Share on Twitter ❤️ Share on Facebook 👍
In 2020, if you are giving anything to free to Steam/Valve as a game developer you are a fool. This unedited mega-rant (you’ve been warned) is largely an indictment on Valve and their games distribution service Steam.
Valve has betrayed indies too many times. In response to Valve’s accumulative actions and inactions:
Don't bite the hand that feeds you. - A phrase often said about the relationship between a slave and a master.
I don’t have guts to stop selling on Steam entirely today (though Valve may punish me for writing this article and kick me off right away - "you think you don't need us, then GTFO!") when the reality is most PC gamers would rather not buy games at all if they can’t buy them on Steam. But we will go back to focusing on building our own direct audience, and selling direct as much as possible. We certainly are going to stop giving Valve everything for free when they do not respect us in return. And we are for sure going to go back to building our own services and platforms instead of blindly, and stupidly trusting Valve to have our best interests at heart as well as the best interests of our customers at heart. I severely regret helping them to grow their audience size in the niches I serve and develop for. I severely regret encouraging other devs to publish on Steam when I should have encouraged them to sell direct / work together to build our own stronger networks of promotion we control.
In the last few years, Valve has enacted various anti-developer policies which directly impact the independence of developers and coerce them to build an unhealthy relationship reliant on Valve for sale and distribution of PC games. These go from blocking devs from talking about their games on other platforms, to linking to their own websites if those sites have any mention of other platforms or stores. Crazy evil! Why should devs link to Steam then? We won’t anymore! It's only going to get worse as the war with Epic rages on. I don't see Valve being the good guy like Epic has been toward devs when Valve had so many opportunities and instead gave it all to Epic to do first.
As gamers buy games on Steam, they naturally want to buy more of their games on Steam. This is called library lockin, and it is a very powerful force those like Epic have been trying to bust with their free game offerings (the work by Epic in giving away millions upon millions of dollars of value to gamers while still paying developers for all of that free stuff is unprecedented and a great thing for gamers and game developers willing and able to take advantage of it).
Once a gamer has been invested in Steam, they are very unlikely to even buy games off Steam. If a game is only sold on another store, or only directly on a developers site, but without a Steam key given as part of that sale, their interest in buying greatly diminishes. This is the harm that library lockin causes in those gamers not aware of this practice. These gamers instead contact the dev begging them to put their games on Steam, and may only make a purchase until it is sold on Steam. Big publishers tried to break this cycle of abuse, but Valve bribed them back with your life blood and a lower cut. Only Epic is the real threat left to Steam’s total dominance. That doesn’t mean you cannot chip away on your niche, they won’t even notice it, but you can still grow to an enviable titan in your own respect.
Several years ago we decided to go all in on supporting Valve and eventually not focusing on selling our games directly. We even changed all of the links of our games on our site to point directly to the Steam pages. There was no sense in fighting it, I thought, embrace Steam and they will treat us with respect in return. I was a fool!
From today in 2020 to the last 13 years I have been sending tens of thousands of people to Steam. These people are likely those who were not Steam’s main audience, and were likely a new audience for Valve to acquire. Developers like me have likely sent 100,000+ customers to Steam. Every time I interact with Steam customers they often tell me that our game was the first game they got on their Steam account. The promotions we have ran in the past have likely boosted the daily active users of Steam as much as any major game. How do we get treated in thanks?
We get told we’re not allowed to link to our own sites if we sell directly from our site or link to any stores which sell our games.
We get told we’re not allowed to tell people about the other versions of our game on Steam, such as the iOS or Android versions.
I can only imagine the kind of anti-developer decisions that will be coming from Valve in the future. How close will they get to the old PC game portals? Will they ban all contact between developers and their customers? Will they ban us from building newsletter lists from within our games?
All of this directly impacts the ability for indies… to be indie. That is - independent. You’re not independent if you’re chained to Steam. You’re a slave stuck in a bad deal.
