Selling games directly is worthwhile (again)

Piotr Korzuszek

19 April 2019

On September 12, 2003, nobody was expecting that this day made a start to a revolution happening in the game industry, a revolution that changed it forever. At that day, Valve has introduced Steam - their new online distribution platform. At first, it was mainly required to launch their newest games, but in time it grew to a global distribution platform for most of the AAA PC games on the market. No longer after, the doors were opened for indie game developers, finally making Steam the biggest online game market available for any developer in the world. But today, in 2019, more and more developers are looking for another way to publish their products and to market with them on their own. So, where did it go wrong?

A sea full of fish

PC players do not like to be forced to do unnecessary things or pay more money to do the same things they were able to do in the past for free. When Steam was first released, it took a lot of critique, since it forced people to create an account and keep its launcher running in the system. Yet it was widely installed on many PCs because it was needed to run Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike - two extremely popular games back then. As time passed by, the Steam games catalogue was growing so rapidly that it became the default gaming platform of choice for most of the PC players worldwide. It became so popular, that solely the fact of putting the game on Steam marketplace was a guarantee of not only high discoverability but high sales as well.

Due to the growing popularity of indie gaming, Valve found itself in a difficult situation: if they don’t adapt to the new reality, they might lose a large portion of their market share. On August 20, 2012, Steam Greenlight was launched, enabling indie developers to publish their games on Steam, but only on the condition that their games passed the vote of the Steam community. It meant to be a sieve to keep low-quality content away from Steam users and to keep control over the growing catalogue of games. However, it still failed to prevent the store from breaking its banks: 38% of the games on the store was released in 2016 alone.

On June 13, 2017, Steam Greenlight program was closed and replaced with Steam Direct, opening the store to any developer who is willing to pay $100 for a game submission. Many have welcomed it with enthusiasm, but others started worrying about the platform’s future. At the beginning of 2019, there were nearly 30,000 games available in the store, and 9,300 of which were released in 2018 alone. The days when simply releasing the game on Steam guaranteed high discoverability were over. Its marketplace has transformed from a game developers El Dorado to just another place it’s good to have your product on. Valve is rumoured to be aware of that fact, but they seem to remain idle. Finally, the 30% commission for only having their game on a site that gives not so much in return, is causing developers to openly express their disappointment.

The biggest change to the Steam landscape comes from Steam Direct, which has dramatically increased the number of games landing on Steam. Some have criticized Valve, asking for more curation or a higher barrier to entry on Steam, though Rose points out there’s really no winning there. – PC Gamer

It’s going to be Epic

On the 6th of December 2018, Epic Games Store that takes only 12% cut per game was launched. It’s not the first attempt to overthrow Steam’s rumoured monopoly, but it sent a powerful signal that PC players do not longer care about creating accounts and installing additional software on their machines so much. In the past, that fact kept the strong opinion that Valve’s platform is the only choice worth considering. But there’s more. Today, Epic Games Store is taking a very similar path as Steam took in 2003, that is attracting the players with exclusive content, such as overtaking Metro Exodus as its exclusive game and releasing The Division 2 next to the Ubisoft store. The latest news is that Borderland 3 will be released with temporary exclusivity on the Epic Store. Players therefore have another reason to start using this new service, but Randy Pitch, CEO of Gearbox Software, is aware that “Epic will suffer (again) if, by the time Borderlands 3 launches, the customer experience is not good enough. This is a tremendous forcing function for Epic.”. We need not to forget about another extremely popular game among younger players that is available only via Epic Game Store - Fortnite - similar case to Counter-Strike in 2003. Such type of players tend not to be strongly attached to gaming platforms they’re using so they’re most likely to adapt and stay with whichever platform crings the better gaming content, now making it the first real threat to Steam.

Regardless of how optimistic it may look like for game developers, the question if Epic is “just” another Steam still remains. At first, it may offer good discoverability, but it will change with time and growing game catalogue. The fact that more and more developers will distribute their games via multiple platforms at once to maximize the profit has an interesting side effect among the players. Instead of purchasing the game on Steam by default, they are now looking for the cheapest price among multiple gaming platforms and game websites. Surprisingly (or not) that fact makes the direct game sales worthwhile (again)!

Valve is trying to defend itself by restricting in their distribution agreement that developer cannot intentionally undercut Steam sale place elsewhere, making the Steam option most attractive to all PC players. Yet it remains unclear why the developer may generate and sell a large number of product keys and sell these elsewhere without the 30% cut. Maybe it’s a way to bring more players to their platform, but it creates an interesting gap where any developer may sell their game on their home page, offer a version of the game that is Steam-independent and includes a Steam key for anyone who wants it.

Selling games directly to your players

While making a decision whether you want to sell your game directly from your website or not, you need to think about the infrastructure, the payment gateway and calculate whether such investment is worth your time and money. All of these things may sound scary, fret not, there already are services that can handle it all for you.

Some time ago, only big companies had the resources to set up a reliable infrastructure for game distribution and updates. This also includes the desktop software that installs the newest version of the game when available. Today there’s a lot of HTTP CDNs, but these mostly do not offer any managed services and software for game developers. You need a desktop software to install and update your game, and you need management software to prepare and distribute your game new releases without risk of breaking anything. PatchKit offers it both, allowing you to upload your new game releases just by dropping your zip files into our upload form and providing a small launcher executable to those, who purchased your game. And it’s easy as it sounds. You may try it for yourself and test it for free. PatchKit focuses on minimizing the entry threshold. If you decide on PAYG account, you pay only for the data transfer you use starting at $0, without hidden costs. What’s more, if you’re an Indie developer, you can count on other benefits.

That leaves us with a payment gateway in order to release your game out into the world. For this purpose, we recommend FastSpring, an end-to-end e-commerce solution that can be set up on your web page in mere minutes. It’s worth to mention that PatchKit soon releases an integration that will help to complete the whole process even faster and easier.

What are my options?

As a game developer, you should choose what’s best for you and your game. Times are rapidly changing and many industries like books or music are already getting used to self-publishing. Of course, there is still a factor called “money”. Without money, it is hard to make a game, and it’s even harder to promote it. But, if you are luckily enough to not think about $, you should consider using PatchKit tool. It will not only help you to have full control over your project but also to create a launcher. That will let your game and company stand out from the crowd, grow your community. Also, with your own launcher, you can be sure that everyone who’s using it has the latest version of your game downloaded instantly. Thanks to PatchKit you will also build your own ecosystem for your future projects and get recognizable. What’s more important, you’ll be fully independent. You decide where to sell your products. You decide if you want to share your cut with anyone. And still, you can use the most popular service like Steam or GOG to distribute your games.

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