What’s The Real Problem of Digital Software Discoverability?

In the midst of Christmas week there are game sales everywhere. Looking all over Steam, Amazon, Good Old Games, the Apple App store, and more for deals has reminded me of recurring discussions on a problem that seems to affect all digital game stores — discoverability. It seems indie developers have complained at one point or another about discoverability on PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, Steam, and particularly iOS.

Games and deals are probably fighting for visibility right now. I feel like Apple is at least trying to fight the problem, one way being the “apps of the year” kind of thing it does during the holidays. I’m glad Ridiculous Fishing got iPhone game of the year so Vlambeer can get some much deserved sales.

The much-lauded Steam isn’t immune to this either. As its Greenlight pipeline has allowed a wider range of indies to show up on the storefront, developers have complained that it has become a popularity contest and so many games are coming out they fight harder for attention. I think more than 50 games have come out on Steam in the last month or something. That’s a pretty short amount of time on the front page for each game.

In the world of traditional games Microsoft might have gotten the worst of it. Discoverability seems to have been highlighted as a problem since the inception of the Xbox Live Marketplace. When Microsoft introduced the new Metro interface on the Xbox 360 indies complained it took too many button presses to reach the indie games section, putting it in danger of being ignored. We’ll see how Microsoft acts when the digital library on Xbox One starts to build itself.

The companies that control these storefronts have tried all kinds of curation solutions, but I’m wondering if it’s even possible for the amounts of content we’re seeing to even be properly curated on one store. Maybe centralization is what the problem is here.

Valve has talked about further and further decentralizing Steam to the point where it’s basically just an API a developer puts into their game to sell wherever they want. I see Steam’s widgets as an early move towards this kind of thing — the ability to put a “buy on Steam” icon for a game anywhere on the web with some code. Valve is probably in the best position to do something like this because Steam isn’t really a platform, it’s a store within the PC gaming platform, but it has become dominant in that platform to the point where people don’t care nearly as much about Origin, UPlay, GamersGate, GameFly Digital, or GameStop’s PC section. PC gaming shouldn’t really be having the centralization problem, but it seems like Steam is going to try to decentralize itself to alleviate the problem.

On closed-box platforms like iOS and consoles though, this would require a re-working of how the companies that run them sell digital software.

I think the problem with discoverability on iOS is that you have, essentially, a single storefront to represent the totality of software for that entire platform. On Mac OS you have the Mac App Store sure, but that came after the open market of Mac software. Android has the Google play store, but also has its own open market. No matter what Apple or developers try to do, one storefront might be too narrow a channel for the amount of content that’s released on iOS.

Look at it from the perspective of media. There was never one store trying to sell all DVDs or Blu-Rays or CDs. Maybe there shouldn’t be one store trying to sell all iOS software or PSN games or XBL games.

Sony has just opened the Amazon PlayStation Store (Amazon also has its own Android store), and I think that could be a step in the right direction. Not only does it offer price variance, but each game has the chance to be discovered not only on the PlayStation Store but also Amazon. Sony should expand from this. There should be a GameStop PlayStation Store, a Wal-Mart PlayStation Store, and so-on. Nintendo mentioned doing something similar with eShop codes too, and I don’t see why Microsoft shouldn’t follow suit.

I think the fact that you see decentralized advertising is kind of an admission of the problem of centralization in digital storefronts. Valve encourages developers who enter Steam Greenlight to advertise that Greenlight campaign all over the place, not just in the Greenlight section of Steam. Most of the time when I discover iOS software it’s from some website with an iOS link. Strangely I see few PSN or XBL links. In the case of PSN it was a long while before you could even buy games outside logging into the store on Sony’s actual hardware.

Centralizing digital storefronts likely came out of a desire for platform holders to keep out middlemen and keep more profits for themselves. Maybe, just maybe, the people who make and sell that software need middlemen to make it visible.

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