Do devs like us get any kind of sweetheart deal for sending so many people to Steam? Nope. But Valve gives AAA publishers that kind of sweet deal. Valve says it’s because those big publishers publish games that drive most of the traffic to Steam, but I don’t see a lot of audience overlap with what we make, and so devs like us don’t really benefit.
It’s really raw when we have believed so hard in Steam and then get slapped in the face. Let’s be real, it’s not even a slap, it’s total and absolute disregard for the chains.
Of course the service of Steam is good for most of us gamers and developers. It’s mostly reliable. But is it worth 30%? No. The cost of hosting / payment processing and so on should be worth no more than 3-5% at Valve’s scale, rounded up to 10% and Valve makes a killing still, but you make more of a fair share as well. It’s your game! It’s your customers! It’s your money! Valve is not entitled to the blood from your veins and the sweat of years of your thankless work just for existing!
And let’s not forget that selling Steam keys is a liability! Why? Because of fraud and charge backs. Bad actors want the Steam keys to sell on grey market game sites like G2A. So they use stolen payment info to buy these games. Eventually these payments get charged back, but this could take months to happen. And not only do game developers lose the original sale but they often get dinged $10 plus from the chargeback fee. This adds up and can end up costing small devs $50,000 to $100,000 who were foolish enough to include Steam keys in their direct sales.
I used to have similar opinions about BFG back in the day and I still largely do. BFG did all of the bad anti-dev things Steam is doing, is blatantly bound to do more of, and then some. They also took way more. 70%! Most portals of their generation did this, and it hurt. Valve in comparison taking only 30% was a blessing! But even to this day for BFG taking 70% they still market the hell out of your game, and if you made it well and right for their audience it can still sell enough to keep an indie fed. Can Valve say the same? No. Instead Valve’s situation is going to be worse. They’ll still expect their pound of flesh, and they will give you next to nothing for it. Another plus for BFG is that BFG employees have always been way more responsive than Valve ones. There are certain people I respect at Valve, but the kind of ruthless professionalism BFG has is still appreciated. I don’t want to go back to giving BFG 70% either, it’s a really raw deal that still hurts, but it’s also a deal you might be tempted to take… it’s a deal with the devil and if you can afford it you should say no. For years I was happy to reject this deal, but also in years Valve declined more and more, and so eventually through a partner we took those deals again. And in some ways now I value BFG more than Valve for some of the reason above. It’s crazy!
I say wishlist con because wishlists on Steam end up being something YOU DIRECTLY CAUSE! Wishlists are a metric Valve uses to promote your game… sort of. It’s obviously tied to Steam Likes, but in practice unless your game is an obvious mega hit you will see next to no benefit in raising this metric. What this means is that the next mega hit could have 10,000+ Steam Likes while your next game could have 10 Steam likes if you did your tags right. So it’s another rich get richer situation, and another situation where your blood is being drained to service Valve and those games most likely to enrich Valve the most.
Instead of sending customers to Steam to wishlist let it happen actually organically. Don’t promote people to wishlist at all. If Valve or some news or gaming community decides to give it some promotion or whatever great. Meanwhile what you should do is send people to a newsletter to sign up and be notified of your game’s release plus get a 20% off coupon of your game when they buy direct. Which means you get 10% more, and your customer saves 20%! Then you don’t even have to promote the game on Steam, but if you do decide to still you have an actual trusthworthy way to reach your customers. Who knows if your customers will even be notified by Steam that your game they wished there is even released. I’ve had many people say they wishlisted my previous game and never got notified, never knew it was released yet. So do the smart thing, and put you and your customers first.
This is mentioned elsewhere but I want to restate it. At least at some time you had some chance at “free” marketing from Steam taking its 30%, but those days are long over. What are you paying for with your 30% now? Nothing you cannot deliver to customers for much less. These days Valve 100% expects you to handle all marketing for your game. They’ve rigged the systems to be against you as a smaller dev, and instead to make the rich richer because it makes Valve richer to do so.
