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.