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PC Gamers understand the importance of Steam – it is incontestably the best-known channel for buying, updating and sharing PC, Mac and more recently Linux games. With a user base of 75 million accounts (which may not mean 75 million people, but certainly represents not an order of magnitude less) and a peak of over 6 million concurrent users online on an normal day, Steam is the largest collection of registered PC gamers to be marketed to. While Steam diversifies into operating systems, productivity software sales and virtual reality, the games market remains its major product.
EA’s Origin store has picked up numbers, in part by offering Origin membership as a gateway to very good deals on old, but not vintage, EA games, such as the pay-what-you-want Humble Bundle deal that included The Sims 3 and Dead Rising 3. However, Origin is still seen as a more or less necessary evil by many PC game players, and is also, despite its ambitions, still primarily a store for Electronic Arts games – indie developers are unlikely to lose too much sleep worrying about how to get their game onto Origin, since the obvious answer – be bought by EA – would remove the need to worry about income from sales.
Back at Valve Software, the early-access version of Day Z, the standalone release of what was previously a mod for Arma II, sold its millionth download this week. As creative lead Dean “Rocket” Hall tweeted:
Well, 1 million copies in 4 weeks. So much for the death of PC Gaming. #DayZDaily
— Dean Hall (@rocket2guns) January 13, 2014
To be clear, this is not a $2.99 impulse purchase. A million people have spent $29.99 on a game that is described by its creators as a buggy and incomplete Early Access version; customer are advised not to buy it unless they understand what they are letting themselves in for on the product page on the store.
This is incredible, and Hall can describe it as a “shots fired” moment for traditional video game publishing, although only because he has actually served in the armed forces and as such does not sound silly when he does so. However, Day Z was very much a known property – as a free mod it had reached a million players within four months of its release in 2012, and ultimately became a driver for sales of Arma II.
(At the time of writing, Arma II and the Day Z mod were available in the Humble Weekly Sale, which has so far piled on another 100,000+ sales.)
However, Steam has the power to affect the fortunes of less well-known and well-established brands. Writing about the IGF Awards and the impact they can have on sales, I noted the fortunes of lesser-known indies selected for recognition:
Darwinia, the 2006 IGF Grand Prize winner, maintained the viability of its studio, Introversion Software, with $2.5 million in sales by 2010, and $250,000 in a single sale. A game selected for a “daily deal” can see a 70 to 80-fold jump not in unit sales but revenues. Monster Loves You!, one of the 2014 nominees already on Steam, made more revenue in the sales spike from a 48 hour “bannered” Steam sale (that is, when it was not only discounted but prominently displayed as discounted in the Steam store) than during its initial, heavily promoted launch period.
For a PC game, to be placed in a “banner sale” can cause a huge spike in sales – a spike so huge, in fact, that even at a 75% or greater discount the increase in sales volume means revenues far exceed a day of full-price sales. Valve release statistics demonstrating this effect on a Steam sale in 2009, which showed that a 50% cut increased average sales by 320% (revenue, not volume), and a 75% cut by 1470%.
For a game like Tale of Tale’s lush and abstract sort-of-sex game Luxuria Superbia, presence on Steam can be the making of a title. I asked the Belgian-American studio, comprising creative and romantic partners Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey, what Steam had meant for their artistic, allusive and very much non-conformist games.
The Path was launched simultaneously on Steam and on our own website (and on Direct2Drive). We had been discussing the game with Valve during development and based on a demo (that was nominated for the IGF too) we had come to an agreement to distribute it via Steam. The Path was launched [in 2009] a year after its IGF nomination, during the GDC when The Graveyard was nominated [...] That’s how The Graveyard ended up on Steam. Which we thought was hilariously perfect.
[The Graveyard is in some ways the exact opposite of Call of Duty - the player controls an elderly lady, walking slowly through a graveyard. Death is possible, but painless.]
In the summer after this, Valve launched the famous Steam Indie Small Bundle and Steam Indie Big Bundle which contained The Path [and also indie hits World of Goo, Gish and Braid]. This pushed us over the edge and allowed us to pay back the loan we took out to fund The Path.
Our sales on Steam are much greater than sales through any other distributor. The second biggest platform is our own website. We can’t compare with other distribution media in terms of life time because our earliest commercial games are on Steam. But yes, sales do continue in small but steady numbers for years.
We were actually quite happy (and admittedly fortunate) when Valve was curating Steam. Because this raised the quality and consistency of their offer and made the whole more attractive to the sort of audience that we approach with our work. Now that Steam has become a de facto monopoly that is required for mere survival as an independent developer of PC games, I guess it’s somewhat noble that they open the floodgates through Greenlight.
But as a store Steam is not as attractive anymore. And its continued violent games inspired presentation doesn’t help us reach an audience outside of the niche.
Greenlight – the somewhat peer-driven process where registered Steam users can vote on submitted games by developers whose games would otherwise not reach the Steam store – was Valve’s attempt to democratize the selection of titles in the store through crowdsourcing. In practice, a relatively small number of Steam’s members have become active voters, and the selection process has been criticized for its opacity.