This is the part where so many games on Steam can hurt for other devs the most. Gamers have a lot of options… they have huge backlogs from years of buying sales and bundles… the race to the bottom happened. And all of this sort of culminates in Steam sales not being exciting anymore. They used to be big opportunities for most devs who could participate. Not anymore.
Part of it is people own all of the best games already from one sale or another. Part of it is Valve being forced to give refunds, the introduction of its refund policy making flash sales less viable. Devs have figured out this too somewhat that the race to the bottom hurts them in the long run too, and so might not ever reduce their games below 50%. Which makes gamers share a feeling of the sales not being amazing anymore when there used to be crazy sales (that also hurt the long tail profits of those short sighted devs). But no matter what, Valve sales are not what they used to be when they used to be one of the best earning periods for devs. Those times are over, you can’t rely on the big sales anymore, so don’t expect riches from them. It can happen still. It probably won’t happen though.
Valve is obviously playing favorites against smaller, more niche indies (as in the vast majority of developers on Steam). Not only do AA and AAA publishers get a better deal than the plebeians who can’t scare Valve hard enough in threat or action of leaving, but Valve seems to give promotion priority to AAA and AA over indie games in organic marketing tood. That is on our games in the “More Games Like This” section it’s often the case that more than half of the games listed there are AA or AAA, and not other actual indies. I would prefer to only either promote my other other games, or the games of other smaller creators, and not a company who not only is getting a sweetheart deal on the cut but is also not hurting for organic promotion. You can see this across the board with tiny games with 10 reviews constantly promoting huge AAA games in their “More Like This Section” it just seems cruel.
I have tried to understand the “More Like This Section” and all I can think is that it is sales driven as a priority, game association secondary. That is naturally Valve naturally wants to make money, so they favor games with high conversion rates over niche titles. Which means niche games are dead on arrival on Steam if you are not bringing YOUR audience with you to Steam. It is a losing battle with the odds stacked against you, so why participate at all? Why send your customers there?! Why encourage more people to get locked into this toxic, anti-developer system?
It’s public knowledge that Valve charges developers 30% of everything someone’s game makes as a requirement be able to be sold on Steam. It used to be that before the floodgates on Steam this 30% meant something, that is that your game would get some kind of meaningful amount of attention. Even back in the day this was all luck based and never a guarantee. Devs were lucky when their game was the only game released that week and got all of the sales benefits of that week long front page exposure. Devs were justifiably pissed when their game was released on the same day another game released 20 DLC, and so pushed off all other games released that day from the front page. This happened a few times a year at least. Not even 1 day of front page exposure for a dozen + games at a time on some days. But now everyone for the most part gets a big fat 0 days on the front page. If Valve or it’s algorithm doesn’t love you (baseded on YOU sending YOUR customers to YOUR GAME’S SALES PAGE) then your game will not get any visibility at all at launch day.
My point is that it used to be understood that the 30% at least had a decent chance to get you some marketing
It used to be that visibility rounds were a viable option in promoting your game on Steam. These are things Valve gives you for “free” (30% of your game’s sales). It’s supposed to be that you updated your game with a cool update, you got to use a visibility round, and your game’s update would be shown on the front page of Steam for all the world see. Does it still work like that? No. Instead some time ago visibility rounds were changed so that they only seem to be shown to people who already own your game / have express some interest in it such as by wishlisting it. Which means it’s only a tool to re-engage your existing customers on Steam, not to get new customers. And if you have 0 existing customers/interested parties, when you use a visibility round you are going to see 0 impressions on that round. It’s a nice feature to re-engage, but it’s misleading to developers on what it actually does. It is not worth 30%! If you have good numbers on your rounds it only means you sent Valve a ton of free traffic! A newsletter list is worth more instead!
Why give 30% to indie still why giving 20% to 10% to the bigger players? Because they want the money of the bigger players, while they still need our 30%. It all adds up, they need us as in they need our money, our 30%. They need us to drive our customers to the store, so that the bigger games can be promoted. They need us to give them $100 per game, to spread their service for free by selling Steam keys, they need us to embed our Steam store pages on our sites. Because it all adds up. While the AAA and AA do not doubt contribute meaningful amounts of revenue, without the indies Steam is a husk.
