Another Icon

I can’t say I’m surprised but I’ve definitely been caught off guard by the amount of people discussing Epic’s store as just being another launcher, another icon.

Exclusivity, we’re told, isn’t a problem on the PC because unlike a console where you’re going to have to plump for a piece of hardware if you want to play a videogame, it’s just another store. Just an icon away.

I mean, sure, the Epic store is another icon away but so was Greenhouse, so was Desura, so was Indie City, so was Games For Windows and plenty of other stores and clients that have disappeared over the years. None of those are just an icon away anymore and the libraries of games that people owned vanished alongside them.

Digital libraries are incredibly vulnerable to quite literally disappearing overnight. Maybe you’re lucky and the store gives you a heads up. Maybe you’re lucky and you’ve saved the game onto your hard drive, maybe you’ve remembered to keep a note of the registration details or keys, maybe the game shipped without any restrictions. And hopefully your hard drive hasn’t died in the meantime.

I have fairly large digital libraries myself, I’ve had reasonably substantial ones on other services that aren’t Steam and I’ve got a stash of executables and installers, though I’m absolutely certain it’s not even close to all my purchases. I am fundamentally aware of the transience of digital libraries, of how absolutely precarious they are. How a company going out of business, how a company deciding to just move along, how that can wipe out a library *like that*. Precisely because I’ve lost some of these libraries.

It’s 2019 and we should, given the huge amount of services that have sank or closed over the years – not just in games but with every type of digital media – be fully cognisant of the precarious nature of digital distribution.

We should intimately understand that when people are asked to put their faith and their money into a new store they’re being asked to make a gamble with their libraries. Some gambles like, well, a store that’s been around for ten or fifteen years and have shown themselves to be largely good custodians of folk’s purchases are naturally going to feel like a less risky gamble.

An upstart wading in throwing money around, even if that’s more money than most people can reasonably conceive of without blowing a fuse, does not automatically engender trust. In 2019, anybody paying even the slightest bit of attention is fundamentally aware of just how many companies decide to just stop doing a thing and things people relied on, loved in some cases, invested time and money into are taken away.

In this way, a store exclusive on the PC may not by itself require the kind of financial outlay that buying a whole new console entails but it can be even more precarious a model for the customer. At least with a console you can be fairly certain that (providing it’s not an OUYA) you’ll get at least five years out of it. You can’t say the same for a new PC store. Not yet.

So no, it’s not just another launcher, another icon. It’s time, it’s money, it’s trusting that what you paid money for will still be accessible in five years or more. It’s trusting that you can still access the files if they’re pulled from sale, it’s trusting that stuff will still work if the store closes.

It’s never just another launcher.

Lost And Found

Around this time last year, I found myself wondering where I belonged in videogames. Burnt out, struggling to work on anything for a sustained amount of time and very, very tired of watching the scale of abuse in games escalate.

This time, I have a much better idea but still, not quite.

I’ve been working on a game on and off for a while now. Whilst I was enjoying myself alright enough, I haven’t really felt that into it. Often, it felt like going through the motions instead and as a result, that spark needed to kick it up a gear never really materialised. That is until Cecconoid lit a fire under my backside.

Cecconoid is really good. I mean, I play lots of really good games but Cecconoid is the sort of really good that feels like it’s sent from the stars to inspire me. Obviously, it’s not the stars, it’s Gareth (responsible for the also excellent Lumo amongst other things) but you’ll forgive me a wee bit of floweryness.

And so what started out as “I wonder how hard it is to nail that sort of 1 bit style Cecconoid and some Devolver published games have” playing around solely to fill some time became okay, but what if I splashed a bit of colour (because it’s me and well, you know) accidentally saw parts of the game fall into shape from there. Like, woah, this is not only nice looking but manageable and that manageable thing is what I’ve been struggling to find. And also, it’s very colourful. That’s important to me.

Which was nice.

Will it get far enough? I hope so! I’ve still got a lot of serious home stuff to contend with as well as my own ever present chafing but let’s see.

It’s now been four(!) years since I last released a videogame. The sort of time people make whole upper mid tier games in except I most decidedly haven’t done that. And so much has changed!

There’s the whole Epic trying to buy a duopoly thing I’ve covered a few times but not quite in the sort of depth I’d like to because the resurgence of abuse that’s come as part of it is exhausting. There’s the end of a console cycle and studios selling up, studios shutting down and all that comes with the end of a cycle. Steam is in an entirely different shape than it was in 2015 too and with so much indie now being routed through publishers (something I personally have little interest in doing but each to what they need), it does feel a bit overwhelming.

Not the bad kind of overwhelming just the bloody hell, where do I start when I want to sell this thing kind of overwhelming. It’s a lot. I’m brushing up as best I can in-between twiddling about writing a game but as ever, whatever route I take has to be the best route for my own comfort. So that’s sort of what I’m looking at – finding a comfortable route through all this guff.

I’ll be honest, 2019 being exceedingly 2019 makes this way more difficult than I’d want. I’ll get there though, I always do.

I’ve a few other things I want to talk about but I’m already into a hefty word count so I’ll take a pause here and talk about the rest in another post.

Take this as notice that I’m back though. I can only apologise in advance for everything.

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.