As gamers’ buying habits have migrated from physical purchases in retail locations to digital purchases in online marketplaces, Steam quickly emerged as the market leader for digital game distribution, both for rising indies and established AAA studios. But as newer digital platforms have become formidable alternatives to Steam, players have gained new ways to buy and play games online — which means that your player community has become more fractured than ever before, and therefore harder to address, manage, and monetize collectively.
To understand how, let’s take a brief look at the history of digital game distribution, the potential pitfalls created by publishing in a multi-platform marketplace, and how you can unite your players as one cohesive community no matter how they choose to play your games.
Digital game distribution has grown in stutters and spurts since the mid-’90s, but it was propelled forward with the release of Steam, which has significantly led the market since that time. However, strong competitors to Steam’s market leadership have surfaced in recent years.
The Steam PC client was officially released by Valve in September 2003. The initial launch was rocky at first, but over time, Valve worked to resolve technical issues, improve gameplay, and build valuable social community features like a friends list and chat. Encouraged by Valve’s release of Half-Life 2 — which required all players to download and play the game through the client — the number of Steam users rapidly climbed.
By 2005, Valve was negotiating third-party agreements with prominent publishers, adding new releases in well-known franchises and greater value to the service, which drew even more users to create accounts. They also worked to greatly improve the client app’s UX and design from its initial iteration. By 2007, nearly 13 million users had created Steam accounts — and by 2018, Steam boasted over 90 million monthly active users (MAU), a number that’s only grown since.
Valve was able to successfully develop Steam into a viable platform for many reasons, but the most prominent was the draw of exclusive content that was unavailable elsewhere. Other gaming studios with similar followings for their titles have employed this tactic to develop stiff competition for Steam in the digital game distribution space, relying on the appeal of exclusives to convince players to make the switch for their prized content:
As more digital platforms became available for players to access, purchase, and play games, players gained the power to choose which platforms to use. Each player’s gaming preferences — for an exclusive title or publisher library, other community features, etc. — began to have a measurable impact on their loyalty to a specific platform.
So as the splintering of the digital game distribution ecosystem steadily chipped away at Steam’s market dominance, it also created rifts between different groups of players within a game’s overall player community that were only separated from one another by their platform of preference. For the purposes of explanation, we’ll call each of these a platform group.
Say that you’re a AAA developer or publisher who’s ready to launch a title and isn’t restricted by any exclusivity agreements for your content. To optimize sales, you’ll want to reach the highest number of potential players, so you decide to launch on every available digital platform at once.
For each platform on which you launch, your ability to reach, communicate with, sell to, and accept payments from each platform group is limited by that platform’s available functionality. So even though your players will only use platforms to access and play your game — your unique concept, your flawless execution, all developed and funded by you — the platforms on which you launch control the channels through which you can interact with your own players.
And even though each platform adds more opportunity for you to drive sales and maximize the ROI on your game, every new platform that you launch on creates another platform group, further fracturing your player community.
The barriers created by the fracturing of your player community affect many areas of your game, each of which can have a measurable impact on your business’s bottom line.
Each platform offers the opportunity for your studio to incorporate branded elements such as high-res images, videos, and more. But each platform also has its own way of incorporating these elements into your game’s profile or store page, creating divergent brand experiences for each platform group. So while a version of your intended brand equity is present, there’s no way to deliver a uniform brand experience to your entire player community across all platforms.
Additionally, each platform’s primary branding is also dedicated to the platform itself, not your game — limiting your ability to deliver as fully branded an experience as you might prefer.
When players want to access your game through a specific digital platform, they must first create a unique platform account and become users of that platform. This often requires players to share valuable contact information with the platform, but not with you. The platform then owns valuable data that it can use to market to your players, building their own relationship with them through direct marketing efforts while effectively preventing you from doing the same.
Platforms know that they rely on the content of developers and publishers to make sales, but their primary concern is their own business model, not that of any individual studio — and their marketing reflects this. When a platform markets to your players, their goal is to drive as many sales that will earn them fees, regardless of who developed the content sold. Your game may be why a player joined a platform, but once they do, the platform only views them as their user.
For example, when your players open a platform client to initiate your game, they’re often met with the platform’s own news feed, including messaging about platform events and sales. As this is the first thing your players see upon opening the client, it has the potential to completely change their trajectory or redirect them to purchase and play other studios’ games, cannibalizing their attention and possibly their willingness to make or complete a purchase for your studio.
Similarly, once your players purchase your game through a platform, the platform identifies and categorizes attributes of your game — including genre, gameplay mechanics, art style, or others — and targets your players accordingly, as they’ve demonstrated interest in a game with those attributes. This can include the appearance of similar titles in a recommendation or discovery feed, in-client promotion of sales for similar games, direct emails about similar games, or other methods that can limit your ability to sell other titles from your studio to your own players.
Platforms do offer some ways for you to communicate with your platform groups, but it’s often restricted to either a news feed or an in-client community forum.
