Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Direct digital distribution: Heaven or hell for independent studios ?

The fast development of direct digital distribution (Steam, XBLA, PSN, Wiiware, iPhone, etc. ) is opening up a world of opportunities to small studios who don't need a publisher anymore to get their titles to the market. The internet if filled up with success stories of small studios that successfully marketed their games through this new distribution media.

But is it as good as it sounds?

A good friend of mine, Pedro Guanaes, the co-founder of Uacari, a young but promising french studio, pointed out to me that the very nature of digital distribution will actually decrease the visibility of new titles and therefore, will make it harder to sell them, especially without marketing support.

Why ?

In traditional distribution, new titles push away older ones. It does not matter if your title looks like an older one because that one will not, most likely, be present on retailers' shelves. With traditional distribution, all titles get their chances on the shelves because retailers make spaces for new ones.

But, with digital distribution, all titles, no matter how old they are, remain available. If you release a driving game, you'll have the face the competition of recent titles and older ones as well. And since distributors are likely to promote the best-selling titles, older reference titles will eat up most of the market.

For small studios or publishers, digital distribution makes it easy to publish a title but it will probably make it harder to promote it.

I see several solutions to this situation:
- Develop games that foster a community. Players are your best sales representatives. Games that provide regular download content, free or not, games that encourage players to build their own content, games that allow players to compete against each other and to organize themselves are the way to go for studios or publishers with insufficient marketing punch. Think of game universe, not stand-alone game. Think of a game as an on-going experience that will be regularly fed with novelties that players will buy or develop.
- If you have to stick to one player games, be creative so your title will stand out.
- Lastly, don't forego traditional marketing. Communicate. Traditional publishers can be powerful allies because that's the core of their know-how.

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