Tails

Yeah, I’m still mulling over the Epic Store, sorry about that.

Anyway. It’s a few weeks ago now but Epic were out there saying that the latest Metro game had a stronger launch week than the last Metro game managed on Steam. Obviously this is incredibly vague and doesn’t really tell us much about anything – we don’t know how Metro sold in its first week on Steam, we don’t know how many copies it shifted on Epic’s store. We don’t know the fate of every other game selling on the Epic Store either.

It’s a great soundbite and makes for a lovely headline but it’s largely an empty, vague statement. But okay, this is as much a PR fight for Epic as it is cementing their store as a place that can shift copies of videogames. I’ve no doubt we’ll see a lot more handwave-over-the-details stuff in the months to come and to be fair, it’d be really strange if Epic didn’t take these opportunities to big themselves and their store up. Business is very business, after all.

It’s all fairly business as usual stuff for a store establishing itself anyway. To begin with, you control the flow of new games tightly. You see this at the start of a console generation and it’s why the galaxy brain business folk rush out and tell you that you absolutely must put your game on this console’s store because with no competition, copies just virtually fly off their virtual shelves.

(Invariably the galaxy brains are largely unconcerned about the fact that if you’re a year away from launch or something, these magical conditions that make a store a must be place to stash your game will be long gone. I’m not being cynical here, just once you’ve been around the block a few times it’s not exactly difficult to spot the patterns. And also that they’re patterns precisely because they work.)

I wouldn’t go as far to say that this is the easy part of building a store, plenty of stores have struggled to begin with on this sort of thing. It’s also something that you can only really do with enough money to throw at it. It’s not easy. However! It is easier than the next steps Epic need to take with their store precisely because you can throw money at it and mitigate a lot of problems with PR guff

That’s not something that works in the long run.

I expect Epic know this. Part of the logic behind buying exclusives at this early stage is to kick the larger problem of what next down the road for a bit. Covering a studio for one year of sales or whatever means nobody has to worry too hard about what happens to the game between now and a year from launch. The thing is, for anyone not having this mitigated by Epic’s moneysack – what next is the most important part. How good is the store at shifting copies of games in the long run? Do we have a tail here or do games just sink?

Ensuring a long tail is a very difficult thing to solve and something Valve, currently, do better than pretty much any other store at. That’s not to say someone’s game won’t sink on Steam, the long tail of sales can’t be cut short or disturbed by an algorithm change or whatever else. I’m definitely not arguing this is a solved problem but it is important for the bulk of us selling videogames because, bluntly, we need to sell videogames and the longer we can do that, the better.

There’s lots of ways that Valve push games out there in the long term. The most obvious one is with hugely anticipated store wide sales. Nearly every game is on sale and retooling what takes up the most gawped at store space gives games another shot at bumping their sales up. It’s not anywhere near as simple as that in practice but that’s waves hands why Steam sales exist as they do.

I’m not going to turn this into a list of things Valve do to boost visibility over time but suffice to say, it’s a lot. They have to work at this, absolutely have to. If they didn’t then Steam would be in the same boat as any number of other stores you can think of that haven’t invested anywhere near as much time, manpower and money into ensuring as large a spread of games as (currently) possible can make money sometime after launch.

Perversely, Valve’s efforts here buy Epic a lot of time and space. Worried about what happens when you’re a bit further down the store page (if anyone can see you at all)? Worried about how you’ll sell copies on the store as more and more games battle for eyeballs? Don’t worry! 12 months from launch you can sell your videogame on Steam and benefit from the past fifteen years or whatever of Valve’s efforts to make older games not just visible but viable.

Thanks to Valve, Epic get to have their cake and eat it. Epic can work to ensure games get to have a good spot on their store’s front page at launch, they can offer developers a good chunk of cash to make sure developers (or publishers, whatever) don’t have to worry about whether Epic have solved any visibility problems beyond an overcrowded front page at launch. And like I say, no matter what – there’s always Steam for once the money and visibility runs out. Hooray!

Which is a lot of words to say that the hardest, most important thing we need to know about the Epic store is currently unmeasurable. We’re a good way away from the old times where a game makes all its money at launch (some still do, natch) so the biggest test of Epic’s storefront is ahead of us.

