As Epic and Steam struggle, indie game creators feel the squeeze
The indie game scene has produced some of the biggest and most beloved hits of recent years, “Minecraft”, “Undertale” and “Amnesia” among them. Yet as PC stores Steam and Epic fight over some of gaming’s biggest names and blockbusters-in-waiting, indie studios are getting caught in the middle, says Kitsune studio head Emma Maassen.
Kitsune Games founder Emma “Eniko” Maassen, whose “Midboss” has an 85 percent positive Steam rating, took to Twitter to explain some of the pressures facing the indie scene.
Whatever is going on, many devs are on "life support"; getting far more of their sales from previous wishlists than before, because their organic traffic has been cut. This isn't sustainable.
— Eniko (@Enichan) March 21, 2019
The Steam network, run by “Half-Life 2” and “Dota 2” giant Valve, has long been home for indie games in search of solid footing and an appreciative audience. Steam helps users sift through its 29,000 games via a Discovery Queue and Recommendations Feed, whose algorithm suggests titles that might catch the eye and prompt a sale.
Secrecy surrounds the vital algorithm, allowing Valve to stay on top of exploits, but smaller developers can only speculate about changes in visibility and income while trying to stay afloat.
Starting in October 2018, a series of tweaks and fixes caused a notable drop-off in store page visits and revenue for indies across the board, according to Maassen’s summary.
Problems persisted through the usually profitable Winter and Lunar Sale periods, developers seeing far lower numbers than usual.
Coincidentally, “Fortnite” publisher Epic launched its own tightly curated Epic Game Store in December, luring big games away from Steam with exclusive deals and an improved revenue share.
Steam responded with a bigger share for the biggest sellers. “Many of us suspect that pressure from Epic [led to] less organic traffic to smaller/less popular titles, and more to popular AAA titles,” Maassen suggested.
Perhaps staff looked at “where they get the most money, and decided to focus on that,” the theory goes, “to the exclusion of indies which draw many consumers to the platform and have a high but not directly monetary value.”
“Whatever is going on, many devs are on ‘life support’,” Maassen wrote. “Epic can open their store [to us], but they won’t until much later this year.”
Smaller alternatives for fans and studios include Itch.io, which lets developers set their own share. Popular chat app Discord, whose nascent store operates on a lower 10 percent share is, like Epic’s, invite-only. Neither operate at Steam or Epic’s level.
It’s also possible that summer could bring safe harbor in other forms. Google Stadia will let players buy games directly through YouTube, where indie titles can find massive audiences, though Maassen tells Relaxnews that Amazon’s equivalent Twitch store had a relatively minor impact; Xbox has its own game streaming, audience widening plans but console stores’ higher barriers to entry can shut out smaller indies.
“A lot of indie devs, some of which might be favorites of those reading this, are hanging on hoping for a turn-around before the summer sales,” Maassen tweeted. “Competition from Epic [and] growth of other platforms” such as Itch could prove the long-term difference. CE/JB