The Future

I don’t really want to go into much about how we still seem to be stuck with the idea of an indiepocalypse because I’ve exhausted myself (and thousands of words) on this before.

I still maintain the fundamental flaw with the concept of the indiepocalypse is that it assumes there was a time where it was sunshine and roses for developers. I honestly don’t know how many different ways I can say “no, really – for most of us, it was never that great” but I’m sure if I got really desperate, I could find at least one more way. Like I just did there. Ooh. Get me.

Anyway.

I’ve made no secret that sticking my head into the worst parts of videogames for a few years left me burnt out and exhausted, something that’s only lifted somewhat in the past couple of months. In that time, I won’t say I’ve found the talk around existing here increasingly negative (although it does remind me of the Indiegamer Forums circa 2007 but on a larger scale. anyone there will know what I mean, this reference is for them) but I will say that it increasingly seems like we have an inability to see further into the future than kind of about now and a little bit and that really warps how we talk about being in games.

To be fair, I don’t think this is restricted to videogames. It’s very much a 21st Century malaise in general. See usual “I write about videogames though”, yeah?

I’ll admit, I’m not immune to all this stuff. Partly because so much of business in 2019 appears to be every person for themselves, get what you can whilst you can and partly because the current political climate in the UK reflects exactly that. The endgame 40 years in the making where the only thing stopping the government from completely trashing everything is, erm, human rights acts and the like. And unlucky for us, they appear to have found a way to both stir up the extreme right *and* get us out of that. Hooray!

And, crucially, everyone I know is struggling.

Essentially, when everything around you is in perpetual danger of falling apart, it really does make it difficult to think about anything but what’s falling apart around you. So I do get it. I kinda understand how we’re here. Understanding it doesn’t lessen the rot any though.

It’s definitely changed how I write about games. I don’t really have the same hopes that we’re going to push hard enough and change things for the better. I still believe we can, I believe we are improving the space that is videogames in ways I could have only hoped for even just a few years back. But when I sit down to write about what we can do to improve something or what’s happening now, there’s always that nagging “yeah, but we won’t” feeling to it. All this is accentuated by the fact we’re still dealing with 2014 in 2019.

There’s a cloud hanging there and it’s a dark one.

When you throw all this on top of a bunch of very corporate landgrab operations at the mo, really, I can totally understand why the prevailing attitude is take what you can get, where you can get it. Especially when people in huge companies are throwing around absolutely reckless amounts of money on making their corporate ambitions come true and not one of them doing that appears to have any plan that doesn’t involve just taking more and more from us over time.

It would, of course, be prudent for a lot of people to not take the money and try and steer ourselves away from the worst outcomes but you know, we’re back to “but most of us need money” again with that. Which brings us back round, again, to an inability to see a better future of videogames because we all know what’s going on, we all know where this leads even at its most optimistic and it’s not going to favour you or me. But right now, things are tough enough that fuck it, offer me the cash so I don’t have to worry about things crashing down around my ears for another twelve months and I’d take it too. Of course I would.

So yeah, it’s no wonder it’s hard for folk to visualise a better future in games. It’s no wonder I end up looking at the way everyone talks about videogames as business and feeling a bit sad. This wasn’t really the future I was after when I, and so many others, went kicking and screaming to get smaller works reaccepted back into videogames again. It’s the one we have though so I guess I best just deal with that.

But! I haven’t lost all hope for videogames in the future. There’s incredible, diverse, work being made now often in spite of videogames as a space. There’s more people making more amazing things than any time I’ve been alive. It’s incredible and I’m absolutely spoiled rotten by it all. There’s been new folk after new folk transforming, terraforming what games are and can be and so many of them are so bold, so wonderful. I’d stick around just for games being able to be compassionate works in the mainstream now, Molyneux only knows that’s desperately overdue.

The main reason I haven’t lost hope though, even allowing for the dark cloud, is that this isn’t the first time I’ve felt like this in games, where I’ve seen so many people just trying to catch a break and struggling to see what’s next. It’s happened a few times in my existence and you know what? Videogames changed. People did that. And whilst we’ve still got good people here, I’m always going to have hope.

That goes for the wider world as well too.

Subscriptions

Ah, the wonderful joys of one of those times in videogames where a bunch of big, moneyed, companies are trying to make something happen. This time, subscriptions.

Clearly buoyed by just about everything else that can have a subscription fee sellotaped to it going for broke at the mo, games have decided it’s definitely our turn now.

Not that we haven’t had subscriptions for a while, of course. It’s been a fairly standard thing in the casual market for quite a while now (I have a pet theory that you can generally look to the casual market to see what’s going to be pushed through into the wider world in a few years and it’s held up pretty well so far), obviously the console giants have had subscription services in place for over a decade now. It’s not that subscriptions are new here, it’s the concerted push for all the big players to have their own that’s the big difference this time.

EA have one, Ubisoft have one. Sony have PS Now, Microsoft have Game Pass, Humble have one, Apple has one, Android is about to get one. Where in the past this sort of thing has floundered because generally folks tried tying the subscriptions to streaming only services, the industry has by and large learned that’s a dead end for now.

Streaming has an uphill battle because far too many people have flakey internet connections and speeds and congestion varies. It makes the lack of ownership and control explicit when streaming degrades the experience to the point of leaving people entirely unable to use the thing they’re paying money for.