I still believe in GabeN. But even today it seems he’s already not really in control of Valve anymore. There is apparently a council of employees at Valve who make decisions. In the past, specific Valve employees tried to censor games for political reasons. Games like Hatred, which while may be distasteful to some, are ultimately harmless - at least as long as you don’t believe that fiction directly influences reality… but if it does how many mass shootings has Hatred directly inspired? Uh, zero so far since it was released 5 years ago in 2015?
My main concerns with the loss of GabeN:
For someone like GabeN Steam is his vision, it is his legacy. For others working at Valve, what do they really care what happens to Steam in the long term? Valve is not a perfect merit driven culture. I have already first hand seen the taint creeping into Valve employees, I have been disgusted multiple times already on their actions, and it has only been GabeN who saved the day and course corrected.
This goes along with the loss of GabeN but I feel the need to reiterate the point. I firmly believe that Valve and Steam will forever change when GabeN is gone from the company for good however that happens. For some people this will be a joyous occasion to cut the golden goose open and get all of the golden eggs inside all at once. For most sane people, this will be a very bad end to Steam.
There are traitors everywhere, there always will be, and they will be the death if not the decline of Valve as they have been in every great company, every great civilization. Parasites and partisans will corrupt and subvert Valve and Steam to serve them better more than it already is. Not as a consumer first, a service first company, but as a greed and ideology first company. We can already see the great ideological conquest of companies which proudly shout the slogans of today which have nothing to do what they are selling, these companies have all been gutted from the inside, and will be replaced with newer, fitter alternatives in the future.
Censorship of any kind is the spark which kindles new innovation. Censoring of a single person, a single game, and rally and inspire millions of people against Valve. As Valve gets taken by those idiots and those blood thirsty lunatics, they will press the censorship button with wild abandon while traitorous allies of convenience work hard to pillage and plunder the company of value for their own enrichment and the enrichment of their friends.
Along with censorship we will also see unjustified promotion. At least we can say today that Valve’s promotion has some degree of merit to it, in service of the best selling titles, with the aim of financial efficiency in Valve’s favor. But what happens when Valve decides to start shoving political messages directly at their users every time they boot up the game. Vote for this person! Support this cause! If you like the color red then you are fascist! If you eat meat then your’re a murder! The short sighted signaling is another inevitability beyond what has already happens, and along with censorship it will alienate huge numbers of people. In the short term, Valve won’t care, they got their easy wins in, but in the long tail they will see the damage they have done. People will stop buy. People will actively work to build better niche focused alternatives. The never-not-Valve buyers will either convert to other platforms, or realize they were only buying games as a hobby and just quit games entirely. It could end up causing a “death of an industry” while smaller, newer islands thrive.
In the past I have been apologetic about Valve’s stance on Steam in terms of opening it up to everyone. The Internet is open, so why not Valve? Anyone can pay ~$100 (which you get back after your game makes $1,000) to release a game on Steam. But it still has to go through review. What does this review actually do? Fundamentally it checks that your game has the features your store page says it has, that it is not incorrectly rated, that it’s not illegal. And that’s about it. Other than those things, quality control is out the door - as is evident by the many non-games sold on the platform. Now again I do not have a problem with these games existing on Steam, they don’t hurt me… but why am I paying Valve 30% for what my games make without so much to show for it? It feels like the only thing I am paying for is the fact Valve has managed to establish a soft-monopoly on PC game sales and distribution. All of these distribution platforms with strong monopolistic grasps on developers and consumers need to be stood up to before it's too late!
The most important and valuable thing you can have as a creator is to have a newsletter mailing list. You need to e-mail people just often enough with exciting enough mail so that they will are excited to open every single e-mail from you. They need to never become annoying, never go off topic, and never not be like getting a big present. This is where you can learn from Valve with its TF2/Dota2/CSGO marketing pages. I’m talking about the long form media rich ones. Make these for your games, and have them be the main feature of your marketing and you will easily win. Plus these types of long form promo pages are super effective at going viral, that’s why Valve keeps using them!
