Having worked in the PC and Mac (video game) digital download market for over 14 yrs I’m thrilled to see how far this distribution channel has now developed; and that all major publisher have ‘finally’ recognized that this is the only way forward for PC and Mac games.
I say ‘finally’ with a chuckle as I clearly remember even as late as 2009 the difficulty some senior SEGA executives had with endorsing a PC download strategy as they were concerned on the impact it would have with retailers.
Thanks to the vision and support of people like Mike Hayes, former CEO & President of SEGA and Studio Heads like Miles Jacobson of Sports Interactive we were able to proceed with bringing AAA titles like Football Manager, Total War and Aliens vs. Predator to PC Download, day and date with the retail release.
Needless to say, once we started to generate millions of pounds in incremental annual profit for the company via this new distribution channel, many attitudes internally were soon reversed.
Since starting Vanquish Corporation a few years ago I’ve helped a number of smaller indie PC developers navigate the path for PC Download distribution. This has certainly been an eye-opening experience.
However, even with the PC and Mac download channel maturing and becoming more acceptable it is still lacking in certain areas. No more so than the lack of PC and Mac Distribution Partners in this space that can offer developers an SDK to rival Steamworks.
Many PC Distributors are merely e-commerce shop fronts and sell Steamwork builds of games. This means they are essentially handing over any customer they acquire over to Steam after this initial purchase.
Let me explain:
Valve is the dominant force in the PC and Mac download business. (And rightly so). They have invested heavily in infrastructure; have developed a fantastic SDK (Steamworks) and have a proven knack to monetize titles across their vast network with clever tactical and bundle promotions. From experience I can advocate that this is not just proven with new AAA blockbuster PC and Mac games, but even for games that may already be 2-3 years old and long gone from retailers shelves.
The Steam SDK, Steamworks, is available for any developer approved for the Steam platform. It offers a tremendous set of API’s and infrastructure that includes: player matching, server hosting, leaderboard functionality, player stats, opportunity to sell DLC, achievements and much more.
The Beginning of the End for Indie Developed Multiplayer Games?
Over the last few year the Steam network has become overloaded with new game applications. The days of calling up Valve and asking them to review your game (for indie developers) are over. Instead Steam now direct all indie developers to their new Greenlight Program, the idea being the community will now decide what games they would like to see launched on Steam based on a voting system. Sort of like crowd sourcing for games.
The issue is Greenlight has also now become overloaded. As of today there are more than more than 875 new game applications to browse with new games being added weekly. Despite yesterday’s new category announcement, the odds of your game being discovered by the Steam Community are getting slimmer by the day.
Also we have to realize that many Indie developers are just that ‘developers’; they are not experts at manipulating or courting votes.
With so many games new been added to Greenlight, many ‘hidden gems’ are simply lost or being passed over. (To me this seems like a great opportunity for other rival PC Download partners to use Greenlight as an online biz dev list and invite these 100’s of other titles to their networks).
So now all these developers are not only having a very difficult time getting their game onto the Steam network but worse, they don’t have access to the Steamworks API.
What are the options now for the average indie developer that has a great game with multiplayer features, that they want to launch on other PC Download platforms?
The other platforms don’t offer an SDK. They are merely e-commerce shop fronts.
Is the indie developer now expected to launch their own master server and integrate ad hoc services like Unity or SmartFox to offer these multiplayer features? Seems like a big ask when budgets are getting tighter.
With Steam giving less indie developers access to Steamworks and no other proven PC Downlaod SDK’s available this could seriously limit and hamper the growth of multiplayer indie games.
What I still don’t understand is, with the exception of Valve and Steamworks, why no other PC Download partner, to date, has developed a viable SDK that 3rd party developers can use.
All the other main PC Download partners like, Gamestop Impulse, Gamefly, Gamersgate, Metaboli, the new Origin network, Nexway, Greenman Gaming each have their own merits but:
- None of them (currently) have a PC or Mac download SDK to help the indie developer with their multiplayer needs.
- What’s even more amazing is that each of these networks will accept a Steamworks build of a PC / Mac game. That means these PC Download partners will take the initial sales transaction but will then effectively pass the customer over to Steam by providing them with the Steam Client to download (if user doesn’t already have it).
It’s difficult to comprehend the pain PC Download partners must have had to go through to make the decision to accept Steamworks builds. Every day this goes on the stronger Valve becomes.
Surely the time is ripe for a new serious player to emerge in this space with an SDK to compliment Steamworks.
I understand that Origin and Uplay, UbiSofts new ESD offering have an SDK but presently these are only for their internal games. No news yet that these will be available to 3rd party games.
I expect that other large PC developers / Publishers are building or at least evaluating the merits of their own SDK system. It has to be the way forward.
In the meantime what should the poor Indie developers do to roll out multiplayer features?
Nick Pili | Vanquish Corporation | email@example.com
I think Greenlight will be a failure. Why? Because it shirks the responsibility of using aesthetic judgement. It offloads this onto those who are least qualified to use critical thinking over these things: the fans.
It will lead to a kind of populism in which anything that is unusual or not well understood will get dismissed for the more comfortable, the more familiar.
Indeed, look at the very first project that was “Greenlit”: Black Mesa. Simply a remake of Half Life, but using the Source engine. No original thought there whatsoever.
The history of the entertainment industry has shown that successful projects were not always well-received, or even well-understood by the groundroots audience. Indeed, the best publishers and producers have used their aesthetic instincts to judge what will or will not be successful. Steam is abandoning their role in the decision-making process. (Or maybe I’m wrong, and there is some hidden formula inside Greenlight – in which case it isn’t really the voting that does make the decision after all. Who knows? It’s a little opaque.)
Wha’ts more, being “Greenlit” isn’t a true greenlight anyway. It comes not only with no publishing advance. It’s not clear if it comes with any sort of pre-sale or purchase order that a developer can use to raise third-party funding (such as from a bank) – but I suspect it doesn’t. It simply means that your game is “on Steam”.
I think Steam, at this point, is a monopoly. But I think they have to take ownership for what they want to be. If they want to be virtually the only digital distribution platform then they have to be that. They have to build the apparatus that is able to vet thousands of applications. They need to be a global empire – hiring all the personnel required to manage such an empire; and provide clear structure in what they are doing – and stop trying to having it both way (a company with the touchy-feely intimacy of a little developer combined with the responsibilities for managing the publishing of the most relevant new games that are coming out today).