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Digital Distribution Woes

Martin Pichlmair outlines some of the pitfalls for indies in the digital market

Each week we feature the best content from #AltDevBlogADay, a blog site on which developers write daily about things that they find interesting. This week it's the turn of Broken Rules' Martin Pichlmair, outlining some of the pitfalls of digital distribution for independent developers.

Before joining Broken Rules, I ran a small iPhone game studio. We didn't have the best hand for the market, so the studio only existed for two years and the remainders (me, some code, and my connections) were later merged into Broken Rules. The two companies have produced games for the iPhone, WiiWare, Steam and numerous other PC download platforms. And the Mac App Store. The outlook that shaped both of my companies is: the future of games is the download/digital distribution market, with tightly integrated social networking features for all platforms. The vivid XBLA, Facebook and iPhone markets show the road. Still, I'd like to point out some of the problems of these markets and how to deal with them. As usual, I'm writing this post from the perspective of a small indie studio, because that's all I know.

Outages, Hacking, and Dependency

The hacking of Sony's servers demonstrated what is the most media-effective trouble an online distributor can run into. Losing your client's data is embarrassing and expensive. But that is just Sony's part of the problem. For game developers with their games on PSN, the missing revenue for the time of the service's outage might yield lower numbers than Sony's reported $170 million.

The Mac App Store makes it far easier to trash a developer with a one-star review than to offer support

Nevertheless, the loss of a revenue stream is hard to compensate. Of course, other companies could become culprits of hackers the same way Sony did. I expect other services to get hacked or DDoS-attacked in the near future. Imagine if Apple or Microsoft are hit. On the bright side, just like bank robbing does not bring down the banking system (and neither does Bernard Madoff), criminality has always flocked around money and rarely destroyed working ecosystems. The only thing you can do as a small games company is to diversify as much as possible. Establish as many revenue streams as you can, because if one of them dries up, you still got the others. Make yourself as independent as you can. Diversify! Sounds easier in theory than it is in practice.

The Player As Customer

I should rather title this paragraph "unidirectional communication". I'll start with a story: We released And Yet It Moves for the Mac App Store when that opened. We had a Mac version of the game for a year, so it was pretty straight-forward to make it compliant with the terms of service. After a few submissions we were in the store and thanks to Apple's gratuitous featuring and the quality of the game we quickly rose up in the charts, leading to a number 2 spot in the charts on our best weekend. Then an unexpected dynamics started to kick in.

We learned that some older MacBooks and iMacs have trouble rendering the shaders in the game. Also, case-sensitive file systems introduced buggy behaviour. We simply had not tested on enough different kinds of hardware. We fixed those bugs but some players were still having trouble getting the game to start - it just showed a black screen on start-up. We've released four patches so far, all of them addressing the same issues and introducing only very few new features. While we fixed the game for most players, sadly, there are still systems out there that seem to have the black screen problem. They are very few and none of the test systems we have access to still has the problem. We've done our best to fix the game for every user. And we'd love to work with those that still have trouble getting the game to run.

The core of the problem is: one of the users is still suffering from this problem. And what that user does is he posts a one-star review minutes after a new update hits. I suppose he will do so until the problem is fixed for his system. His most recent review is:

"there have been several updates to this program, all promising a fix of the "black screen" issue, yet every time i start the game, i get NOTHING but a plain black screen. i want my money back!"

Apple has a refunding policy, and it would be very easy for the user to get his money back. We've got a support forum and we'd love to send the user a test version of the next update before we publish it. We'd also love to hear what hardware he owns in order to test our game on that specific type of Mac. Sadly, the Mac App Store makes it far easier to trash a developer with a one-star review than to offer support. Our game runs on 99 per cent of the machines out there. Bugs happen. The player is a great customer if the platform supports him. What we're learning from this experience is that we will release our next game for the Mac with minimal hardware requirements. You have to design for the lowest denominator because one angry customer is enough to break your neck.

Tangible Ethereal Goods

I have a theory. If products turn from physical goods to ethereal, something has to compensate the lack of haptic sensation. In other words, back in the days when games were still physical goods – and I'm talking about those days when the additional content of the package was worth the money alone – you got something tangible and seemingly personal from the manufacturer of the game. With the introduction of standardised packaging and even more with digital downloads, this aspect of the physical good got lost. The hardcore fans of any brand - those key leads you have to target first - if you're marketing your games yourself, demand a personal experience. The AAA world introduced limited editions for this demographic. What we're trying to do in the indie world is to establish a relationship with our customers. Via Twitter, Facebook and all the other dreaded social networking systems. We can't have a marketing person, department or company make that for us, because our core players want direct communication with developers and designers. The Humble Indie Bundle managed to leverage this aspect of digital games marketing very successfully. The most tangible thing we're offering nowadays is ourselves, the developers. Of course you can also sell plush toys via Etsy instead.

I hope this post did not come out as a rant. I would not say that I believe that digital distribution is the future. I think it is inevitably coming our way. The reasons are manifold and most of them are not in the interest of the customer – e.g. having full control over content distribution, destroying the second-hand market, and diminishing piracy – but the security, comfort and possibilities it offers are by far exceeding the downsides for most people. For each poison, there's a remedy, and for every woe of the download market, there is a strategy to work around it.

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