If I put my game on the Epic store today, will I be able to still sell copies there in three, six, nine twelves whatever months from now?

We just don’t know.

Personally, I suspect Epic won’t have even got close to sorting this before the first wave of exclusives are set free. We’re at least six months away from their store having most of the features Epic would need to even get out the starting blocks, we’re at least six months away from the store being anything but bare bones according to Epic’s own roadmap.

Whilst Epic can obviously learn from what Valve have done so far, it’s taken Valve a lot of years, a lot of mistakes, a lot of experiments to vaguely sort some sort of long term sales issues for as many people as they have. Nothing Epic comes up with in the next year will come close.

I largely suspect Valve know this too. They know just how much money gets bounced around for videogames on Steam. They know how much work improving this by even the smallest amount is. And they’ll have some idea of the gargantuan amount of work Epic will need to put in.

This is partly why I think (outside of the usual big business “I’m good, me” and the kneejerk neolib rhetoric that all competition is automatically good competition) Epic aren’t putting much pressure at all on Valve for just about anything beyond the call for Valve to lower their take.

If the Epic store is to succeed, Epic need Steam and they need it for a pretty hefty amount of time to provide a buffer whilst they get their own stuff in order. And during that time, Valve weren’t going to sit still and just leave Steam to stagnate anyway (and bonus, whatever Valve roll out Epic can say “hah, see, we made them do that!” even if it’s been on the cards for a while).

It’s going to be a pretty exhausting year or so in games and whilst I doubt Epic will have their house in order any time soon, there’s going to be a lot of business bullshit for people to wade through. And me? I’ll still just be selling my game on Itch and Steam anyway because like the bulk of developers out there, I’m not in the crosshairs for a mound of cash. And all of us will still be the last thing people consider when they talk about the stores.

Like I just did there.

As I say, exhausting.

Compromise

Every single videogame ever made is a compromise based on someone or a team’s vision.

It is a compromise based around technology, the team or individual’s ability, tools, time, commercial needs (if it is to be sold), platform, expectations and money.

A pure realisation of a vision does not exist and yet wonderful videogames still get made, largely as a result of the need to compromise.

Accessibility is not a compromise, it’s an enabler. Please stop confusing the two.

Next

Whilst there’s an awful lot of stuff around the Steam/Epic store discussion that’s frustrating me right now (something entirely obvious to anyone who caught my awful inability to think in a straight line on Twitter earlier), one thing does seem abundantly clear. We’re hitting one of those shake up points where it’s not just about whether we want some change in games, we’re going to get it regardless because something needs to give.

They happen occasionally. Sometimes change is vaguely within our control (TIGSource succeeding Indiegamer and helping light the fire for a new wave of developers) and sometimes they’re not (the speed at which people were happy to throw flash game developers under the bus without anything for them to fall back on). Sometimes changes evolve from the community (Humble), sometimes they’re at the hand of huge corporations (Amazon slashing prices after buying Reflexive, Microsoft dictating a sliding scale of what games should cost according to size and who makes them).

It would be less dramatic but far more accurate to say that if you’ve been in games for any considerable amount of time, you’ve felt these shifts almost constantly. Where we are now is certainly not where we were only a few years back and where we were a few years back, nowhere near where we were a few years before that.

I’ve vented my frustration at the idea of an “indiepocalypse” repeatedly on here (in the previous post, even), just lately I’m more certain that rather than being some sort of disaster event, it’s folks feeling the need for change as we do our usual thing of exhausting ways we can do things. It’s not the end of anything, it’s not certain doom – if anything, it’s less predictable than that, it’s uncertainty as to where we go next whilst everyone knows we can’t carry on as we have been.

It had to happen at some point! Mainly because we really can’t keep going on as we are. We’ve managed to keep things remarkably steady here for pretty much two console generations and the cracks in the way we do things are becoming more apparent to more people. Bluntly, this isn’t an apocalypse event, it’s a reckoning. Things are broken in ways we can’t fix by just carrying on regardless.

