Back in March 2017, coming off of the disastrous run of the Wii U, Nintendo bet everything on its new hybrid console, the Nintendo Switch. It was joined at launch by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, an amazing reinvention of the Zelda formula that cemented the Switch as the place to be and went on to win multiple Game of the Year awards. A few months later in that same year, an independently-developed throwback to the Harvest Moon games was ported to the platform with only a little fanfare. Fast-forward to today, and Stardew Valley is the third best-selling game on the Nintendo eShop, two spots ahead of Breath of the Wild. The rest of the Top 30 is filled out by other indies like Hollow Knight, Undertale, Overcooked 2, Celeste, and Caveblazers. People buy Nintendo systems for Nintendo games... and indies it seems.
Elsewhere, there's the stalwart desktop PC. Since 2003, if you've purchased a PC game digitally, you've probably purchased it on Steam or one of its competitors, namely GOG, the Humble Store, or Itch.io. Valve Software's Steam platform is still the king of the PC market, but competition has been increasing of late, with Epic Games Store and Discord both joining the fray within the past year. Still, there's a certain amount of audience and developer inertia keeping folks tied to Valve's platform.
Which platform is really the best place for indie developers right now? Is it the Nintendo Switch or Steam? Or perhaps one of the many other platforms available? At PAX South, I asked a number of independent developers which platforms they were planning on launching their games for.
Full Steam Ahead - The PC
Take Terry Cavanagh, designer of VVVVVV and Super Hexagon, who is currently working on his new title, Dicey Dungeons. While Dicey Dungeons has a strong community on a personal Discord and early builds are purchasable on Itch.io, he's aiming for a Steam release. "I think it's great to see more people opening up that area, but I'm mostly focused on Steam for now," says Cavanagh.
"At the moment, we're on Steam. Steam is more accessible for indie developers. We're a student team, there's six of us. We were in college when we started this. Steam seems to be the easiest for us, as far as handling things like localization and getting ready for launch," says Gossamer Games community manager Julian Castillo. The team's first game is Sole, currently available for pre-order on Itch.io, with a planned Steam release.
There are positives to focusing on Valve's store. It's the devil you know, and if you're a new developer, there's a lot of expertise and knowledge around Steam to draw on. And if you land on the frontpage, sales on Steam can be pretty strong. It's easy to publish your game on Steam and hope the money rolls in. Unfortunately, Valve's storefront has numerous problems, most notably a visibility issue. There are just too many games coming out on Steam.
"Steam has become a clusterfuck of things. The visibility on Steam has become such a nightmare. There's so much coming out, ever since they stepped away from curation. Every time I look at it, I go, 'What is happening?'" says Spearhead Games co-founder Atul Nath Mehra, who released their action-adventure murder mystery Omensight on Steam in May of last year.
"A store that's its own monopoly doesn't really have to innovate. You just kind of have to depend on them doing the right thing," says Vlambeer's Rami Ismail. "I think honestly Valve has done the right thing very frequently. At the same time, it also locks developers into the same business model. If you want to release your game, you have to give Valve 30 percent, but also you've got to have a community forum, you've got to have achievements, leaderboards, and play with the Steam Workshop economy. There's all these considerations that are actually expectations, because they're the one store."
For consumers though, that Steam inertia remains. If you've been a PC player for the past decade, you probably have an extensive backlog of games on Steam. It can be hard, or simply tedious, to have to switch platforms or storefronts. And many third-party stores like Amazon, Green Man Gaming, or even the Humble Bundle, give away Steam keys with sales. That keeps Valve's store ahead of the pack. "I think that'll start changing," says Ismail.
Competitors are having trouble breaking through the Steam firewall. Discord can leverage the community that uses its client and servers for voice chat, but it first has to teach them to use Discord for playing games, not just chatting about them. The Epic Games Store is primed to succeed in two directions. First, Fortnite is a global phenomenon and on PC it launches through the Epic Games client, which is where the store resides. Second, a number of developers use Unreal Engine. Combined with Epic's Unreal Dev Grants, Unreal Engine developers have a greased slide onto the Epic Games Store.
Nelo, an action-shooter from the two-person team of Magic and Mirrors, won an Unreal Dev Grant in 2015. It's developed in Unreal Engine 4 and while it's coming to Steam, Nelo will also release on the Epic Games Store. According to developer Michelle Morger, dealing with the Epic Games Store is "definitely easy".
I Can't Console You - Switch, PS4, and Xbox One
And that only addresses the PC, Mac, and Linux markets. There's also the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 (PS4), and Nintendo Switch. The PlayStation 4 has been open to indies ever since the PlayStation Vita was the indie platform du jour. The Xbox One has seen a strong uptick in interest because Microsoft's ID@Xbox program is aggressive about finding great developers to work with. And as I noted before, the Switch has already proven rather profitable, especially for indie developers. Switch owners are hungry for new content, and that's paid for off for developers, with titles like Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, Hollow Knight, and Dead Cells.
"We're in the ID@Xbox program, so we'll be launching on Steam and [Xbox One]. [PlayStation 4] looks pretty promising at the moment. And Nintendo Switch would be a dream," says Gossamer Games' Castillo.
"We are on PC, [PlayStation 4], and we just released on the Switch. It'll be on Xbox One in the next two to three months. Switch is only one month old, but it's already on par with Steam sales. I find the people on Switch are a lot more hungry for content," Spearhead Games' Mehra tells us.
Despite this, every new platform is additional load on a developer. Spearhead Games launched Omensight on Steam, Discord Store, Humble Store, Fanatical, PlayStation 4, and Switch, with an upcoming Xbox One release. Mehra admits that "next time, I might not go so wide," in regards to PC releases, pointing to Steam and Humble as his potential platforms of choice. Every new store is extra work for developers.
"Every time you make a new storefront, it's a new everything. Doing Steam, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, and Switch is like five platforms. That's a lot of overhead for a small team. If we were on GOG, Epic Games Store, and Discord Store, that's a lot of other things to worry about going wrong. A lot of ways money is coming in," says one Sirlin Games developer. That team is working on Fantasy Strike, a fighter currently on Steam Early Access, but coming to PlayStation 4 and Switch in the future.
Still, more platforms and storefronts offer developers and publisher more options, and more options is always better.
"Competition in storefronts, regardless of big or small developers, is going to be a win. If you have different storefronts competing to get you on board, it's only ever going to benefit us. And them as well, because it'll bring in our audience. We've always used Steam and Steam is a fine platform on PC, but they've always been the big dog. Now we have these other guys coming in, they provide cool options, not only in how they support developers, but how they bring in new audiences. We're nothing but positive on having as many storefronts as possible," says Finji community manager Harris Foster. The studio's next game, Tunic, is coming to Steam and Xbox One.
Ultimately, it's also a chance for each store to service a different type of audience. Steam might be a store that catches all comers, but Itch.io has a strong indie game focus, GOG is great for those who want DRM-free games and are more retro focused. The Epic Games Store and Discord Store haven't been around long enough to really establish strong communities, but it's only a matter of time. And strong communities give everyone a space to play that fits them.
"You already have Humble, GOG, Itch.io; they're all starting to be their own niche, with their own audiences and expectations," says Ismail. "It's not just a difference in terms of competition. It's also a difference in what kind of cultures evolve around games. That's honestly what I'm most excited about."