The storefront conundrum

This is an edition of Robin Sloan’s video game development diary.

Welcome: to returning readers as well as everyone newly subscribed. If you missed it, week 1 sets up the motivation behind this project. All the previous editions are available over on my blog.


Fishmarket, Camille Pissarro, 1902

Fishmarket, Camille Pissarro, 1902

Global upheaval has thrown me for a loop; I know I’m not alone in this. However, Perils of the Overworld proceeds. My pause in week 9 broke the neat chain of numbered weeks, and, rather than resume with week 10 or skip ahead to week… uh… 139?, I’m going to just start titling these thematically. Also, I’m not 100% sure I will forever and always send them weekly, so real titles work better anyway.

Wot I got

I have finally, finally gotten back to writing this game, and that will be my task for a while now: building out a web of locations and encounters.

The game’s blackjack-esque mechanism has suggested some new possibilities for the story; there’s a way in which a deck of cards implies a cast of characters, archetypal, maybe even tarot-like. So, hmm, yes, what if your quest involves meeting the real people who have been immortalized, idealized, in this deck of cards? What if you discover that the bluff Sentinel (pictured on the card wearing his awesome armor, hoisting his enormous shield) is now retired, brewing beer in Porto Calla…? What if he wants to describe to you the reality of the battle immortalized and idealized in those cards?

Okay, that’s interesting.


The storefront conundrum

I can now foresee the conclusion of the game’s development, which means actually releasing it is a real consideration rather than a hazy eventuality, which means I have to contend with digital storefronts.

In the discussion that follows, I’ll ignore the storefronts built into video game consoles like the Playstation 4 and Nintendo Switch, because, whatever Perils of the Overworld is, it’s not a console game.

That leaves two broad paths.

One is the phone, which means, to a first approximation, the iOS App Store. I’ve published an iOS app before and I know how that works; it’s a smooth process, and the App Store is slick. The drawbacks are that (a) Apple takes 30% of the purchase price, and (b) the game is only available to iOS users.

(Note to Android devotees: yes, I know your phones are super cool! However, an Android edition is only practical if/when an iOS edition has had some amount of success.)

The other path is the PC, which means, to a first approximation, the supremely successful storefront called Steam, operated by Valve Software. It’s hard to overstate its dominance. The video game writer and analyst Simon Carless publishes a terrific newsletter that aims to help indie video game makers reach more players, and it is 90% about mastering the dynamics of the Steam storefront. That’s not some weird preoccupation of Simon’s; it is the reality of the marketplace.

The problem is, I hate Steam.

It has the same drawback as the App Store, the 30% cut, to which it adds general clunkiness and confusion. Valve’s handling of Steam reminds me of Amazon’s handling of the Kindle: both enjoy a market position so commanding it has led to laziness bordering on contempt. You access Steam through a client app, and on macOS, that client is punishingly slow; from Valve’s point of view, this is forgivable, since macOS accounts for a single-digit percentage of all its sales. From my point of view, it’s like… come on!?

There’s a deeper characteristic that cuts across macOS and Windows, and I can’t quite put it into words, even though I feel it keenly. The App Store is at least anodyne; Steam is somehow… entropic. It does not exude craft or care. To me, it does not feel—has never felt—inviting or comfortable.

There are alternatives. The video game maker Epic has leveraged the success of Fortnite (I’m a fan) to establish a whole new storefront. I think it’s better-designed than Steam, and it’s certainly more performant. However, unlike the App Store and Steam, where anyone can sell any game they want, the Epic Games Store is open only by invitation, and there’s no indication that a lo-fi, text-based game like POTO would have a home there.

But there’s also itch.io, the beautifully simple storefront that is haven for the weird and artful, where a lo-fi, text-based game ABSOLUTELY has a home. It is totally independent and breathtakingly creator-friendly. (Also, its recent Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality raised an eye-popping $8 million for bail funds around the country.) I distribute the macOS version of Fish on itch.io, and the whole process was easy and inviting.

But the reality is that itch.io’s customer base is a fraction of a fraction… of a fraction… of the App Store’s and Steam’s, and the whole point of distributing through a digital storefront is to take advantage of its sales rankings, recommendation algorithms, and editorial curation to get in front of potential players.

There are, finally, other small storefronts—GOG, the Humble Store, and probably many I’ve never even heard of—but they have the same drawbacks as itch.io without its charms, so they are, for my purposes, basically superfluous.


Where a game wants to be

Let’s think through these options.

