Steam started as a platform for independent game developers to sell their games. Now, slowly but surely, Steam is becoming just another App Store. But is that really a bad thing?
In last three or four years, Steam has steadily expanded the scale of its business. Compared to a couple of years ago, Steam now has an effectively infinite library of games, both AAA titles as well as indie games.
Moreover, the average price of individual games on Steam has seen a steady drop as well.
In other words, gamers around the world now have more choice of games than ever and that too at a much lower price than before.
It is safe to say that Steam has transformed the gaming industry by providing a platform for both gamers and game developers.
Though the system isn’t perfect, at least not yet, there can be no doubt about the fact that Steam is the Netflix of the gaming industry.
Of course, digital distribution of video games was long predicted even before Steam started its business in 2003 (Steam has been around for 13 years!).
However, the digital model of video game distribution really started to pick up pace in in the early part of 2010. For gamers, it meant that they no longer had to wait in long lines outside Gamestop outlets, on release dates.
Instead, Steam provided gamers the opportunity to buy their favorite video games from the comfort of their home and with a single click of a button.
Readers should also know that Steam wasn’t the first online gaming hub that provides gamers with their favorite video games, online. Valve started its business of offering legal online video games slightly earlier but now, Steam (which was developed by the Valve Corporation) is by far the largest digital distribution platform for gamers who want to find, buy and play games on a variety of gaming platforms such as PC, Linux, and Mac.
Steam’s impact on the gaming industry can be judged from the fact that console manufacturers, after observing Steam’s success in becoming a premier digital distribution platform, started to follow Steam’s lead by shifting towards online content delivery systems.
In other words, consoles became more connect and reduced their reliance on physical discs with each successive console generation.
However, the partial transition from physical discs to online delivery of games did not go smoothly in the beginning.
Microsoft tried to launch the company’s new Xbox One, in 2013, as an always-on gaming system but was not met with sufficient response from the console gaming community. The reason being that console gamers, unlike PC gamers, did not warm up to the idea of digital-only games rather than disc games.
With that said, the rough beginnings of the online content delivery system could not stop the inevitable. In 2016, both of the console market’s top consoles, Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s Playstation 5 are fundamentally disc-less gaming console systems.
Console gamers on both platforms are now able to receive every AAA game title along with updates,patches, and other services via online connections.
As mentioned before, Steam has comprehensively established itself as the sole leader in the gaming industry as far as digital distribution is concerned.
Additionally, the digital distribution platform is heavily involved in predicting, sometimes even setting, gaming trends that are expected to dictate the state of the PC gaming market in the future.
And hence industry insiders have started to notice the pattern, Steam has tried to set in the past couple of years: game saturation.
Game saturation isn’t something that will just affect independent game developers. The trend will equally test gamers and big publishing houses in the gaming industry.
Jonathan Blow, an American indie game programmer and designer best known as the creator of Braid and The Witness, recently said that it used to be that an indie game of reasonable quality, release on Steam, would probably at least break even, but now that was no longer true.
He also said that he didn’t think Steam was anywhere near the App Store in terms of oversaturation at the moment but it had definitely gone in that direction.
Steam launched a new feature called Greenlight back in 2012 and since then, because of some other major changes as well, the digital distribution platform content delivery system has been shaken.
Steam’s Greenlight feature is essentially a process that enables gamers to actually have a say in which games should be sold on Steam by empowering them with the right to vote. In other words, now gamers get to decide which game they want or don’t want to see being sold on Steam.
Before Steam released the Greenlight Feature, Valve made use of an internal system of curation which was run with the help of Valve employees.
As mentioned before, Greenlight flipped the process upside down in the sense that now gamers around the world could determine whether a potential video game was acceptable enough to be sold on Steam.
And it was a pretty reasonable deal for Valve as well as the company essentially outsourced the process of curating games that were put up on the digital distribution platform by game developers.
The Greenlight feature also helped Valve to provide more opportunities for game developers to develop their video games with the help of solid feedback and market their games appropriately.
To put it another way, Steam, with the help of the new Greenlight feature, offered an extra layer of interaction and understanding between gamers and game developers.
As indicated before, the Greenlight feature from Steam, in the beginning, was considered to be obscure and even deleterious for game developers.
For the first two years after Greenlight’s launch, developers were unable to take advantage of the new feature from Steam.
Even with that, Greenlight was responsible for opening the door for many new developer studios. It was only because of features like Greenlight, that Steam was able to host more games than ever before.
Just to put it numbers, Valve received 283 game titles in the year 2011. A year later the digital distribution company accepted about 381 game titles. By the end of 2013, game developers had added a grand total of 569 games to Steam.
Perhaps, this was the perfect time for Steam to introduce another new feature by the name of Early Access. Valve introduced another program to the gaming community that facilitated game developers to sell their unfinished projects, in other words, in-production games, on Steam.
