Get Big: Solving the Distribution Dilemma for Indie Gamers

By Garret Romaine,

Published:03/06/2018   Last Updated:03/05/2018

Independent game developers face an important decision when selecting a distribution channel. While many devs plan to simply push their game to Steam*, a multichannel distribution model makes more sense. Using more than one channel takes a bit of additional work, but you could reach a far bigger audience and potentially make a lot more money.

Steam*
Figure 1: Steam* is the #1 choice for most indie gamers, but it's not the only one.

Physical boxes and shareware days

For independent game developers, distributing physical, boxed games to brick-and-mortar retailers was often prohibitively expensive. One early workaround was the concept of shareware titles, such as Doom* from id Software, which launched the first-person-shooter genre, courtesy of a free executable with a small footprint. Players could download the first 10 levels before purchasing the entire title, and demand was so intense on the first day that servers were overwhelmed. Players were encouraged to distribute the shareware version freely, and customers eventually bought over one million copies of the full game.

 Doom*
Figure 2: Doom* from id Software was released in 1993 as downloadable shareware.

Early online distribution services, such as GameLine*, for the Atari* 2600, and Stardock Central*, lacked any kind of marketing assistance or title curation, and had other distribution issues. In 2004, the Valve Corporation launched the Steam platform—and a revolution.

Steam soon became the largest digital distributor of games for PCs. The advantages are obvious, as Gabe Newell, creator of Steam, explained to RockPaperShotgun.com. “The worst days . . . were the cartridge days for the NES(Nintendo Entertainment System*) . It was a huge risk—you had all this money tied up in silicon in a warehouse somewhere, and so you’d be conservative in the decisions you felt you could make, very conservative in the IPs you signed, your art direction would not change, and so on. Now it’s the opposite extreme . . . there’s no shelf-space restriction.”

Distribution platforms

Figure 3: Distribution platforms to choose from or to include in an all-of-the-above approach.

Multiple sites now centralize purchasing and downloading digital content. Some platforms also serve as digital rights management systems (DRMs) to control the use, modification, and distribution of games and to handle in-game purchases, the keys to unlock content, and more. The three main models are:

  • Proprietary systems run by large publishers (such as Electronic Arts Inc.*, Ubisoft*, and Tencent*), which allow them to sell direct and to aggregate user information.
  • Retail systems that sell third-party titles and third-party DRMs. Examples: Green Man Gaming*, Humble Bundle*, and GamersGate*.
  • Digital distribution platforms selling third-party titles and proprietary DRMs. Table 1 shows the page visits of leading platforms.

Table 1: Top distribution platforms ranked by page visits (Source: Newzoo Q2’17: Global Games Market).

Platform

Web Address

Number of Games

Total Monthly Visits

Steam*

www.steampowered.com

14,000

163,000,000

Humble Bundle*

www.humblebundle.com

5,000

41,600,000

GOG

www.gog.com

2,000

19,000,000

itch.io

www.itch.io

63,000

10,100,000

Green Man Gaming*

www.greenmangaming.com

7,500

6,200,000

GamersGate*

www.gamersgate.com

6,000

2,000,000

OnePlay*

www.oneplay.com

2,000

127,000

Make it a true partnership

With so many options to choose from, it can be difficult to choose a distribution partner. Some key questions to answer before settling on a partner are:

  • What is your business model? If you are relying on in-game purchases, you’ll need a strong DRM system to manage those microtransactions.
  • Is your game free or fee-based? Pricing is a tough choice you should make early in your developer’s journey—find more information on our separate article “Get Ready: Pricing Your Indie Game”.
  • Who is your target audience? If you’re focused on a narrow niche, you may not want to risk getting lost on the largest distribution platforms. Look for sites dedicated to your target audience.
  • What devices are your potential customers using? If you are releasing a mobile puzzle-game, focus on sites that distribute such titles.
  • What channels are your potential customers using? Find out what site(s) your target audience relies on.

Direct distribution can still work

Alarmed at the thought of losing revenue to an online distributor, some indie devs might be thinking about distributing their game’s installation package by themselves. The average split for selling through a retailer is 70/30, but can vary depending on the platform and the leverage of the developer. Some sites even offer a Pay What You Want option or allow customers to direct some of the money to charity.