There is huge opportunity out there, if you are a niche dev then ultimate Valve needs you more than you need it. Your games are the lifeblood in their ability to get the AA and AAA the marketing they need to be profitable on Steam. They leech off of you not the other way around!
This is something that’s not really impressed on most new customers to digital distribution, but it’s still true. You don’t own your games, you only own the media (the disk, the console, the drive) that “your” games are installed on. With older forms of distribution, blocking gamers from playing the games they paid for was nearly impossible. Today the opposite is nearly impossible - being able to “buy” a game that some 3rd party can’t arbitrarily block your access to play.
DRM is obviously a bad thing for consumers. As is always online services. In a way, this site is bad for that too - because the games on it are only accessible as long as the site stays up.
As far as anti-DRM goes, obviously GOG and Humble have been big proponents of DRM. But I cannot recommend either of those companies for my own personal reasons. Both GOG and Humble have treated me and my friends with disrespect in the past. They too would act just as cold as Valve if they had the kind of power in the market as Valve has. And neither of them have a GabeN.
What happens to your Steam account when you break the ToS or community guidelines? At best your lose your ability to interact with the Steam community at all and have your ability to buy games blocked from the account you were using. Meaning that 1,000 large game library is as big as it’s ever going to get, and if you use a new account both will be permanently banned. Think you’ve never done anything wrong on Steam? Think again, rules can always change, and logs are there forever. Plus what is to stop Valve from deciding to ban people over their actions or opinions off site? Instead of having a huge library on Steam being a comfortable convenience, it is instead a massive liability. Too many eggs in one basic! How would you feel if in the future Valve banned all customers who donated to a certain politician? Or posted the wrong meme on Facebook or Twitter? If the wrong people take over Steam then this is another inevitability — we have already seen it happen on other platforms like Patreon, Twitter, Facebook, and the list goes on. Once the standard has been set, it’s there for a long time, and the pendulum always swings… so those thinking they are say, that they are “on the right side of history” think again… next time it’s you, the weapons used against your enemies will be used against you.
With older games consoles and gaming media, it was physically possible to pass down the games you purchased. For many people with kids… they do not realize that their Steam library ends with them, it’s not something they can pass down. Those 1,000 games sitting in their account goes poof as soon as they die. Of course this kind of thing ensures everyone buys copies for the games they love, and hopefully devs benefit from every copy, but it also means that the joy of passing down PROPERTY isn’t a thing anymore. The best alternative to this is DRM free games, but even license agreements usually restrict distribution rights to a single person and their own computers. Still services like Steam are a hard stop in passing down libraries, which sucks in many ways. I sort of feel like in 10-20 years kids will share stories of their parents having huge libraries that were disabled as soon as the (then inevitably required) linked Facebook account said that their parent had died. What kind of chilling effect will that have then thousands of dollars worth of games become graveyards of value. Will the children say they will never buy games in that way? Or maybe gaming as a whole will have fully transitioned to F2P by then.
Apple, Google, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo. They all have their own fatal flaws when it comes to distribution and sales, and they all take the same 30% cut or more from what your game makes when sold on their platforms. The difference is that the hardware most of them sell on is mostly closed off compared to PC gaming, which means selling direct is actually more viable and should be what is done.
All of those stores ostensibly block 3rd party installs (or dramatically make them harder to install / make them impossible to auto-update) to protect the users. They also ostensibly block 3rd party payment methods to protect the users. Both have some truth to them, but both are in the end entirely false. Blocking 3rd party installs doesn’t block malware that can be installed due to existing security vulnerabilities. Blocking 3rd party payment methods doesn’t stop people’s info from being stolen or for them falling for scams. Most of these stores allow 3rd party ads, and those ads can still open up links to sites in the web-browsers which can take payment info and deliver potential malware to hijack the device. It’s happened countless times before. The truth is these platforms want control, and they want as much money as possible. The same is happening with Valve.
