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Digital Shelfspace: Four new storefronts for PC devs

What Boondogl, Utomik, Playfield and Startselect can offer that Steam can't

As the PC market gradually ticks over towards digitally distributed dominance, discovery has taken over from piracy as the biggest issue for many developers. As barriers to entry continue to fall, and the market becomes even more densely populated, the battle for online shelf space has become the frontline for developers both big and small.

You're on Steam, obviously, and probably a couple of the others too: maybe GoG or Green Man Gaming. You might be on G2A, as well, even if you don't know about it. But there are other routes to market emerging, with a whole range of potential advantages, which may well have passed below your radar. Here's a look at four of the emerging alternatives.

Boondogl

I'll admit, it took some convincing from Boondogl to get an appointment at a crowded GDC, partly because the pitch sounds a little too good to be true. The service is entirely browser-based, technically working on any machine which runs a browser of almost any sort, consoles included. In fact, that's the marketing USP - combating fragmentation by providing a platform which is almost entirely platform agnostic. If the service lives up to its promises, then if you can browse on it, you can probably Boondogl on it.

At the company's booth on the showfloor, under the broader roof of Mozilla, I'm shown demos running in various different engines, and I'm told that Unity, Unreal, Guu, Construct and Javascript will all be usable, and potentially more. I'm initially dubious, but it's actually pretty impressive.

The first demo is already cached so it's very quick to load, but players shouldn't ever have to wait long. The initial load will be somewhere between 5 and 30 seconds depending on the size of the title, I'm told. "Because it's a browser, the next time it will be cached, so pretty much instant. Once it's up and running it runs as if it's native, because it's using your local CPU and GPU. You forget it's running in the browser.

"We have a game that does cross-platform multiplayer, from a tablet to a desktop to a console, and we can also do cross-platform save data. We have level editors."

The games I play on the floor are pretty basic, a consequence of the early days of the tech, but the content on the private beta is already showing signs of some promise. You're probably not going to be playing anything too advanced on Boondogl anytime in the near future, but potentially there are few limits.

"No - since it's not streaming, there's no performance or latency issues," I'm told when I ask about FPS caps and complexity issues. "You can technically load up a 4K game as long as your desktop supports it. We're going to be at the forefront of all that technology as we go forward, that's why we're showcasing the VR technology as well. We already support VR in the browser. As a subscriber you get access to every game on the service on every platform the developer supports."

I balk a bit at the mention of VR involvement, but three minutes later I'm sat at a PC wearing a Rift and playing a VR game in a browser. It's pretty simple, but all the same, it works.

"So the goal from here on in is developer pursuit for the next six months while we run these betas to collect metrics, then we'll launch with premium subscriptions at a discounted price in Q4. The goal then is to have a minimum of 25 games in the catalogue then"

"We've actually been focused on building tech demos in various engines for the show, specifically to attract developers," my host explains. "So the goal from here on in is developer pursuit for the next six months while we run these betas to collect metrics, then we'll launch with premium subscriptions at a discounted price in Q4. The goal then is to have a minimum of 25 games in the catalogue then.

"What we think we're best for is back catalogue games, games that have already run their sales cycle on premium stores like Steam. Devs can then put their games up here and re-monetise them across other platforms."

Like a vast majority of on-demand services, Boondogl is going to be paying devs via what has become known as the 'Spotify model', specifically dividing between 70-80 per cent of all revenues per month between developers based on how many minutes their games have been played, favouring games with replay value and long campaigns.

As well as PC, Boondogl will run on mobile, using Intel's Crosswalk browser launched from an app, and consoles. I ask if that's been an issue with the platform holders, and whether that actually matters.

"Surprisingly the one that we thought we'd be speaking to last is the one we're talking to first," I'm told, leaving a fairly short leap of logic to ascertain who that might be. "They said, yeah we'll get you talking to the licensing guys and get a build up."

Utomik

Utomik is a slightly more traditional on-demand service, if any example of such a thing can already be called traditional. Loaded via a dedicated app on PC, it's an 'all you can eat' subscription, with the monthly payment giving unlimited access to a storefront of games ranging from legacy catalogue titles from publishers like Paradox, Codemasters and SEGA to fresher indie games. There's significant depth to what's on offer, and founder Doki Topps says there's more to come.

"We started the company in September 2014. The gap in the market was basically that we'd already built technology for instant play for MMOs, and just before we'd made some innovations and made games instantly playable without any input or effort from the developer.

"We saw Netflix, we saw Spotify and we saw all these gaming subscription services like OnLive and Nvidia's GeForce Now, and it's a very expensive way of doing things. It generally has a negative impact on the games and the games that they can run are actually games that can run on the hardware they're using to render the video frames - which is kind of weird. So we had people saying 'you should start your own Steam,' but we want to use the subscription model, which in the gaming industry was non-existent when we started.