To keep more than 70 percent of the revenue for yourself, you can hook up with a full-stack digital commerce platform, such as Fastspring*, which enables global subscriptions and payments for online, mobile, and in-app experiences. Or you can set up your own digital store using the tools at Binpress*.

“Don’t just rely on distributors to sell your game for you . . . There is still significant money to be made from direct sales,” writes Paul Kilduff-Taylor, part of the team at Mode 7 in Oxford, United Kingdom. When setting up your own distribution channel, you’ll need a reliable payment provider, a clear, optimized website, and you’ll have to work hard to drive potential customers to your site with a good marketing plan, Kilduff-Taylor advises.

Use your own efforts to augment a complete, multichannel distribution strategy. “To have a decent success on the PC with a downloadable game, you’ll need to be on every major portal,” Kilduff-Taylor said.

Don’t stop with Steam

Steam controls a significant portion of the PC game market space, and by late 2017 the service had over 275 million active users—growing at 100,000 per week, according to SteamSpy.com. In 2017 an estimated 6,000+ games were released on Steam.

One of its key attractions is the Humble Indie Bundle, which curates indie titles, giving smaller games a chance to shine. The SteamDirect FAQ lays out some issues you should be aware of. Be sure to emphasize the points that make your game unique and be organized with your marketing efforts—with a plan, collateral pieces, press information, and a compelling trailer all ready to go. Trailers are a key ingredient, and producers such as Kert Gartner are highly sought after (Kert Gartner Explains the Genius Behind Mixed-Reality VR Game Trailers). Make sure your game stands out, or you could get lost in the daily release avalanche.

Patrick DeFreitas, software partner marketing manager at Intel, advises indies to consider distributing through multiple channels. “Many indie developers on the PC gaming side see Steam as the be-all and end-all for distribution. They believe that if they have their title on Steam, they’re good to go. But it’s important to consider additional digital and retail distribution channels to get your title out there.”

Secondary retailers and channels focus on curating high-quality games that are compelling to their base and may be able to perfectly match your title to their followers. DeFreitas also points out that some retailers may do a better job in a single region. “They’re all looking for a portfolio of titles that they can sell through their channels,” he said. “At the end of the day, you could potentially end up as an indie developer with a dozen different channels where you are selling your titles directly to consumers worldwide.”

Data gathering aids decision making

Investigate the statistics the various distribution channels can gather for you. Over time, you should have plenty of data to analyze as you determine sales trends, response to promotions, geographical strengths, and buyer personas. Steam is so big that third-party sites, such as SteamCharts.com, have sprung up providing data snapshots. At SteamAnalyst.com you can find out what in-game purchases are trending. Google Analytics* can be paired with Steam data to analyze your Steam Store page or Community Hub for anonymized data about your traffic sources and visitor behavior.

Steam*
Figure 4: Steam* conducts monthly surveys to help guide your decision making (source: Steampowered.com).

Be sure to take advantage of data collection opportunities, so you can develop and perfect the player personas in your target audience. The more you know about your sales and your customers the better are the decisions you can make about additional distribution choices.

SteamCharts.com
Figure 5: Third-party sites such as SteamCharts.com offer continual snapshots of Steam* data (source: Steamcharts.com)

Multiplatform releases boost incomes, headaches

Releasing a title across mobile devices, consoles, and PC operating systems is a good way to boost your income flow but probably not a good choice for most beginners with a single title. Learning the ropes for so many different systems all at once is a big challenge. Game engines such as Unity* software and Unreal* offer ways to reach multiple platforms from the same code base, but be prepared to make a big investment in testing and quality control. You might want to concentrate on making the very best PC game you are capable of, rather than extending yourself across every available platform.

Bundling for fun

Getting into an original equipment manufacturer bundle is a great way to jump-start distribution; you develop more of a business-to-business model, and the bundler handles much of the promotion. Instead of trying to stand out from dozens of titles released around the same time, you only compete with the handful of titles in the bundle. Reddit* maintains a good overview of the current bundles for sale, and a list of sites that offer game bundles. IndieGameBundles.com* keeps a similar list completely devoted to indies.

