The Three Eras Of Game Discoverability

Which one are you stuck in?

[Hi - I’m Simon Carless, and you’re reading Game Discoverability Weekly, a regular look at how people find - and buy - your video games. Or don’t. You may know me from helping to run GDC & the Independent Games Festival, and advising indie publisher No More Robots, or from my other newsletter Video Game Deep Cuts.]

This week, I thought it might be good to set the scene by discussing why people are confused about discoverability for video games. And, to be fair, they have very good reason.

I think it’s possible to divide the eras of video game discoverability into roughly three parts - each of which bleeds messily into the other:

  • Retail-first discoverability (1980s to 2005)

  • Early digital discoverability (2006 to 2013)

  • Peak digital discoverability (2014 to 2019)

I’ve had a front-ish seat to each of these, given that I was a game developer in the ‘90s and worked on retail only-published games, then wrote for Game Developer magazine/Gamasutra & ran the IGF for a chunk of the ‘early digital discoverability’ era, and… well, I’m still alive and ticking today in the ‘modern era’!

So let’s look at each era, and discover what preconceptions you might have brought with you to skew your views on discoverability.

Retail-first discoverability (1980s to 2005)

This business model was pretty straightforward - you built your own games from scratch (often writing their own game engines!), partnered with a game publisher (or were part of one), and then your game got sent to manufacturing and distributed to stores.

Often, the publisher paid you up front for your game & you didn’t really get much of anything on the back end. And as a dev, you didn’t have to worry much about discoverability. (You did have to worry about signing your next game in a hurry, since you still had to pay employees between projects!)

Publishers negotiated with retail stores for shelf space, but they could use their previous successes to push through large shipments of titles - or at least, larger amounts than you can in today’s infinitely stocked digital marketplace.

And most importantly, the amount of games a player could buy was massively more limited, and yet the pricing was still aggressive compared to today. (Game prices were often $50 or more, which corresponds with $80-$100 in today’s money.)

What you might be confused about today: if you’ve come up in retail-centric dev, you might be under the impression that platforms are ‘publisher equivalents’. You might think that they promote the game for you or give you ‘prime shelf space’ as part of their 30% cut.

Sadly, in most cases, they do not, unless you have metrics or profile to back it up. And even then, their help - whether the feature be editorial or algorithmic - is a smaller part of the puzzle. Your game still has to stand out on its own - particularly because of the massive amounts of extra games available.

On the plus side, if you actually make a profit on a self-published game, you can keep it! (Unlike the old days, where a lot of publisher agreements seemed to swallow the proceeds, much like the movie industry.)

Early digital discoverability (2006 to 2013)

I pegged this era as starting some time around the launch of Xbox Live Arcade on Xbox 360, and of course, this was also when Steam started working more with third parties.

This kicked off a true ‘golden age’ for indies and discoverability. The retail market was still strong, and running in parallel. But smaller (in download size) digital games, with a different sensibility to retail games, were also increasingly in demand. And most importantly, they were VERY high profile on the various digital storefronts.

Hence, you got multi-million sales for (excellent) games like Castle Crashers - the success of which is confusing developers & their genre choices to this very day. Remember that you couldn’t buy most ‘retail’ titles on your PC or console at this time, even though the layout of the stores looked similar.

Overall, there weren’t that many early digital-only console & PC games, either, with scarcity helping and a LARGE userbase who owned Counter-Strike (for Steam) or Xbox/PlayStation 4 consoles flooding into try out these cheaper, uniquely positioned indie titles. (Again, you probably had to develop your own game engine and do a bunch of custom console coding for platforms like XBLA - it just wasn’t that easy.)

Towards the end of this era, you saw retail games moving on to digital platforms, mainly because the hard drives of consoles got big enough to deal with the downloads, or PC consumers got more comfortable with buying expensive titles digitally. Thus, the ‘featuring’ on the console stores began to favor the large titles that Sony and Microsoft believed might be hardware-moving titles.

