Is Steam the lifeline for independent game developers?

Games are a huge part of the entertainment industry. Despite critics blaming them for the violent and hypersexual aspects of modern culture, their storytelling potential is massive. As games become more socially acceptable to play and talk about, their potential in the mainstream will be realised. Modern role-playing games like the Dragon Age series and The Walking Dead already use complex characters that the player becomes attached to: it’s not impossible to imagine that at some point in the near future, there will be more immersive games like these that had originally been written as a simple book.

The very nature of video games means they are adaptable. As technology progresses, so does the content of these games – in only fifty-five years, games have developed from the likes of Spacewar! and Pacman into a diverse range of genres: casual mobile and tablet games like Candy Crush and Hay Day; interactive educational games like Cooking Mama and Brain Training; immersive role-playing games, for example, The Last of Us and Mass Effect; and cooperative online games such as Counter-Strike and League of Legends. Mainstream publishers like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts make a lot of money from video games, and in the last decade, independent publishers have begun to sink their teeth into that revenue.

So what actually is an indie game? And what’s this Steam you’re talking about?

An indie game is a game developed by a person or small group of people, independent of a publishing company. Typically a small group of people will only contain the absolute minimum number of people necessary to create a game, making them close-knit groups that rely on each other much more than the employees of large mainstream publishers. Examples of popular indie games include Minecraft , Limbo and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

The indie game movement began in the early 90s, but it was only in 2002 that the first Indie Game Jam was held. This event is a means for developers to explore ideas and develop software without publisher restrictions, and it paved the way for modern indie game developers. When Valve began allowing other companies to publish games on Steam in 2005, indie publishers finally had a chance to get their games seen on a popular platform. Seven years after Steam became a multi-company affair, its Greenlight system was developed, giving the (at the time) 13 million registered Steam users the ability to choose which games made it onto Steam. This gave independent developers a quality control checklist and a reliable method of getting sales.

There is a surprising lack of studies into the numbers of independent game developers. All I could find was one study in 2013 relating to a GDC study of 2500 game developers who turned up to the GDC that year – 53% of them identified as independent game developers and 51% of those had been game developers for less than two years. The 2014 study surveyed 2600 people and 64% of respondents claimed to not be working with a publisher on their current projects, showing a definite increase in working independently.

Indeed, indie games are so popular now that the GDC has a sector called Indie Mega Booth, which showcases games published by independent developers. There also exists an Independent Games Festival, which explores new independently published games. Over 650 titles alone were submitted for this year’s best Indie Game awards.

Steam began as a means to patch Valve’s online multiplayer games, like Counter-Strike. It was released in 2003, but premiered in 2002 at GDC. The first non-Valve game to be hosted on Steam was released in 2005, and by May 2007, Steam had over 150 games available and over 13 million users. August 2012 saw Steam’s Greenlight feature released, giving the public freedom to vote on indie games they wanted to see on Steam. Prior to Greenlight, Steam had to handle indie submissions themselves; Greenlight gave the control over to users. For an initial one-time-only charge of $100, publishers can submit as many games as they like.

Distribution through Steam has a few mechanics that set it apart from traditional disc distribution and gift cards. Most PC games are now Steam based regardless, but this can cover console games released on for PC as well. A lot of indie titles start PC-bound and work up to consoles (like Minecraft). Others begin as mobile applications and work up to be PC compatible.

Interested? Read more at:

What about mainstream game developers?

What about them? Game developers have their own ‘Steam-alikes’ like Origin and U-play but they only have their own games on them. Steam accounts for a lot of these developers’ sales – hard copies don’t sell nearly as many as they used to. This is partially why indie games are popular.

Indie developing doesn’t take money or business away from mainstream game publishers. Because there are so many and they’re low in price, they fill the gaps between big game releases, but very few indie games can rival mainstream publications in graphics ability and budget, both of which are often important in buyers’ eyes.

Okay, but why Steam?

Steam has a number of advantages.