However! Couple a subscription with the ability to download something and well, it’s not quite so clear how rough the downsides may be because, well, you can actually play the videogame you’re trying to play and it’s there on your hard drive and stuff. It’s an approximation of ownership, right? Close enough and all that. It turns out the illusion of ownership is sort of enough, as long as nobody feels like they’re losing out (your own amount of losing out feelings may vary, natch).

To be honest, I’m surprised it took this long for companies to push ahead with this given none of this is exactly news. You know, with the past fifteen or so years of Steam, a decade of mobile libraries and however long PS Plus has been going now and and and.

It probably helps that we seem to be well out of the phase where companies feel the need to put on a front that they’re doing this for you and are well into “fuck it, what exactly is anyone going to do to stop us?” territory.

The past decade has largely shown these huge companies that there is no blowback substantial enough to be able to stop them carrying on and not nearly enough political will from the people who can do something about it to do something about it. It being whatever landgrab or overreach we’re having to contend with today.

I doubt if anyone making the decisions to nudge everyone into subscriptions feels like they have much to lose at the moment. If things go really bad, well, they can shrug and go back to just selling you stuff. Admittedly, it’s difficult for me to see us reaching the point where it has gone that badly as far as the companies are concerned but still, in theory, yeah?

All of this makes any pushback a wee bit more difficult and for me, it makes this particular period of change happening in the games industry all the more concerning.

There is an unfathomably large amount of money being spent right now on making subscriptions happen and no easily discernible out for when, not if, things get worse for people in videogames. Which they will because videogames is every bit as broken as the rest of the world right now and there’s depressingly few signs of this easing any time soon. As ever, I live in hope though.

Part of the reason all these companies are throwing unimaginably large amounts of money around is because it sort of but not entirely masks a lot of what’s really happening. Like when Epic throw down some of their Fortnite money buying an exclusivity period for their store, it’s enough that developers who take the money don’t have to worry if Epic’s plan goes arse about tit. It’s not immediately concerning if the store only sells four copies of a videogame because someone’s already been paid as though a ridiculous amount of people have bought it.

The same principle applies if a developer is handed the kind of money it’d be ruinous to refuse in order to pop their game into a subscription service for a bit.

This is a thing that happens a fair bit. Every now and then companies throw money at indies to make something happen.Just this time round the amount being spent is frankly obscene. When you consider how precarious making games as a business can be, it’s not hard to see why people often need to take these deals also. I too would like an obscene amount of money, yeah?

At some point soon though, the companies will stop ‘buying’ deals and they’ll expect developers or publishers to just keep supplying them with content whilst they pay out according to whatever ridiculous calculation they’ve concocted in order to pay out as little as possible to as many people as possible. You only need to look to books, films, TV and music to see the same thing playing out to ever so slightly different degrees. There’s been hundreds of thousands of words written about this elsewhere so I’m going to move swiftly on.

Moving swiftly on because an equally pressing concern for me is that every subscription service is hailed as somewhere people with not much money can get access to lots and lots of things. It sounds nice in theory but the big problem here is that people who don’t have much money, well, they don’t have much money. If someone doesn’t have much money, they can’t go subscribing to every single subscription service they might need.

I know that sounds obvious but it’s one of those easily forgotten things. At least when we’re just talking buying something outright, if someone has a bit of extra money one day, they can buy something outright. With a subscription service, people need to be able to commit to an amount of money being docked regularly.

Or to put it another way, Universal Credit is about 250 quid a month which isn’t enough to live on as it is. Given media subscriptions run from about a fiver upwards, they soon add up to a hefty chunk of that money gone. When you’re struggling, finding any money is hard, much less finding a few wedges to pay out monthly.

Though access to forty gazillion games for eight pounds and sixty nine pence or whatever sounds great, to a huge portion of the population that’s just another monthly bill they can’t afford. The amount of videogames in a service doesn’t matter a jot if someone can only afford one subscription and their only break from the kids is being able to throw Netflix on for them and that’s all they can spare monthly.

The more we push into subscription services and away from just being able to throw some money down here and there to buy something, the more we’re pushing people with less money out of being able to engage with our culture. We’re forcing them to choose between being able to have films, music, books or games when we lock the bulk of stuff behind subs. Pick one, if that, right?

Paying subscription fees also means we leave people with less money to spend on something else. Maybe that’s one new game on discount or one that’s affordable. That could be the difference between a creator getting a bunch of quids minus the store cut and instead getting 0.0000000008 of a penny at the end of the month.

This is hugely messy and largely awful stuff. Rather than decoupling games from finances, as someone recently took to the internet to suggest, it makes the finances absolutely at the forefront of someone’s mind. It’s now money that has to be found from somewhere each and every month in order to retain access to the thing someone liked. This isn’t decoupling by any stretch of the imagination. It’s the other one.

Having spent most of my time on this Earth largely being skint, I know intimately how much even the smallest extra cost being asked for monthly can make existing more difficult. At a time when there’s an abundance of absolutely wonderful videogames being made and sold, it would be a sad loss to place them further out of reach just as we’re hitting our stride.

It’s early days yet and I’m hopeful that we can find a balance here. Can’t say I’m not worried though because I very much am.

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.