In addition, game engines such as Unity and Unreal started to become ubiquitous and inexpensive. Thus, making games for one or multiple platforms became way easier, and the sheer amount of games started increasing again. (Not least because you could hedge your bets across multiple platforms cheaper.)

What you might be confused about today: If this is the era you most identify with, because you played or developed games in it, there’s a lot of misdirection in here. For example, Indie Game: The Movie picked games & developers that were somewhat representative of the (smaller crop) of commercial independent game devs at the time.

But all of the subjects produced games that debuted to a more limited marketplace & innovated enough compared to ‘established’ retail titles to make them a lot of money. Probably, all those folks featured are or have been millionaires, right? So that’s what you might think could happen to you.

In fact, the gulf between retail and digital games at this time, and the rise of online game download platforms, led to a supply & demand gap, and that’s deceptive. This gap was narrowing even back then. But even four or five years ago, you could release a game on Steam, and it would do at least $100,000 in revenue over time - almost guaranteed.

But that was when there was one game per day being released on Steam. Nowadays, the interface looks identical, but it’s more like 25-30 games released per day. That’s a heck of an (effectively stealthy) difference. And the kind of genres that people appreciate have shifted, too - so that’s double jeopardy.

Peak digital discoverability (2014 to 2019)

So now we’re hanging in the ‘peak games’ era. Steam moved through the Greenlight phrase (which massively increased the number of games on the service) and onto the ‘pay to publish’ era (which increased the number of games even more.)

Elsewhere, the rise of ‘games as a service’ and free to play console/PC titles has meant that you can be engrossed by one or two games for your entire game-playing month.

In addition, the console - at least Xbox and PlayStation 4 - storefronts have big ‘retail’-style games, and in some cases ads (blech!) crowding out small and medium sized games. And the platform holders are rotating out featured games & sales (so many sales!) frequently.

(Xbox and PlayStation 4 also don’t have real-time charts prominently featured, a key discoverability feature on Switch and Steam which I may yell about more in an upcoming newsletter.)

Finally, the ease of Unity & Unity Asset Store - in particular - and the relative lack of capital expenditure needed to build games (you need - what, a computer?) means that the Cambrian explosion of games of all shapes and sizes is finally at fruition.

A lot of these games are good - I mean, REALLY good, original, and interesting. This isn’t really the ‘mountains of crap’ argument that gets leveled against Steam sometimes. Sure, there’s some obviously and sometimes deliberately bad games out there. But they’re not the primary things getting in the way of you finding the good games. The other good games are doing that!

What you might be confused about today: Here’s the biggest one, if you’re living in the modern era and are from the modern era. You might say: ‘Look, I made a really good, high quality game. But it’s not selling. Why on Earth not?’

The answer, at its simplest, is incredibly simple: ‘There are too many games.’ The more complex version of this answer might stretch to: ‘You didn’t tell anyone about this game until the week before it came out’, or ‘The hook on your game is ineffective’, or ‘You failed to understand the demographic of the online store that your game debuted on’, or maybe ‘Your game is selling well in context of the mass of games that debut in 2019. You just didn’t take that number into account when planning!’

So on that last point, my general comment - and what I’ll leave you with this time - is that everyone should be lowering their sales and revenue expectation. You need to find ways to budget so you’re not launching your game hundreds of thousands (or millions!) of dollars in debt.

(I guess if you’re in debt to a publisher for that amount, it’s OK, but then you’re back in the retail-era issue of ‘I need to find someone to publish my next game, fast!’)

And why are we in this state? Some of this is a supply and demand issue. But ultimately, you’re competing against a host of bootstrapped devs who are in some way privileged. Perhaps by they have other contract work, perhaps they have spouses who work and provide, perhaps they have their family support them, perhaps they work in a low-GDP country where their burn rate is more reasonable.

You’re also competing against a bunch of people who are losing money because their game is not successful in absolute financial terms. But it still looks great, and at least some people will buy it, and as a result, they’re not buying your game. What a bummer, eh?

So next time, let’s talk about how to stack the odds a bit more in your favor. We’ll look at something simple and understandable - what genre is your game in, and does that matter in terms of discoverability?

Take care
Simon.