Ultimately all of these greedy, controlling bastards who threaten the Independence of creators need to be shown that they are not the ones who have the power, it is the creators who have the power. Of course in the distribution of creative works it’s not just in games that creators and consumers suffer. In anime / manga it’s a total wreck too with no sign of recovering, and in those markets there isn’t even a Steam with library lockin.
Even platforms like Patreon are dirty. They ban and censor arbitrarily on their petty whims or ideological / political affections. Any platform which does this ultimately cannot be trusted. They cannot be supported if you value your freedom and your sustainability. It’s really fucked that it has come to this, but really you need to be in control of as much of the system as possible for you to be be able to survive in the long term. Sales. Distribution. Customer support. Likely in the years to come running your own Steam clone, your own Patreon clone on hardware you control with you in a direct relationship with payment processors (who will still fuck with your independence if they feel like it - VISA and MasterCard do it all of the time) and other basic infrastructure (like Cloudflare). It’s infuriating that even the most basics low level services still cannot be guaranteed to be reliable, non partial, upholding of the values of the US Constitution, but that’s where were at. At least low level gamedevs don’t have reason to fear with being fucked with too much by the likes of Cloudflare or the banking system, but my point is even these bastards cannot be trusted, they need to be routed around eventually, and they will be.
To creators out there, you have to understand the importance of distributing / selling directly to those who consume your products. You need to have a newsletter. You need to be able to have a direct relationship with those who support what you make. With any 3rd party inbetween you who can threaten your work or your link to YOUR customers, you are not independent. You’re not an indie, you’re just another slave at the mercy of a master who could any day strike you down with no recourse.
Valve is number 1 on PC games distribution. It’s obvious, it’s not changing today, and they have made some efforts to ensure at least the big hitter publishers move back to publishing on Steam. But this situation can still change, and it requires you and me to do something about it. Ultimately for us Valve’s choices have had the chilling effect of making us to want to completely divorce from the relationship. But money still matters to us too, so until we can build up alternatives again to the point of them being viable again, or if Valve rages at me for publishing this article and decides to boot us before we can build an alternative, we will eventually break up and go back to actually being closer to independent.
I have my own reservations about the leadership of itch.io but so far they are still one of the best alternatives to Steam in terms of friendliness toward developers and options in selling and distributing. Their only pitfall is their organic traffic is low. But what’s the problem with that when Valve expects you to do all of the marketing for your game on your own these days without giving you any meaningful marketing in return for their precious 30% of what your game makes?
The answer is being militantly independent. This is where the spirit of the “indie” game developer began, not as some kind of game type or trend or movement or whatever… but about being independent! You can’t be independent if you’re a slave to another master. Many people are happy slaves, but they’re still slaves. If you want to be independent you need the platforms to need you more than you need them. When you make the next Minecraft instead of putting it on Steam you need to say, nah, fuck that, and sell and distribute it directly. No matter how much Valve begs you and offers you an amazing deal, even offering you 100% of what your game makes (what shocking generosity)! Because the value of your game being on Steam alone would be so much to them. How about you keep 100% of what your game makes (less the trivial 3-6% payment processing and distribution fees) and tell them to fuck off.
You need to be making enough for selling direct to be viable. This comes down to your game being good, your game having a market who wants to buy it (and are able to), and you having the ability to reach these customers. Does Valve determine if your game is good? No, they don’t care about game quality. Does Valve know or care if your game is marketable enough? No. Does Valve help you reach new customers? No, not unless you first dump a huge number of customers on them first. So why do you even consider distributing on Steam? Because you heard stories of indie riches and wanted to chase after it. What’s most likely to happen if you have no plan, and no ability to drive customers to Steam is that your $100 will become Valve’s $100 forever. At least the Greenlight fee used to go to charity.
Trust means building a long term reliable behavior. Responding quickly. Building quality products. Being honest. Being consistent. Being professional. Not breaking expectations. Not annoying. Not alienating. It starts in presentation, looking the part, and ends in satisfaction, delivering a worthwhile experience and then some.
