There are a lot of games out there, and the speed at which they are being released is only increasing. For developers it’s getting harder and harder to gain mindshare and effectively market to the vast majority of gamers. Particularly on digital storefronts, many of which simply weren’t designed for the deluge of game releases we’ve experienced in recent years. Even triple-A games can get lost in the shuffle on a service like Steam, which saw almost 7,700 new titles release in 2017 alone.
Looking to the Game Developers Conference attendee survey, it’s interesting to see that digital storefronts are still considered to be important by devs when it comes to discoverability. When asked to indicate the level of importance of digital storefronts against other forms of discoverability for their last game as well as their next game, developers gave the likes of the PSN Store an equal score for both. In fact, when considering what routes to go down for their next games, GDC attendees show more faith in digital storefronts than ‘traditional press and bloggers’, which dropped four points.
What the survey really shows is how much discoverability takes place outside of the game store environment, with ‘social media’ and ‘word of mouth’ sitting comfortably at the top of both graphs. ‘YouTube videos’ are also a popular choice, though there’s not enough granularity to know whether there’s more emphasis on influencer exposure, official game channels promoting new trailers and behind the scenes content or paid advertising on popular videos. Perhaps it’s the combination of all three that explains its popularity among developers.
But with so much importance attributed to digital storefronts, it highlights the necessity of publishers and platform holders to curate these shop windows as fairly as possible.
“Digital store discoverability is one of the biggest challenges facing developers and publishers,” says Dominic Matthews, commercial director at Hellblade developer Ninja Theory. “Where the storefront is so limited and the number of new games being released is so high, it is difficult to stay relevant and in the shop window.”
This seems to be a common concern with developers that we’ve been speaking to. Heart Machine’s Alx Preston laments the loss of simpler times, when indies could expect much greater exposure.
“It’s bad right now,” Preston says. “I think it’s really bad especially on something like Steam where there were, what, over 7,000 games released last year? It all started to happen on Xbox 360 where you had events like Summer of Arcade. That was fantastic, brought a lot of indies to life and kind of brought that whole genre of smaller games made by tiny teams to the forefront. Back in 2008, when Braid came out, leading up to things like Fez.
“You got to showcase those things. Really highlight them on a space that millions of people can see. And Steam was also great about supporting that stuff earlier on because they had a lot of available slots and they worked with teams to showcase and highlight on the front of their store. Even Sony on PS4 learned that lesson too with some heavy duty indie support, which is fantastic to see. Transistor was heavily featured.”
But Preston fears that some platform holders only paid lip service to indies to follow a trend, and have since returned to favouring triple-A experiences.
“Unfortunately I think Sony’s lesson was ‘Cool we filled in our slots, now we’ll move on to big triple-As, because we don’t have to do that anymore’,” he says. “And that’s fair. From a business standpoint, I get it. Triple-As are gonna make you a lot of money.”
With the launch of the Nintendo Switch there’s been a trend of indie developers celebrating higher sales on the platform than anywhere else. Both Yacht Club Games, developer of Shovel Knight, and Lizardcube, developer of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, have been on record to say as much. Though both of those games were early releases on the platform and we’ve since seen more and more games, some of dubious quality, find their way onto the Switch.
The main takeaway for developers, as reflected in the GDC attendee survey results, is that digital storefronts can boost your game, but shouldn’t be relied on.
“Launching with good store visibility is not enough,” says Ninja Theory’s Matthews. “Yes, traffic will come into the store and see your game resulting in sales, but you need to lead players to your game page too. We’ve found that educating players about your game outside of the store and highlighting it through focused marketing around times of high store visibility works well. We’ve also found that tagging your title with the correct product tags is important – it helps to drive the right kind of player to your store page that is likely to be interested in your game rather than just anyone who happens to be passing.”
But that doesn’t mean that more can’t and shouldn’t be done by platform holders and publishers to highlight high quality games that don’t have a triple-A marketing budget. Now that it’s so much easier nowadays to make a game and release it, the average quality of a new games has fallen. With asset flips, clones and unofficial ports rampant on Steam, with some even making their way onto more gated stores like Xbox Live and the Switch eShop.
“Discoverability is a very serious problem that algorithms aren’t going to solve,” says Heart Machine’s Preston. “And so you see a lot of indies getting less attention. Quality games get lost just by virtue of nobody can find your damn game on Steam. I think that’s a really sad and serious problem.
“Removing all the barriers to entry so that the lowest common denominator can also make it onto stores has created a big challenge. And I think the platform holders too need better ways of featuring and filtering this stuff so that as much of the good stuff comes to the top as possible and people don’t feel overwhelmed.
“To be fair I know a lot of folks at these different platforms – Steam and Sony and Microsoft and Nintendo... They want to push as hard as they can for quality games, but there’s a balance to be struck on all of this and I understand the desire for Valve, for example, to open up as much of the store as possible. Not just as a cash grab but to democratise it.
“I think you need to have a better ways of curating and featuring than just some algorithms in place," Preston continues. "And I know that they are also working on that. It’s a larger problem or set of challenges to solve that are not so simple and you’re not going to solve them in the course of a conversation. It takes a lot of data and feedback and the markets are always changing. To be fair there is still some good featuring that goes on on these platforms. Just, I want to see that stuff happen for more quality content as much as possible.”
Matthews’ solution to the discoverability problem is to make storefronts as efficient as possible.
“I would like to see the stores be more personalised,” he says. "It is happening, but it is simple things like:
if someone has already purchased my game I don’t want them to be shown it again on the store. Give that space to another title they might like.
“I’d also like to see as much control of the game store pages to be handed over to the developers as possible. We know our games, we want to keep
our pages fresh, so let us do it. Keeping the pages updated with information and community activity helps to keep the games relevant and leads to
Meanwhile, The Station's creative director Kevin Harwood takes a holistic approach to developing his sci-fi exploration game with discoverability in mind.
“The democratisation of game dev and the digital distribution models have adjusted the formula, but the fundamentals are constant,” he says. “For our genre, it’s about creating beautiful experiences that provoke you. If you are willing to give limitless love to the process as you would a spouse, you’ll often find you create something with a life of its own. Serve your projects with dedication and commitment but recognise when you have given everything you can.
“Focus on quality. Approach every aspect from the enjoyment and satisfaction of the player. Treat each opportunity to share your game with someone as a celebration worthy of all your attention.”