Has an accessible games industry undermined its long-term stability?
"All stakeholders need to come together... this is a challenge for everyone," says head of indie publishing at Square Enix West
The games industry is more accessible than ever before, from training and development tools through to government support and distribution platforms, but has it come at the cost of stability?
Anyone paying attention to the indie scene recently will be aware that the number of games released on Steam is growing at a staggering rate. According to Steam Spy, 7,658 titles were released on the platform in 2017, up from 1,784 in 2014.
This has a few obvious knock-on effects; in 2014 the average number of units a game would shift was 154,000 while the average price across the platform was $11.24. Jump forward to 2017 and those numbers are 46,000 and $9.45 respectively. Additionally, games releasing in 2016 were launching against roughly 70 other titles, but in 2017 that number was in excess of 200.
As an indie developer, if you're not worried by those numbers, you should be. It's not enough to say that the best games will always succeed, regardless of market conditions, because that simply isn't the case.
Not only are there too many games, but the media lacks the bandwidth to provide adequate coverage. This problem is only further compounded by the mechanics of online publications, including vloggers and streamers, which are driven by traffic and therefore drawn towards titles that will generate views, whether that's the needlessly controversial games like House Party and Hatred, or sticking to the mass appeal AAA titles like Call of Duty.
Speaking at Gamesforum London last week, director of indie publishing at Square Enix West, Phil Elliot, shared his views with GamesIndustry.biz on what all of this means for the industry.
"There is a key difference between now and ten years ago, and this is why it's really important for the industry to take note and not be blasé and shrug their shoulders just because their corner is okay," he says.
"Ten years ago indie games were possible make because of cheap and accessible tools, they were possible to sell because of platforms like Steam, but they were also highlighted by journalists who wanted to find new games, because a lot of tites got cancelled back then. So there was a paucity of games compared to even a couple of years ago. Plus you had gamers that wanted new experiences so they were ready and receptive to hear about new games that were coming out.
"Now, the difference is, journalists are swamped so there is almost a paralysis when it comes to going out and finding new games and experiences. And gamers, they already have so many games and there is so much choice. This problem now is very different to what it was before and we need some sort of industry-wide action and a thorough debate, an admission on all parts. All stakeholders need to come together: platforms, hardware manufactures, publishers, developers, retail - this is a challenge for everyone."
The industry is faced with a paradox; by taking steps towards curation we put up a barrier to entry that could prevent the best games from reaching consumers but if we don't, these games will be drowned out by the noise of an overcrowded market.
"The industry could have been in real trouble. Without Steam... we may have never seen the indie sector rise up"
"The raw numbers are quite frightening, particularly if you compare them to four of five years ago," says Elliot. "I hear quite a lot from people saying that Steam should curate. A lot of people were surprised when they went away from Greenlight, which wasn't a perfect process as I'm sure anyone would admit, to just an upfront fee."
Elliot is quick to defend Steam however, arguing that Valve created an opportunity for indies during a period when the mid-range AA industry was collapsing along with the global economy in 2008.
"The industry could have been in real trouble," he says. "Without Steam, without Unity, without others, we may have never seen the indie sector rise up... They were responsible for making it possible to release games at a time when no other platforms were remotely easy to get onto. It's easy for us now to look at indies going to Switch, Xbox, or PlayStation, but that's only happened because of the work Steam did in the first place."
It's important to remember that while the flooded Steam storefront is problematic when it comes to the long-term health of the indie scene, Valve doesn't control the industry; it's a symptom of deeper-rooted problems, and there are plenty of other factors at play.
"We're a victim of our own popularity now," says Elliot. "People want to live the dream, they love games so much, they want it to be more than their hobby and, like any gold rush, they see it as possible."
The industry is heading towards a tipping point. On one side we have an overpopulated indie scene where its growing harder and harder to find the best games, but on the other side the near exponential growth in development costs have left the AAA market increasingly saturated with safe, dependable franchises that will only be dependable for so long.
"We're a victim of our own popularity now. People want to live the dream... and, like any gold rush, they see it as possible"
"How can we still find ways to actually champion genuine new talent to seek it out and nurture it?" asks Elliot. "Because in the end the industry is our back garden. We need to think about where that creativity and those new ideas and fresh talent is going to come from. If we rely on what we have and rely on franchises and sequels, people will lose interest and that would be a really sad thing to happen."
Consumers and pundits alike are calling for proper curation of storefronts like Steam. But, as Elliot suggests, it's not that simple. Curation comes with its own host of problems, and puts undue power into the hands of platform holders.
"Look at what YouTube has done recently with changing the boundaries for smaller content creators before they get to do monetisation stuff," says Elliot. "Some people say YouTube should have curated its platform properly in the first place, others might say that its a positive step because they started to do. Whatever happens, there's a lot of people who are demoralised because even if they weren't expecting to make millions, there was always a target to reach, but then the goal posts got moved."
Unfortunately there is no easy solution. The popularity of the industry will always be a powerful draw for budding creatives, and games development will only become more accessible as the tools improve. Furthermore, how can the games media justify the time and expense associated with digging up the occasional indie gem as those gems become increasingly difficult to find? In its current form, the indie scene feels unstable and while Valve is obviously aware of the current issues with Steam Direct, is the task of curating thousands of games each year simply too much?
“Obviously I'm not going to speak for Steam, but they are kind of in a position where they're damned if they do and damned if they don't," says Elliot. "I don't envy the task they have, and I'm sure the people who care about this issue the most is Steam."