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Steam is king in service wars, Humble Store a sleeping giant, indies say


Twenty-one randomly selected indie developers walk into a digital room and ponder the question, "Which online distribution system has been the most effective for your games?"

If this were the set-up to a joke, the punchline would probably be, "Facebook." But for many indie developers, the question of which platform to publish their games on is a very serious one, with potentially dire consequences. Pared down, platform success is all about accessibility, upload and support, and in terms of those factors, there's a clear, unsurprising favorite: Steam.

But maybe not for long.

I asked 21 indie developers this question, and while the majority mentioned Steam in the same casual manner that begets an unchallenged king, there were consistent whispers of other platforms doing things well, perhaps even better than Steam, from a backend perspective. One of these platforms was the Humble Store, which received the second-highest number of solid votes and a handful of positive shout-outs.

"I owe pretty much my entire survival the last few years to iOS, the Humble Store, and to a lesser extent Android and Steam," Adam Saltsman, the creator of Canabalt, said. But iOS ran into some bad censorship issues, Android had discoverability problems and Steam was "obviously" too closed, he said. If Saltsman could choose just one of those platforms to release his next game on, it would be, "Humble Store," hands-down.

Humble Store is the money machine behind more than just the Humble Indie Bundle – it runs many of the payment widgets on indie developers' own sites, including Polytron's Fez, indie breakout FTL: Faster Than Light, Cardboard Computer's Kentucky Route Zero, and just about every other widgeted indie game. Over the past year, Humble Store has been leading a quiet, expansive invasion, and those widgets were its foot soldiers.

Steam is king in service wars, Humble Store a sleeping giant, indies say
To Incredipede developer Colin Northway, any platform's success lay in its content discovery capabilities, and this was why Steam held the No. 1 spot.

"Why do people want to be on Steam?" He asks, unprompted. "Not because their distribution tools are great – although they are – it's because so many players use Steam as a content discovery platform. What game am I going to buy today? Let's check the Steam sales."

Alix Stolzer, one half of husband and wife development team Robot Loves Kitty, just pushed Legend of Dungeon through Steam Greenlight, and she said, "Setting things up with them has been easy so far." Still:

"The Humble Store has been amazing to us, they provide a great widget for our site, and they've been amazing at handling our fairly frequent updates and any issues that have come up. They are very communicative and helpful, even at strange hours. They even provided us with extra download options, etc., for our Kickstarter backers."

A few indie developers took the "independent" title seriously and handled sales through their own services, on their own sites. Diamond Trust of London developer Jason Rohrer, for example, had experience with this approach.

"Aside from selling things directly through my own site – which is similar to the Humble Store model – the only distribution platform that I've found to be worthwhile is Steam," Rohrer said. "By 'worthwhile,' I mean that the money earned justifies the amount of effort involved to get your game accepted and working on the platform."
Steam is king in service wars, Humble Store a sleeping giant, indies say
But those were PC platforms. The question didn't specify consoles, mobile or PC, though the majority of answers trended toward the desktop arena. For those developers with experience on consoles, one platform received favorable mentions.

"Retro City Rampage moved more units on Steam, but earned more revenue on PSN because the price points remain higher. Most copies sold on PSN were at full price," said Retro City Rampage creator Brian Provinciano. If he had to pick just one platform to put his next game on, between PSN and Steam, well – he couldn't.

"That's an incredibly tough one," Provinciano said. "Hmm ... can't really say. It would be between PlayStation and Steam, but it's a tough decision. I'm glad neither force exclusivity."

The App Store received a few clinical nods, Microsoft had a small defense force, Nintendo got a mention and of course each answer carried layers of context. Many developers provided in-depth explanations for their choices, too robust for one story but too good to miss – so we're spreading all of them, in full, into a series, coming to Joystiq this week. This is where the indie industry is, right now.

"I think you'll be hard-pressed to find someone who answers anything but 'Steam' to that question," DLC Quest creator Ben Kane said, asked to choose just one "effective" platform.

Challenge accepted, Kane.

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