  • Recent changes in EU law concerning VAT have meant that selling products in countries other than your own (which is effectively what happens when selling online) has suddenly gotten very expensive for independent game developers. Selling through Steam protects them from these expenses, making it invaluable to companies just starting up.
  • Patching is automatic. This means updating published work couldn’t be easier.
  • All Steam games have backups. Games can be downloaded at any time if the original files get corrupted or damaged, while save files are uploaded to a cloud system that means they can be accessed from any computer (and therefore saved in the case of an error).
  • Furthermore, Steam’s massive popularity means that should you publish on it, you’re giving over 75 million users the opportunity to buy it. Your game will be available worldwide.
  • All games can be reviewed. Instant feedback to a published game gives artists and developers a direction in which to improve the software.
  • Steam’s servers have an elastic server load response to gamer interest: games will never run out of copies. Resources from a large pool can be allocated to providing these games, meeting the demand for them. A game in this format is limited only to the power of the server, and Steam is very powerful.
  • Games bought on Steam are almost completely secure from piracy and shared usage. Like Amazon, Steam uses DRM to ensure games are locked to accounts, which allows indie developers to benefit from purchases. This is actually quite controversial in the entertainment industry. After the farce that was Sim City 5’s release, a lot of games publishers have avoided DRM; it’s even been shown that e-books without DRM sell more copies on Amazon. Regardless, as over 75 million people use Steam, clearly it’s not that large an issue. Furthermore, Steam’s family share allows family members to share their games, as long as the game is not currently being played.
  • Product pages can be updated whenever and with anything.
  • New releases are given more light on Steam’s front page. Revisions are made evident: when new downloadable content is available, players are alerted so they can buy it. Add-ons can make more money and extend a game’s play time; Steam’s “recommended for you” section gives lesser-known games a chance to be seen. People can follow games and artists can give ideas and updates in real time, contributing to this feeling of a helpful community.
  • Steam is a staple program for computer gamers. With a huge number of games on this platform, it’s known for its quality controls: getting onto Steam is a sign the game is worth playing.

So what’s next once you’re on Steam?

Advertising! Advertise everywhere! Social media has had a massive impact on advertising. Facebook’s sponsored ads often contain some kind of game; fan groups dedicated to a game can share content with their friends; sites like especially Youtube (where famous game streamers like PewDiePie can endorse games) are full of these kinds of adverts.

On the topic of famous Youtube personality PewDiePie, did you hear about the movie “As Above So Below” that got PewDiePie to do an underground catacomb run in Paris? He gets a lot of money from a lot of people for advertising games; he also does his playthroughs just because it’s fun. He’s an indie game developer’s best friend. If he (or another Youtube personality) picks up your game, you’re guaranteed to get an increase in sales, and if it’s on Steam? You’re even more likely to get attention.

Steam is an innovative publishing platform that doesn’t require product distribution, import and export fees, or much effort at all to purchase products. Much like the traditional publishing versus e-book argument, there exists an argument that online gaming platforms like Steam are killing the gaming industry.  I disagree. If anything, it’s just gaining steam.


Game Developers Conference, GDC Survey on, published 18th February 2014. [Online]

Game Developers Conference, GDC Survey on, 28th February 2013. [Online]

Takahashi, Dean, GDC attendee survey chronicles the explosion of indie gaming and fall of Nintendo on VentureBeat, published 28th February 2013, [Online]

Valve, Steam Greenlight FAQ. [Online]

Valve, Steam surpasses 13 million accounts on, published 7th May 2007. [Online]

Walker, Trey, GDC 2002: Valve unveils Steam on Gamespot, published 21st March 2002. [Online]

One thought on “Is Steam the lifeline for independent game developers?

  1. Supposedly Steam is what sells games. Desura, Indie Gala and Gog have poor sales. Like what they sell in a month of a game is what Steam sells in a day.

    I don’t like the term indie game anymore. Its kind of been ruined by games that aren’t indie but get the title. Like ones that still have publishers are still labeled indie. Ones that sub contract work to foreign studios still get labeled indie when its the other studio doing the work.

    If anything, Steam is now the publisher.

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