Valve CEO Gabe Newell has spoken of looking to shut Greenlight down, with the implication that Steam may move to something more like an App Store model, where instead of Valve gatekeeping the Steam store, it will instead only vet for broken or offensive games – making discovery – what gets to the front page of the store – even more vital. Tale of Tales continued:
The Luxuria Superbia Greenlight has been less horrible an experience for us than we expected when we refused to put Bientôt l’été through that gauntlet. But it is still futile. The Greenlight audience is not our audience (75% vote no). They are a small subset of the Steam community that makes decision for all. [...] That being said we’re very happy if the IGF nomination helps us skip Greenlight to get on Steam. I don’t know how much of the old glory is left but I’m sure Luxuria Superbia will find an audience there. That’s the value of Steam to us: the community is so big that even a small fragment of it showing an interest in our games is plenty for a tiny studio like ours. We really don’t need our work to be a major hit or to be popular with the masses.
A recurring theme for indie developers is that the sheer size of the audience on Steam means that a tiny fraction of that audience buying your game represents a life-changing amount of income for your studio – a game like The Path, which was sparking arguments about both the nature of video games and the portrayal of teen sexuality long before Gone Home, will never sell as many copies as Battlefield 4, but it does not need to.
Dear Esther is another former IGF nominee and the product of a small studio, this time the British The Chinese Room, who went on to make Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs and the upcoming PS4 game Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture. Like Day Z, Dear Esther started life as a mod, in this case for Valve’s own Half-Life 2, and was subsequently released as a standalone game. Unlike Day Z, new players are unlikely to be immediately held at gunpoint and forced to drink disinfectant, instead taking a poetic, elegiac journey around a deserted Hebridean island.
Studio head Dan Pinchbeck, formerly an academic studying first-person shooters at the University of Portsmouth, confirmed, slightly astonished, that since its release this highly praised but decidedly offbeat game has sold a million copies, and broke down the sales pattern.
We did about 450,000 Humble Bundle copies, and I would say 99.999999% of the rest have been through Steam, with about 85% PC ,12.5% Mac and a small number of Linux, but really small. Sales are still the big shifters: you basically dribble along after the first big wave and sales do most of your business after that. We did about 120,000 units in the first month, then the big chunks were all sales after that.
The Humble Store is an interesting note here – bundle sales have been, along with Steam, one of the disruption drivers of the PC game market, and in particular the indie games market, adding as they do brief explosions of high sales volume alongside a long sales tale. Since then, Humble has set up its own download store, the effects on the market of which are still to be determined.
The merry months of Maia
Again, Dear Esther was very much a known quantity by the time it reached its professional release. But what about a relatively unknown quantity?
Maia was Kickstarted, but not a $4 million Kickstarter – it asked for £100,000 (c. $165,000) and got £140,000 (c. $200,000) at the end of 2012. One year later, Maia - a sharp take on the base-building god-game likes of Dungeon Keeper and Evil Genius, in which the player builds and populates a base on a hostile world – reached Steam Early Access. I asked creative lead Simon Roth what the ability to sell his alpha build, in effect, meant for the game:
I’d say it has given the project’s finances a rigid backbone for a fresh year of development. Previously, I’ve been deeply cautious about spending money on non-essentials due to the nature of the Maia’s Kickstarter funding. It never quite felt like spending my own cash, and running out would have been a PR disaster. We did have a reasonable income through direct alpha sales, but the Steam release is significant enough to allow us to pull out the stops and for me to focus purely on content and polish, rather than the distractions of tight budgeting.
It’s increased our visibility quite a lot. It’s far easier to get coverage when giving out Steam keys, as being on the service seems to “legitimize” a game. That in turn feeds back to sales, from Steam or direct from our website.
As a developer I am now far more aware of the things that one would usually become blind to. With thirty thousand players, I get instant feedback on any obvious problems with the game and get data from groups that would otherwise be neglected, such as colour blind users or deaf players.
The one major benefit, that is far harder to provide data for is the psychological one to me and the team. Having done the worst part of any game’s development, release day, halfway through development has taken a huge weight off my shoulders and let’s me get on with creating the game rather than stressing myself over PR and other distractions. Work can now be managed easier and I can eliminate any periods of potential crunch from our scheduling.
For indie developers, who may be light on costs (since the time cost of their own abilities is often the largest cost – Roth comes from AAA development), the feedback and focus from getting onto Steam – in Maia’s case through Greenlight – is as valuable as the immediate bump in sales:
Greenlight really marked a change in the way I presented the game and somewhat helped to focus its development. We went from showing the game to a niche of deeply involved, and quite accepting [Indiegogo and Kickstarter] backers to a more generic audience, who were discovering not just Maia, but the entire concept of god games for the first time. Explaining an experience in terms of other titles and genres can only go so far when some your audience have never played or seen anything other than Minecraft.
Due to this, I’ve had to focus on the core gameplay and presentation aspects of the game’s development more. Putting new UI and better tutorials and information to ensure that newer players are introduced to the game’s world and systems in a smoother manner. On a wider scale we’ve had to constantly find new touchstones to explain the goals of the game and my vision for it. It’s difficult and draining, but the constant reappraisal of our work keeps things fresh and creatively challenging.
So, from the incredible sales speed of a full-price FPS like Day Z, to games produced by visual artists, academics and AAA exiles, Steam still has the power to make a game – and certainly to keep a studio team resourced. Although the nature of the market has changed with the introduction of Steam Greenlight, and will change again, the importance of being on Steam – and being seen on Steam – seems unchanged.