We’ve done and exhausted a lot over the past fifteen years. We’ve watched the boundaries between casual portals and indie stores blur in some places, prise apart in others. We’ve watched huge publishers support then leave Steam, often drifting towards their own storefronts. We’ve seen traditional shareware all but disappear from view. We’ve watched Steam go from somewhere only a literal few people make money to somewhere a lot more people make even more money than games would have previously thought possible. We’ve also watched as it reflects the world outside with an ever increasing gulf between those who earn good money and those trying to survive and Valve wrestling with all that brings.

It’s no secret that people are struggling in games. I mean, people have always struggled in games but lately, it’s harder to miss. Stores have closed or have shifted their focus, we view so much now through the lens of “well there’s Steam and then there’s everything else” in the PC space. Consoles are more open to new folk but are still very not really open to the bulk of people here, practically and financially. At least we have Itch and Gamejolt though.

What games are is forever changing and evolving too but to me, it feels like we’re at another of those junctions where the people who are moulding games into new shapes and forms need change now in order for them to continue to exist here. There’s a grim inevitably to this that’s a sort of “I need this” that gets met with “you can’t have it” and nobody is going to go “oh, okay then” in response to that sort of thing. People will keep pushing for what they need and eventually, something gives.

We’re pushing what games are further and further each year, we’ve new audiences, new developers with their own sensibilities feeling ill served by videogames already gone by. Our existing storefronts, markets and culture make thriving here difficult for many, badly serve anyone who might want to find and appreciate work outside of certain all too embedded boundaries. Unfortunately, also making people unwelcome here at the exact same time.

So yeah, I think that’s where we are right now. On the precipice of another major shift in the landscape of videogames, one that is long overdue at that.

I don’t pretend to know what happens next. I worry that, as before, we’ll push changes through here without enough care or consideration for people here who really need some care and consideration. We have a terrible habit (admittedly, not just in games but really, we definitely keep doing it in games) of relying on big corporations to keep things ticking over and when they don’t or can’t, people get left abandoned and adrift.

We frequently talk about things getting better but often we forget about the doing part in some crucial places. You know, like listening to what people need in order to be here and all that. Then helping do the stuff needed to slowly claw back some sustainability here. Just stuff like that. Nothing too big or anything.

So yeah, I have concerns. Of course I do, we’ve consistently marginalised and ignored people who have every right to be here, who would produce amazing work given some breathing space.

We have ran ideas into the ground, bundling, deep discounts, more. As a space we’re forever testing the boundaries of how we make money and de facto gambling is now part of a number of games with all the trouble and attention that obviously brings. Oh yeah, and then there’s that whole subscription model thing a bunch of companies are pushing really hard right now because everyone wants to be their own Netflix of games or something like that. What a mess we’ve made here. How difficult we’ve made it all for so many.

I’m not scared that it might all be over for folks like me here, I’m scared we’re going to miss another chance to really unshit this place up a bit. To fix up the bits we’ve broken, to lift new people up and help them thrive. To get some sustainability back round here instead of so many all or nothing moonshots, finding ways to help videogames thrive as a space, not just as a means for Bobby K to buy a new yacht whilst the rest of us scrabble around in the dirt.

It does worry me that what we’re doing now isn’t trying to fix stuff but hoping that if we all move to another store front we can buy a few more years pretending we don’t have to reckon with the mess that is videogames. It does worry me that a lot of people seem a wee bit too eager to replace Steam with Epic and be done with, without trying to work out what stuff we need from where to really get this stuff right. Let’s just take “a bit better” and worry about the rest later and all that. That does worry me, partially because I’ve been there and done that myself.

It worries me because we talked an awful lot about building sustainability and acceptance fifteen years ago and here we are again, having some overly familiar conversations again.

Yep, it is hard for me not to be worried and cynical right now but I’m still hopeful, still optimistic that we can pull more out the hat than just moving stores for a slightly higher percent of our money.

Sometimes I think I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t ever hopeful though.

There’s probably something in that.

Fairness

Just in case you’ve somehow napped your way through the past week or so – one of the big messes in games right now comes courtesy of Epic, who are having a bit of a spending spree to buy a stint of exclusivity for games that you’d generally expect to release on Steam. Including, erm, games that have already been announced for Steam and in the case of Metro Exodus, a game that’s been running a pre-order campaign on Steam and was due to launch there in a few weeks.