"The industry needs to adapt, it's so weird that such a young industry is so late to the game on subscription. I think it relates to the tech side, but it's also down to OnLive failing so miserably and Gaikai just getting saved by the bell"

"Because of all the experience we had in networking, in one year we got to 500 games under contract, getting more and more content, higher quality content."

Around 150 of those games are currently online, and things work pretty smoothly. There's a short download, but generally you're running quickly enough on a decent connection, with Overlord II booting to menu for the first time in around 1 minute 45 seconds. Topps says that the time scales with connection, but is generally around 10-15 times faster than a regular install. Nonetheless, he knows that there's some residual mistrust around the idea of a game streaming service, given that previous efforts are still fresh in the minds of consumers.

"The industry needs to adapt, it's so weird that such a young industry is so late to the game on subscription. I think it relates to the tech side, but it's also down to OnLive failing so miserably and Gaikai just getting saved by the bell, as all insiders know. So everybody was a bit defensive about subscriptions, but we got where we are today by being very persistent, being less focused on buying our way in. All the companies that tried got burned because they didn't really do their due diligence: they just had a big pile of money and marched in before realising that it looked very bad for their brand, that they looked like fools.

"So what happened with us is that everyone we signed up for the service tested it, and they saw that it does what it says on the tin, which is very new. The same goes for the gamers; they got fooled too many times. One of the key findings from our beta was the discovery - people loved playing games that they would otherwise not buy. We knew we couldn't go live without content, so to move forward we had to show the industry and gamers that it worked. We had a limited portfolio, growing every week, but we needed them on board. It's working, we're very happy. We have a market. It's smaller now, but as we grow the percentage of players who really dig it grows. We're giving the big boys much more confidence, they know it's not a charade."

Topps says that sidestepping both the grey market and the turbulent pricing of Steam sales has been a big plus when approaching developers. But Utomik also has an innovative approach to payment, eschewing the Spotify approach to distribute income based in individual player activity.

"One of the key innovations in our model is that we don't distribute the money by putting it all in one big pile. We do it on a per-user basis. We look at what each user does, where they spend their time. That's where their money should go. If a subscriber spends 90% of their time playing your game, you get 90% of their money. Other services put it all together and a few games get the majority of the money, but not because they're the best.

"For example, say I have a two-game platform with two subscribers - the simplest possible example. If guy #1 plays 99 hours of game A, and guy #2 spends 1 hour playing game B, then in most models game A gets 99% of all the money. But guy #2 paid his subscription to play game B, not game A, so why should game A get his money?

"We get a lot of questions from devs, saying, 'Oh, my game is only 12 hours long, I'll never get any money', but that's because they're used to it all going in one pile. Every gamer is unique.

"I know that Utomik is going to have a big impact on making development more pure. You're not luring people into making weird decisions, like you might with free-to-play. All you need to think about as a developer is, 'How do I create a joyful experience?' That will really, truly change development."

Playfield

Playfield is another service run by developers: the Shark Punch team which produced top-down heist game The Masterplan. The core of the Finnish team originally worked together at Rocket Pack, which was then acquired by Disney. Shortly after, CEO Jiri Kupiainen, designer Aarne Hunziker and programmer Leo Lännenmäki left to form Shark Punch. Having experienced the sharp end of indie development, the core mission for Playfield is to help games with the increasingly brutal issue of discovery, combining a AAA download service with content delivery and aggregation to make sure gamers are fully up to date with well-targeted information.

"We're about the heavy users," says Kupiainen. "That's not about the core versus casual; it's about people who spend a lot of time and usually a lot of money playing games, because there are a few things they have in common, no matter what they play. They play a lot, spend a lot and consume a lot of gaming content. In recent years the amount of quality games has blown up, the amount of quality content about games has blown up and there are lots of new types of gaming content that didn't exist five years ago: eSports, streaming, etc, etc. There's a lot more of everything and it's a lot more complex than it used to be, but the discovery channels haven't really caught up, so for a lot of gamers it's started to feel a lot like work.

"Making that decision, 'Is this worth my time?' is getting harder and harder. So we look at a ton of different content sources, we have a big library of games, we know your social graph. We mash it all together, do a bunch of magical data science stuff and present you with the cool stuff in gaming today. Both games and content, it doesn't really matter. We want you to be coming back here every day and finding great new stuff. If you're coming back every day, there's always ways to monetise that."

It's an interesting combination of ideas, particularly when plenty of large games media businesses are having to make rapid pivots to ensure they avoid the sort of catastrophic winnowing that swept through the magazine industry. With free reign to collate whatever coverage they think is appropriate and attach it to a direct delivery method, Kupiainen and his team are turning the established advertising practices on their head.

"We're talking about algorithmic curation," he explains. "There used to be a time when you had a pretty clearly defined group of people, gamers, and you had a reasonable amount of content, which meant that you could put together coverage for people and it would be relevant to them. But people don't scale. The chances of someone finding just the right stuff for you is pretty slim these days. We need to use algorithms to do that. I think there's a bunch of people doing this on different media, but I don't think they bring great context. So we really try to make the context visible, to help you understand why it's relevant.

