Thursday 28 September 2017

Walk the plank!

Recently, Steam - one of the platforms we have been considering for Bullion's final release - kicked out over 200 games.

Why? Because they were quickly-made, low quality hack-togethers from a single studio (operating under a variety of names), designed to try and game the system.

Good riddance to bad rubbish. But this once again highlights a problem that has been growing in the "indie" market for some time - and it is endemic to the stores.

Back in the mid 90s, when Bullion developer Ben launched his first game, it was released through a Public Domain library - essentially a mail-order service that any developer could submit work to, and effectively the forerunners of today's online stores. The P.D. library in question offered a promotion scheme - if you submitted a game to it, the game was reviewed and if judged good enough, it was put into the "promoted" section - it appeared in adverts for the library, was pushed for magazine reviews etc. If it was not good enough, it went in with all the rest.

The trick that made this work was that the developer had to decide whether or not they thought there work was good enough to pitch at the promoted section - the risk being that if you got it wrong, you were stuck in the bottom tier.

Obviously there would need to be a lot of adapting for scale, but this may be the answer to the current flood of shovelware in the indie market - while at the same time giving discoverability to great games that might not quite have the visual polish or the marketing connections of those in the absolute top flight. This is how it might work:

The store divides into a number of tiers, each with its own promotional channels:

  • Triple-I - effectively AAA, but not released through a publisher
  • Contenders - highly polished both in appearance and game quality, but not quite Triple-I
  • Mainstream - lacking polish, or using a significant number of pre-made assets
  • Basic - reskins, asset flips, prototypes and higher-tier rejects

To submit, the developer has to create a pack that includes a number of screenshots, a one-minute gameplay video (including in-game sound), a list of any pre-made assets used, and a brief pitch as to what tier they want the game to be listed under and why - this allows rapid screening out of games that are obviously trying to get into too high a tier. Games that pass this first step can then be further reviewed if deemed necessary. If the game is not accepted into its target tier, it goes in "Basic".

Obviously this approach will require the online stores to improve their curation process and, most likely, bring in dedicated review staff. But ultimately, it puts the onus on the developer to be honest with both the store and themselves - shoot too high and you're down in "Basic" with virtually zero chance of promotion.

Idealistic? Perhaps. But when you have two grizzled old sea-dog programmers in the crew who date back to a time before microtransactions, before game engines, before the internet, this sort of thinking tends to creep in...

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