With Valve's Steam no longer an uncontested digital storefront, the market appears to be shifting.
According to tracking site SteamSpy, 8,396 games released on Valve’s Steam platform in 2019, a slight increase over the 8,206 released in 2018, and a large jump from 2017’s 6,335. For the last several years, every year has seen more new releases on Steam than the one before, but the gain between 2018 and 2019 is significantly smaller than in previous years. As an example, 1,664 games released on Steam in 2014, and 2,662 released in 2015. Subsequent years have seen similarly dramatic upticks, until 2019, that is.
With only 190 more games than 2018, 2019 marks a substantial shrinking of the disparity between years. There’s no concrete evidence to correlate with this data point, but some are speculating that Steam’s notoriously-difficultmarketing and discoverability environment may play a part. With many indie devs struggling to get eyes on their games, it may follow that more deliberate strategies are required, which could lead to wider release windows or even fewer games in total.
"If nothing else, it is a telling sign," Nicholas Laborde, CEO of indie studio Raconteur Games, told GameDaily. "Indie developers--who comprise a large majority of these releases--are either learning to up their quality, invest in marketing and not rush something out... or worse, they're leaving indie development entirely, perhaps an explanation for the sharp drop in release quantity year-over-year the past two years."
Last year, Valve launched Steam Labs, an initiative aimed at tackling discoverability issues. The introduction of micro-trailers and an algorithmic recommendation system were efforts to highlight titles that might otherwise go unnoticed. On the surface, it sounds like a well-intentioned endeavor, but nothing in the way of results has been published.
For Laborde, however, it doesn't make sense to blame any percieved decrease in published games on discoverability.
"I take umbrage with shifting the blame to discoverability, rather than the game itself," Laborde said. "Yes, discoverability is a real issue that will only continue to worsen, but that's just a real-world business variable that developers must contend with. Steam, itch, and other marketplaces do not exist to promote you and benefit you; rather, they are tools to share your work--and, if you do well, boost you even further. But I cannot agree with the overarching mentality that discoverability is the reason an indie game didn't sell. When I see that line of reasoning, I immediately think, did they invest in marketing? Did they try to self-promote beyond a launch day tweet or two? What steps did they take to get the message out and try to reach audiences with their game?"
This "build it and they will come" mentality, Laborde said, is detrimental to the development process. Rather, he said that indies should focus on gaining an audience before making any concrete progress on the game. This is a lesson he learned last year when Doggone, Laborde's self-proclaimed "dream project," floundered in the crowdfunding stage.
"You simply must have an existing community or fanbase to increase your odds of success, on top of investing in marketing and consumer-facing efforts," Laborde emphasized. "Discoverability can boost that and aid it, but I highly doubt that discoverability alone will ever be the main reason a game succeeds."
Steam’s policies regarding getting games onto the marketplace have been relatively lax over the last couple years, with Valve mostly abdicating responsibility for curation. As a result, Steam has become inundated with content that many consider offensive and hateful. This move has drawn mixed reviews from the industry at large.
“It demonstrates core values, and here, the core value is clearly profit,” Laborde told GameDaily at the time. “itch.io will gladly remove hateful and repugnant content, and it's easy to see what they stand for; in this case, we see that Valve stands for profits.”
There are instances of Valve stepping in to remove content it deems unfit for the platform, though, such as adult visual novel Taimanin Asagi. This action confuses an already unclear submission policy for Steam, and appears to be contradictory to the laissez-faire approach outlined in a blog post from June 2018.
Another disruptive factor is that Steam is no longer ubiquitous in the digital game sales space. With the Epic Games Store providing staunch competition, Valve’s dominance of the market is no longer solidified. Epic’s ace in the hole is the dev-friendly revenue split that has many indies favoring its platform over Steam. Of course, the increase in subscriptions like Xbox Game Pass and publisher-exclusive services have also upended the digital business model.
Additionally, Laborde pointed out that more general market forces are always at play, and that they have an enormous impact on a product's reception.
"All industries and markets undergo a distinct phase sometimes dramatically referred to as the 'shakedown' before reaching a stable maturity phase," he said. "I believe we're at the end of a long shakedown period that began a few years ago with the alleged 'indiepocalypse' and is now culminating with this. I believe that we'll continue to see breakout successes that (appear to) come from nowhere, but indies should know that that is not the norm. You have something better than luck available to you: the knowledge that you can build a community, right now, while you're building your game, to help you launch and hopefully achieve your dreams."
Whatever the reason for the plateauing of year-over-year game releases, it doesn’t change the fact that consumers have never had as many choices for digital entertainment as they do now. An overwhelming number of new games are constantly competing for attention, and discoverability is by far the largest hurdle marketers need to overcome. As soon as someone cracks that nut, they’re likely to be hailed as a pioneer.
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