I think Perils of the Overworld “wants” to be a game for desktop and laptop computers. The reading experience will be fantastic—dramatic—on a bigger screen, and the ability to offer the game for both Windows and macOS means basically all potential players are covered. That feels better than an iOS-only offering.

One part of me says, oh, just hold your nose and sell the game on Steam; that’s where the players are. But, another part asks, is it really where the players for this game in particular are? I’m honestly not convinced. Consider that, on Steam, video games are merchandised largely through bright, scintillating demo videos that show off their most visually impressive moments. The demo video for POTO would be… a lot of text. Beautifully typeset, to be sure! But, no flashing lasers, no cascading voxels, no swarming minions. (I would love to know how the Choose Your Own Adventure-esque Choice of Games offerings do on Steam. There are a LOT of them; here’s one example.)

My heart tells me to distribute the game on itch.io, obviously. The problem is that distributing a video game only on itch.io is equivalent to selling a book only at San Francisco’s City Lights. You are willfully foreclosing a whole world of commercial possibilities.

Are there any other options? Sure. You don’t need a storefront to distribute a video game. Minecraft was sold for many years on its own dorky little website; you paid $20 and downloaded it onto your computer, just like the old days! But Minecraft is Minecraft, and foregoing digital storefronts means everything depends on direct word-of-mouth between players. That sounds both lovely and ludicrous.

The options get even more radical. POTO could be a web game, with nothing to download at all; you could just pay $5 to get a login and password. There’s a text-based narrative game called Fallen London that has run for years using this model.

Most radical of all, the game could be totally free to play, its development cost recouped from a group of patrons/backers, Kickstarter-style. I’ve done something like this before and I still think the model is very clean and “correct”; it “goes with the grain” of digital media in a way that other distribution models don’t. Tim Carmody calls it “unlocking the commons.” (You can tell you’re in the “most radical of all” paragraph when every other phrase is set off in quotation marks! 😝)

Those latter two options sound good—I mean, they are good!—but I want to underscore that you miss out on reaching a LOT of potential players when you abstain entirely from the storefronts and their flywheel algorithms. My Kickstarter-funded novella Annabel Scheme provides a useful example: I got paid (👍) and the book found an initial crowd of readers (👍👍) but, after that, its readership grew only verrry slowly. It never got plugged into the supply chain, material and intellectual, that circulates books through the world and introduces them to the people who might enjoy them.

Where does that leave us?

These contortions trace a kind of abstract truth: there is some group of people in the world who might enjoy Perils of the Overworld, and some fraction of that group who would pay ~$5 to give it a try. How can I find those people? I’ve found some of you already with this newsletter, which has about 2,200 subscribers. But, not all of you will pay $5 for POTO, and even if you did, I’d need many more to make the project a commercial success.

A savvy reader will interject to ask: well, Robin, how many players do you need?

The number I have in my head is 5,000, which feels simultaneously modest and unthinkable. I have a tremendous asset: ongoing access to a curious audience, through this newsletter and my much larger, general-purpose newsletter, too. At the same time, I am pretty disconnected from the central nodes of, like, Video Game Enthusiasm. There’s a kind of indie developer who is casually tweeting, every day, to a community of a few thousand potential players; I am not that developer.

Are there 5,000 players waiting for POTO on Steam? On the App Store? On itch.io? In the blue-shadowed hills of the open web?

This conundrum remains, for now, unsolved.

But, I think it’s important for you to understand that this is as much a part of making a game as… actually making a game. A media artifact without a distribution channel doesn’t do anything for anybody. And there’s plenty of room for creativity and invention and—dare I say it—values in this part of the process, too.

(I’ll tell you what: grappling with these video game storefronts has made me grateful for the distribution network available to books. Amazon is big, of course, and represents a plurality of sales for most books published in the U.S.—but its share is not as overwhelming as Steam’s or the App Store’s are for video games. In addition to Amazon, there are real bookstores—a huge constellation of indies, big and small, all of them exactly the kind of businesses you want to be associated with—and of course, there are public libraries, too: the great backstop, offering the assurance that, in the end, anybody who wants to read your book will be able to read it, no matter what. There’s no public library for video games.)


This week

The Lock at Pontoise, Camille Pissarro, 1872

The Lock at Pontoise, Camille Pissarro, 1872

More writing!

What kind of beer is the Sentinel brewing? What’s his name? Claude. I think his name is Claude.

From Oakland,

Robin

P.S. I have an almost clairvoyant sense that some readers missed my Ink tutorial who would have enjoyed it. If “writing the script for a narrative game in a simple, screenplay-like format” sounds interesting to you… check it out.


This has been an edition of my video game development diary, sent by email every few weeks. You can subscribe: