Indie developers have to scrap and scramble for every dollar they get. They operate on razor-thin margins most of the time and any additional income they can generate is greatly treasured. Whether it’s through regular social media updates, posting videos on YouTube, doing Twitch streams, appearing on podcasts, or any other type of community outreach, indie devs rarely pass on an opportunity to pimp their product. So it befuddles me that so many of them leave tens of thousands – maybe even hundreds of thousands – of dollars on the proverbial table.
A GOG Complex
What I’m talking about is the tendency of small developers to fixate on Steam while ignoring other perfectly viable downloading services like GOG (formerly known as GoodOldGames.com). I cannot, for the life of me, understand why so many devs ignore this outlet for their games.
GOG was originally launched in 2008 and then relaunched in 2010. It offers many of the same basic services that Steam does at a comparable price. GOG also offers two features that Steam doesn’t: a massive back catalogue of classic PC games and exclusively DRM-free downloads. While these factors may not seem like a big deal at first, they actually are.
More recently, GOG.com launched a Steam-like downloading service called GOG Galaxy. Basically, GOG Galaxy is a more customizable version of Steam, though it currently lacks many of the social features Steam has. You can read more about it here. Much like Steam, which has Valve behind it, GOG is owned by a triple-A gaming company: CD Projekt (of Witcher fame). This is not some fly-by-night company with no financial backing. GOG is here to stay.
The back catalogue brings in gamers from a demographic Steam can have trouble attracting: nostalgia gamers. No doubt Steam boasts (most of) the new hot AAA hits and cutting edge indie games, but can you buy Master of Orion 2 on that platform? What about Daggerfall? Nope. And don’t forget that other Golden Age 4X games, like Master of Magic, are on GOG, too. With a ready-made audience already waiting on GOG, it’s hard to understand why the myriad of MoO clones and MoM knock-offs aren’t beating down the doors to get on this service.
The DRM-free nature of GOG downloads likewise brings in a different type of gamer – the “stick-it-to-the-man” types. The Internet has always had a hacker-culture undertone to it. When Apple introduced DRM with iTunes, it enraged a good number of users who had gotten used to the freedoms that Napster and Limewire provided. While that anger has diminished somewhat in the intervening years, there are still large groups of gamers out there that hate DRM and consequently have sworn off ever using Steam because of the DRM protections. GOG is unabashed about offering DRM-free games, and so anything it sells automatically appeals to a different segment of the gamer market that Steam will never access. In other words, fresh customers!
One can easily infer that the DRM-haters are also more likely to experiment with indie games since the do-it-yourself ethic of independent producers lines up nicely with the stick-it-to-the-man ethos. Buying Star Ruler 2 or StarDrive 2 is a nice way of telling giant companies like Electronic Arts to go shove it. There’s a waiting cadre of consumers on GOG predisposed to liking DRM-free indie games. So, why aren’t more indie games on there?
GOG Help Us!
Small companies aren’t the only ones ignoring GOG. Mid-size and even large companies are forgoing income from Galaxy as well. Here is a sample list of games in our genre that do not currently appear on GOG’s Galaxy service: StarDrive 2, Endless Legend, Endless Space, Sorcerer King, The Viceroy, Galactic Inheritors, Fallen Enchantress, Horizon, Warlock 2. There are plenty more out there, but I’m sure you get the idea. All of these games are missing out on tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of customers. Why?
It’s not like there aren’t any modern strategy games on GOG. Age of Wonders III and Star Ruler 2 are both available on that service. So why not many others?
I’ll hazard a guess. It’s because a) GOG has rejected a few games they shouldn’t have and, more importantly, b) the small developers don’t think that GOG Galaxy has the same kind of traffic that Steam does. If so, they’re right. It doesn’t have as much. But so what? Are there no gamers on GOG Galaxy? Ha, hardly.
An interesting thing happened this summer. CD Projekt Red launched their hit title The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on both GOG and Steam. GOG dominated Steam in the number of sales and downloads by selling over 690,000 of the game’s initial 1.3 million PC sales. There were close to 700k people who bought a game on GOG in that game’s first two weeks. GOG does not publish its concurrent users like Steam does nor is there any analogous site to SteamSpy.com, so there’s no way to tell if that trend continues today. However, it doesn’t matter. That’s a pretty big accomplishment!
Not every game can expect to have success like The Witcher III. In fact, most games won’t. According to one developer at Triumph Studios, they get excellent traffic on GOG. That’s because Triumph has built a good fan base there. It takes time to create that relationship with customers and that’s why I believe that the sooner indie devs get started building those relationships, the better. It’s clear that GOG Galaxy isn’t a ghost town. It has a sizable population of customers. So while developers will certainly sell fewer copies on GOG than on Steam, they will still have an excellent chance to make a good number of sales.
I generally don’t like hypotheticals, but I’ll make an exception here. According to SteamSpy, StarDrive 2 has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 copies on Steam. Each copy runs $30. There may have been a sale in there, but bear with me for a moment. Even if GOG provided Zero Sum Games with only 10% of those sales, they would still gross another 150 grand through GOG.
I don’t think very many games will have their GOG sales outpace their Steam sales as The Witcher III did, but here is something I do think: the more games that get put on GOG, the more people will download and use GOG Galaxy. And the more people that download and use GOG Galaxy, the more developers will want to put their game on there. It creates a virtuous cycle that feeds itself and grows.
