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Punching Robots 2084

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Console store policies are useless for 2024.

The big three’s console policies aren’t working and they’re certainly not fit for purpose in 2024.

Whilst it’s easy for plenty of people to look at the weekly releases of games on consoles, see a bunch of just not very good things and pop on the amateur biz analysis hat and decide the problem here is there are too many games, not only is that very silly but it’s also completely ignoring the systemic problems that currently exist.

Also, people doing that should just shut up, obviously. Nobs.

If you spend even a small amount of time rummaging through this stuff then a couple of things become abundantly clear. There’s a very, very, small handful of developers who have bought their way into the stores and have built up a copious amounts of releases over time that, well, I’m sure somebody, somewhere might want this stuff but I have no idea who.

When I say “a very small handful” I mean precisely that. I haven’t counted but I’d be very surprised if it fell into double figures. This really is just a couple of folk with more time and resources than most of us could contemplate.

The stuff that tends to occupy plenty of space on the weekly releases has a similar thing going on but at scale. It’s a few quietly predatory publishers picking out small developers and popping their works onto the stores to die there, it’s a few publishers churning out the euphemistically named “hyper-casual” (they just mean shite, to be frank) videogames and keyword spam knock off games with names like Grand Theft Car Racer Simulator Prison Temple Run 2024. It’s grim.

People look at this stuff and they’re like “wow, a flood of crap, we’ve got to stop all these hundreds of developers from flooding the store with their rubbish” and really, it’s less hundreds than a very, very, small number of folk able to afford to release whatever they fancy and, bluntly, they don’t care about what it is or if it’s the work of a small developer, making it reach its audience even if that audience is small.

The actions of this handful of people filling up the weekly releases with stuff has the undiscussed knock on effect of making things even more difficult for the smaller publishers who do give a shit to make things work. Folks like Eastasiasoft, Thalamus and that – the ones who try and put out an eclectic bunch of things (and some will totally be misses) and make them work – struggle more because stores just throw all the stuff together with little consideration.

Without Devolver money or whatever, it’s really difficult to present your work to the buying public in a way that easily distinguishes itself from the previously discussed handful of people and publishers who don’t give a shit. Further knock on effect from this? It makes it more difficult for them to reach and publish more developers because without tentpole releases and cash cash cash, without every release reaching the videogame news sites, building any sort of prestige or respect for what you do is sysyphean.

Which in more concrete terms means fewer exceptional, niche and interesting games making it onto the store and those folk we keep coming back to basically being what people see instead.

Valve have cottoned on to this and a lot of Steam policies now are about trying to keep the handful of folk who pull nonsense down and helping float, or at least give a chance to, literally any other game somebody might like. The cost of this for folk browsing the store is a bunch of games they absolutely will not ever want to see, much less play. But that then becomes a problem of store display space, organisation and discovery not, as some folk would have it, too many games. Difficult to solve entirely but there’s so much room to improve still and even small improvements give more developers a chance to reach their audience.

Console platform holders have gotten themselves into a bit of a pickle with all this. The days of super active, super public folk, chasing indie developers and looking to help build some sort of sustainable careers for them pretty much died when Sony stopped doing exactly that. That’s not to diminish the efforts of the people currently working devrels at these platform holders, it’s systemic and it’s policy that’s the problem here, not the people.

It’s a system that’s been enabled by the rise of the bigger indie developers and the really monied publishers and, as plenty of other people elsewhere have discussed this past year, the abundance of money flowing around the place that’s really not normal for most of the entire history of videogames.

It led to a regular flow of tentpole releases, expensive games and the proverbial middle of games to be filled once more, this time by a new bunch of indie studios. Stuff stores can pop on, hype up, throw into showcases and regardless of what it plays like, looks the part. It’s solid, reliable stuff. It’s often in familiar genres of late. It’s the middle and it’s fine, often brilliant, and with the right circumstances can do absurd numbers.

Except things are not fine in the middle. These things take more time to make, so releases become less frequent as they do. This can be offset by more folk existing in the middle but the money for that is drying up. The squeeze is everywhere. Jobs are being lost. Projects are being cancelled. Funding is more difficult to find. The knock on effects from the past few months alone in videogames are going to be felt for years to come.

Bluntly, relying on tentpole releases from the middle (and yes, even if developers and publishers are trying to distinguish their games by adding another I or two when describing them, it’s still categorically the middle unless they’re doing Ubisoft numbers when cash juggling) is a more rubbish strategy than ever for platform holders.

The end result of this current system, these policies, has been visible and noticeable for a while now and it’s only going to become more prominent over time. The weekly release scheduled will be dominated by the small handful of folk who don’t care. Nothing improves. The clamour from parts of the audience to clamp down and restrict developers from releasing stuff continues to grow, the too many many games clowns get to pretend they’re the kings of thinking still and push bullshit out there and nothing has to be this way, certainly not like it is now.

The partial solution to this is right where it always was and whilst the resources needed to support stuff has changed a great deal, the guiding principles have not.

More developers need to be able to access the stores. More developers need teams reaching out to them, people with the time, the funds and the will to not just be thinking about what a developer can do now but what a developer can do with the support of the platform holder firmly in place.

Plenty will want to stay happily making stuff at the level they already are. Enough may well turn out to be the next Hello Games.

Sony, for a while, really got this. And then they didn’t. And here we are.

There are some amazing folk working for these platforms who could do so, so much more given routes and support to do so. Let them. They’re good.

Developers need the lowest cost possible routes to stores because right now, it’s the biggest barrier to a flood of amazing, exciting and interesting games making their way there. Money is tight.

Developers need tools and backends and stuff that make releasing a game less of a nightmare. If the cool games from underrepresented folk and struggling developers are to have a chance, these folk need the opportunities – blanket opportunities – to develop and publish their work to these mammoth platforms.

And of course, investing in discovery and humans – not just algorithms – and store placement opportunities unlocks another piece of the puzzle.

So much of this would be less costly for the platform holders to implement if they hadn’t gone so all in on their reliance on tentpole releases over the years. They didn’t so now, putting the systems, the teams and the work into this stuff is more effort, more costly.

It’s also the only way to stop things getting more shit. Give the existing devrels teams the time, money, staff they need to really make the stores sing. Let developers have a shot at bringing their games to where the audience is.

The only question now is will these platforms act, or will they continue to let things get worse?

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