In some aspects, Early Access was pretty similar to the previously released Greenlight feature. The Early Access feature allowed game developers to prepare and develop the gaming communities before the final version of their games went live on Steam. As a result of Early Access, game developers could now raise funds and generate alternate revenue streams at the same time without the need of releasing the final version of their games first.
As far as game developers were concerned, the Early Access feature was more or less heaven-sent as it lead to some memorable success stories especially in relation to small game developers with lesser known titles.
Needless to say, features such as Greenlight and Early Access paved the way for Steam to expand its operations and really open the floodgates both for gamers and game developers all over the world.
According to a report by Steam Spy, in the year 2014, Steam added a total of 1783 games which was triple the number of titles the digital distribution platform added to its library in 2013.
If we move forward to the year 2015, then Steam received a total of 2989 games (which was two times the previous year’s count) and in the first nine months of 2016 alone, the digital distribution platform (Steam) has piled up a total of 3236 game titles.
In its entirely, Steam has a total of 10,243 games in its library at the moment. Additionally, more than 50 percent of those game titles have been added to the service in the past two years alone.
That figure is even more astonishing considering the fact that the digital distribution company has been in existence for over a decade.
The co-creator of hit indie games such as Nuclear Throne and Ridiculous Fishing, Rami Ismail, is of the opinion that features such as Early Access completely metamorphosed Steam.
The new features introduced by Steam have now matured enough that most games that are submitted to the digital distribution platform now make it to the main Steam site.
Features like Early Access also force game developers to not only sell their projects (and other gaming services) on Steam but also regularly update their games for better user experience.
In other words, the concept of boxed products is becoming increasingly foreign to game developers as well as gamers themselves.
In a recent interview, Ismail spoke about how the increased competition on the Steam platform had changed some crucial elements at Valve. Ismail noted that the curatorial quality of Steam had dissolved, which did have its own pros and cons, and developers took the opportunity with both hands and eagerly participated in the race to the bottom for PC games as well.
He further added that if anything, Steam’s model would further polarize subscription-based, free-to-play and DLC models on the platform.
The more discerning of readers might have already figured out what Ismail meant when he said “race to the bottom” by studying Steam Spy’s statistics a bit more closely. This phenomenon somewhat exposes itself in the Steam library charts available at Steam Spy.
The data available at Steam Spy clearly shows that while the number of video games available on Steam has seen a rather dramatic increase in the past three years, the average price of Steam’s video games have consistently dropped down from $14.21 in 2013 to $10.33 in 2016.
As a result of the fall in the prices of games, game developers now look towards other methods of making money from their games because they are unable to rely solely on Steam. In other words, the high inflow of games to Steam and the resulting price decrease has forced game developers to venture out to explore other avenues for their projects.
Ismail, while talking about this issue, noted that as far back as 2010, game developers could make a decent bit of money by releasing a solid game. He also said that respectable games back then were able to net around 10,000 sales or more at their launch date.
Now, Rami says, the situation has changed and many impressive games fail to even hit the 2000 mark and most of the time get wiped off the charts altogether after selling 2000 copies.
While talking to reporters, Ismail further added that he believed the idea of Steam being a mythical money-maker that instantly made people rich was mostly a myth that held some truth back at the start of the decade.
He also thought that nowadays, game developers were less dependent on launch and more dependent on sales and tried to maintain visibility over time by building a strong relationship with their relevant gamer communities.
Ismail also thought that the more open interaction between gamers and game developers also explained why Early Access was such as a popular feature on Steam.
There is no denying the fact that Steam is inundated with games (most of them being crapware rather than legitimate software) but putting that aside for a bit, Steam should also be given credit for providing a new breed of game developer chances to interact with the modern gamers.
In short, things could have been worse without Steam than they are with Steam.
Besides, most of the game developers now have become accustomed to looking out for putting their games up for sale on other, in most cases several, online platforms.
Of course, the mobile market has long been considered as the mainstay of vulgar oversaturation.
To put it another way, it has now become next to impossible to get any sort of exposure on platforms such as the App Store of Google Play Store.
Both of the mobile application platforms have in excess of 2 million programs in their libraries.
Some industry experts say that at the moment perhaps game developer should avoid releasing games on the mobile market first.
Jonathan Blow along with Rami Ismail agree that model game developer’s preferences have changed.
Blow is also of the opinion that game developers should aim for a more curated gaming platform such as PlayStation 4 and then should release their games on both Steam and PS4 at launch date.
On the other hands, Ismail recommends that game developers should launch as often and in as many stores as they can.
Like it or not, developers have to make use of some tricks to achieve success on Steam partly because the digital distribution platform has become a tricky place to do business in especially over the past couple of years.