If members of a platform group choose to use any of that platform’s social features, such as a friends list or chat, they will only be able to communicate with other members of the same group, limiting their ability to connect with the player community as a whole. This lack of connection can limit their trust and loyalty in your studio, possibly preventing future purchases.
There are some viable ways around a number of these communication limitations, such as the creation and maintenance of your own Discord server — but to function optimally, this requires its own investment of valuable resources like manpower and time.
Any issue that negatively affects your game’s operation or gameplay on any platform erodes that platform group’s ability to build trust and loyalty in your studio. Consequently, if a player learns that their platform group has an issue that’s causing poor gameplay, but another platform group does not, their awareness of this inconsistency can equally diminish trust. And the less trust that your players have in your studio, the less likely that they will make a future purchase.
Because each platform has its own system for content distribution, every one on which you launch your game will require its own build to be loaded separately. This means that any time that you have a new version to release — whether it’s for an update, hotfix, bug fix, expansion, or other purpose — a new version of a build that’s compatible with each platform’s system will need to be developed, tested, and loaded for distribution, increasing the opportunity for error.
Your development team worked hard to make your game accessible and operational across a variety of hardware, typically expressed as a set of minimum system requirements. But as each platform’s build of your game is accessed and operated through its respective platform, your game’s ability to operate as designed is also limited by that platform’s own compatibility issues.
Compatibility issues have the potential to cause gameplay issues like lag, drops, or an inability to use preferred gaming equipment to peak performance. If these gameplay issues differ greatly enough from platform to platform, it can create an unequal playing field, giving the members of one platform group an unfair advantage over another and adding to the erosion of trust.
As each platform has its own content distribution protocol, the cost of distributing content to your players may vary greatly from platform to platform. The differences in pricing can make it harder to accurately estimate and budget funds to cover these costs, even for less costly patches.
Each platform group in your player community is restricted by that respective platform’s ability to accept payments. For example, a specific payment method may be available for one platform group, but not another. This can cause confusion among members of different platform groups that reside within the same region or market, whose payment method preferences generally follow similar trends, limiting trust in your studio and possibly preventing future purchases.
Most importantly, every purchase that a player makes from your studio through a platform is processed through that respective platform’s payments protocol. This means that you are beholden to its platform fees, which typically translates to as much as 30% of your revenue.
So you’re ready to publish your game, and your strategy for distribution is a multi-platform approach. You know that this will fracture your game’s player community, and you’re aware of all of the potential pitfalls that this can create, but you’re intent on doing what you can to maximize your game’s ROI. From a publishing perspective, it seems like there’s little else you can do.
But then, it dawns on you: by and large, so many of the issues that arise from multi-platform publishing could be effectively mitigated if you owned and operated your own platform. If this were the case, all of your players would be housed within the same infrastructure, making it easier to uniformly communicate with, market to, monetize, and accept payments from your entire player community.
You’re also not the first company to have this idea, as many developers and publishers have already developed their own launchers, including AAA publishers like Rockstar Games and Blizzard. However, developing a launcher from scratch requires a large up-front investment of money and time that you don’t have, especially if you’re an indie developer working to get your first title out the door.
But as it turns out, there are some companies that can help you to create and own your own game launcher without needing to develop it from scratch. These companies can license a white-label launcher that you can brand accordingly for your own studio, keeping the conversation and monetization opportunities focused on titles developed exclusively by you.
A launcher that you create would also need to work in concert with existing digital distribution platforms, not against them — tapping into the power of their existing MAUs to find rich veins of potential players without creating an adversarial relationship with key distribution partners.
And of the available solutions out there, only Xsolla Launcher gives you everything you need to execute an effective cross-platform publishing strategy that unifies your player community.
Xsolla Launcher lets you wrap your games in your own customizable client app that opens first when a player launches any game that it contains through any platform they choose, no matter which platform that player prefers. To enable this, all that your players will have to do is create a unique set of login credentials for your launcher — giving you valuable contact information — and authorize a link between your launcher and their account for their platform of preference.
In other words, you can become your own platform.
When your launcher opens, every player that accesses your game from any other platform will experience the same expression of your studio’s brand equity, delivered with as much visual customization as you like. This way, your launcher is truly branded exclusively for your titles.
Also, as your launcher only contains titles developed and published by your studio, you can effectively cross-promote your titles and drive upsell of new games and DLC from the player communities of your current games. This makes it easy to maximize awareness across whole player communities with demonstrated loyalty for the types of games that you like to create.
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As the history of digital game distribution demonstrates, more and more developers and publishers will eventually release their own platforms and launchers over time. There’s already more than 150 active platforms in the global gaming market, with no sign of slowing down.
The sooner that you simplify your cross-platform publishing strategy with your own launcher — effectively becoming your own platform in the process — the sooner that you can mend the rifts that the fractured digital game distribution landscape has created within your games’ player communities. And Xsolla can help you get it started.
If you’re not an Xsolla partner, contact us at email@example.com to learn about how we can help you create and execute an effective cross-platform publishing strategy.
If you’re currently an Xsolla partner, email your account manager and set up a time to discuss how we can help you simplify your digital distribution and unify your community.