Making my daily rounds through news blogs, I came across an article whose title immediately caught my eye: Why I will no longer buy games on steam or bundles. Hey, I refuse to do those some of those things some of the time. Maybe this was written for me?! The piece outlines how getting on Steam or being included in a Humble Indie Bundle is now the goal of many indie devs, causing these services to have as much power as big corporate publishers. As consumers, we despise large, selfish companies like these, yet we often praise Steam/bundles as the indie underdogs. See the problem? The solution, though, isn’t as simple as never buying from them, and I think this is just indie gaming’s version of what happens to a smart business in any money-driven society. It’s the great circle of capitalism, and Steam, the Humble Indie Bundle and several others happen to be on the profitable corporate upswing.
Just about everyone who starts a business hopes they have the problem of being too successful. But once you reach that level, you can’t maintain the same practices you held when you were a small company. You have to start doing some pseudo-evils to survive. After all, if you’re swimming in the chainsaw-wielding shark pond, you have to be comparably equipped. At least with a knife or something, come on! Normally this souring doesn’t cause much of an uproar, but when a service exists to promote independent content, you kind of expect it to mirror the products it sells. Otherwise, that indie stuff isn’t so indie, is it? The whole thing becomes an ethical issue we take very personally. But really, it’s just good business. (We’ll save the “good business = bad ethics?” conversation for another day.)
You can’t have a widespread distribution system that everybody knows about while staying true to the spirit of being indie. A small game portal with a few hundred visitors isn’t very useful, and once you get as big as Steam, what are you supposed to do to maintain your non-evil status? Stop growing? Some companies have done a fine job marrying the two disparate worlds, but I’m sure they’ve made some major sacrifices along the way, and they would never end up being as big and powerful as Microsoft or Apple. (Speaking of Apple, why does everyone still give them this great, hip indie cred when they’re just as corporate evil as the rest? Marketing must be a powerful thing.)
Yes, it’s true that Steam and the HIB folks are bringing in some serious money, and yes, the bigger they get, the more they’ll start acting like greedy publishers. The problem is the same fact holds true for any business that gets money from the masses. Consumers keeping their cash away from big companies is only a part of the solution. The rest involves buying games directly from the developer. It requires more work on our part, and it might not be as convenient or as cheap, but the effort doesn’t go unnoticed. You just showed an indie developer that a game doesn’t have to be on Steam for it to be seen.
Should you stop buying bundles or games from Steam? Not necessarily, but you should stop saying things like “I’ll wait and buy it when it’s in a bundle or on a Steam sale”. That’s what drives indie games towards those services in the first place. Still, Steam or the HIB folks have yet to do anything truly questionable, so you don’t have to call up the boycott brigade right away. Buying direct from developers, or at the very least smaller portals like Indievania or Desura, is the way to go, reserving your Steam dollars for those sales you just can’t resist.
Here’s an even better solution: be more vigilant about hunting down indie games. Joystiq and Kotaku aren’t going to do the work for you. You have to dig, find the less-trafficked blogs, sift through sites like GameJolt, the Adventure Game Studio site, and open source game directories. That’s where the indiest of indies dwell. Every time you play one of these “hidden” games, you’re proving it’s possible to get noticed without feeding the great Steam machine. Only by doing this will indie devs take notice and feel confident enough to stay truly independent.