It's not easy being a Steam developer these days. Even once-successful creators are falling on hard times. Since 2009, Arcen Games has released 11 games on Steam. They have done pretty well for themselves, despite mixed reception of games like A Valley Without Wind — which, at best, can be called an ambitious mess — and its sequel, which, at best, can be called a bad idea. Recently, however, they have suffered some major setbacks. Earlier this year, they went through a nasty round of layoffs after roguelike bullet hell game Starward Rogue, beloved by the handful of people who actually played it, flopped.
Last week, they released the Early Access version of their latest game, In Case of Emergency, Release Raptor. It flopped even harder.
A mere three days after release, Arcen decided to yank the game from Steam and refund money to buyers. That sounds awfully counter-intuitive to the whole goal of, you know, making money, but apparently it's not. Here's how Arcen CEO Chris Park explained it:
I stated upfront that our reason for doing Early Access with this game was partly as a market survey of sorts. I felt like that would be a way of determining how big this game could get. With Starward Rogue, and indeed some of our other past commercial failures, we put in everything and the kitchen sink and then there wasn't a market there.
I never expected that one option even on the table with this one would be 'actually don't do it at all,' because the premise is incredibly exciting to me and seemed like something other people would also be very interested in. But just from the concept alone, we have a lot of pushback from press; and despite some quite positive coverage from some reasonably biggish YouTubers, that isn't moving the needle at all.
So the company's back is against the wall, and this clearly isn't the way to proceed. On top of that, Park confessed that the game launched lacking in all-important Stuff To Do, netting it unfavourable comparisons to Goat Simulator. Originally, Arcen planned to put a lot of time and effort into updating it, making it ship-shape. Clearly, though, that would be a big financial drain, especially considering that hardly anybody bought the game upfront.
Arcen's not cancelling the game, but they can't afford to aggressively support it, either. They have decided to attempt a middle ground with free-to-play. Apparently it was Valve's idea. "Unlike most F2P games, this has no form of monetisation at all," Park explained. "Various people wanted to play the game, and we spent a lot of time making it, so this was better than just taking it off the face of the earth. This was a really good suggestion from Valve, I thought."
The next step? Arcen is going to focus on a sequel to their most popular game, AI War, and keep an eye on the free version of Release Raptor. If it seems like there's interest in it, they will develop a separate game based on the concept (while keeping this one free). If not, oh well. They had an emergency. They released Release Raptor. It didn't work out.
(Also, In Case Of Emergency, Release Raptor is really, really bad video game name. Not to kick a dev team while they're down, but it is. I can't imagine that helped sales.)
Park concluded by ruminating on their experiences on The Steam Of 2016. Things, they rightly observed, have changed quite a lot in recent years.
"Ultimately I don't think [our bad sales] can be blamed on any one thing," Park wrote. "I do know that in the past — going back to 2014 with the release of The Last Federation, and then everything before it — we made almost all of our sales via Steam and people finding our stuff on Steam. We'd see a bump in sales for a few hours after a Kotaku piece or a Total Biscuit video, and literally no other website or YouTuber made any bump that we could discern. Being on the front page of Steam was the big thing."
"Overall the market is more crowded now, and gaining visibility is harder. We tried advertising this time, but we literally spent more money today on advertising than the game made. Win!! So this is some sort of New Market now, anyhow, with something approaching the App Store effect that we've seen on Apple devices. I was incredibly paranoid that would happen going all the way back to 2009, and then I gradually got less worried about it, and now here we are. How many indie developers do you know of who have made more than one or two games at this point? That's a bit scary to think about."
He added, though, that it's also a much bigger market, and in some ways there are more opportunities than ever. And again, Release Raptor wasn't exactly everything it could've been. So no, Steam hasn't gone Full App Store yet, but change is painful, and it creates casualties. It doesn't help that the Steam store wasn't designed to handle this kind of volume, and Valve doesn't seem to be in a hurry to evolve it into something better. For better or worse, being an indie game developer on Steam isn't a sure thing any more, even if your game is great. It's kinda like indie music: Anyone can make it, which means more creativity and variety than ever, but probably don't quit your day job.