Big mess then. Crap everywhere, lots of finger pointing, shouting and as usual, a lot of people not quite understanding why there’s upset when “it’s just another launcher away to get the game” or whatever.

I don’t really need an article to explain why this has caused upset in games. PC gamers are well trained to expect someone to come along every few years and throw money at putting a videogame, exclusively, onto another store. That this money can be the difference between a game existing or not, between survival for a studio or closure, between being able to make the game to the quality a developer wants or not, all that is neither here nor there to the audience.

To them, it really is as simple as every few years someone will come along and try and take stuff away. Maybe it’s Sony throwing money at indies as per a few years ago, maybe it’s Microsoft’s repeated attempts at making their awful store happen, maybe it’s a publisher moving their catalogue wholesale to their own store.

This stuff is deeply entrenched in PC gaming and it wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things that publishers were abandoning the PC wholesale because (in their minds, not mine) the platform was ripe with piracy, just not where you went to make enough money and blah blah blah.

PC videogame buyers are used to having things taken off them and you can’t really expect them to just go “oh yeah, this is fine”, right?

That Epic have gone down this route seemingly without any sort of counter to people’s discontent and to undertake this strategy in a way that focuses the ire on individual developers or publishers is ridiculous. Not surprising – I’ve been around games a long time now – but absolutely ridiculous. It’s not helping, that’s for sure.

But big business does as big business does. And this time big business has prodded the Valve bear into responding, which is unusual enough in itself. A lot of games have been moved from Steam over the years but not really two weeks away from launch and having undertaken a major preorder campaign *on Steam*. From the POV of big business, it doesn’t take much squinting to see how this can look grim.

With Valve though, they’re putting forward the argument that this is not fair to their customers. On a quick scan, this can easily sound like Valve being a big babby and stamping their feet because they couldn’t get their own way. I’ve seen multiple “but big business isn’t fair” takes and NO SHIT, GENIUS. *ahem* but when Valve talk about “fairness to their customers”, this is the one rule that underpins all games being allowed to sell on Steam right now.

This isn’t just a shot back at Epic, this is a very public reminder to other developers about what they sign up for when they sign up to distribute on Steam.

It’s a corporate perversion of fairness, definitely. You’ll see no arguments there from me. Being fair here really does mean following what Valve say is fair, not what anyone else might consider fair.

Which is, you know, not great. But to anyone who hasn’t signed up to distribute on Steam, to anyone who isn’t aware that Valve absolutely will reinforce their concept of fairness and to anyone who hasn’t read their selling on Steam guides which repeatedly reminds the seller that Valve absolutely expect you to “treat Steam customers fairly” it can seem out the blue. It’s really not out of the blue.

“Fairness to our customers” is how Valve shore up Steam’s defenses.

When a developer asks for an incredibly large amount of keys to give away or sell on another store, Valve will ask for fairness to their customers in return for the inventory. When a developer sells their game on Steam for £4.20 but on Humble for 69p, Valve will ask for fairness to their customers. If a developer wants to give huge amounts of copies of their game away to a subscription service or to run one of those absurdly rubbish giveaways through a small bundle site or whatever, Valve will ask for fairness to their customers in return.

Valve are very aware of how easy it is to use the systems they provide on Steam in ways that can see their fee either unpaid or massively reduced whilst another company that may not be the developer or publisher profits. And Valve want that fee, right?

So maybe fairness is price matching a sale, maybe fairness is giving away your game on Steam at some point too, maybe fairness is not doing that thing Valve aren’t happy for you to do using Steam’s systems at all. It’s in that context that Valve talk about fairness, not whether the world at large deem something fair or unfair.

And in that context, a public statement on a games store page stating that Valve believe a developer or publisher is being unfair to their customers takes on an entirely different tone.