If your site looks like garbage, or you don’t even have a site, if you have no direct communication, if you have stuff that would put warning signs up for you, then you need to fix it. Your reputation stays with you forever in the gaming world, and it takes a long time to heal damage done. If you do fuck up, it’s easier to start over with a new name, but if people find out who you are again you’ll instantly lose all credibility. It’s harder but better to own up to your mistakes and try to fix and make up for them in the long run. Look at No Man’s Sky or A Realm Reborn. If you do fuck up, the best you could hope for is you working through the pain to recover. Be generous with those loyal to you.
Obviously the game comes first. Great games can move mountains of customers to you. This has been shown time and time again from Minecraft to Fortnite, it can happen. Though your game is unlikely to be a mega hit, so you need to add more value on top of your game that people can only get from buying from you. What would be even better if they could only buy directly from you, but if you can’t do that you can at least still give more to those who buy direct. You have got to be ruthless about this. Give your direct customers a better deal. Like heck - give them a 20% permanent discount from buying direct. You’ll still get 10% more than selling on Steam!
Value also means features like an Account system, Cloud Saves, Achievements, an easy way to redownload their purchased games, friends lists, gifting… the works. I know you want to just make games, but you have to think about these things that gamers expect too, and if they’re worth being a slave to Valve to have, or if you are willing to invest to build all of these meta features that add value to your direct customers. If you can do it then do it!
A kind of crazy value feature is Steam’s marketplace. This is hard to duplicate, but could make you so much money if you made a similar system that people actually used. Valve being the hub of PC games helps a lot, they take a cut from all of those pseudo $0.03 transactions, and the millions of them that happen every day or maybe even every hour add up to big money. Think big on these kinds of features you could deliver on your platform that Valve or even Epic would have little hope to copy from you. Although if you’re successful… they will of course copy what they can.
I used to be a much harder line anti-DRM developer. Now I don’t really care. And I can see that consumers don’t really care either, otherwise they would have voted with their wallets against DRM, but they don’t do that, so in reality it’s not really a thing to question, it’s instead a personal choice for you as a dev. Do it or don’t, there are genuine reasons to do either. Even though I personally am repulsed by DRM like Denuvo, the DRM style of services like Blizzard use do seem to legitimately capture more sales than if those games had not had DRM in the long run. For the most part I don’t want to use DRM in my games, but I cannot deny the value of the account based styles like even games like Minecraft have. It’s possible to pirate, but just having the login no doubt does increase sales against those who might otherwise pirate. Speaking of Minecraft, I still think that publicly sharing sales numbers like Markus had the guts to do back in the day was a great way of passive marketing. It’s similar to Steam’s stats, they can constantly get free publicity when they reach different milestones in stats. If you have the guts… then share stats (but keep them honest, don’t fudge them), and make it automated so others can make the news story for you when things happen. Of course it can make your games targets of clones, but the stats are already out there like with Steam users playing, so you may as well as put some real juicy stats out there yourself in an automatic way.
Being DRM free is still the best for your consumers, and gives them the most respect. If you trust your users, then give them at least a mostly DRM free experience. Give them installers they can back up themselves and install without any verification required. Yes, it makes piracy easy, but piracy in most cases would already be easy. If you can genuinely provide online services that require account verification on top of the DRM free game that’s the best of both worlds. I’m reminded of games like Diablo 2 in that regard where that was nearly possible though a game key was still required even to offline install. If you are in this for the long term I feel that showing your customers respect and showing them that you trust them to be loyal and honorable is the best way to get and keep customers for life.