Writing at venturebeat.com*, Joe Hubert says, “You don’t enter into a bundle in hopes of retiring on a nice island. You enter a bundle for the residual influence it has on your game. (The exposure outweighs the low price-point of the sale.) Your game will get eyeballs, lots and lots of eyeballs, to look at your game, see what it’s about, and recognize it in the future,” Hubert wrote.

HumbleBundle.com offers an FAQ to help guide you through their submission steps. Fanatical.com* starts their process with an email, while Green Man Gaming has an online form.

You can also contact publishers and bundlers at shows and events as part of your own networking. Major gaming sites and magazines can steer you toward hot, new platforms. Chat up fellow devs for their takes on distribution trends as well.

Once you get into a bundle, you may be expected to participate with your own marketing efforts. The good news is that you’ll have more news and information to fill up your social networking feeds. For more information about promotion strategies and marketing deliverables, check out this article about attending events, Get Noticed: Attending Your First Event as an Indie Game Developer, and this article about approaching industry influencers, Get Big: Approaching Industry Influencers for Indie Game Developers.

Several organizations host annual contests for indie game developers. The Independent Games Festival offers cash prizes and publicity, while the Game Development World Championship offers trips to Finland and Sweden, and visits to top game studios. These are also great marketing bullets for your promotional materials. Also be on the lookout for contests that offer help in distributing your game in a bundle, or as a stand-alone title. The Intel® Level Up Game Developer Contest, for example, puts your game in front of Green Man Gaming. Check the PixelProspector.com* site for its updated list of contests to enter.

The power of good distribution

Bastion*, an action role-playing game from indie developer Supergiant Games, was nearly sunk by a troubled preview version at a recent Game Developer Conference (GDC). When they brought a playable version to the Penny Arcade Expo, however, it started picking up awards. Crucially, this led to Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment publishing it on Microsoft Xbox*. It was next ported to Microsoft Windows* PC on Steam, and a browser game was created for Google Chrome*. It sold at least 500,000 copies in one year.

Bastion*
Figure 6: Bastion* overcame early obstacles to become available in multiple versions.

When Dustforce* was included in Humble Indie Bundle 6, they witnessed an enormous boost in sales. In a short two-week period after the bundle was rolled out, the game sold 138,725 copies and pulled in USD 178,235.

Promotions often provide a spur to plateauing sales. Alexis Santos, editor at Binpress*, said that Pocketwatch Games’ Monaco* made USD 215,000 by participating in Humble Indie Bundle 11. Monaco was included in 370,000 bidders out of 493,000 bundles sold; bidders had to beat the average price of USD 4.71 per bundle to receive Monaco. That meant that Pocketwatch didn’t receive a big income boost per title, but it distributed hundreds of thousands of copies of the game. What it did receive was a pretty good income boost to a game that had been on the market for 10 months, and there was no major impact on Steam sales of the full-priced title outside of the bundle.

Aki Järvinen, founder of GameFutures.com*, recently wrote on 10 trends shaping the gaming industry and pointed to the evolution of business models that benefit from new distribution schemes. “Companies like Playfield* and Itch.io are building services that try to tackle the indie discoverability issue,” he said, “both for the player community and the developers.” His guess is that with distribution platforms providing more support for marketing, public relations, and data analytics, in the future we may be seeing more of what Morgan Jaffit calls “triple-I” titles and studios.

Rather than the indiepocalypse that pundits worried about in 2015—a super-saturated indie market leading to smaller slices of a slow-growing pie—there will always be room for creative, unique games. The trick will be in making them easy to find and buy. With multiple evolving distribution channels, you’ll have to work hard to distribute your intellectual property through appropriate channels, in order to maximize reach, audience, and revenue. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either. Intel and Green Man Gaming just teamed up to form a new digital content distribution site for publishers, retailers, and channel partners. To learn more about getting involved with the Intel® Software Distribution Hub, visit https://isdh.greenmangaming.com.

Resources

Intel® Developer Zone

Intel® Level Up Game Developer Contest

Indie Games on Steam

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