In the case of Metro, this is Valve saying they gave the game access to their customers (Valve sees all Steam users as “their customers” not as belonging to developers or publishers), they let the game collect pre-orders and build anticipation through the systems Steam provides, collect news on their hub, have it discussed on their forums, occupy real estate on their pages. To have all that and then not sell the game on Steam for twelve months is, in Valve’s parlance, unfair to their customers. Whether it is fair in the grander scheme of things isn’t something Valve are arguing.

With Metro, it’s nothing more than a reminder that Deep Silver haven’t held up their end of the bargain here. That the publisher isn’t doing what they agreed to do. And this is serious enough, in Valve’s eyes, to be taken public rather than dealt with through back channels.

And with all that, it’s a reminder to other developers selling on Steam that everyone there selling a videogame on Steam has agreed to “be fair to Valve’s customers”. They’re just saying, you know. It’s a reminder. I hope you haven’t forgotten.

It’s about more than griping with Epic. It’s about the deal everyone who sells on Steam is bound by. And whatever happens next, if anything happens at all, this stuff isn’t just about Epic or Valve, it’s about all of us who sell on their stores.

Where next?

I don’t know where I belong in videogames anymore. I don’t know what I want from being in videogames anymore. It’s a weird position to find myself in.

There’s reasons. I know the reasons.

I can’t stress enough how tough the past few years have been. Life outside videogames has been pretty full. Two years ago, Mrs B narrowly avoided snuffing it by having her innards replumbed in a rather extreme fashion. Too narrowly, really. Picking up the pieces from that has been achingly slow work for everyone in here. Mrs B still has a long road ahead. Everyone here has their own things to contend with too.

I’m in a better position, health wise, than I was this time last year because at least I have meds to fall back on now but obviously, pain doesn’t magic away. The speed my own health went to shit sort of knocked me for six. I’ve long had pain, long suffered headaches, long battled depression but the sheer frequency and ferocity of my ills by this time last year had meant just about everything ended up stalled. Now, I have a lot of that managed but between pills and duties, I’m just so fucking tired, so often. What I’ve lost in pain and anxiety, I’ve gained in exhaustion.

So I have to manage with what I can manage. That’s fine, I’m fine with that. It just means reassessing a lot of things, yeah? I can’t be the person a few years back that was ready to make the best arcade videogame on a Sony box and then make more and more. I can’t be me before everything took a turn.

I can’t easily write thousands upon thousands of words a month about being in games either. Not anymore. I’ve mentioned it in the past but my memory isn’t so great now. It’s not that I can’t write, it’s that keeping a coherent thought for 2,000 words isn’t easy to begin with and I’ve got so much more pressing stuff taking up brainspace lately. Besides, I sort of feel like I’ve said what I need to say and anything now is just repeating myself over and over and over.

I burnt out. It’s only been a few weeks since I’ve been able to sit at a computer properly without either staring into space or having an anxiety attack or managing some skillful combo of both. That took rather longer to settle than I’d expected. It’s nice to be vaguely back though, even if it has involved a lot of Peggle to get me there. Peggle is good. Peggle 2 even more so.

So yeah, there’s reasons. Plenty more that I won’t go into too, from other life stuff to being heartbroken that all this stuff going on meant DRM2 development absolutely floundered. I’m not complaining here, it’s just… this is where I’m at right now. I’m coming off the back of the most stressful and painful few years of my existence (which given that I’ve nearly died twice in the past ten years probably gives you some idea of just how stressful things have been) so of course things are going to be a mess. Of course things are a mess.

But what to do? That’s what I’m trying to figure out now. So much stuff I’ve mentioned here is the past. It weighs heavy some days but there’s still a future to consider. I’m trying to work out where that future lies. The past is a lens to the why things are, not the future.

I know I still want to make videogames but how? Why? What do I want from them? The Rob of 2000 wanted different things to the Rob of 2004, the Rob of 2004 was a world apart from 2008 and so on. I accept things change, I just need to spin myself round a few times, stop and find my direction.

I don’t know where me of 2018 fits into videogames. I’m not sure how life in videogames in the year of our Molyneux 2018 fits around me. It’s a lot. I know what I can’t do, what I can’t be. I’m just not sure what I can do and can be just yet.

I’m thinking about it though. I’m definitely thinking about it.

You don’t get rid of me that easily, after all.