If you only sell directly there will obvious that there be factions of gamers who have been made aware of your game somehow (most likely DIRECTLY FROM YOU!) and still cling to wanting to only buy it on Steam. If you want to really WIN then you have to resist ever putting your game on Steam, and you have to make it clear that your game WILL NEVER BE ON STEAM! Making it absolutely clear, and standing by that clarity is the best way to convert those never-non-Steam gamers into eventual buyers. But just remember… Steam users don’t care about DRM, so if you are insisting on not publishing on Steam, you probably should consider using really good DRM such as always online service type of DRM, because otherwise I guarantee these Steam diehards will pirate your game just to spite you, because they are so loyal to Steam, but if they have no real option than to buy and it’s a game they really want they WILL BUY! I’m not advocating for DRM, I’m saying if the lion’s share of your sales are expected to overlap with Steam users then do what Blizzard does and make it impossible to play offline. As demoralizing that is, that’s what most gamers voted for. As previously noted, there are other options, do what’s right for you, I want to be honest with you of the reality of the situation that’s that DRM free is not automatically the best way to distribute, at least a hybrid approach may be best, but even account login to access online features is extremely powerful.
Why do F2P games even bother distributing on Steam? It’s because of the network effect of reaching the top charts. Free games reach the user top charts easier than paid, which brings more people to those games naturally. One of the benefits Steam has is the huge network of friends, you see what your friends are playing, it encourages discovery of new titles. This is also another rich get richer situation, but for F2P games it is a huge benefit. So I can understand F2P being on Steam. And it doesn’t hurt that people trust Steam and are probably more likely to buy things in F2P games with their payment info connected with Steam. Another + with Steam’s library lockin is that it does disincentivize bad behavior, which means for people with lots of games they are probably not going to be doing random chargebacks on their stupid F2P impulse purchases, which could be seen as bad for humanity, but is for sure good for people who love money and own those games.
Premium games still exist, but don’t sleep on F2P. F2P is massively valuable, and doing F2P off Steam can be a great way to get customers without paying a cent. Especially if you have a great game that has a ton of value in it - it’s naturally high value, people will naturally WANT to share it with others since it’s free and so awesome… that’s a secret, make it easy for others to give value to others through what you make.
To be independent you need to be making money passively every month with the ability to do nothing. This means not needing to run down people to pay you. This means having money sent to you from sales every month automatically. You need to not put all of your eggs in one basket, you need to be making money from everywhere, every portal you can, don’t leave money on the table, but don’t do their marketing for them. If Big Fish Games can handle doing marketing for their cut, then so can Valve - at least comparable to the % they take, and if they can’t do that, then why send them traffic for free. Just like iOS/Android/Whatever let those walled gardens work for you, don’t work for them. Work on your own site and services, give crazy value to your direct customers. You can do it.
One important thing you can do as a developer and as a consumer is to build parallel / adjacent communities to Steam which Valve does not control. This goes from features like friends lists, instant messaging, down to game specific forums. Since Valve is taking action now to stop developer freedom, flow of factual information, neutral third parties need to step in and take over of the flow of information. For devs this can mean to stop using Steam forums for any sort of communication. Lock the forums of your games from posting, redirect to your own community, or a trusted third party hosted forum for your game (until Valve tries to block that too). Then you can say what you want, promote what you want, sell what you want, and make what you want!
I still believe what I wrote in my Webgame Developer Survival Guide for 2020. Webgames are the future, they represent freedom and openness and accessibility for games more even than PC games do (though native PC games will still always have their own value and purpose and should never be disregarded). History repeats itself. The old will be new again. This entire topic is about the monopoly and tyranny of platforms that have consolidated power, and the need for individuals to disinvest and build new islands. We cannot wait to do this later in the future, it has to be done now. Do your part.
This article is already too long, too unfocused, too rambly so I’m cutting it here. I do have a new fire in my heart and I will double down on the PRO-CONSUMER and PRO-DEVELOPER and PRO-CREATIVE-FREEDOM and PRO-INDEPENDENCE articles on this site.
I’m not infallible either so take this article with a grain or more of salt. You can of course find riches on Steam, but still I would still wish that if you are making the next big hit - sell direct and prove yet again Steam needs you more than you need it!
Words used too often in this article: obvious, inevitably, probably
Solitaire - Solitaire Articles - Blog - Solitaire Questions - Solitaire Community