GOG only Knows
All those other factors aside, here’s the most compelling reason for developers – especially indie developers – to put their games up for sale on GOG: competition. Currently, Steam and GOG charge a 30% commision fee for sales on their services. Up until now, Steam has not had to worry about pressure from other gaming services. GreenManGaming, GamersGate, Humble Bundle, Origin and the rest represent only a tiny slice of online PC game sales. GOG Galaxy can change that.
Imagine if, in the future, all games were released on both platforms. There would be some amazing benefits for both the consumers and the developers. Consumers would want to use both services: you never know which is going to have a sale on a game you want. Both Steam and GOG would also be incentivized to improve the user experience since they are now competing directly with one another for sales. How long has it taken Steam to make reforms on its platform? Too long. You still can’t do even the most basic things like open up two different games on two different tabs in order to compare them side-by-side. Steam and Galaxy are little more than dedicated browsers. There’s no reason for Steam to lack browser technology that came out 10 years ago. So, for the consumer, there would be a greater number of sales on games they want to buy as well as enhanced experiences on the service platforms.
For developers, there’s already the aforementioned increase in the customer pool. There is also the chance that competition between Steam and GOG Galaxy would heat up to a degree that one or the other would blink and offer developers a better deal.
Most game companies, even ones with games on GOG, link their Steam page from their home web pages. This gives Steam a huge advantage in attracting market share. Imagine what would happen if GOG wanted to grab a bigger share and suddenly dropped its commision from 30% to 25%. Suddenly, game companies would have a significant incentive to link their fans to their GOG page. For reference, a game selling 100,000 copies at $30 would save $150,000 at 25% vs. 30%. That’s enough to hire a few new employees for the year. Steam might lower its commission in response. Devs would win all over.
Consider too what has happened in the console market. Because of the increase in competition, certain companies have entered into agreements with console makers to offer their games exclusively (for a period of time or in perpetuity) on one platform or the other. Imagine if Steam or GOG came to a developer and said, “Hey, we’ll only charge a 15% commission if you agree to sell your game exclusively on our service for the first year.” That would be a massive windfall for that developer. But this won’t happen unless all game developers start offering their games on both.
Some may point out that the exclusive deals on consoles have not been great for consumers. It does pose a conundrum where gamers have to decide it they want to buy a new $400 machine just to play the new exclusive like Forza or Infamous. However, in the PC game market, we have an advantage. Both Steam and GOG Galaxy are free, and I don’t see that ever changing. Players don’t have to fret about shelling out hundreds of dollars just for the opportunity to buy a certain game. It’s easy to have both clients on the same computer. It would add a bit more tedium to managing video game libraries, but that’s a small price to pay, in my estimation, for the potential benefits.
In the end, I see little to no reason why developers should not put their game on GOG Galaxy. Afraid of enabling piracy? If your game is available to consumers, it can be pirated already. Afraid of managing two accounts? I can’t believe developers would turn down thousands of dollars in income for a few extra lines in their QuickBooks. GOG doesn’t charge an additional fee or limit developers in any way except when it comes to micro-transactions (GOG doesn’t allow them on its service, yet).
The process for getting on GOG is a bit more opaque than on Steam. There’s no Greenlight process. The staff at CD Projekt (again, a separate division from CD Projekt Red) makes the call. I don’t claim to have an understanding of their process, but it can’t be all that arbitrary or difficult to apply.
GOG has a part to play in this, too. By not publishing their concurrent users like Steam does, it makes developers reluctant to try their service. Devs don’t have enough confidence that GOG can deliver a sufficient number of customers to their games. Also, having such an undefined process for getting a game accepted on Galaxy is a big problem. It turns timid developers away, even if they have a great game. It seems, to me at least, that rejections are rather arbitrary. GOG needs games. GOG needs users. Anything they can do to make their service more accessible to consumers and producers alike, they need to do immediately. I get the feeling it’s much, MUCH harder to get a game on GOG than Steam. I don’t have a problem with a higher standard, but if that standard is so high that a majority of finished indie games can’t get on Galaxy, CD Projekt will have trouble drawing more users. Old games and DRM-free aren’t enough of an offering. You need the new games also. Turning away scores of indies won’t bring in new business; it will just burn a lot of bridges. If GOG’s purpose is to eventually compete with Steam, they are going to need to host indie games which are coming to the market with an ever increasing level of quality.
Gamers have an opportunity here, as well. Want more sales? Want more variety? Want developers to have enough income to continue to support and develop their games? Download Galaxy and start adding games to your wish list. If developers can see that GOG is consistently growing its user base, game companies will be more apt to put their games on Galaxy. In the end, though, it really is up to the game developers to make this happen. The customers will come if the games are there.
Therefore, I call on all game developers to put aside any inhibitions when it comes to launching your game on GOG. It will benefit your customers with greater access, benefit you in the short run with greater sales and benefit you in the long run by creating healthy competition with Steam. There are potential piles of money to be made here. At the start of what might be a new Golden Age of 4X, I very much hope to see games like Endless Space 2, Predestination, and Thea: the Awakening on GOG in the coming months. The sky’s the limit. GOG Galaxy can help us get there even faster.