’t need to keep pretending that Steam is supportive of independent developers, no matter how many tools and programs they provide. We can confidently strike out and seek greener pastures. Other options have always been open but now we have the impetus, confidence, and soon, the necessity to seek out those options.
Talk About Timing
On the same day that the full extent of Steam’s discoverability issues was brought to light, Epic Games announced their own distribution platform, designed primarily to offer fairer revenue cuts for independent developers. Epic is certainly poised to make the leap, with Fortnite propelling the logo into hands across the world and a proven development infrastructure with Unreal.
If you’re developing a game with Epic’s engine, you’ll have your royalty fees waived for each sale you make through the store. Not developing with Unreal? That’s fine too – you’ll still see more of your money than Steam will let you peek at. It’s not only Epic taking bold steps out of Steam’s shadow; Discord also made news in October when it rolled out a global public beta of its digital marketplace. What started as a simple in-game messaging system has snuck straight into the centre of gaming habits, lifestyles, and processes and in doing so has uniquely positioned itself as a mainstay within the industry. Currently hosting a roster of carefully selected indie games across its storefront, Discord looks set to make waves in the independent industry in the coming months.
The Glory Days Are Just Beginning
In its heyday, Steam brought independent developers into the limelight, facilitated the indie gold rush and provided a reliable space for developers to easily host the game they need to sell. Unfortunately, independent developers and players are no longer experiencing the heyday of Steam. Recent news has given voices to a number of developers now riotously exclaiming their discontent. These hard facts may be just what is needed to open developers’ eyes to the wealth of new opportunities afforded to them in other distribution platforms, and open the eyes of players to the spaces available for finding and playing the best indie games Steam won’t tell you about.
There are so many benefits to branching out of a centralised network that will ultimately mature the industry for both its developers and players. Devs will be in charge of how they sell their game and players will have access to tools that aren’t prescribing their gaming habits based on the publisher with the highest bid. Games with years of hard work written into every line of code won’t be sitting in the back storeroom next to a spam title, and services will compete to offer the best revenue rates.
The issue with Steam is its size; there’s no way it can accommodate the magnitude of titles heading onto its shelves each month. With a decentralised distribution system, indies can look forward to multiple storefronts catering to specific needs, a direct line to the players developers want to target and the games these players want to play. Steam might be out of its indie heyday, but its departure from the industry may just lead to a new era of independent glory days.
Once Steam fully turns its back on the indies, other platforms will offer distribution services better than those available today, taking note of Valve’s downfalls. The only thing holding us back now is the industry’s reliance on the only platform with the infrastructure to offer such open access (no pun intended) to distribution. Once Steam fully turns its back on the indies, we can make a break for the exit. My Steam library is made up of 97% indie games, and pretty soon I won’t be relying on one service to help me find more.