Gamasutra: Simon Carless’s Blog – Are the ‘store wars’ really upon us?

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[Hi, I’m ‘how people find your game’ expert Simon Carless, and you’re reading the Game Discoverability Now! newsletter, which you can subscribe to now, a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

Welcome to the latest Game Discoverabilityland weekly round-up, whereby I go semi-deep on something, follow up on some other things, and end it out with ‘like a thousand other things’ about game discovery/platforms that you might have missed.

Ready? So let’s boogie…

How will the platform wars be fought?

So, Joost Van Dreunen, the ex-head/founder of Superdata Research (who has a game biz book that looks intriguing coming out in October!) has a slightly under-the-radar newsletter, Superjoost (!)

Anyhow, his very interesting thoughts on Epic vs. Apple strayed into some areas I’ve been thinking about a lot. He shared his below infographic on how game platforms pay out, and suggested: “If everyone continues to agree, content creators won’t stand a chance. But all it takes is for one of them to drastically lower their rates, and game makers and audiences will flock to it.”

So here’s my counterthesis to Joost, unfortunately for everyone hoping that royalty percentages for third-party game studios will improve. I do think that the game industry is changing significantly, and platform exclusives can be important (especially on consoles!) But I see two major trends:

  • More internally owned game studios at key platforms (see: Xbox’s big studio grab in the last couple of years, Sony saying first-party expansion is important to them, console, Stadia also building out, etc.)

  • A move towards a ‘catalog’ first-party games that can be used however the platform wants. It’s a source of continued revenue/profit, & owned high-quality titles can be used for ‘free’ in the game subscription wars of the future (ahem, Xbox Game Pass). There are no bidding wars for content or awkwardness over the developer being bought out, if you own the company making the game.

So I don’t think most large platforms will compete for market share by reducing royalty rates. (I know Epic is trying, but I believe it’s more about ‘fairness’ to Tim Sweeney than for tedious capitalist business reasons.)

Why no store wars this way? It’s (relatively) easy for third-party studios to convert games to other formats, and no single platform can entice devs for exclusives purely on royalty boosts. Even Epic had to use advances against sales as well as royalty changes.

Taking the platform cut from 30% to 20% would be amazing – and I still think large platforms should do it on their lowest revenue tier anyhow. But I see the future as ‘third-parties launch their games on multiple platforms with a 30% cut, and then get incremental revenue from Game Pass-like subscription/bundle deals’.

And when the bundles erode the standalone sales for an average game – and they will – I am hoping and presuming that the platforms will step up their subscription-related payments to compensate. You’re going to do that, right, platforms?

Extra insight: virtual events, Steam followers

There’s been a couple of notable follow-ups to previous newsletters, so I thought I’d group them together here:

The virtual event experience…

After my comments in last week’s round-up on the Indie Arena Booth method of virtual events, “an in-browser experience where you can actually ‘walk’ through dev-designed booths.” I thought it was a super interesting experiment, and they ended up getting 20,000 in-world participants.

When I tried, it, though, some of my thoughts echoed Michael French of Games London’s“Impressed by what I’ve seen of the Indie Arena Booth interface, but still jarring to get kicked to various other places/apps – Discord, Steam, YouTube – which all opened at jumpy points. Guess there’s still no solution to this in the short term when it comes to events.”

He concluded: “Ultimately my ‘trip’ (opening a new tab in Chrome) to ‘Gamescom’ (opening the Indie Arena website) this year felt a lot like playing WorldsAway on Compuserve back in ’94/’95 – sparsely populated, system and bandwidth heavy, and a little unsatisfying.”

I think I attended early on and there were more people, but I would broadly agree. Not that I have a better idea, because recreating a real event in virtual space is darn tricky.

The things I think worked the best in GDC (virtual) Summer involved a lot of interactive text chat with speakers whose pre-recorded talk videos were playing at the same time. And that speedruns with devs idea (not mine!) was great. But that doesn’t solve the ‘interact with exhibitors’ issue. But it’ll evolve alongside hybrid events…

How followers could help discern wishlist quality…

My latest newsletter on how we need to take Steam wishlist quality more seriously got a very useful response from Erik Johnson of The IndieBros, who’ve done marketing, community management & other business services for games like RimWorld & the Cook, Serve, Delicious! franchise.

He suggested that another broad way of working out wishlist quality is looking at Steam followers to wishlists as a ratio, noting: “For example, Ruinarch before its big surge in publicity had a ratio of 4:1, a low ratio of wishlisters to followers. Whereas there was a game that launched a while back called WarriOrb that did quite badly from its 16K wishlists built up – however, this game has a ratio of 16:1.”

I actually had a paragraph about this in my original newsletter which I deleted, because I sometimes track SteamDB’s upcoming follower counts, and there’s been some weird anomalies.

But thinking about it again, it’s a valid point. Followers seem to come when there’s ‘interested parties’ browsing around the site. So it seems likely they will be higher quality compared to ‘one off click bookmark-y when grabbing demo’ style wishlists. So… another metric to take into account – could followers be a more accurate metric for launch sales than wishlists nowadays? It’d be fascinating if so.

Other stuff…

Here’s a number of other game discoverability and/or platform things that you might be unaware of. But you are now! Uh, aware of them that is, not unaware of them…

Finally, quoting myself on Twitter this week: “Interesting to note the games featured in Nintendo’s latest Indie World showcase – many launching shortly afterwards – doing well in U.S. Switch eShop digital charts. Conclusion: Indie World + immediate Switch launch can be a good blitz marketing tactic.” Indie World games highlighted in green:

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