Steam’s New Face: Distribution And Indie Trends

A little over a day into this brave new world of Steam curation and I’m already seeing interesting developments and observations come about. It’s really opened my eyes in terms of how the indie game market has operated compared to the traditional AAA game market.

First, I want to bring attention to how Steam’s new take on “Recommended For You” feels a lot like Netflix’s recommendations. You know how you scroll down Netflix and it gives you all these super-specific genres relating to what you’ve been watching? The Atlantic did an article on that in January, talking about how Netflix figured out those genres and then put all their data to use. It seems like Valve is doing the same thing now, but with all the data they’ve backed up from previous updates.

Instead of super-specific genres though Valve is using the data from the community tag system that’s been running on Steam for a while. Predictably it tracks what games you’ve viewed, what games you own, what’s on your wishlist, and so-on, but what got me is how it also makes suggestions based on what games you’ve spent the most time playing. To me this just illustrates another way in which Steam has managed to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to digital distribution of video games.

No other digital games distributor is even close to doing something like this. Never mind PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo still not doing user reviews, user guides, or various digital purchasing incentives, but none of them has been doing tags yet either, and Steam is already on the next level. I’ve said more than once here that a big reason for this is the console manufacturers are still too focused on retail whereas Valve is focusing all its business on digital. If anything, Steam today is starting to more closely resemble Amazon than Xbox Live. Apple has the same focus but has been too loose in approaching games that the market has gotten away from them. Serious game developers have already walked away from them in favor of Steam.

A Gamasutra article this week brought my attention to how indies have been trying to placate Steam, and I think it’s putting them into some of the same patterns as traditional developers towards the same purpose — selling games.

The article says that starting from Valve’s early attempts to change the steam market, like Greenlight, indies started focusing on getting the attention of press and YouTube Let’s Plays. The article draws a link between that and the popularity of roguelikes and first person horror games — games that present well on YouTube videos for their eventful gameplay in the case of horror, and for their replay value and capacity for emergent gameplay in the case of roguelikes.

This is important because I’m of the opinion that people go to indies for the kinds of games AAA developers are afraid won’t sell. These are the guys who don’t need to sell five million or even one million copies to be sustainable, allowing them to have more creativity. But then you see a lot of them following these trends in order to… sell copies.

Now, at some point it became apparent a big trend among indies has been bringing back genres that sort of died in the retail space, survival horror games (not action horror) being among them. I really appreciate the resurrection of genres we’re seeing here. I imagine what happened along the way is the popularity of that one Amnesia the Dark Descent video started a proven trend for what get’s YouTube views. I will tell you I’m getting a lot of horror games on my Steam recommendations even though I haven’t played any on Steam since Amnesia (unless Resident Evil 4 counts).

Now the Gamasutra article recons indies will probably try to placate the curators next, and I find it hard to predict how that will pan out. The most popular curators right now are pretty much the ones setup by press and YouTubers. It’ll be interesting to see if anyone outside that group (or other groups like developers and forums) can break out and become trusted curators. The major difference with curators though is they don’t make money off of being curators or even getting a lot of followers. No part of that has yet translated into some kind of tangible prestige. For right now at least, people will curate simply to curate. Will that change the incentives and factors that make games attractive to curators? Whether or not that happens it’ll be interesting to see if this gives rise to any new trends.

Hey, maybe a lot of people wanted to makes games like Amnesia and Minecraft because they actually like those games. I’m just concerned because the defining point of indie games, at least for me, was that it’s developers making the games they want to make, not just the games they think will sell copies.

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