GOG is the No. 2 independent digital distributor, with more than 600 games and 2 million unique visitors each month. For DRM-free digital distribution, GOG is No. 1, and it recently rolled out an indie service aimed at streamlining the game submission process for developers.
Steam has 50 million users and 3,000 games, and is the No. 1 digital distributor worldwide. For four indie developers on both Steam and GOG, Steam is the first place they want to see their games:
"I think it'd be hard to find an indie that wasn't prioritizing Steam above all other platforms," Papers, Please developer Lucas Pope says.
"Obviously, everyone wants to get onto Steam first," Defender's Quest developer Lars Doucet adds.
"We looked at Steam in the first place, because we knew that many games there reached large audiences and we ourselves are big fans of the platform," Manuel Kerssemakers of Reus says.
"The first distribution hub we looked into for our game was Steam, mainly because of the large userbase and the general exposure that Steam provides," Kenny Lee of Rogue Legacy says.
Even if GOG isn't competing with Steam internally, the platform's popularity is a factor that GOG can't ignore.
"Steam is the 800 pound gorilla in the room, definitely," Longino says. "When you ask if we're remaining competitive against them, I think that you're ignoring the fact that we're in a slightly different market than they are."
Longino is referring to the DRM-free, personal-touch market. "On Steam, you buy into a service that manages a library of games for you. On GOG.com, you buy games," he says.
Instead, Longino points to another prolific DRM-free system as GOG's fiercest competitor: piracy.
"It's the easiest way to get a game," Longino adds. "You don't pay anything, there's no sign-up process, and pretty much everything ever made is available if you find the right torrent. Free, secure and comprehensive. That's hard to compete with."
Developers commonly report piracy rates of up to 95 percent, and this trend isn't limited to any genre or budget. Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot noted in 2012 PC piracy rates of 93 to 95 percent on his company's AAA games. World of Goo designer Ron Carmel reported a 90 percent piracy rate in 2008.
This year, indie developer Green Heart Games uploaded its own cracked version of Game Dev Tycoon to torrent sites, just minutes after officially launching the game. The cracked edition ensured players were plagued with in-game pirates and their budding development businesses would never get off the ground. One real-life pirate, bemoaning the in-game pirates, famously said, "It ruins me!"
Game Dev Tycoon had a piracy rate of 94 percent on its launch day, selling 214 copies. At least 3,104 players had the cracked version.
This is the market that GOG has to tackle, a world of easy access with potentially disastrous consequences – and GOG is banking on that second part. Every day it sells classic games that were previously only available on torrent sites, a fact that proves players want trusted, quality content, Longino says.
GOG also uses piracy systems to its advantage, even if it is accidentally:
"Occasionally we see piracy websites linking to GOG.com for descriptions of our games that they're offering for download. We see that traffic – people who you know are pirates, and who probably want the game that is listed on the pirate website for free – convert better than advertising traffic."
GOG is taking on those dastardly pirates with a brand new indie system designed to reel in developers. GOG's indie program emphasizes the discoverability of games – each new release is featured on the site and social networks – and its customer service system – people, not machines.
Indie developers embody ideals that GOG is used to and they're active participants in its DRM-free revolution, Longino says.
"Most of the classic games that we sell are games that would be considered 'indie' games by their budget and teams today," he says. "The capacity to take risks, innovate, and explore new territory in gaming more or less requires a smaller budget so that there is a better chance for the game to make money .... More indie devs are aligned with GOG.com's vision of what gaming should be; not a lot of AAA games are released by developers who are willing to make them DRM-free from the very beginning."
Pope, the developer of Papers, Please, is part of GOG's new indie system, and he appreciates the personal approach – especially compared with Steam's management style.
"At times it feels like Valve manages Steam as a side business and doesn't care much about each individual game release," Pope says. "GOG were more involved with the game's release and put more resources into making the launch successful. They're also really focused on adding value for their users by including exclusive bonus content. Normally this would be my responsibility but the guys at GOG were able to both brainstorm and produce much of the bonus extras with just a little help from me."
Sure, GOG isn't competing with Steam on a fundamental level, but Steam is the first stop for many indie developers and customers – and some of these people want another option, something with the vibe of a local mom-and-pop shop. That's where GOG comes in.
"The fact that we took the effort ourselves to test and update our games from Windows XP, Vista and 7 to also include Windows 8 is something that you won't see on other services," Longino says. "Most stores release a game and what happens to the OS market after the game is released isn't really their problem."
Whatever GOG is doing, whether it's to compete with Steam or piracy, it's resonating with developers. Pope, Lee, Doucet and Kerssemakers each pegged GOG as their second distribution hub, in response to or ahead of player requests for something other than Steam.
"I think GOG provides a great alternative for people who don't want to sell their game with heavy DRM, or for those who are selling both a DRM and DRM-free version – like us," Lee says. "I think GOG has also garnered this reputation as the place to go if you don't want to deal with Steam."
Doucet launched Defender's Quest on Steam and GOG in October 2012. By February 2013, Defender's Quest had sold 20,200 copies on Steam and 3,180 copies on GOG. Steam generated 58.6 percent of the game's overall revenue, while GOG raked in 8.5 percent – $167,916 compared with $24,428. Other portals, such as Impulse and Desura, brought in 37 sales and 53 sales, respectively, neither breaking the $500 mark.
These numbers show GOG is on the rise, Doucet says. Besides, he thinks the GOG support staff is "best in breed," and it allowed Doucet to host a web-based demo on its product page. On Steam, the only option is a downloadable demo.
"Our low-friction web demo was a key strategy in driving direct sales, so it was cool that GOG was able to let us continue that practice right on their portal," Doucet says.
"I don't think we're particularly competing with consoles as directly as we are with other services," Longino says. "I would argue that a healthy indie scene on consoles is good for PC gaming in general, as well as GOG.com in particular. The number of exciting games being developed in the indie space – whether we're talking about console, mobile, PC, or whatever – is staggering, and I'm confident that in 20 or 30 years, people will look back at the explosion of creativity that we're seeing now and consider it one of the high water marks of gaming as a hobby."