Games publishing 2017: Steam’s ‘benevolent monopoly’ and the discoverability ‘bun fight’

Katharine Byrne
Games publishing 2017: Steam’s ‘benevolent monopoly’ and the discoverability ‘bun fight’

In Part Three of our publishing roundtable, we discuss the rise of digital. With digital becoming more important to publishers’ balance sheets, we ask publishers about competition in the marketplace and whether any improvements have been made to discoverability.

In case you missed it, in Part One of our publishing roundtable, we talked to publishers about setting release dates and how fewer triple-A releases could mean better business for the whole industry.

In Part Two, we discussed pricing. As more indie titles head to retail, the debate around games pricing has never been fiercer. We asked how publishers set their RRPs and what they think of today’s pre-owned market.

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The ever-growing rise of digital sales is now part and parcel of today’s industry, but never before has there been so much choice when it comes to platforms. Steam still has a colossal lead on its main competitors, but with Twitch, Green Man Gaming, Humble, Itch.io and GOG among others all now vying for a greater slice of the digital pie, publishers tell us this will only bring more benefits for consumers.

“Steam’s dominance has been a force for good in the digital PC space,” says Green Man Gaming Publishing’s executive vice president Gary Rowe (pictured below, left). “They revitalised a sector that was struggling and speeded up the transition from boxed to digital. Of course, competition is always healthy and it can only help to see new channels open up. The new Twitch offering looks really exciting and I’d expect this to grow strongly over the next few years.”

Rebellion’s CEO Jason Kingsley (pictured below, centre) agrees: “In classical economic theory, a monopoly is generally thought to be bad for the consumer. In this specific case, though, I’d describe Steam’s approach as that of a ‘benevolent monopoly’. They are really focused on the value to the end user and are not interested in exploiting their position at all. There are also worthy alternatives like GOG and others who, while much smaller, are also fast moving, innovative and good to work with.”

The pervasiveness of Steam isn’t without its problems, though. While many of the publishers we speak to say competition is fundamentally a good thing for the industry, Maximum’s managing director Steve Powell (pictured above, right) says it’s “hard to see where it will come from in the foreseeable future” due to Valve’s massive customer base, with THQ Nordic’s PR and marketing director Philipp Brock (pictured below, left) adding that any “potential provider has a lot to catch up on.”

They aren’t alone in that opinion, either. “Consumers vote with there wallets, and Steam is the go-to store,” says Wired Productions’ managing director Leo Zullo (pictured below, centre) – something that’s backed up by our anonymous publisher as well. “Love it or hate it, Steam just works. For me, Steam is my go-to platform as there’s everything I need there and the offering is huge.” 

For Sold Out’s CEO Garry Williams (pictured below, right), however, the biggest threat to Steam is yet to come. “Competition will appear perhaps from oversees portals and with ‘publishing buy-ins’ such as those from Tencent,” he posits. “Those succeeding on the digital storefronts do so by hard work and effort. Decks get busy, and require constant attention to maximise results.”

Merge Games’ managing director Luke Keighran (pictured below, left), on the other hand, has a different idea. “I think the issue is that most consumers have already amassed a large library of games and want to keep all their titles in one place. The fact that most other digital stores are just Steam key resellers just increases Steam’s dominance further. Surely the next move must be streaming games with a monthly subscription model?”

Steam may have many advantages for consumers, but for publishers, there’s still plenty of room for improvement, particularly when it comes to discoverability.

“As a publisher, [launching on Steam] does add pressure to make sure that your games get visibility at the right times to cut through with the thousands of other titles fighting for the same space,” our anonymous publisher tells us. “It’s getting better, but it’s still a problem. Getting selected for promotional opportunities can be a real bun fight.”

Indeed, Keighran says the sheer number of titles coming through each month means some titles haven’t got the success they deserve. “As barriers to entry have been removed, there’s been a saturation of titles,” Keighran explains. “We see so many great titles that would have been hits a couple of years ago but just haven’t made it in the overcrowded marketplace.”

Sold Out’s Garry Williams has observed similar trends in his line of work, too, arguing that publishers must now play a greater role than ever in the fight for visibility.

“Strangely, the quest for ‘independence’ is reducing,” he says. “Ironically, many developers are coming to realise that the functions they most need are those traditionally supplied by a publisher. Curation and life cycle management are but two of the key aspects needed in modern publishing success.”

The good news is that several storefronts seem to be making a concerted effort to try and fix these discovery problems, with Kingsley pointing out that there have been “several successful attempts to democratise searches and recommendation engine algorithms.” There is, however, “more to do” here, he says. 

Rowe concurs: “Retailers such as Steam and GMG are constantly working to help developers get their games noticed, but the sheer number of new titles coming to market each week is staggering and increasing.”

Curve Digital’s chairman Stuart Dinsey (pictured above, centre left) has a more positive outlook, saying stores are “working hard on providing different opportunities for exposure” and that “we have more options than ever.” But Soedesco’s executive manager Hans van Brakel (pictured above, centre right) argues he hasn’t seen any improvement whatsoever. “But it doesn’t matter,” he says. “It’s our own responsibility to improve the discoverability by hitting as many platforms as possible. It would be great if things improved, but it’s not something we expect.”

Increasing the number of supported platforms is a strategy that’s worked for PQube as well. “With large volumes of digital releases there isn’t an obvious one-size-fits-all solution that will result in everyone benefiting,” says product manager Matthew Pellett (pictured above, right)

“It’s an issue we’re still grappling with, and will continue to tackle in different ways throughout the rest of the year. Increased current-generation console install bases certainly help when it comes to reaching bigger audiences, but we also still offer healthy support for PS3 and PS Vita, whose owners are equally as passionate about gaming but are not receiving nearly as many new titles these days. Thankfully we have enjoyed some major successes in the digital marketplace, so are keen to build upon this progress to refine our strategy.”

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