I read the email again. My hands shook slightly, even as I punched the air triumphantly for the third time. After 8 months work, living in a near constant cycle of triumph and despair, I’d finally reached the Promised Land. There, on my screen, an email from Steam informed me that Networm had been successfully greenlit.
I had begun work on Networm intending to make a solid piece for my portfolio. After the middle tier of the console industry collapsed, I’d found myself unemployed and, it seemed, unemployable. Judging by the feedback my applications were getting, my 15 years of experience made me uniquely unsuitable to work in a mobile start-up, and unfortunately, mobile start-ups have now come to dominate the UK industry. Things looked bleak for my future career. My last roll of the dice was to make something on my own, at home, and hope it would impress one of the few companies out there still interested in employing an experienced designer over the enthusiasm of youth.
Almost immediately, I fell in love with the process of solo development. Being responsible for everything, and knowing every pixel of my game in intimate detail as a result, was invigorating. I became addicted to it, happily working in 20 hour stints before collapsing into bed for the next 15, then rising and diving straight back into my next 20. The game began to take shape before me, and I started to wonder if I could make this my lifestyle. Could I finish Networm and release it myself? I had friends and colleagues who had moved into “Indie” before me, so I contacted them for advice. Excitingly, it started to seem possible! It also seemed like my best and last shot at remaining in the industry I loved so much, and so I took the plunge.
I knew the biggest challenge I faced was going to be getting my game onto Steam. The numbers my friends had quoted to me ran around in my head every day. The next biggest PC game storefront might seem a million visitors a week at their peak. Steam sees that many customers onto its main page every 8 hours. As a small first-time indie developer, I knew I would have to go through Greenlight, but I was hopeful that my unique retro-themed hacking game would be able to make the grade.
That optimistic mood survived less than a month of my campaign. I learned the hard way that Greenlight is, at root, a marketing battle. After the initial surge of exposure that being on the front page of Greenlight gives you, you then begin a slow war of attrition. It is then up to you to find a way to drive users to your page if you want to keep earning those vital “yes” votes. With no prior reputation to draw from, my emails to journalists and taste-makers would invariably be deleted unread, and each day spent churning out emails generated just a handful of fresh yes votes. A month into the process, Networm was sitting at around 250 votes, but I knew that it needed closer to 1000 to make the top 100. It seemed hopeless.
This is when a company called Groupee contacted me. They specialise in Greenlight game bundles. You provide them with an early playable version of your game, and they put you in a bundle with a few other hopefuls. At the end of the bundle, the revenue is split as with any other offer like this, but you also commit to provide your purchasers with Steam keys in the event that you are greenlit and release your game on Steam. This obviously creates a strong incentive for the bundle purchasers to go and upvote all of the games in the bundle, hence the remarkable success games in Groupee bundles enjoy when it comes to getting approved for release. I was hesitant, having been warned by most of my peer group about the damage bundling early does to your long term sales. However, with no other option available,, I felt I had no choice but to submit Networm into one of their bundles and roll the dice. I even reasoned that giving away a few hundred keys might be to my benefit, as it gave me an established player base for the launch on Steam for reviews and community activity.
Fortunately the gamble paid off, and two months later, I released onto Steam.
The first nasty surprise I got was when I discovered that my contract with Groupees required me to provide them with keys at launch not just to players who included Networm in the bundle options, but for every player who purchased the bundle at all. I had expected to be providing a few hundred keys, but soon learned that I was contractually obligated to provide nearly three thousand keys. (In Groupee’s defence, this was stated in the contract quite clearly, and it was my oversight not to realise this.)
Nevertheless, Networm’s release day went very well, and sales were reassuringly steady. I knew I wasn’t ever going to make my fortunes with my game, but I had calculated that if I could maintain a slow but steady rate of sales, five or six copies each day, Networm would be able to provide me with a modest but liveable monthly income. For the first few days, I met and even exceeded this goal, and even though I had already seen 1200 free activations of the game from the Groupee keys, things looked promising.
A few days later, my sales had dropped to just one or two a day. At the same time, I was contacted by friends who told me that they had seen Networm for sale on a number of the largest key resale websites. In each case, my game was being sold for less than half what I was charging on Steam itself, and naturally I wouldn’t see a penny from any of those sales.
Unfortunately the terms of my non-disclosure agreement with Steam prevents me from showing the impact this has had. Indeed, because I can only track keys based on the label I attach to them when they are created, I can’t really be sure myself what this has done to my sales. However, what I can say is that right now key activations are outnumbering sales at a ratio of twenty to one. In the early days, I assumed it was simply Groupee purchasers who were just now getting around to activating their keys. As time as gone on, the number of activations has held steady, right up to today, 10 days after the keys were mailed out. Is it possible that every day, close to 40 purchasers of the original bundle decide that today is the day they will check out Networm?
The reality of my financial situation is that if even 5 of those activations each day are from resold keys, that would be the difference between being able to support myself, and not. The impact of resellers has been much discussed for AAA titles and medium sized indie games, but typically this is in the context of games that have been on the market for a long time, and have already earned a good income from bundles during their lifetime.
However, when that bite is coming out of a small indie products, and occurring from day of release onwards, it really is the difference between survival and failure to the developer. The margins at my level are so tight, losing even just a handful of sales in a week drops my income from “difficult, but liveable” straight down into “skipping meals” territory. That’s no exaggeration. On my current income, I truly don’t know how I will support myself after Christmas, but as of right now it seems likely that the answer will not involve game development.
I’ve contacted the reselling sites concerned, only to get exactly the kind of response I expected. Firstly they claimed it was beyond their power to intervene, as they are not selling the key directly, they are simply providing a platform for individual users to resell them. Having batted down this argument, I was told my complaint had been escalated to an investigations team. That investigation has now vanished into the mists, and when I asked for an update, my request was treated as a new enquiry, sending me right back to the start of the process again.
The advice from friends in the industry is that my time and effort is better spent doing my own marketing or working on my second title, rather than battling the resellers. In truth they are probably right, but I am finding it very difficult to find the motivation to do this. I know that any interest I generate is just as likely to drive sales for the resellers as it is for me, and without a clear route through greenlight, it seems inevitable that my next product will be preyed upon by the same parasites.
Until the reseller sites take responsibility for this, until they stop profiting by depriving games of sales from launch, until they agree to afford small indie developers some modicum of protection from this behaviour, (a behaviour which uniquely damages them more than any other section of the industry) it seems impossible to make small budget/small scale projects pay.
It’s worth bearing in mind that these kinds of small projects have often been the starting point of many of the titans of the Indie scene currently. The entire indie scene needs to rally together and find some way to stop this assault on the livelihoods of the smallest fish in the pond, or there will come a day when the pond is empty.