"So there's a ton of shows on Netflix. We know they're there, but it's when a buddy says, 'watch this, it's a slow start but it's great,' that's the social context which makes you watch it. So we always try to include that: here are the data points. It might be a trailer, or a game or a review, or even a screenshot.

"There used to be a time when you had a pretty clearly defined group of people, gamers, and you had a reasonable amount of content, which meant that you could put together coverage for people and it would be relevant to them. But people don't scale"

"When you look at purchase data, playing behaviour, social graphs, what's interesting on YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, you come up with surprising and great recommendations. We don't try to replace these services and we're not focused on a single platform; we see ourselves as a hub."

As well as asking for optional access to user accounts like Twitter or Facebook to harvest metrics, Playfield also hosts curated pages from influencers like Let's Players so users can follow recommendations from the people who inform their decisions elsewhere, while also giving the service lots of potential commercial avenues. Playfield is also very aware of what works for their customers on the publisher side.

"We're a licensed distributor for every game on the platform. That's kind of our stance. We're not planning on allowing any key reselling on the platform. We're signed up with about 1000 publishers and developers. It kind of helps that we're developers by background. We know what the pain points are for developers, so we do everything we can to make it easy to get set up. Friendly terms, lightweight contracts, everything that can be self-service is self-service. We've dealt with a a bunch of different distribution platforms ourselves, so we know what sucks."

Startselect

Like Utomik, Startselect is a Dutch firm, but it offers direct downloads rather than streaming. It's also the only service on the list to offer non-PC products, with Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Apple and Google all getting their own categories on the service home page. Currently, however, only the PC channel is really populated, with gift cards on sale for Xbox and Nintendo, and other platforms listed as "Coming Soon."

CMO Björn van Beek says that this multi-platform approach is going to be a key USP going forward.

"It's quite a broad scope, something that you don't see in our business at the moment. We don't want to do PC gaming only. The broader thing in mind for our mission is to make it as easy as possible for any gamer, anywhere in the world, to access their game as easily as possible so that they have maximum time to play.

"When you look at, for instance, console gamers versus mobile users, there is actually a fairly big overlap of people who play on both platforms. In our estimations, or our data, we see about 35 to 40 per cent of console users actually buying games and app purchases on iOS and Android, so there is a fairly large overlap there. Of course, between Xbox and PlayStation the overlap is fairly insignificant, but there definitely are platforms and opportunities to cross reference those with each other. I think we'll see in the future that a lot of people will be buying not just for one platform or products, but for multiple.

"I think we need to educate the people about what they are actually buying, and make them aware that when you buy a game at launch for €30, it's not acceptable, it's not possible"

"There are several publishers that are still not on board that we've talked with, so we want to complete that portfolio on the publisher side and after that we will expand. At the end, we hope any developers can distribute their games through our service. That is what we will be focusing on for the rest of the year.

Also core to the Startselect ethos is a refusal to engage in the dingy world of grey market codes and rapid discounting, with van Beek estimating that the industry loses €250 million to €400 million a year from the grey market alone. European manager Ferry Rovers agrees, adding that there's an educational element to responsible pricing which can make it something of an uphill battle.

"Part of the reason it's so difficult to penetrate the PC market is the fact that the it's very price dependent. If you see the sales numbers of games on Steam that are not on discount versus the time that they are on discount, it's actually quite staggering. However, the discounts on Steam are all approved and set out partly by publishers and partly by Steam, which means that there is an opportunity for that.

"However, the grey market that we're in right now is basically parties selling game keys, and people purchasing them and selling them anywhere they want because there is no authorisation involved. Any person can buy these codes and any person can sell them anywhere, except no one is told where these keys are coming from. Even though 80 to 90 per cent of these may still be legit channels, the other 10 per cent, no one knows what part of these codes is part of the legal part and what part is the illegal part.

"I think we need to educate the people about what they are actually buying, and make them aware that when you buy a game at launch for €30, it's not acceptable, it's not possible. It needs work on both ways. Either we have our high price point, but we will promote that with temporary deals, but on the other hand we need to make people aware that it's just not possible for a game to be that low price at launch."

Startselect also has an excellent handle on marketing, with years of experience in the field and dedicated country-by-country managers for its European territories. There's also an established payment infrastructure in place, with seven years of transaction history as Online Prepaid Services showing consistent year-on-year growth. Van Beek says that early sign-ups for the retail business have been promising, too, with around 4000 active accounts registering over the last fortnight or so. Nonetheless, Rovers acknowledges the long road ahead.

"When we launched Startselect, we found out that there's a lot of people who are unaware of the issue, and in our talks with publishers in the last year we have certainly brought this to their attention. We see that now, slowly, publishers are starting to recognize that we need to take back control of our digital market instead of just taking it for granted as nice extra money. Right now they are seeing that this is getting really, really big now. We need to get this back under control."

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